[18 December 2008]
It’s a shame that the word Orwellian now signifies totalitarian surveillance and remodeling reality with lies. Judging by the persona George Orwell establishes in his essays, of which Harcourt has recently issued two new collections, Orwellian could easily have come to mean a bluff impatience with pretentiousness, or the tendency to evoke the ordinary person’s point of view as a defense of one’s own tenacious positions, or the no-nonsense voice he achieves by preferring to risk overstatement rather than waste words.
The two new volumes are a welcome and long overdue overhaul of the earlier A Collection of Essays, which now seems skimpy and inadequate in comparison. By including more of his shorter efforts, reviews and occasional journalistic pieces, editor George Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, gives a more complete picture of Orwell’s preoccupations while making palpable the pressures he wrote under. Not only was he sickly—he was wounded in the throat during his Spanish Civil War stint and long struggled with tuberculosis, which would kill him at age 47—but he was entirely engrossed by the Second World War from its origins to its aftermath.
His acute awareness of the moral crisis into which it cast Western civilization colors every word he wrote, whether he was eviscerating antiwar novels and the politics of literary poetasters, trying to rationalize the popularity of obscene popular culture, or assessing his own war experiences both during the Blitz and as a soldier abroad. Reading these essays, you always have the sense that for Orwell, the end of civilization was palpable, that a fog had settled on the world that he and his peers had all taken for granted, and when it lifted, they would find themselves in unknowable circumstances, wherein no received truths, no former certainties about the inherent goodness of human nature and the benevolence of technological progress, could be taken for granted
In compiling the two volumes, Packer smartly divides Orwell’s essays into narrative pieces (Facing Unpleasant Facts) and critical pieces (All Art Is Propaganda). This useful arrangement keeps the confrontational bluster of his criticism separate from the occasional sanctimony and grandiosity in the autobiographical material to reveal the underlying consistency of his thinking throughout. The critical essays are anchored in his belief that first-hand experience of misery, war, and despotism is virtually mandatory for a writer to have any credibility in an age such as he wrote in: “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot,” he notes in “Inside the Whale”. In his narrative essays, he is often out to demonstrate his own bona fides on this point and show readers just how hot the fires he has known were.
Calling the essays in Facing Unpleasant Facts “narrative” is something of a misnomer, however. It’s not as though he’s telling stories, except in well-known pieces like “Shooting an Elephant”, and even then he is often baldly interested in illustrating a point. Orwell is not an essayist who is content to describe an incident that’s redolent with metaphoric possibility and let readers work it out if they choose. Generally he comes right out and states his purpose, as in “A Hanging”, when he declares, “It is curious but until that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.” Even so, what he relates evokes much more than the conclusions he draws or the motives for writing that he shares. He is enamored and mystified enough by things as they are, in and of themselves, that in describing them, he conveys some of that ineluctable mystery that allows human life to persist in the face of wrenching misery and innumerable examples of our unrelenting capacity for cruelty toward our own species.
Rather than tell open-ended tales, Orwell does what essayists since Montaigne have always done—use scraps of personal experience to illustrate concise conclusions, which then are presented as though they are being discovered as the essayist is writing. Whether discussing secondhand bookstores, English cooking, or Luftwaffe bombs raining on London, Orwell will make a sharp point based on a personal hunch and then try to disavow anything unusual in his observation, hoping it will pass as something that would have occurred to anyone with open eyes. He reveals the essence of his method when in his essay about Marrakech he states plainly an attitude that is implicit throughout the book: “I am not commenting, merely pointing to a fact.”
Of course, the facts one chooses to point to, the details we decide to acknowledge, are usually comment enough. The essays make plain that Orwell relishes describing corpses, stenches, and squalor, even if he usually refrains from becoming sensationalistic about it. Such things, clearly, seemed indicative to him of the world as it was. But they more clearly indicate what Orwell thinks his audience doesn’t know or accept about their world. “To survive you have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself,” he notes in “Looking Back on the Spanish War”, but the “intelligentsia”—possibly Orwell’s favorite pejorative—prefers not to understand this. “The fact that such a platitude is worth writing down,” Orwell says of his own observation, “shows what the years of rentier capitalism have done to us.”
Considering how concerned Orwell was with clear expression, it’s tricky to write about his work without lapsing into a pastiche of it. You want to follow the guidelines he lays out in his famous “Politics and the English Language”, particularly since he is uncharacteristically optimistic about the chances of saving the language from its devolution into Newspeak. Generally, he’s successful in being his own best example of he thinks writing should be—free of slippery, lazy phrases and showy literary flourishes.
