George Orwell in 2008

A question: Have the writings of George Orwell become more or less prescient in the 57 years since his death?

An answer (though not the one you might want): The magazine of the Columbia Journalism Review has published a special edition devoted to the role of George Orwell in 2008. It includes an essay by David Rieff (the nonfiction author and son of Susan Sontag) who argues that Orwell is essentially a writer of his time. Moreover, he should be treated as such and not “as a guide”.

Here’s a paragraph from his conclusion: ” “Orwell died fifty-seven years ago, when the Cold War was in its infancy, the European colonial empires still existed, the global predominance of the United States was not clear (to Orwell at least), globalization and the information economy did not exist, the mass migration of the people of the Global South to the rich world had not yet begun, feminism had not yet transformed the family, and neither the Internet nor the biological revolution had taken place. To claim that one can deduce from what Orwell said and what one believes he stood for in his own time what he would have thought of the early twenty-first century is either a vulgar quest for an authority to ratify one’s own views, a fantasy about the transferability of the past to the present, or both.”

I disagree. While Orwell was an writer of his time, he was also much more. I think his work has grown in presence since his death. For example, his most famous work, 1984, is clearly a satire about the year it was written: 1948. But it is also a warning.

What was he warning against? The Cold War; routine surveillance (as the image, above, taken in La Placa George Orwell in Barcelona aptly demonstrates); continual war; perhaps even Osama bin Laden (in the figure of Emmanuel Goldstein). He seems as relevant now as he was then. If not more so.