Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Collection of Essays by George Orwell

I was primarily aware of George Orwell as the author of 1984 and Animal Farm. I remember enjoying them, but thinking they were much better political philosophy than they were novels. This became a stock sentence for me, and I just didn’t think about the novels much. My impression was that their mood was anti-totalitarianism, and I interpreted that as anti-communist. The anti-totalitarian part was definitely right. The communist bit was a product of growing up in the American south in the 80s and 90s. It would be more proper to say anti-Stalinist.

Reading this collection of essays I see that he had a much more complicated view of things and was as anti-fascist and anti-imperialist as anti-Stalinist. He was also clearly some stripe of socialist. Which makes it even funnier that he is often claimed by conservatives. In a 1942 essay on Rudyard Kipling (a “good bad poet”) he said conservatives no longer existed, “Those who now call themselves conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists.” That’s not entirely fair, but he wrote that during WWII when it might not have seen as hyperbolic. The idea that because he was anti-Stalinist he was a conservative, which I had absorbed despite having read two of his novels is silly.

I admire his fearlessness. He said, in an essay on Henry Miller and the literary scene in 1940, that “Good novels are not written by orthodoxy sniffers, nor by people who are conscience stricken about their own un-orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.” The same seems to apply to his essays. Despite being of the left, he criticized the leftists who supported Stalin far past the time that was a defensible position. He was not afraid to call out whoever he saw acting in bad faith. This was bound to make him unpopular in many quarters. "The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it,” he said in Looking Back at the Spanish War.”

What I admire most about these essays is that he lets things be complicated; for instance, his attitude towards imperialism. At times he seems to view the colonized very much from the perspective of the colonizers. But he has truly great insight into the ways both the colonized and colonizers are dehumanized by colonialism. This can fall awkwardly on contemporary ears, but he never lets himself off the hook. His attitude towards people, including himself, is likewise complex. In an essay on dirty joke postcards that were popular in his time he said in an extended metaphor from Don Quixote:

“If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza? Almost certainly you are both. There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with ‘voluptuous’ figures. He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One, to be unfaithful to your wife, to bilk your debts, and so on and so forth. Whether you allow yourself to be influenced by him is a different question. But it is simply a lie to say that he is not part of you, just as it is a lie to say that Don Quixote is not part of you either, though most of what is said and written consists of one lie or the other, usually the first.”

In this and in other passages you get the sense that Orwell realizes that ethics and morality are not something that applies to other people, but to one’s self. Not to say you don’t call out things that need calling out; on one level the book is the continual calling out of things. But it can’t only be outward focused. In social media terms that’s performative wokeness or virtue signalling; in evangelical terms that’s practicing your righteousness before men. Orwell calls out the major ideologies of his day with unrivaled clarity, but he never pretends he is not culpable himself. I appreciate that acknowledgement.

That’s not to say I agree with him on everything. I agree with him more than the other British and equally or more quotable essayist I read recently, GK Chesterton. Orwell mentions Chesterton several times, dismissing his (clearly stated, not mischaracterized) medievalist viewpoint. That was in an essay on Dickens. I never thought I’d find myself enthusiastically considering rereading a 50 page essay on Dickens, by whom I’ve only read four or so books. But I’d gladly read it again. Still, I find myself disagreeing with Orwell most often on matters literary. I hold Auden and Isherwood in much higher esteem for instance. Orwell tends to dismiss them as part of a group of young whippersnappers who are all talk (that’s overstating his point, but not grossly). I particularly disagreed with his rejection of the pulps. This is where he might most closely resemble later conservatives. He is not quite clutching his pearls (a phrase he would hate based on his essay on writing), but he does verge on moral panic about what the changes in attitude and content in mystery fiction from the 1890s to the 1940s. Then later he praises the equally lurid Henry Miller. I should probably not comment too much on the particulars; I haven’t read either the pulp novel in question nor Henry Miller. That said, I could tell from that discussion that he’d hate some of my favorite writers. There’s a bit of snobbery there, and a tendency to value, in today's terms, "literary" over "genre." Even in those essays I disagreed most with, though, he had some great insight. These literary essays were often jumping off points for discussions of imperialism and the like.

I’m very glad to have finally gotten to some of his nonfiction which I suspect I will always enjoy more than his novels, at least the ones I’ve read. I’m now reading a book about Orwell by Christopher Hitchens. My next Orwell, after a few other books, is likely to be Homage to Catalonia. As for this collection, I heartily recommend it. It is bracing despite its bland title.

Highly Recommended.

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