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The Writing on the Wall

He did not mythicize the poor (he loathed myths too); he saw them rather dourly as they were. Their imperviousness to middle-class ideas was both an argument in their favor and a reason for despair since they showed no signs of inventing a socialism of their own, and he did passionately want socialism for everyone, on moral and rational grounds; as he pointed out, the machine had changed everything: “So long as methods of production were primitive, the great mass of the people were necessarily tied down to dreary, exhausting manual labor: and a few people had to be set free from such labor, otherwise civilization could not maintain itself, let alone make any progress. But since the arrival of the machine the whole pattern has altered. The justification for class distinctions, if there is a justification, is no longer the same, because there is no mechanical reason why the average human being should continue to be a drudge.” Yet the poor and the working class, slow to change their habits (and maybe because of this), possessed at any rate “common decency”—a quality Orwell found absent in many intellectuals and well-to-do people. “One has the right,” he says despondently, speaking of Pound, “to expect ordinary decency even of a poet.” The “even” sums up his feelings. Having no vanity himself, though plenty of angry pride, he disallowed the claim of the artist to be exceptional in any way, and here he was flying in the face of reality. The artist is an exception and hence indulged and forgiven (also mistreated). But Orwell did not have much forgiveness. It is surprising, for instance, to find him indulgent to Sir Osbert Sitwell. His egalitarian strictness made him an incipient philistine mistrustful of the vagaries of art, not to mention the vagaries of the artist.

Indeed, he was a philistine, of a peculiar kind, that loved beauty, flowers, birds, Nature; this curmudgeon even loved poetry, not just good bad poetry, but the real thing. But it was a love crossed by misunderstandings, like the love, in some fable, of one species for another, a mastiff for a rose. He wrote bad poetry himself and sometimes in his early book reviews a schoolboy purpled prose. His genius was for precise observation of data and for quantifying, which made him a better analyst of the art of Frank Richards, author of boy’s stories, than of the art of Tolstoy. It is easier to quantify “the underlying beliefs & general imaginative background” of a Frank Richards than to apply these rule-of-thumb measurements to Tolstoy or Swift or Dickens.

Though aware of the impossibility of this, he would have liked to find some acid test to subject works of art to which would tell the investigator demonstrably whether they were good or bad. In fact he devised one for characters in fiction: a character in a novel “passes” if you can hold an imaginary conversation with him. In his own novels, only Big Brother, probably, would meet that eccentric requirement. He was a Sherlock Holmes fan and a lover of puzzles and brain-twisters, also of the odd fact of the “Believe It or Not” variety. His literary criticism often smacks of police detection, as when he discovers—quite astutely—that the fault of Koestler is “hedonism,” something that is not apparent to the untrained eye. He was not a natural novelist, having no interest in character or in the process of rising or sinking in ordinary society or in a field of work—a process that engaged the sympathies not just of Proust or Balzac but of Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Conrad, Zola, Dickens, Dreiser. He would have been indifferent both to success and to failure. It is hard to imagine the long family-chronicle novel in several volumes he was planning to write just as the War was breaking out. Maybe he did not have enough human weaknesses to be a real novelist.

He was interested in institutions, in whatever could be measured, counted, surveyed, in the mechanics of work, in cost. He inventories his books to find how much reading has cost him over the past fifteen years and gets a figure of 25 pounds a year. Calculated out at nine and ninepence a week, this equals 83 cigarettes (Players). Most of his books, he notes, he bought second-hand. He was always totting up. He maintained careful records of the minute profits of the small village shop he kept (about one pound a week), of crops planted in his garden, of the milk produced by his goats and eggs laid by his hens. When the War comes, he reckons that he can grow half a ton of potatoes in one year, which ought to see them through the all-but-certain food shortage. And shortly after Munich, he tries to enlist Herbert Read in a scheme to buy printing presses to be ready to get out clandestine leaflets when England goes fascist; estimated cost probably three or four hundred pounds. He is sure fascism is coming because he has added up the possibilities and he “cannot believe that the time when you can buy a printing press with no questions asked will last forever.”

In his political speculations he thought in terms of futures and sought out “laws” to ease the labor of prediction (wars break out in the autumn, after the harvest has been got in; the decline of the British Empire was attributable to the invention of the telegraph, which killed off individual initiative and centered decisions in Whitehall), just as when arriving at a spike he sought to find its characteristic defect—every spike had one. He was fascinated by the inner workings of institutions and would have liked to take them apart, like a watch. His inventiveness was of an old-fashioned, hard-headed, utilitarian kind. At one time he “tried to devise an envelope which couldn’t be opened without the fact becoming apparent.” After a tabulation and breakdown of famous cases, he amused himself constructing a model of the popular idea of the perfect murder. Some similar ratiocination must have led to the construction of the “model” societies of 1984 and Animal Farm. Building these ingenious, air-tight, neat worlds based on a few simple principles such as double-think and “but some are more equal than others” must have appealed to his sardonic imagination.

He was an unsociable bird and so far as one can tell he held little communion with himself, except to the extent that he was a source of data, the nearest one at hand. He used himself, as I said, as an experimental animal in the course of his social researches. Or as a “control.” Hence he had to keep himself under observation with impartial scientific rigor, and this is especially evident in his early period, when he was a “pure” recording instrument and his writing was most delicate and exact. His celebrated honesty was a workmanly quality. It is a question of keeping your tools clean. A precision tool must be “true,” straight as a die.

