Thursday, March 05, 2009

Thoughts on Orwell

Terry Glavin has linked to an interesting, though rather oblique, review of Orwell's essays by Julian Barnes in the New York Review of Books. Barnes focuses his review around a critique of Orwell's status as a 'national treasure'. It couldn't be a more appropriate time to do this when his last novel, 1984, has just been identified as the book that most people lie about having read in order to impress their friends.

Barnes names three necessary qualities for 'treasuredom' and it is the second that raises the most questions;
An element of malleability and interpretability. The malleability allows the writer to be given a more appealing, if not entirely untruthful, image; the interpretability means that we can find in him or her more or less whatever we require.
Can his writing really be described as malleable? One of the things that surprises me is the number of unlikely people who claim Orwell as an intellectual hero. He has, of course, become an icon of Eustonians because of his anti-totalitarianism, though some of them might be uncomfortable with the fact that the reason he went to fight in Spain was not to uphold the right to free speech but to "kill fascists". The most curious admirers though are libertarian conservatives.

I think that Orwell's appeal to them rests on two features drawn from his later novels. Just as anti-Americans borrow his description in 1984 of Britain as Airstrip One, libertarians see the novel as a working out of Hayek's view of the evolution of totalitarianism from war-time planning. Neither interpretation would have appealed to Orwell who was a firm supporter of the post-war Labour Government and certainly knew whose side he was on in the Cold War. However, it is probably his anti-Communism that appeals most to the right. I am not sure that they should be quite so admiring.

I have always thought that Animal Farm was his finest novel. It is a bitter satire on Stalinism certainly, but what is less frequently noted is that the book is also implicitly anti-capitalist. The only time the animals are happy is during the immediate period of the liberation when they have seized the farm from Mr Jones. The one threat that could bring the animals back into line is "you don't want Jones back". The novel is pro-revolution and its pathos and bitterness comes from its betrayal. The ultimate is the end of the book when the animals cannot distinguish the pigs from the humans. They had become the same - not worse - the same.

Even Orwell's evocation of a patriotic Englishness is not a wholly sympathetic one. If there is one thing that permeates his writing it is a sense of disgust. And here Englishness is a failing that disgusts as much as it is a quality that charms. It blinds us to crisis, hides us from truth and smothers us with complacency.
And then England--southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth's surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen--all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
Orwell is a savage writer; angry, discontented and bitter. His plainness of style is not a folksy anti-intellectualism, it is a method of critical thinking. He is not a comfortable English nationalist, nor is he a liberal anti-Communist. To understand him properly is to take him at his word, and not about whether or not he shot an elephant.
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.
"As I understand it", this is the key. His understanding was underpinned by a tetchy discontent and a discomfort with orthodoxy. He is disconcerting and that is why he is still worth reading and why he should never be romanticised. He was a serious and, at times, uncomfortable writer, not a prophet, even less a guru.


Bernard von Schulmann said...

Hi there - I found you through Terry. I have been an Orwell fan since I was a lefty in High School. Now I am middle aged libertarian.

I have always liked his WW II column "As I Like" the best. "Homage to Catalonia" was also an eye opener at age 17 and started my rethinking all politics no longer only as left or right but as free or authoritarian as well.

Orwell stills speaks to me because he is so much about the battle against oppression, the imposition of group thought on everyone.

He was also iconoclastic, I blog as the BC Iconoclast

Anton Deque said...

I remember my first 'adult' encounter with the writing of Orwell. I had bought a Penguin edition (Vol. Four) to get change for the Underground ticket machines. I could find nothing else on the Smith's stand. I read the book of essays as revelation. I got the others in turn (backwards! to Vol One) and read them all in one go and then, almost annually after wards; but less so now. I think the style of his prose, and his ability to summarise extraordinary.

Later I read a little book about Orwell by Raymond Williams which was anything but complimentary but does contain an important idea – Blair into Orwell. The deliberate and slow achievement of his political outlook and his adopted persona.

I do think he was a giant of English letters and far from an easy man. His best work will last and last long.

Your piece about him is both thoughtful and generous – a rare thing in "an age like this".

Two I have re-read recently are "The Question of the [Ezra] Pound Award"(1949) and "Who are the War Criminals?" (1943).

KB Player said...

Agree about Animal Farm, which is beautifully crafted as well, and in its spare, restrained way is pure tragedy.

“His plainness of style is not a folksy anti-intellectualism, it is a method of critical thinking.”

Very astute – it’s keeping true to your observation, whether it’s what food the poor eat in Wigan Pier or the dishonesty of Soviet fellow travellers. The diaries on the Orwell Prize site are very factual.

Orwell died far too young but if he had got his extra 25 years or so I can’t see him going Conservative. He had a rather puritan distaste for the rich and for material excess. However he can appeal to the libertarians as he was concerned with the classical liberal freedoms of speech and expression. I found this sentence in The Lost Orwell which came out in 2006. It’s in a letter about Samuel Butler, whose plain style he admired.

