I’m reading Orwell’s Essays, pretty much on a total impulse: there they were in swiftly bootlegged format (the Penguin edition) on the shelves of a bookshop in a Cambodian river town. And I needed something to read.
I harbor the intelligent child’s usual vague fondness for Orwell (or Eric Blair, of course), crafted from close readings of Animal Farm and 1984 in 6th grade. On the wall of my alternative middle school, my young homeroom teacher had gone so far as to write out Orwell’s six rules for writing in marker in large letters and hang them on the wall.
“Never use a big word when a small one will do,” I read on the day that he put it up – and became instantly suspicious, as it had been a running joke in my extended family for some time that we in fact would use a big one over a small one at any given opportunity. There, for a time, my relationship with Orwell ended.
When I moved to Cambodia, I quite expectedly obtained a copy of Burmese Days, which struck me largely by its profound animosity for all of the characters. Just as Orwell observes in his essays that he was shocked in childhood by D.H. Lawrence’s seeming equality of feeling for each of his characters, so too was I pleasantly surprised by how awful Orwell seemed to think all of his were. The sniveling, impotent main character of John Flory, the obnoxiously pure Elizabeth Lackersteen who he falls in love with, the terrible young soldier on the white horse and the Burmese merchant — they are all viciously drawn creatures.
What has Orwell got to offer me as a somewhat steady-minded adult — and, might I add, the type who likes progressive politics and identifies with feminism and gay rights and Christ knows what else?
Much. There is much to offer.
Yes, he did not demonstrate the modern politics to which I adhere to, and occasionally had nasty things to say about women, homosexuality, contraception, and race. Such is the burden of reading great men who died generations ago, if you do not happen to be white and male. I find it incredibly foolish to simply chuck out great writers whose opinions do not align well with our modern ones – as if we expect them to be not just brilliant but, curiously, able to accurately predict the future.
Primarily: it is a sense of both pleasant clarity and great camaraderie, as if he was writing things specially calculated to not comfort me in our pleasant political times but at least to give me a sense that at least someone else gets the point. Orwell wrote from the 20th centuries most bleak and grotesque eras, and from the perspective of someone born into the comfort and petty wealth of the early 1900s who was summarily confronted with World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the rise of Communism.
It is hard to imagine how someone of his generation could view the general thrust of history as anything other than a swift descent into madness — a technological, smoking horror that could quite easily wipe out everything on the planet. Post-2010, we have seen big budget movie after big budget movie that display an Existential Threat to All Humanity. We find these fantasies entertainingly escapist, while Orwell, occasionally dodging bombs in London, actually lived them.
This essay will become grotesquely long if I sat down and wrote out every single thing in this reasonably large collection of essays that I found enjoyable, but I will address his non-too-sunny thoughts on the prospect of writing here, for I find them remarkably prescient. Orwell, of course, imagined that the death of writing and the death of the writing craft would be linked to totalitarian governments and the suppression of free thought and free ideas.
This stance, from where Orwell was standing, made sense. I imagine he would be surprised to find that writing as a professional craft is on its way out, but not for the reasons he had imagined.
Orwell, as he makes very clear in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” was by the 1940s pretty much convinced that capitalism as he knew it had been dealt a vicious death blow: humanity would not abide by these systems. People would either tend towards socialism, where the state owned the means of production and regulated incomes, or they would be pushed towards the tender embrace of the totalitarian.
This has not come to pass: around the world, the capitalist system is nearly ubiquitous, and while many nations do try to suppress free speech, it is very easy to argue that the Internet has made their job far harder than Orwell ever imagined in “1984.” (Yes, I know about the NSA. I do not feel it has dampened free speech).
It is ironic that the Internet, this same weapon against the control of thought, also seems likely to put the professional writer and thinker completely out of a job: they are not needed by the market, or so the common argument goes, and thus must either be phased out or pursue their slightly socially deleterious hobby in private, if they have got any time after pulling a couple of shifts at Target.
I would like to know what Orwell would think about how capitalism and market forces are killing writing quite effectively in countries with perfectly adequate free-speech controls, without the assistance of the iron boot, the storm-trooper, or the lurking thought police. Our increasingly profound trust in the market and the West’s increasingly vocal disdain for useless and lazy writers and artists is doing it for us.
Of course, it is also likely no one would ever know what Orwell had to say about the death of writing if he had lived today — because he would be working at some dreary big-box store (in an effort to pay back his college loans) and would have lacked the time to form much of an opinion.
There is another point, perhaps quite logically following the one about writing: Orwell’s assertions, as expressed in “Looking Back on the Spanish War” and elsewhere, about the English optimism, its prevalent sense that everything will (eventually) come out all right in the end. Here is the segment in question:
“But is it perhaps childish or morbid to terrify oneself with visions of a totalitarian future? Before writing off the totalitarian world as a nightmare that can’t come true, just remember that in 1925 the world of today would have seemed a nightmare that couldn’t come true. Against that shifting phantasmagoric world in which black may be white tomorrow and yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree, there are in reality only two safeguards. One is that however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back, and you consequently can’t violate it in ways that impair military efficiency. The other is that so long as some parts of the earth remain unconquered, the liberal tradition can be kept alive. Let Fascism, or possibly even a combination of several Fascisms, conquer the whole world, and those two conditions no longer exist. We in England underrate the danger of this kind of thing, because our traditions and our past security have given us a sentimental belief that it all comes right in the end and the thing you most fear never really happens. Nourished for hundreds of years on a literature in which Right invariably triumphs in the last chapter, we believe half-instinctively that evil always defeats itself in the long run. Pacifism, for instance, is founded largely on this belief. Don’t resist evil, and it will somehow destroy itself. But why should it? What evidence is there that it does? And what instance is there of a modern industrialized state collapsing unless conquered from the outside by military force?”
It is bleak stuff, but it is also an argument I find myself making regularly – in fact, I believe I have recently made it to my own mother. I do not find it entirely depressing but instead more galvanizing. If we sit on our hands and convince ourselves that things will be all right if we go about our business and stop worrying, we will be caught shocked and impotent to act if we really do fall downwards into the slope.
It is best – so Orwell, I reckon, would argue, although I may be putting my own thoughts into his head — to anticipate the descent into hell and be wrong, rather then being genuinely shocked when it does happen.
Jon Krakauer recently wrote in “Embrace the Misery” about this growing sense among many intellectual-types that the world is sinking into some terrible dark age. Krakauer went to Camus for some small measure of comfort, and his famous assertion that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Me? I will, at least for a while, employ Orwell as my therapist.