I’ve been reading an interesting book this past week. I almost always have more than one book going at a time, but this is one of those rare times one of them has been so strong it crowded out the others.
It’s “Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom” by Thomas Ricks. The structure is unusual. It’s a parallel biography, tracing the lives of Winston Churchill and George Orwell. The lives the two subjects led complicates that approach, since Churchill was on the scene well before Orwell, and outlived him by a couple decades to boot.
But Ricks pulls it off. And there are some remarkable parallels between the two men. Both had direct experience overseas with the waning British empire, and neither was entirely trusted by his peers. Churchill left the Conservative Party to join Labour, only to switch back a few years later. Conservatives had a hard time trusting him afterwards.
But Churchill’s actions, at least, weren’t a threat to his life. Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War as part of POUM, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification. It was a communist group that was not, at least initially, under Moscow’s thumb. Orwell was wounded, shot through the neck, and that might have saved his life.
Pro-Soviet communists suppressed POUM violently. Since Orwell wasn’t on the front lines, he had at least a chance to escape. He took it, though it was later found he was on a list for execution had he been caught. The entire story, Orwell’s view of it anyway, is told in “Homage to Catalonia.” He wrote it prior to either “Animal Farm” or “1984,” and it’s well worth reading.
Neither Churchill nor Orwell come off as being saints in Ricks’ writing. That’s fitting — neither was. But it remains interesting that they approached questions of freedom and personal liberty from entirely different directions and reached fundamentally the same conclusions. Both rejected the idea that government should even attempt to control the individual. The defense of a private space, one in which people may simply be whoever they are, is an essential component of that.
Maintaining that space seems to be getting more difficult. Never has it been easier for people to open their mental space to others, many of whom will happily respond with detailed commentary on what others ought to be doing or are doing wrong. Look at social media. The vast majority of posts are wisps of thought followed by equally vapid — though often vitriolic — responses.
Yet it may never have been more essential to maintain that distance, that space in which you can be yourself. That doesn’t require cutting oneself off from the world, but it should involve careful thought about how much you allow people to intrude and how seriously you take them when they do.
Neither Orwell nor Churchill were the first prominent figures to question how to maintain the individual amid the masses. It’s a question that endures because of a central paradox of humanity: we crave company while insisting we want to be independent. The two are not mutually exclusive, but always require a degree of compromise.
I probably wouldn’t be musing on this subject without reading Ricks’ book and this, as much as anything, is why I read. Reading is an opportunity to expose myself to the ideas of others, to hear voices long gone and those just finding their places. Reading offers the chance to understand the world with horizons broader than those I would otherwise have. It’s a lesson both Churchill and Orwell appreciated.