“Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” and Homage to Catalonia are companion pieces written by two versions of the same man on the same subject. It doesn’t seem to me that “Looking Back” is a rejection or significant reconsideration of the book, but the essay is inevitably different because it was written after the passage of some time.
Homage to Catalonia is more documentary and “Looking Back” is more anecdotal and analytical. In the book, Orwell gets the reader “on the ground” in Catalonia, making the often humdrum life of the P.O.U.M. soldier familiar—whereas in the essay, Orwell recounts only the episodes that he finds “moving” and “touching” six years removed from the war. “Looking Back” is more interesting to read for this reason, but his purposes in writing Homage to Catalonia seem fundamentally different. Orwell was trying to create a piece of journalism or personal testimony with the book, I think, rather than a broader statement independent of the events he describes. Since the book was written so soon after the events depicted in it transpired, it’s probably a good thing that Orwell stuck to a fairly straightforward account.
Between the two works there are shifts in Orwell’s emotional and political approaches to the war and to the public’s view of it. In both “Looking Back” and Homage to Catalonia, Orwell manages to take a simultaneously cynical and romantic view of the Spanish Civil War. (He represents this idea in the “fierce pathetic face” of the Italian militiaman on pages 3-4 of Homage to Catalonia.) He consistently represents the war as a noble, intermittently fiercely fought, resounding failure.
But his emphasis changes from the book to the essay. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell devotes his attention to the folly, boredom, disorganization, and futility of war, whereas in “Looking Back” he focuses on the popular understandings of the Spanish war and its relevance to World War II. The essay’s treatment of the British thinking Left is brutal; Orwell portrays the British intelligentsia as contrarian and fickle. (“… Official war-propaganda, with its disgusting hypocrisy and self-righteousness, always tends to make thinking people sympathize with the enemy.”) In his view, the stupidity that is so endemic on the battlefield in war translates to society quite easily. The newspapers devolve into party megaphones, for instance, eventually amounting to little more than the front-line soldiers in Spain shouting propaganda at the other side to encourage desertion.
Orwell’s concerns in “Looking Back” are big concerns, which reach beyond the minutiae of the Spanish Civil War and even World War II. On the pervasive influence of propaganda Orwell writes in part four of the essay, “What is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”
I would describe “Looking Back” as a recommitment. Orwell, disillusioned from the start by the Spanish war and disillusioned increasingly by endless intellectual political pivoting in England, is recommitting himself to opposing the tide of totalitarianism that he expects to overwhelm the world.
The poem with which Orwell closes the essay is representative of this recommitment. Orwell clearly feels much of the same warmth he felt for the Italian soldier six years earlier; on the other hand, he speaks of the parts of the war he viewed romantically in Homage to Catalonia more romantically, and speaks of the bitter parts more bitterly. The verse is racked with what we might call today “liberal guilt” (“He was born knowing what I had learned / out of books and slowly”). Despite his insistence that he does not romanticize war and poverty, Orwell occasionally lapses. Nevertheless, war and fascism are now baldly described as a “lie.”
The final line, in which Orwell describes the immortal “crystal spirit” in this Italian man, is cryptic. That phrase may refer to the affection and bond to the Italian Orwell feels but cannot identify or explain at the beginning of Homage to Catalonia. Perhaps that “crystal spirit” lies at the heart of Orwell’s sympathy for anti-Stalinist democratic socialism; perhaps it is another representation of “decency,” an enduring theme in Orwell’s works; or maybe it is the fighting spirit Orwell sees flickering in the face of totalitarianism in World War II. It is a remarkably and unusually optimistic note with which to end the essay.
Homage to Catalonia, although in many ways a controversial book, has generally been praised for its description of the common soldier’s experience of war. Orwell makes clear his belief that some ideals are worth fighting, dying, and even killing for. At the same time, the common soldier’s ambivalence about killing other human beings is reflected in his writing. Frequent expressions of his remembered impatience to get on with the job of killing Fascists are thus balanced by repeated assurances to the reader that his marksmanship was poor. The author never tries to glorify war. With his sharp reporter’s eye for the telling detail, Orwell gives the reader a feel not only for the inspiring sense of camaraderie among the soldiers but also for the dirt, cold, stench, lice, physical discomfort, and sheer fright that afflict even those soldiers who fight for a worthy cause.
In his description of his battle experiences in the winter of 1936-1937, of his wounding by a sniper, and of his harrowing life on the run from the police following the suppression of the POUM, Orwell often discusses in a cold, almost clinical, way events that must have been extremely painful and frightening. This deliberate refusal to indulge in melodrama is often effective in letting the reader imagine for himself just how bad things really were.
Homage to Catalonia is not merely a memoir of one man’s experience of war; it espouses a definite political point of view, one difficult for most of his contemporaries either to understand or to accept. Orwell’s political stance, as reflected in this book, was simultaneously anti-Franco and sharply critical of the Loyalist side and was both enthusiastically and even radically Socialist and strongly anti-Communist. Anticipating that the book would meet with disbelief and opposition from a wide section of its readership, Orwell adopted an unusual device to win over the skeptics: admitting his fallibility. Twice the author admits that his own view of events was limited, that he could not entirely avoid bias, and that he undoubtedly made some mistakes. Such a frank admission of the...
(The entire section is 875 words.)