Rebecca Solnit: Orwell’s Roses

When you turn to a book for solace and get chills instead.

Yes, this has got to be the most beautiful literary criticism of Nineteen Eighty-Four: It rethinks the man that was George Orwell, it guides us to reassess beauty, and it reviews Nineteen Eighty-Four in a light that is distinctly hers. But with Rebecca Solnit, you never know where she will take you next; it is only guaranteed to be a place of startling insight and perspective.

Written and published amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it surprisingly mentions and describes Putin as an admirer and rehabilitator of Stalin’s reputation; even calling to mind the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine, recognized by 16 nations as a genocide carried out by the Soviet government that killed 3-5 million Ukrainians from 1932-1933… and it seems like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will not be the only prescient book in question here.

What is chilling is the reminder that, “To be corrupted by totalitarianism, one does not have to be in a totalitarian country.” Orwell set Nineteen Eighty-Four in England, “To emphasize that totalitarianism could triumph anywhere.”

And what buttresses totalitarianism? Lies. “Lies gradually erode the capacity to know and to connect… Lies are integral to totalitarianism… demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The attack on truth and language makes the atrocities possible. If you can erase the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie, if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies, if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes. The first victim of war is truth.”

And yet, despite these ominous warnings for which Orwell is known, Solnit asks us to reconsider the word “Orwellian” and look at the man who, in the spring of 1936, planted roses. Beautiful is far from the first word that comes to mind when confronted with his writings, but there is a definition of beauty, Solnit emphasizes, that does not have to do with prettiness. “Another kind of beauty, of a toughness that is life…” The beauty to which Orwell was most committed and for which he strove was “this beauty in which ethics and aesthetics are inseparable, this linguistic beauty of truth and of integrity as a kind of wholeness and connectedness, between language and what it describes, between one person and another, or between members of a community or society.”

What was beautiful to him was truth, clarity, honesty — and roses. “Orwell was passionate about the beauty and gestures and intentions, ideals and idealism when he encountered them, and it was to defend them that he spent much of his life facing their opposites.” 

“Orwell’s work was about ugliness of various kinds, but what he found hideous serves as a negative image of what he found beautiful.”

There is, after all, solace through the roses telling us that stopping to smell them does not necessarily distract us from the seemingly more important things in life, but strengthens us instead. Through Rebecca Solnit, and through the man who made my birth year significant in literary history, we are spurred to recalibrate what we deem beautiful, to acknowledge our need for beauty, and to always strive to pursue it.