Rowing in the Vortex: the Endurance of George Orwell
By: Frederic Murray
To mark the paper was the decisive act. In small clumsy letters he wrote: April 4th 1984.
Eric Blair/George Orwell spent the last years of his life in the late ‘40s on the Hebridean island of Jura, just off the west coast of mainland Scotland. He lived in a small stone cottage, a hermitage if ever there was one, where he could continue to write and explore the natural world of the islands. It was a geography of great importance and sustenance to him. The tide waters of the Hebrides are a complex maze, known well to the locals who have fished them for centuries. By all accounts, they are difficult waters to navigate, and George Orwell was not a local. The Strait of Corryvreckan, to the north of Jura, and bounded by the island of Scarba, is home to an infamous whirlpool. There is an incident about Orwell, recounted in his diaries (Diaries by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison 2012) and recollected by his nephew, (Orwell Remembered, edited by Audrey Coppard 1984) where after a morning of fishing in the Strait with his son, nephew, and niece, in a small rowing boat with an unsecured motor, he misjudged the tide, and was swept into the vortex.
The whirlpool is known as the speckled cauldron, and is considered the third-largest in the world. It is described as a merciless trap rightfully feared by careless sailors. The unsecured motor was sucked off the boat and Orwell, rather than panicking, calmly set the oars in motion to row the small craft free of the tidal violence pulling them to the center. The row boat circled twice, no doubt with the children’s eyes fixed on the turbulence about to engulf them, before Orwell managed to get them free. He steered toward a small inlet nearby, no doubt the closest shore available. As they made for land, the boat overturned, and all four had to swim ashore for refuge. The boat was lost.
Orwell spent the rest of the afternoon making a small fire, and leading the children on exploration of the small inlet, as though they were out picnicking, and this was the intended plan for the day. A passing lobster boat eventually picked them up and returned them to Jura. In a brilliant review of the Diaries by Simon Leys, in the New York Review of Books (2011), Mr. Leyes concludes:
[I]f one had to go out to sea in a small boat, one would not choose Orwell to skipper. But when meeting with shipwreck, disaster, or other catastrophes, one could not dream of better company.
And therein lies the appeal of 1984 — though it is a merciless book, filled with grey and gin-numbed denizens populating what feels like a bombed-out London in the aftermath of WWII, and though the story is bleak, with its broken and betrayed love, and leaves many readers wondering at what point lies their own breaking ground. It is a novel that continues to pull to its center writers as diverse as Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens. It is a work bereft of hope, but unflinching in its gaze, an important value in difficult times.
The novel is of course experiencing a resurgence in the wake of the scandalous language, and ideas emanating from Washington D.C. over the past few months. A democratic-minded public has little patience with the idea of “alternate facts.” The novel is currently listed in the Amazon Author Rank (beta) as number one in Classic Literature & Fiction. It is ranked fourth in Literary Fiction and fourth in Science Fiction. For Prime Members, a digital copy is free. The rankings are updated hourly and these are from March 29, 3 p.m. Penguin put through a 75,000-copy reprint in January. Signet Classics announced that it had reprinted 500,000 copies, and the novel is now selling briskly at Costco.
April 4 is the date Winston Smith picks up a pen and begins the long march toward his own liberation and his own eventual damnation. But it is his choice, and one made freely. It is one of the most famous dates in literary history and its reach is growing. In recognition of the importance of this imaginative act, theaters across the country and the globe are choosing to provide free screenings of Michael Radford’s film version of 1984. In 165 cities, 43 states and four nations, the film will be shown in resistance to the drastic cuts threatening the National Endowment of Arts. These proposed budget cuts are blatant attacks on free speech and creative expression. The free screenings are a creative act of resistance — an act that speaks to many of the core values surrounding intellectual freedom. The screenings are being organized in a joint effort by the Art House Convergence and the United States of Cinema. A complete listing of the theater screening the film is available at its website.
When faced with the vortex, Orwell grabbed the oars, fixed his eye toward shore and began to row. We should do no less.
Frederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org