That’s not to suggest his essays are free of rhetorical figure; rather when he deploys a metaphor, you can visualize it immediately and its meaning is always unmistakable. And when he shifts to abstractions, it’s usually with an air of apology. He was constitutionally allergic to all forms of orthodoxy, which he viewed as inherently indicative of the absence of thought. “To write in plain, vigorous language,” he writes in “The Prevention of Literature”, “one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.”
Thus wary of insufficient boldness, Orwell often favors provocative hyperbole and isn’t afraid to contradict himself, sometimes within the span of a few phrases. He often seems to argue with himself, as if he had too much momentum to go back and cross out something ultimately insupportable. Instead he tries to reason with whatever side of himself could have committed such an idea to paper. What results from all this is an occasionally lumpy but always lively prose with a blunt matter-of-fact rhythm that’s hard to argue with and extremely tempting to imitate.
In his criticism, Orwell’s main concern is to avoid coming across as an effete intellectual, or more particularly, a member of the “pansy left” that he never tires of excoriating. By that epithet, he meant what we might now in the US dub the Kucinich left—pacifists enamored of their own self-righteous ideals and unwilling to recognize the impracticability of peace in the face of undeniable threats. Describing his own era’s left intelligentsia in “England Your England”, Orwell writes, “There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in the position of power.”
Among the critical essays, Orwell’s “No, Not One”, a caustic review of a novel by Alex Comfort, is his most emphatic dismissal of kneejerk pacifism. “Pacifism is only a considerable force in places where people feel themselves very safe,” he declares, arguing that it is tantamount to being “pro-Nazi.” Ultimately, Orwell insists pacifism occurs only on those who “have no experience” of violence and can’t understand its inevitability—a species he typifies as “some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism.”
Elsewhere he claims that “men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.” So vigorous is Orwell in the defense of necessary violence—that “good will is powerless unless the policeman is there to back it up”—that he ends up sounding like a precursor of Colonel Jessup, Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men who apoplectically forwarded “You need me on that wall” line of logic. At times, Orwell seems so flustered with the pansy pacifists he seems to imagine are reading him skeptically, you expect him to declare, “You can’t handle the truth!” (It’s no wonder Orwell was a popular name for neo-conservatives to bandy about in the run-up to the Iraq war; Christopher Hitchens obviously borrowed freely from him.)
Orwell was just as skeptical of technological optimists as he was of pacifists. Of course, 1984 makes plain the degree to which he thought technology could be abused by totalitarian power, but skepticism of the benevolence of progress recurs continually in his essays. Though appreciative of modernism, he rejects the idea of literary progress and defends writers who have fallen out of fashion. And in his essay about H.G. Wells, Orwell outlines his own loss of faith in science, which was just as useful to the Nazis as it was for the rest of the world. “The aeroplane,” he writes, “was looked forward to as a civilizing influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs.”
In Orwell’s view, Wells was unable to grasp the same things that eluded the pansy left: “He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.” That’s Orwell at his most pessimistic, certain that Western Civilization has exhausted itself and the high literature it nurtured, and apprehensive about what would rise in its stead.
Orwell’s purpose, then, is rummage through the cultural flotsam and jetsam that has already implausibly managed to survive in search of essential human qualities that will remain when the Götterdämmerung finally concludes. In “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool” Orwell writes, “In reality, there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good.’… Ultimately there is no test of literary merit but survival, which is itself merely an index to majority opinion.” But he doesn’t scorn majority opinion; he regards it with surprising respect. One of Orwell’s most appealing tendencies as a critic is that he never presumes to improve our tastes. He dispenses with aesthetic appreciation in favor of sociological questions, and he rarely seeks to justify his own preferences. He is pleased to come across as the common man’s representative, delivering common sense to a snob intelligentsia whose contrarian posturing has left it twisted it up with “humbug.”
His interest in what has survived leads him to take popular tastes for what they are, and to take popular culture seriously. In his essay on boy’s weeklies—cheap magazines with formulaic stories for teenagers—he argues that “people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important.” Since what we consume directly affects what we end up believing about the world, Orwell wants to figure out what sort of beliefs derive from “vulgar” popular tastes. What’s striking is that he assumes these beliefs will ultimately be decent and good, whereas the morals of art that fails to win wide approval are inherently suspect.
