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Orwell, Camus and truth

On honesty as an attitude

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.  

The political turbulence of twentieth-century Europe forced both Camus and Orwell to confront the question of truth as a matter of necessity, even and especially among their own colleagues and friends. When Orwell returned from Spain, he found that many of his fellow journalists had taken the view that Stalin was – by all accounts – a force for good. As a result, he found his pieces were being declined by publications that would’ve normally accepted them. One such publication was the New Statesman, the editor of which – Kingsley Martin – rejected one of Orwell’s pieces on the grounds that it contravened the “political policy” of the paper. Understandably, this annoyed Orwell, as many of his comrades from the POUM and other socialist militia groups were still facing incarceration and torture at the hands of pro-Soviet militant groups in Spain. He said in a letter to an editor of the New Statesman, “I think it would be better if I did not write for you again … I have got to stand by my friends, which may involve attacking the New Statesman when I think they are covering up important issue”. 

This debacle would foster in Orwell an enduring hatred of Kingsley Martin, Orwell going so far as to move tables when he saw Martin at lunch, so that he didn’t have to look at his “corrupt face”.

Camus had similar problems in Paris. When Camus published The Rebel in 1951, it made him very unpopular indeed with his own side, creating a rift between Camus and his fellow intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus’ reputation as a public intellectual would suffer as a result of the publication of The Rebel, as its condemnation of Marxism led many intellectuals on the left to ostracise him. Andy Martin’s book The Boxer and The Goal Keeper (2012), features a questionable but nevertheless illustrative anecdote about how tense things became: while defending Arthur Koestler in an argument against Merleau-Ponty, Camus became so riled by Merleau-Ponty’s indifference to the Soviet purges, that Camus wrangled him into a headlock and threatened to punch him. Camus, it seems, was a passionate man in every respect. Camus wrote about the effect this ideological abandonment had on him in his private letters: “everyone is against me, is remorselessly seeking a share in my destruction; no one ever proffers his hand, comes to my aid, shows me affection for who I am.”

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.

Ironically enough, neither Orwell nor Camus really believed in objective truth. Orwell, despite being a champion of free expression and the speaking of truth to power, acknowledged that “objective truth” itself was an “illusion”, albeit a beneficial and “powerful” one. Equally, Orwell remarked that totalitarian ideology “demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth”. The key word here is “disbelief”. For Orwell, truth was more of a commitment to reality than a philosophical framework for deciding true from false. Indeed, perhaps this is why in Nineteen Eighty-Four, all Winston’s attempts to formulate a definition of truth ultimately fail. But this is precisely the point. Orwell understood that truth was a mentality, not a formula. 

For Camus, the story was the same. In his Nobel Prize banquet speech, he said the following:

Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. Liberty is dangerous, as hard to live with as it is elating. We must march toward these two goals, painfully but resolutely, certain in advance of our failings on so long a road.

His conception of truth was the same as Orwell’s. For Camus, truth was an unreachable summit, but one worth climbing for. Truth, for Orwell and Camus, was a destination towards which it was better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

Today, the truth has become a question of competing narratives. Some Trump voters in the United States, for example, believe the last election was “stolen”, not because there is proof of electoral fraud – indeed, no such proof exists – but because their idol has told them a story. 

In Russia the story is the same. Even as the Russian Army rolled across the Ukrainian border, the average Russian likely believed the state-sponsored narrative that Russia is reclaiming its rightful territory from the hands of fascist regime. To such people, it is irrelevant that Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish, and so is the fact that the Ukrainian far-right only achieved 2.15% of the vote in the 2019 election — not enough to gain even one seat in the parliament. In a sense, the Russians themselves cannot be blamed for believing as they do: they have been conditioned by pro-Kremlin media to believe this narrative. As Aleksandr Dugin — the Russian philosopher-fascist — remarked: “truth is [a] question of belief.” 

It seems that this anxiety Orwell and Camus had about the truth is as prescient today as it was in 1945. But it raises an important question: how can an individual think truthfully in a world dominated by untruthful narratives?

Towards the end of his novel La Chute, Camus’ narrator ponders this question: 

Don’t lies eventually lead to the truth? […] Sometimes it is easier to see clearly into the liar than into the man who tells the truth. Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object. 

Here Camus struck a critical distinction, not just between truth and untruth, but between ways of thinking about the problem. While he embraced the fact that truth can never be fully or directly known, Camus conceptualised truth as an internal struggle, against the need for the absolute certainty provided by the “beautiful twilight” of falsehood. Ironically enough, then, Camus’ idea of real truthfulness lay in uncertainty, and in diligently maintaining an awareness of that fact. In other words, truthfulness means thinking in good faith, in honest suspicion of even the most appealing of narratives.

Orwell’s work seems to proffer a similar conclusion. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston takes solace in the idea of an internal self-awareness.

He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.

Orwell – ever the protestant humanist – placed a great deal of faith in the idea of the sceptical conscience. In the world of the novel, “staying sane” meant remaining critical, even if only in secret. It isn’t Winston’s ability to say two and two make four that allows him to rebel: it’s because despite the universally believed falsehoods purveyed by the state, Winston continues to think diligently and honestly. 

For both of these writers, the truth was less a metaphysical question than an attitude. Their novels revolve around the quotidian, everyday experience of the world, in things rather than in ideas. They were both much more concerned with the facts that could be taken from experience than those that could be thought up through ideology. This was the attitude that sustained them throughout their intellectual lives, and united them as figures. And it’s for this reason that I like to think of them as friends, although their paths never crossed.

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