Years before Hitler invades Poland, the misanthropic poet protagonist of Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) stares at an advertisement showing a smiling man, and imagines what lies behind the smile: “Desolation, emptiness, prophecies of doom … and the reverberations of future wars.” As an engaged writer and intellectual, GEORGE ORWELL (1903–50) may have left his deepest marks on the factual forms of journalism and political commentary. But he was essentially a poet, a soldier of the imagination (his last creative act, executed in defiance of the tuberculosis that killed him, was to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four), and a visionary of modern evil as an inferno of political power, public relations, and mass acquiescence. The “Orwellian” vision is not void of redemption: Whether reporting on the derelicts of Europe (Down and Out in Paris and London), the wage slaves of a crumbling empire (The Road to Wigan Pier), or the wreckage of war (Homage to Catalonia), Orwell always found glittering bits of humanity. But bits aside, his work is a warning, delivered with uncompromised grimness, of the individual’s mastication in the teeth of the modern state. We live out his vision in the era of full-body scans and NSA data mining; we attempt to defer its arrival even while witnessing its realization. So Orwell will always be with us, the clear flame of his intellectual conviction illuminating the prophecy of his poet’s soul.
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