Later he formed the habit of making avowals to his readers, often in a truculent manner. For instance he admits suddenly that he has never been able to dislike Hitler. Such a confession “expects” that the reader feels the same but has not had the bravado to declare it. The part of himself that Orwell exposes to his readers—and the only part that interests him—is the common man, the man on the street, You and I, insofar as we are capable of honesty. Nigel Dennis said that Orwell’s appeal was “to what everyone knows in his heart,” but this is less a soft appeal than a challenge, a species of blackmail or bullying: if you think you dislike Hitler, you are a hypocrite or a toady of fashion and you had better think again. The same with such phrases as “the pansy Left,” “the successive literary cliques which have infested this country,” “hordes of shrieking poseurs,” Blimpish summons to the boor in the reader’s heart to emerge with a safe-conduct. “To write in plain vigorous language one has to think fearlessly,” he declared. It is true that he did not care what people thought of him, but this may not always be such a virtue as he imagined; the opinion of others is a corrective.

Possibly Blair-Orwell was corrected too often in youth to brook it afterwards. Though he tots up afterwards, for the record, the mistakes in prophecy he has made in his “London Letter” to Partisan Review, he is generally convinced of his own rightness and never repents an error with a truly contrite heart. Once he has changed his mind he seems to be unconscious of having done so and can write to Victor Gollancz early in 1940, “The intellectuals who are at present pointing out that democracy & fascism are the same thing depress me horribly,” evidently forgetting that he has been saying that himself a year earlier. On the occasions when, conscious of a possible previous injustice, he starts out to write a reappraisal, as in the cases of Gandhi and Tolstoy, he slowly swings around to his original position, restated in less intemperate language. In “Why I Write,” he declared “I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood.” This is loyal and admirable in the man, but it is a grave limitation on thinking. Lacking religion and mistrustful of philosophy, he stayed stubbornly true to himself and to his instincts, for which he could find no other word than “decency,” as if no further definition was needed. The refusal to examine this concept (is it innate or handed down and if so what is the source of its binding power?) makes Orwell an uncertain guide to action, especially in the realm of politics, unless he is taken as a saint, that is a transmitter of revelation—a class of person he had a great distaste for.

It is impossible, at least for me, to guess how he would have stood on many leading questions of our day. Surely he would have opposed the trial and execution of Eichmann, but where would he be on the war in Vietnam? I wish I could be certain that he would not be with Kingsley Amis and Bernard Levin (who with John Osborne seem to be his main progeny), partly because of his belligerent anti-Communism, which there is no use trying, as Conor Cruise O’Brien does, to discount, and partly because it is modish to oppose the war in Vietnam: we are the current “pinks.” I can hear him angrily arguing that to oppose the Americans in Vietnam, whatever their shortcomings, is to be “objectively” pro-totalitarian. On the other hand, there was that decency. And what about CND? He took exception to the atom bomb, but as a “realist” he accepted the likelihood of an atomic confrontation in a few years’ time and computed the chances of survival: “If the show does start and is as bad as one fears,” he wrote from Jura to a friend, “it would be fairly easy to be self-supporting on these islands provided one wasn’t looted.” I cannot see him in an Aldermaston march, along with long-haired cranks and vegetarians, or listening to a Bob Dylan or Joan Baez record or engaging in any of the current forms of protest. The word protest would make him sick. And yet he could hardly have supported Harold Wilson’s government. As for the student revolt, he might well have been out of sympathy for a dozen reasons, but would he have sympathized with the administrators? If he had lived, he might have been happiest on a desert island, and it was a blessing for him probably that he died.

If he is entitled to be called “the conscience of his generation,” this is mainly because of his identification with the poor. He was not unique in tearing the mask off Stalinism, and his relentless pursuit of Stalinists in his own milieu occasionally seems to be a mere product of personal dislike. Nobody could say that Orwell had sold out or would ever sell out for money; honors, women, pleasure; this gave him his authority, which sometimes, in my opinion, he abused. His political failure—despite everything, it was a failure if he left no ideas behind him to germinate—was one of thought. While denouncing power-worship in just about everybody and discovering totalitarian tendencies in Swift (the Houynhnhnms have a totalitarian society), Tolstoy, and gentle local anarchists and pacifists, he was in fact contemptuous of weakness—ineffectuality—in political minorities. Apparently he did not consider how socialism, if it was to be as radical and thorough-going as he wished, could secure a general accord or whether, failing such an accord, it should achieve power by force.

Actually during the War he was in favor of arbitrary measures, such as the seizure and requisitioning of empty mansions for housing the bombed-out poor—a sound enough notion but unlikely to be accepted by the Churchill government, as he of course knew. Would he have organized and led a committee of the homeless to storm and occupy those mansions? If not, why rail? It is a question whether Orwell’s socialism, savagely felt as it was, was not an unexamined idea off the top of his head: sheer rant.

In reality, though given to wild statements, he was conservative by temperament, as opposed as a retired colonel or a working-man to extremes of conduct, dress, or thought. He clung to the middle-class values which like himself in his early period had sunk to the bottom of society. His main attacks were launched against innovations, including totalitarianism, a “new” wrinkle in the history of oppression, and this may explain his revulsion from the atom bomb. “Man,” he wrote, “only stays human by preserving large patches of simplicity in his life,” a good dictum but hard to carry out unless some helpful Air Force general will bomb us back to the Stone Age. The longing to go back to some simpler form of life, minus modern conveniences, is typical of a whole generation of middle-class radicals whose loudest spokesman was Orwell. On the subject of socialism and progress, Orwell indulged in a good deal of double-think; in fact he hated the technology which he counted on to liberate the majority and loved working the land which in any rational socialist economy would be farmed by tractors. When the War finally came, he found an unsuspected patriot in himself via the agency of a dream. He had completed a circle: his first published writing, printed in a local paper (and not reprinted here), was a patriotic poem: “Awake, Young Men of England.” The date was October 2, 1914.

Letters

If… July 10, 1969

If… July 10, 1969

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