Orwell, Camus and truth

From The Critic:

A war still raged in Europe, but the enemy were firmly in retreat. The occupation of Paris had been broken, and France was free, and so were the cafés of the Boulevard St Germain. No longer did the waiters have to serve coffee to SS officers.

One afternoon in April 1945, a dishevelled Englishman walked into one such café. He was a war correspondent for the Observer — fond of shag-tobacco and Indian tea. His pen-name was George Orwell. 

Orwell was meeting Albert Camus – the distinguished writer and intellectual. But even so, I always imagine Orwell taking a seat indoors, among the pale, ornate woodwork, and feeling slightly out of place. Les Deux Magots, and the Café de Flore opposite, were frequented by a kind of intellectual of which Orwell often disapproved. That is, philosopher-types with communist sympathies: the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 

Orwell sat and waited, and waited, for Camus to arrive. He never turned up: he was laid up with an exacerbation of tuberculosis. They would never get the chance to meet again, and Orwell would die five years later, having lost his own battle with the same disease.

My admiration for both of these eminent writers developed in isolation of one another — but I have always unconsciously identified them as the same sort of writer, and indeed, the same sort of person. There are various superficial similarities: the TB diagnosis that prevented both of them from joining the armed forces, the foreign birth, the rampant womanising, the shared hatred of fascism and suspicion of communism. Much more importantly, they seemed to share the same outlook. Both of these writers took the view that truthfulness was more important than ideological allegiance and metaphysics, that the facts should be derived from the real world, rather than the world of ideas. They were similar stylistically too: both wrote candidly, clearly and prolifically. 

Camus seemed to have shared my view. He said as much in a letter to his mistress, Maria Casarès, on the day of Orwell’s death in 1950.

Some bad news: George Orwell is dead. You don’t know him. A very talented English writer, with exactly the same experience as me (although ten years older) and exactly the same ideas. He fought tuberculosis for years. He was one of the very few men with whom I shared something.

For Camus to say that another writer had “exactly the same ideas”, and was “one of the very few men with whom I shared something” was no small thing. 

No correspondence between the two authors seems to exist. In fact, when I searched for personal links between them there was little to go on. But although my hunt for biographical evidence of a relationship was fruitless, the time I have since spent reading and comparing their work yields some rather more intriguing connections. 

Orwell’s best-known novel is undoubtedly Nineteen Eighty-Four. What’s remarkable about this novel — above virtually all other novels in English — is the number of words and expressions it has bequeathed to the English-speaking world. Perhaps this was Orwell’s greatest gift to mankind: an entire language through which to talk about the coming age of state sponsored surveillance, fake news and post-truth politics in which we now live. When someone says a policy or a government’s behaviour is “Orwellian” people know precisely what is meant.

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.  

. . . .

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.

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