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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

03 August 2008

George Orwell, Restating the obvious

George Orwell, Essays. Everyman’s Library, 2002. 1,369 pages. $35

I knew George Orwell the way most people know him: through 1984 and Animal Farm, and from some of his better known essays, “Shooting an Elephant,” “Politics and the English Language,” “Why I write” and a few others. This collection reveals another Orwell, adding much depth to the man, while also showing certain sides of him which most of us are less familiar with.

What struck first me in this book was how widely read Orwell was. We usually think of him as a master writer, and he comes across as a having thought deeply about language. But his grasp of the literary work of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is much greater than I imagined. Not only is he familiar with the major authors, but also with “lesser” works: “good bad books” as he calls them (“the kind of book that has no literary pretentions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.”). When told by a publisher that he will re-issue “minor and partly-forgotten novels,” Orwell admits that, “I rather envy the person whose job it will be to scout round the three-penny boxes, hunting down copies of his boyhood favorites.” Even for better known writers, he likes to think of them holistically, often focusing on their lesser known works. Tolstoy, for instance, appears more for a pamphlet he wrote against Shakespeare than for any work. And rarely will Orwell write about an author without putting one piece of work in the context of the author’s total work, good and bad, widely known and obscure.

Originality was Orwell’s chief rhetorical devise. In fact, it is remarkable that there is so little repetition in a book of over 1,300 pages. The essays were written over a twenty-year period (1928-1950), and yet barely a handful can be thought of as repetitive and most manage to surprise even if after you have read much of his work. Think about this sentence: “If one were obliged to write a history of the world, would it be better to record the true facts, so far as one could discover them, or would it be better simply to make the whole thing up? The answer is not so self-evident as it appears.” What rests at the center of his originality is a comfort with contradiction. This passage from “Shooting an Elephant” about his feelings while serving with the imperial police in Burma is most telling: “With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.”

The contradiction was firstly personal: his experience in Burma and later in the Spanish Civil War taught him internal conflict and ambiguity, and that attitude guided his work. “If there are certain pages of Mr. Bertrand Russell’s book, Power,” he wrote, “which seem rather empty, that is merely to say that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” The restatement of the obvious became a main preoccupation and, with time, the signature of his writing. In an essay on Rudyard Kipling, he blames T.S. Eliot for not explaining Kipling’s appeal despite having so many detractors. Orwell immediately concedes that “It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilised person.” Then, Orwell can more easily consider Kipling’s literary work and appeal.

What allowed him to do that was a belief that art can be aesthetically tasteful even if politically wrong. In a twenty-page essay on Jonathan Swift, he spends the first fifteen condemning Swift’s pessimistic view of human nature; then, he admits that “curiously enough he [Swift] is one of the writers I admire with least reserve, and Gulliver’s Travels, in particular, is a book which it seems to impossible for me to grow tired of.” His most detailed treatment of that subject comes in reviewing Salvador Dali’s autobiography: “It is a book that stinks. If it were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages, this one would – a thought that might please Dali, who before wooing his future wife for the first time rubbed himself all over with an ointment made of goat’s dung boiled up in fish glue. But against this has to be set the fact that Dali is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts.” And then more plainly, “If you say that Dali, though a brilliant draughtsman, is a dirty little scoundrel, you are looked upon as a savage.” That balance, honesty, and aesthetic separation from politics marked his literary analysis.

Politically, Orwell’s chief target was totalitarianism: “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.” In a roundabout way his opposition to totalitarianism comes from his desire for truth and fairness. His “starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

What connected that passion for the truth with distaste for totalitarianism was the Spanish Civil War and Orwell’s need to convey the truth as he saw it on the ground and to de-romanticize the contemporary admiration for the Soviet Union. What horrified him about totalitarianism is its ability to manufacture the truth: “From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.” It is against this fear that 1984 was written.

His answer was socialism. What attracted him to socialism was equality. He had grown and lived much of his life at subsistence or even poverty, and he spoke ill of his time at St Cyprian’s, a school for wealthy kids, which promoted a contradictory moral code: “On the one side were low-church Bible Christianity, sex Puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for ‘braininess’ and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty and, above all, the assumption that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible.” It is not hard to read some admiration for the shortages produced by the war, nor would he mind wartime rationing in peacetime.

Despite his obsession with socialism, Orwell was not a particularly deep economic thinker. Obviously he writes about economics but from a political or social standpoint. I cannot think of another writer that is more aware of how much things cost and how the prices of little things change with time, at least not one who is not an economist. But Orwell does not consider the economic system as a mechanism that works on supply and demand, or on incentives, nor does he conceive of economic liberty either as a subset of liberty more generally or as a means to political liberty. He read F.A. Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” which linked socialism to totalitarianism, but Orwell was hardly able to see capitalism as anything more than exploitation: “Hayek’s able defence of capitalism, for instance, is wasted labour, since hardly anyone wishes for the return of old-style capitalism. Faced with the choice between serfdom and economic insecurity the masses everywhere would probably choose outright serfdom, at least if it were called by some other name.”

Of course, Orwell was conscious that socialism was not easy to achieve, and he was even more aware how problematic revolutions can be, a view that has must owe something to his reading of Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô and Arthur Koestler’s novels: “Revolutions always go wrong – that is the main theme” writes Orwell in a section that contrasts Koestler’s Gladiators with Salammbô. Later in the same essay, he notes that “Revolution, Koestler seems to say, is a corrupting process … it is not merely that ‘power corrupts’: so also do the ways of attaining power.” This essay comes shortly after Orwell completed Animal Farm, and the thematic linkage between the two is unmistakable.

World War II confronted Orwell with a tough choice: he would have preferred a socialist war, and it was clear that neither side if victorious would implement Orwell’s agenda. His position was much a reaction to the thinking of the day, and especially of the intellectuals in England. He summarily dismissed pacifism, as a doctrine which “can only appeal to people in very sheltered positions,” and he sympathized with Kipling’s view that it was “making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep.” He grew increasingly patriotic though he had dreaded and opposed the war before it started. His patriotism, in the end, was more than just a preference for truth and fairness – it reflected his own upbringing and instructs. “Most of the English middle class,” he writes, “are trained for war from the cradle onwards, not technically but morally.” He saw in a dream ”that the long drilling patriotism which the middle classes go through had done its work, and that once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage.”

In a review of a book by Malcolm Muggeridge you see even better that Orwell’s patriotism was emotional more than rational: “I know very well what underlies these closing chapters. It is the emotion of the middle-class man, brought up in the military tradition, who finds in the moment of crisis that he is a patriot after all. It is all very well to be ‘advanced’ and ‘enlightened,’ to snigger at Colonel Blimp and proclaim your emancipation from all traditional loyalties, but a time comes when the sand of the desert is sodden red and what have I done for three, England, my England? As I was brought up in this tradition myself I can recognize it under strange disguises, and also sympathize with it, for even at its stupidest and most sentimental it is a comelier thing than the shallow self-righteousness of the leftwing intelligentsia.”

It is that courage in writing, the willingness to confront and admit personal contradictions, the honesty in admitting when passion overrules reason that we treasure and miss in Orwell, and the chief reason that this collection of essays will be forever my companion.