• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Writing on the Wall

Certainly he was not averse to abrupt decisions: the resolve to fight in Spain (we do not see the resolve forming; here is another of those blanks—he suddenly writes to his agent that he will be going to Spain in about a week, though up to then—December 15, 1936—the war in Spain has not even been mentioned), the resolve to write the book about the coal mines, living in with the miners’ families, the resolve to rent a farmhouse on the remote island of Jura in the Hebrides.

That last decision was probably fatal, but for the reader, gifted with foresight, every move, starting with that first juvenile “adventure,” has been fatal and fateful—a succession of coffin nails hammered home. It was in the cards: death of pulmonary tuberculosis, aged 46, London University Hospital. Q.E.D. Like a spectator at a play of preternaturally tight construction, the reader is gripped with horror, admiration, anger, pity, revulsion as he races through the early accounts (sometimes printed here for the first time) of Orwell’s experiments in crossing the class barrier, experiments conducted ruthlessly on his own frame, in a scientific spirit, for though he was a strong believer in individual difference and came to fear, above all, the thought that people would become interchangeable parts in a totalitarian system, he seems to have felt that as a subject for study himself he was a universal, i.e., a fair sample of his kind, capable of normative reactions under dissection. His end has something macabre in it, like the end of some Victorian pathologist who tested his theories on his own organs, neglecting asepsis. In his last letters, he speaks of his appearance as being “frightening,” of being “a death’s head,” but all along he has been something of a specter at the feast. He was prone to see the handwriting on the wall, for England, for socialism, for personal liberty; indeed, his work is one insistent reminder, and his personal life—what we glimpse of it—even when he was fairly affluent seems to have been an illustrated lesson in survival techniques under extreme conditions, as though he expected to be cast adrift in a capsule.

Survival interested him greatly, yet the punishment he gave his own body almost insured its rapid decline. It was a miracle he lasted as long as he did, considering. An undiscovered lesion in his lung contracted in his Dickensian boarding-school (“Such, Such Were the Joys”), a bout with pneumonia in the Hôpital Cochin in Paris (“How the Poor Die”), the throat wound from a sniper’s bullet during the Spanish Civil War, the first sanatorium, in Kent, the winter in a warm climate—Marrakech—prescribed by the doctors, another illness, the War, rejection by the Army as medically unfit, service in the Home Guard, austerity, poverty, assiduous overwork, the cold winter of 1947, the second attack, the sanatorium in Glasgow, the Crusoe-like severities of the primitive island of Jura, which was often cut off from the mainland, near-drowning in a whirlpool and exposure while waiting for rescue, the third attack…. When his first wife, Eileen, aged 39, died while he was abroad just after the German surrender, he ought, one feels, to have taken it as a warning signal to himself: what was the cause of her unexplained “poor health”? He does not seem to have wondered. “When Eileen and I were first married,” he had written a few years earlier to his friend, Jack Common, “… we hardly knew where the next meal was coming from but we found we could rub along in a remarkable manner with spuds and so forth.” More than once he speaks of how women of the working class age early in comparison to middle-class women, and it sounds as though Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a doctor’s daughter, had embraced a working-class fate in marrying Eric Blair. “Yes, she was a good old stick,” he said after her death to a friend who was expressing sympathy.

The consumption that carried off Orwell used to be considered a disease of the industrial poor. It cannot be an accident that so many of the best writers of our century have been consumptive: D.H. Lawrence, Kafka, Silone, Simone Weil, Camus, but also Thomas Mann and Katherine Mansfield, who do not appear to “belong” to this company of prophets and holy outcasts, although Katherine Mansfield was often desperately poor. Tuberculosis, for artists of this century, is what syphilis was for the nineteenth, a sign, almost, of election. But whereas venereal disease was the mark of commerce with Venus (now fully licensed), a lesion of the lung appears among modern writers as a sort of Franciscan stigmata, a mark of familiarity with privation; after all, poverty today, at least in the West, is a “stigma.” Most of those tubercular writers can be imagined as constituting a brotherhood or third order outside ordinary society, a brotherhood of intractables. Simone Weil going to work in a factory and eventually starving herself to death in order to share the diet of the people of occupied France was answering the same “call” as Orwell living among the derelicts and hop-pickers or as Silone militating in the underground, in clandestinity. It may be significant that no American writer, so far as I know, has contracted tuberculosis, and no American writer of this age has been an inspired “voice,” like Camus, like Orwell, like Lawrence, like Simone Weil, like Silone, like Kafka.

