Orwell on the Sanctity of Life


George Orwell could be cold eyed and occasionally cold hearted. His strangely affectless reaction to his wife’s death during a routine surgery in 1945 was even more stoic than the English code of stiff upper lip called for. He mentioned Eileen’s death briefly in perfunctory letters to his closest correspondents and then went back to writing an essay on nationalism, one of his best.

As a lifelong socialist, Orwell knew that the struggle to end all forms of man’s domination over man would require sacrifice, and, in one of his off-script moments, he seemed to relish the prospect of London’s streets “running red with blood” (of aristocrats, presumably) when the revolution came.

One can take this kind of exercise too far, but it is possible to imagine Orwell exploring his own cold-bloodedness when in 1984 he has Winston Smith agree, a little too eagerly, that he is willing to kill and commit all manner of cruelties for the cause of bringing down Big Brother. (This is the scene in which Winston is trying to join the underground Goldstein rebellion, which turns out to be a setup.)

However idiosyncratic Orwell’s subjective experience of grief may have been, though; and however zealously he accepted a commitment to fight and die for liberalism, he was, I believe, more deeply devoted to a counterpoised set of ideas and feelings which today we call the sanctity of life.

Orwell was always most in his element when writing about the rights of the powerless. Look at the situation of any nameless, faceless suffering person, he often wrote, and you will see that the rights they lack have been expropriated by others who have the power to restore them. Human suffering is not inevitable, or at least it should not be accepted as such. Orwell was constantly reminding us citizens of the rich, developed, liberal world that we are not mere witnesses to the suffering of the downtrodden, but that we often share responsibility for stripping them of the very rights that could protect them from deprivation.

So far I am not telling you anything you do not know about Orwell. Even if you’ve never read a word he wrote, you know he was one of the 20th century’s greatest advocates of human freedom. He believed in his heart and defended till his death what Franklin Roosevelt famously called the four freedoms–freedom of speech and worship and freedom from fear and want.

But, somewhat behind the scenes, Orwell was also a moral entrepreneur. He observed certain human sins and wrote about them in new ways, which would eventually germinate into whole new movements.

Presciently, Orwell wrote about moral outrages against three groups that had never received focused political attention before: the child, the medical patient, and the criminally convicted. His brief, subjective observations posited the unusual idea that these groups were possessed of rights, which could and should be enshrined in law. In each case, I believe, Orwell’s germ of a concept is rooted in a deeper idea that there are no second-class humans–that every life is sacred.

Let’s look at each one, starting with the convicted criminal.

In one of Orwell’s first widely read essays, “A Hanging,” he recounts how in 1926 he was detailed as a colonial policeman in Burma to assist in hanging a man convicted of an unnamed crime. As the police march the condemned man toward the gallows, and the convict reflexively sidesteps a puddle, Orwell’s narrator (probably fictionalized–we believe Eric Blair, colonial policeman, merely watched the hanging and did not participate in it) has an epiphany:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working –bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

Albert Camus would eventually turn this sentiment into a philosophical position (with the publication in 1957 of Reflections on the Guillotine), which, in turn, became a political movement against the death penalty. Orwell said it first. The “solemn foolery” of an ongoing human life is beyond the authority of the state to deliberately cut short. Over the years, several ancillary arguments would be added to the case against capital punishment, including the salience of wrongful convictions, but they would all build on Orwell’s original idea that the reasoned, deliberate decision to kill an already incapacitated human is always immoral. It is unspeakably wrong.

candle amnesty international logo - Clip Art Library
Image: Amnesty International, the world’s leading human rights advocate

In 1929, 25-year old Eric Blair lay on a bed in one of Paris’s worst, poorest hospitals, ostensibly being treated for pneumonia. The man in the bed next to him has died and the color has drained from his face: an eerie prefigurement of Orwell’s own death by tuberculosis in 1950.

Earlier, the hospital staff have “processed” Blair with the offhanded sadism of prison guards. They interrogate him, take his clothes, and dispatch him across an icy courtyard to search for his assigned ward in the dark of a February night. Blair’s medical treatment, when it comes, is clinical and medieval. The doctor regards him as a repository of “procedures” about which he (Blair) is uninformed and over which he has no say. The nurses and orderlies mechanically call out the numbers of the patients dying around Blair. The man who would become Orwell is literally waiting for his number to come up. The “medical professionals” charged with his care are plainly indifferent to his fate and, if anything, seem inconvenienced by his presence.