In “Benefit of Clergy”, his essay on Salvador Dali, he contemptuously dismisses the view that “the artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people.” But he is eager to absolve illustrator Donald McGill, an artist who specialized in ribald postcards of women bending over, and Tropic of Cancer author Henry Miller, whose apathy and obscenity Orwell seems to find irresistible. To Orwell, both McGill’s and Miller’s work testify to the enduring Sancho Panza in all of us, that self-serving side of ourselves that prefers survival to heroism or virtue, that would have us slip passively through our particular era by being true to an aspect of our nature that transcends all eras. Enjoying that side of ourselves vicariously through dirty postcards and smutty novels, we reserve the energy it takes for us to live up to civilized society’s stringent demands—as Orwell insists, we generally do.
Whereas Orwell sympathizes with the earthy weaknesses of common folk and excuses the culture that derives from them, he has no such sympathy for the pampered intellectual class. In a review of a Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Orwell goes so far as to declare that “the common man is wiser than the intellectuals, just as animals are wiser than men.” As usual, Orwell posits a kind of instinctual goodness that comes from a simpler, more earthy life. But ordinary people, unlike animals and intellectuals, retain an acute sense of right and wrong. “The common people, on the whole, are still living in the world of absolute good and evil from which the intellectuals have long since escaped,” he writes. Though this sometimes leads to common people preferring simplistic fiction, it also testifies to their moral clarity, while the moral compass of most intellectuals, in Orwell’s view, wass completely askew.
In the essay about Tolstoy’s condemnation of Shakespeare, Orwell writes, “Tolstoy was not a saint, but he tried very hard to make himself into a saint, and the standards he applied to literature were other-worldly.” Shakespeare, who embodies good badness as much as any writer, appeals to the “normal human being” who simply “wants life on earth to continue.” But saintly reformers like Tolstoy (and Gandhi) would prefer to coerce us into the Kingdom of Heaven, and in that attitude, Orwell insists, lies egotism and the “appetite for power.” These are the people who “are convinced of the wickedness of both armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances,” he writes. “They will, if they can, get inside [the normal person’s] brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars.” In other words, the Kucinich left is equivalent to the Thought Police, though it is generally too hypocritical to recognize it.
In general, Orwell forgives and even champions bad art, obscenity, and quietism if it seems honest. Intellectuals, though, are dishonest about their aims, which they obfuscate by abusing language; their ambitions, which they cloak by abjuring the more explicit forms of violence; and their appreciation of popular culture, as they seek to shun their connection to ordinary people. This Orwell finds unforgivable. He assumes that anything the intellectuals hate must have some redeeming qualities. So he’s willing to hold his nose and dig into a bête noire of the Left like Rudyard Kipling, a writer who despite being “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting” has enough sense to recognize that “a humanitarian is always a hypocrite.” Since Kipling has the good imperialist’s sense of responsibility, according to Orwell he is able to “create telling phrases” and become a “good bad poet”—that is, one who grasps universal experiences and renders it in easily remembered language. Kipling “dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks.”
Orwell devotes an entire essay to “good bad books”—“the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished”—but in a sense all of his literary criticism deals with the subject and the messages that redeem whatever vulgar way they happen to be expressed. As the collection’s title suggests, Orwell saw art as essentially propaganda; “good bad” works had the advantage of propagandizing for humble and obvious ideas rather than dangerous, overambitious ones. Good bad books are written by “natural novelists… who seem to attain sincerity partly because they are not inhibited by good taste.”
Good badness thus works as obscenity does in McGill’s postcards, crudely capturing “ordinary” sentiments we all can recognize in ourselves even if we are not quick to acknowledge them. This, for Orwell, ultimately explains which works survive. Like Kipling, good bad writers are unafraid to appeal straightforwardly to a common sensibility that we all are presumed to share, which allows them to survive when more intentionally iconoclastic work ceases to shock and fades away. Most famously, Orwell credits Dickens with the same staying power: Though Dickens is irredeemably bourgeois, he expressed “in a comic, simplified, and therefore memorable form the native decency of the common man.”
Appreciating avant-garde art, championing utopian crusades, sneering at plebian entertainments: these are available only to a pampered leisure class. Orwell instead romanticizes an emotional Spartanism that’s open to everyone. “Happiness hitherto has been a byproduct, and for all we know it may always remain so,” he writes in “Can Socialists Be Happy?” The reason to fight for Socialism is not to establish heaven on earth or test the mettle of one’s own commitment but to achieve “human brotherhood,” which he defines as “a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another.”
Orwell’s essays testify to the notion that any effort to accomplish that appealingly straightforward ideal will be threatened by intellectual arrogance. But they also remind us that better than our best intentions is our inescapable nature, our shared ordinariness, which will always have the potential to redeem us all if only we will embrace it.