Recent attempts, ironically enough attending his centenary, to make out George Orwell as less than a saint grate on me. Orwell was less than a saint and freely and honestly admitted it, which is what makes him so human, such a kindred and readable spirit. He distrusted the aura of sainthood, and admired Gandhi, for instance, only insofar as he could strip away the suspicious illusion of selflessness that was placed around him. Whether great or not, Orwell remains well worth reading because he was trustable: he told the truth even against himself. Take this passage from the end of his vivid eye-witness account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia:
I had had five days of tiresome journeys, sleeping in impossible places, my arm was hurting damnably, and now these fools were chasing me to and fro and I had got to sleep on the ground again. That was about as far as my thoughts went. I did not make any of the correct political reflections. I never do when things are happening. It seems to be always the case when I get mixed up in war or politics – I am conscious of nothing save physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over. Afterwards I can see the significance of events, but while they are happening I merely want to be out of them – an ignoble trait, perhaps.
Those are not the words of a hero: but they are the words of someone who’s not trying to make you think he’s a hero, which is why I return to Orwell’s writings agin and again and again, not because he was a GREAT MAN, but for honest and thoughtful companionship on life’s difficult road. Saints are rare – luckily enough, for they’re not my preferred company. I’m weary of this modern tendency to use a person’s life to discredit his work, or his politics to discredit his philosophy, or his womanizing to discredit his novels, or his antisemitism to discredit his music. I think of all my heterodox opinions, petty hatreds, sins of omission, and embarrassing little vices that future morality-policing historians could glom onto, in the service of whatever political correctness becomes ascendant, to buttress a claim that my music should be shunned, and it makes me go listen to Die Gotterdammerung, just out of spite.