“The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians. “

Libertarians – not No taxes libertarians, but anti-state control libertarians.

mikeovswinton said...

Let me throw one in for you Peter. The famous comments that Orwell made about fruit juice drinkers, nudists, vegetarians (cranks, as he calls them - I think that the paragraph is in The Road to Wigan Pier) etc, and also the manner in which they are made indicate something important and symptomatic about Orwell, and show him to be typical of an attitude. He's one of those radicals who is deeply conservative in every way, except when it comes to Politics (with a big P).

KB Player said...

"He's one of those radicals who is deeply conservative in every way, except when it comes to Politics (with a big P)."
Christopher Hitchens said in Orwell's Victory that Orwell was conservative about many things, but not politics.

Orwell greatly loved the natural world, and hated it being spoiled by industrialism, which is the theme of Coming up for Air. He certainly had the conservationist Green streak, and this ties up with some kinds of conservatism but not the Thatcherist kind.

The Plump said...

That bit is from The Road to Wigan Pier and reminds me of Bookchin taking on Deep Ecologists. I think that it is an anger about a self indulgent diversion from real concerns through lifestyle politics.

mikeovswinton, sinning against the Holy Ghost said...

There's a lot that could be said on your response in all its aspects. I'll just point you to the less well known bit of Orwell's comments on cranks: "One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both around sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd george style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts in which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple." There's something about this section that just strikes me as being deeply, unshakeably conventional and conformist in spirit. That's being generous - at a stronger level it could be said to point to the old sin of the left wing intellectual, namely loving the "people" in the abstract but not particularly liking actual physical examples of it. Perhaps it comes down to the old dictum about the eagle being able to fly lower than the chicken?

The Plump said...

I know that quote very well Mike. Utterly stoutist :-) As I said in the post, the one thing that runs through everything he writes is a sense of disgust. He is closer to Swift than Hazlitt as an essayist.

KB Player said...

Well, he was a gaunt bloke. If you cultivated a 60 a day Woodbine habit it might shed the pounds (while shredding your lungs).

Disgust, yes, but love for the natural world and poetry, and admiration for courage and endurance.

"For where is Manuel Gonzalez,
And where is Pedro Aguilar,
And where is Ramon Fenellosa?
The earthworms know where they are.

Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie;

But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit."

Will said...

KB Player

Wot a sack of shit.

pretentious fuckwit.

The Plump said...

Will ...

Will said...


I think I like her really.

Utisz Niemand said...

I think supporting your take on Orwell is the fact that GO was an admirer of Zamyatin, originally a Bolshevik who supported the Revolution but who subsequently protested at the increasing sacrifice of individual freedom in Stalin's authoritarian socialism. Many themes of Zamyatin's 'We' are simply transposed into English by GO in '1984'.

Anton Deque said...

I think some of you have rather missed Orwell's point. When he described his experience on the Green Line Bus (Oh! Bless'd memory!) he went on to say someone sitting near by turned to him and said "Socialists" with obvious distaste.

Orwell's point was that some things – socialism, concern for the natural world and what he touchingly called "human decency" – must be rescued from the kind of enthusiasts (Plane Sense or the ALF come to mind) who put off the majority precisely because England is a social 'conservative' country and he recognised the fact (which did not endear him to Raymond Williams for instance). In his writings Orwell sought wrench the arguments out of the context of elderly fruit juice drinking hikers and place it before the "average £5 a week man" and show him where his true interests lay. This is still (more so in this credit crunch age) a necessary objective for social progressives.

The Plump said...

You are right Anton. The second half of The Road to Wigan Pier is all about why the one thing wrong with socialism is socialists. It has been an argument reprised over and over again and I have some sympathy with it.

There is one problem though, popular social conservatism is sometimes part of the problem too, especially if it harbours racism, sexism, homophobia etc. In this case a left position has to confront rather than embrace social conservatism.

Anton Deque said...


I think that did happen in the 60s. a misunderstood period which was later left to it's detractor's to summarise. t is chastening to look back and remember just how much more influential those with a progressive outlook were. It would have been unthinkable for homosexuality to have been legalised in say 1957 and yet a few years later only the most deadly reactionaries opposed the reform of the law.There were similar reforms in other areas (the ending of hanging) but I think much that happened was not actually the result of legislation alone; people wanted the sense of living in a progressive atmosphere.

I think in this respect Orwell was invindicated in his view that if the case for social progress – " grown uppness" – could be dragged away from the fringes (elderly men in shorts) it would finally banish reaction.

Despite the Thatcher Interlude, I feel there is no going back. She in fact more and more represents the last throw of suburban reaction. The world has moved on and in so doing Orwell seems to me to have been less than a prophet, more of a mental state; a way of being.