Blair escapes the hospital’s horrors as soon as he has the strength, not waiting for a discharge.

The writer George Orwell would live to see the beginning of a sea change in medicine, which he wrote about in “How the Poor Die,” the 1946 essay in which he recalls his experience in the Paris hospital. The name of his essay says it all. The poor die in miserable conditions, often with no healthcare. What most of us regard as the normal, humane mode of medical care is actually a privilege which we pay for in money. It is not a universal human right.

But today we are closer. The World Health Organization declared in 1947, “The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.” Much more significant than these fine words, most developed countries have decided to act to protect healthcare as a right. In Canada, Europe, Australia, and much of Asia, people have access to the highest attainable standard of healthcare, funded by the governments, often in efficient, single-payer insurance schemes.

As Orwell lay dying of tuberculosis in the long winter of 1949, he recalled a conversation he’d had with the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge had remarked to Orwell that “anyone” who’d lived in Asia had stepped over the bodies of dead children in the street and had in effect grown callous to such horrors. It leads Orwell to observe:

I read recently in the newspaper than in Shanghai (now full of refugees) abandoned children are becoming so common on the pavement that one no longer notices them. In the end, I suppose, the body of a dying child becomes simply a piece of refuse to be stepped over. Yet all these children started out with the expectation of being loved and protected and with the conviction which one can see even in a very young child that the world is a splendid place and there are plenty of good times ahead.

Orwell then reflects that his own society was not so different, not so long ago. Londoners might not have unthinkingly stepped over the corpses of children in the street, but they very clearly valued children’s lives less than their own. “One of the differences between Victorians and ourselves,” Orwell reflects, “was that they looked on the adult as more important than the child. In a family of ten or twelve it was almost inevitable that one or two should die in infancy and though these deaths were sad, of course, they were soon forgotten, as there were always more children coming along.” It was simple math.

But with that simple math came a tortured truth, or at least something regarded as the truth. Adults, as fully-developed persons, were accorded full protections against life’s hazards and full support for their onward movement. Children were treated as second-class humans because they could not be relied on to survive and return the adults’ investments in them.

Today we have turned this formula on its head. It is more the potential of children that we exert ourselves to protect rather than the already-realized value of the adult. Even in Orwell’s day, he recorded, [T]he death of a child is the worst thing that most people are able to imagine.”

But it was not math, not the changing actuarials of the postwar 20th century, that made Orwell a champion of the child. It was his own brief but intense experience as a father. Orwell loved and, yes, doted on his son Richard (it’s in his letters). It is fair to say that Richard was the last love of Orwell’s life. Eileen had already been four years gone when Orwell soliloquized in a 1949 essay that the one redemptive experience of being human was “fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” It must have been the five-year old Richard he had in mind when he wrote this. The heartbreak of leaving Richard behind was the inevitable price of being human, but it was worth paying.

In the last two years of his life, what Orwell most deeply regretted was his declining ability to play with Richard. The pair had worked together on their patch of farm on the island of Jura, and they had gotten into adventures and misadventures together.

Every parent, of course, grieves the prospect of leaving their children to fare without them, so it is worth putting Orwell’s more particular regret in the context of his writing. Orwell knew he was not long for this world even when Richard was as young as five. But being bedridden not only limited Orwell’s ability to protect and express his love to Richard while he was still alive; it threatened Richard’s “conviction that the world is a splendid place with plenty of good times ahead.” Orwell once piercingly wrote that he didn’t want Richard to think of him as someone who is always sick and unable to play. He wanted Richard to have everything a child deserves, even if one of those things was an optimistic delusion of wellbeing that waxes during the high tide of life and then wanes with age. Orwell thought children deserved to see the world as a good place, and they should be helped to find their deepest fulfillment in it. They are not mere replacement workers, soldiers, or handmaidens.

Children have rights, then. The United Nations says so. I believe Orwell was prophetic in intuiting those rights based on his own experiences of war, poverty, politics and, most importantly, fatherhood.

Indeed it is not giving Orwell too much credit to recognize that many of the rights movements that would mature at the end of the 20th century–including the rights of convicts, patients, and children–are foreshadowed in his writings 50 years beforehand.


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