Concluding Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell tells us:
I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain mean to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells, and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing. (194)
To be fair, though, there’s no doubt that he has tried. Orwell is perhaps particularly attuned to smell: almost the first thing he describes is “the characteristic smell of war–in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food” (15). Or for instance, as he approaches the front line itself what strikes him is “a sickening sweetish stink that lived in my nostrils for weeks afterwards” (19). More generally, Orwell continually emphasizes the visceral, embodied, affective aspect of participation in the Civil War. He opens his account, for instance, with a brief anecdote about an almost wordless encounter with an Italian militiaman that demonstrates (he claims) “the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was though his spirit and mine had succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy” (2). Not that his feelings are always positive; far from it. Orwell is as likely to tell us of the fear or, worse, the “horror” not so much of the war itself as of the backstage machinations, the “atmosphere of suspicion, fear, uncertainty, and veiled hatred” (155) that clouds especially is final few weeks in Barcelona, as the Communists crack down on the Anarchists and independent Socialists. For ultimately, these internecine battles had little to do with ideology of strategy, and it was this that made them so horrific. Ultimately, Orwell tells us, he “did not make any of the correct political reflections” and was left “conscious of nothing but physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over” (175).
Of course, Orwell’s “physical discomfort” at the end is not merely a matter of the intangible atmosphere of fear and repression. He has been shot through the neck, and is physically wounded. But whereas his account of the political intrigues and day-to-day life in the coffee shops and bars is heavily imbued with the emotional undercurrent that runs through them, his tale of being hit by an enemy sniper is surprisingly distanced, stoical, and understated. As he puts it: “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail” (143). Though he reports “the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion,” he quickly finds he has “a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense” (143, 144). Once he understands that the bullet has gone through his neck, he is convinced that he is done for–“I assumed that I was killed” (145)–yet even this is depicted without much in the way of panic or doom, but as “interesting–I mean that it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. [. . .] The stupid mischance infuriated me. The meaningless of it!” (145). And it is not long before he views the whole event with a sort of black humour: as everyone insists that “a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive,” he retorts that he “could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all” (154).
So there is an odd discrepancy throughout the book between an affective treatment of politics, or what we might otherwise think of as an insistence on the affective infrapolitics that underlies and escapes all political discourse, and on the other hand a notably detached, distanced perspective on the body itself, which is treated as the object of almost quasi-scientific curiosity and scrutiny. This disconnect is further highlighted by what now appears as Orwell’s rather antiquated, perhaps quintessentially English attitude to anything that smacks of the personal. His injury is treated more as a nuisance than anything else. Beyond a brief description of a train journey in Burma (92), there is little to nothing in the way of Orwell recollecting or reflecting on his own personal history. His wife features frequently, but is never deemed worthy of a name. Orwell is honest about his own failings and minor hypocrisies (“God forbid that I should pretend to any personal superiority” ). And we learn much about his (lack of) personal hygiene on the front, and the lice that infest his clothing. But almost always Orwell’s gesture is to universalize, to present himself as a cipher for humanity as a whole: the lice, for instance, prompt the thought that “in war all soldiers are lousy [. . .]. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae–every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles” (54).
Perhaps all this is because, in the end, Spain itself is something of a cipher for Orwell. Indeed, he claims not to have the chance to “look at Spain” at all until very late in the day, once he is finally discharged. With his “discharge papers in [his] pocket,” he tells us that “For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain” (164). But even this Spain ends up being more a country of his own invention or fantasy than a real place: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that exists in everyone’s imagination” (143). By implication, then, everything else that he has witnessed and described–the May Days in Barcelona, the Aragon Front, but also the militiamen and shopkeepers and so on–is in some sense not Spanish. They have all somehow obscured from view some other, supposedly more “real” Spain that would accord with the collective fantasy of what the country should be like. In short, the strange thing about the Spanish Civil War in Orwell’s eyes (but perhaps not only his) is that it is not really “Spanish” at all. And no doubt this is why his final thoughts are not with Spain but with England and its “deep, deep sleep [. . .] from which I sometimes fear that we will never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs” (196).
See also: Homage to Catalonia I.