A copy of 1984, translated into Hungarian and secretly passed about, is said to have been the catalyst of the Hungarian Revolution. Animal Farm, a precious text too in Eastern Europe, became a classic the day it was published. But surely Orwell’s best work is that of his heroic early period: Down and Out in Paris and London, “A Hanging,” “Shooting an Elephant,” The Road to Wigan Pier, and finally Homage to Catalonia, which ends his novitiate. These terse writings resemble loose-leaf pages from a diary, which has survived to tell the tale. Or they are like polished driftwood, not intended for the coffee-table. There was always something unwelcome in Orwell’s revelations: the return of the repressed. This note was struck again, hard and fierce, in two of his later essays, jotted down, it would seem, for his own satisfaction when he was already famous and successful: “How the Poor Die” and “Such, Such Were the Joys.” He would not forget having touched bottom, which assured him of having his feet on the ground.

His book reviews and literary essays (“Inside the Whale,” “Dickens, Dali and Others”) are not especially acute, except in flashes. His penetration was less literary than moral; he was on the lookout for the hidden flaw in an author. More important historically are “Boys’ Weeklies,” “The Art of Donald McGill,” “Raffles and Miss Blandish.” The criticism of popular culture was a genre he virtually invented; it is hard to remember that, before him, it scarcely existed, though there were anticipations of it in the early Rebecca West and in Q. D. Leavis (Fiction and the Reading Public). “I have often thought,” he wrote to Geoffrey Gorer in 1936, “it would be very interesting to study the conventions etc. of books from an anthropological point of view…. It would be interesting & I believe valuable to work out the underlying beliefs & general imaginative background of a writer like Edgar Wallace. But of course that’s the kind of thing nobody will ever print.” This gloomy forecast no doubt pleased him; he would not have liked to know that he would be starting a fashion for that “kind of thing.”

He was on to something new in “Boys’ Weeklies” (1939), but not exactly new to him. He had done something like it, though he may not have been aware of the parallel, in his masterpiece, Down and Out in Paris and London. I.e., he was making a descent. An exploratory plunge into the limbo of sub-literature, sub-art: cheap stories for boys, comic postcards, thrillers. He was also very much interested in a category which Chesterton had named “good bad books”; he was an avid collector of pamphlets and he had a great memory for hymns and music-hall songs. He enjoyed this type of material and believed that everyone else did, if they would only confess the truth, and, as happens with sports and hobbies, his enjoyment was solemnized by expertise, the rites of comparing, collating, a half-deliberate parody of scholarship, like the recitation of batting averages (cf. Senator McCarthy).

If there was anything he despised, it was fashion; whatever was “in” affected him with a kind of violent claustrophobia. He wanted out. His first escape attempt was to Burma. On the surface this looks natural enough. He was born in Bengal; his father was in the Indian Service, and his mother was the daughter of a tea-merchant in Burma. Yet if he was following family tradition (he had “worshipped” Kipling as a boy), he was also eluding the career open to his talents; the next step after Eton ought to have been Cambridge or Oxford, then the London literary world. Instead, he became a policeman. Whatever his parents thought, from the point of view of his contemporaries at Eton he could have sunk no lower. Empire was out of fashion. But from his own point of view the colonial society he found in Burma must have been preferable to the London literary cliques, if only because the second looked down on and snickered at the first.

He hated intellectuals, pansies, and “rich swine,” as he called millionaires, and nothing made him angrier during the War than the fact that repairs were being made to the empty grand houses in the West End. He was also incensed at the suggestion that rationing should end. His extreme egalitarianism involved cutting down to size any superior pretensions. He was quick to catch the smell of luxury, material or intellectual; he sneered at Joyce for trying to be “above the battle” while living in Zurich on a British pension, at Gandhi for playing “with his spinning-wheel in the mansion of some cotton millionaire.” The luxury of being a pacifist (“fascifist”) in wartime drove him into furies of invective; at different times he compared Gandhi to Frank Buchman, Pétain, Salazar, Hitler, and Rasputin. He was capable of making friends with individual plain-living pacifists and anarchists, e.g., George Woodcock, having attacked them in print, but he continued to regard anarchism as at best an affectation (at worst it was “a form of power-worship”); the pretense that you could do without government was mental self-indulgence. What he really had against intellectuals, pansies, and rich swine was that they are all fashion-carriers—a true accusation. Fashion is an incarnation of wasteful luxury (nobody needs a mini-skirt), and one thing he liked about the poor was that they could not afford to be modish—a somewhat tautological point.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print