March 12, 2023


Orwell, Camus and truthOn honesty as an attitude (William Fear, 12 March, 2023, The Critic)

One phrase from Nineteen Eighty-Four should be familiar to us all, even to those who might not have actually read the novel: 

There comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death.

Except of course, these words are not Orwell's at all. This is a quote from Albert Camus' novel La Peste, which was published two years before Nineteen Eighty-Four, in 1947. Of course, the formulation of two and two making five has a history that predates both Orwell and Camus, but Orwell used a very similar version of it as far back as 1939, in a review of a book by Bertrand Russell in Adelphi:

It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two plus two will make five when the Leader says so

The similarity between these lines is patent. Is it possible that Camus got the idea from Orwell's article? Yes, but such things are nearly impossible to prove. Still, it is not important whether Camus was taking influence from Orwell's writing (although an interesting possibility). What's important about this example is that it exposes common ground. These quotes embody a foundational principle that united their work: a shared anxiety over the fragility of truth.  

The political turbulence of twentieth-century Europe forced both Camus and Orwell to confront the question of truth as a matter of necessity, even and especially among their own colleagues and friends. When Orwell returned from Spain, he found that many of his fellow journalists had taken the view that Stalin was - by all accounts - a force for good. As a result, he found his pieces were being declined by publications that would've normally accepted them. One such publication was the New Statesman, the editor of which - Kingsley Martin - rejected one of Orwell's pieces on the grounds that it contravened the "political policy" of the paper. Understandably, annoyed Orwell, as many of his comrades from the POUM and other socialist militia groups were still facing incarceration and torture at the hands of pro-Soviet militant groups in Spain. He said in a letter to an editor of the New Statesman, "I think it would be better if I did not write for you again ... I have got to stand by my friends, which may involve attacking the New Statesman when I think they are covering up important issue". 

This debacle would foster in Orwell an enduring hatred of Kingsley Martin, Orwell going so far as to move tables when he saw Martin at lunch, so that he didn't have to look at his "corrupt face".

Camus had similar problems in Paris. When Camus published The Rebel in 1951, it made him very unpopular indeed with his own side, creating a rift between Camus and his fellow intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus' reputation as a public intellectual would suffer as a result of the publication of The Rebel, as its condemnation of Marxism led many intellectuals on the left to ostracise him. Andy Martin's book The Boxer and The Goal Keeper (2012), features a questionable but nevertheless illustrative anecdote about how tense things became: while defending Arthur Koestler in an argument against Merleau-Ponty, Camus became so riled by Merleau-Ponty's indifference to the Soviet purges, that Camus wrangled him into a headlock and threatened to punch him. Camus, it seems, was a passionate man in every respect. Camus wrote about the effect this ideological abandonment had on him in his private letters: "everyone is against me, is remorselessly seeking a share in my destruction; no one ever proffers his hand, comes to my aid, shows me affection for who I am."

Both Camus and Orwell are rightly credited with being "antitotalitarian" writers. And yet their reasons for being so are not wholly political. They were antitotalitarian not just because they opposed totalitarian regimes, but because they both understood that the totalitarian mindset requires you accept that truth comes from ideology. If the ideas say something is true, it becomes true, and is true. For Fascists and Communists, ideology is not merely a set of values or beliefs, but a cohesive explanation of the past, present and future of mankind. This is what Camus referred to in The Rebel as the desire "to make the earth a kingdom where man is God". Orwell and Camus both understood the dangers of such thinking, and sought to repudiate it in their work.

Posted by at March 12, 2023 12:00 AM