January 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


Me and Eric Blair Down by the Schoolyard

I’m not going to write a brilliant Orwellian essay on George Orwell, starting with some droll, sweeping claim, a claim that’s so right it makes you gasp. I’m not going to pretend that I can. Sometimes I arrange to review books just because I really want to read them before they arrive at the New York Public Library. This was the case with two recent collections of Orwell’s essays: All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays, and Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays. I order up the books, and then figure I’ll think of something interesting to say about them, and usually I do, but, Jesus. There’s something about George Orwell’s critical essays, about his narrative essays, that silences the room. I mean, “When you are on a sinking ship, your thoughts will be about sinking ships.” What is there to say? You want to just nod knowingly, and pat George Orwell’s arm (because yes, it feels like he’s next to you), and go, “Yeah! What he said.” Unfortunately (and dazzlingly, and remarkably), this happens even when the guy says something with which you would ordinarily ferociously disagree. There’s a calm authority to his craft as an essayist that no one can match, and he knows it, and even when he’s unsparing or sour about something else, he’s kind-hearted in the ways he uses his talent.

I got these two extraordinary books a couple of months ago, and dove into them headfirst, and reread my old favorite Down and Out in Paris and London for good measure. I was deliriously happy those months. The song “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” ran through my head incessantly, even though I haven’t listened to Simon and/or Garfunkel in years. I learned why George Orwell wrote, and why he changed his name to Orwell from Eric Blair, and why, although he died of tuberculosis at age 46, after just managing to finish 1984, he never seemed interested in hanging himself or shooting himself in the head, in contrast to so many authors with an unstinting honesty. I can answer that third question for you right now. It was because he loved toads. He had a dystopian vision, but he was not a pessimist. He wasn’t stupidly optimistic, either. He just had a love for his fellow creatures, an ability to experience their creature-ness. He was none too starry-eyed about humanity, but he seemed to have a fondness for people and other beings. (A fondness that grew and mellowed after he witnessed murder and suffering, which doesn’t really seem like a contradiction, at least not in these essays.)

Here is his conclusion to “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” published in April of 1946:

I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies, and -- to return to my first instance -- toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable… At any rate, Spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time I have stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

It’s funny about the toads. Orwell is an unparalleled essayist. His closest descendent is Baldwin, but there’s something unique about Orwell’s voice, and yet reading him did remind me of something -- Frog and Toad are Friends. Not as if I was reading those Arnold Lobel paperbacks, with their muted multi-green illustrations now, but when I first read them, at three or four maybe. Two things were clear then: Frog and Toad really were friends, and, and, and I could read by myself! That feeling of reading was so good, better than looking for elves under toadstools in the forest, better than iced cookies even. It was vertiginous and soothing at the same time.

There’s plenty in Orwell that’s cranky and twisted and not soothing. He would be the first to admit it, and he disliked saints (not their martyrdom, but their venerators.) But whatever his flaws, his contradictions, his saddening missteps, his wrong ideas, he’s always tougher on himself than he is on his reader. And reading him, circa the winter days of 2008-2009, this frighteningly late moment in the history of the human world, might be the only way for a thirty-four-year-old to get that “I can read!” feeling again, that sense that a book is a new, magical thing, and you know the secret of how to use it, like pulling rabbits out of thin air without any sleight of hand, like X-ray vision, like finally uncovering those elves in the moss.

During those months of Orwell immersion, I took lots of notes so that I could write something meaningful about his legacy, but I can’t always read my handwriting or pick them out from my other notes, which is no great loss to the reader (November 29: “Orwell is to Hobbes as Adorno is to Nietzsche; note also Levinas, face-to face.”) I tried to dream up all sorts of exciting, decisive angles on Orwell, and to figure out some way to be comprehensive about him. I eventually gave up, and just let Orwell please me, like Frog and Toad (I was always like Toad).

I recommend that you do the same. Just read all the essays in these nice, fat volumes, and the introductory comments by George Packer and Keith Gessen. For an overview of the nasty critical feeding frenzy over Orwell’s dead body, caused by jealousy and clumsy misreadings of Orwell’s Swiftian turns, Christopher Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters is good (minus an unfortunately slim chapter on “Orwell and the Feminists: Difficulties with Girls,” which doesn’t really discuss Orwell, hegemony and patriarchy in any interesting detail). Packer points out that Orwell’s essays, other than “Politics and the English Language” and maybe “Shooting an Elephant,” are not widely read. I’ve picked out a few samples from my other favorites to give the flavor of them.

From “A Hanging” (1931):

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working -- bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming -- all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth-of-a-second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned -- reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone -- one mind less, one world less.

From “Charles Dickens” (1940):

Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody… Dickens at any rate never imagined that you can cure pimples by cutting them off. In every page of his work one can see a consciousness that society is wrong somewhere at the root. It is when one asks "Which root?" that one begins to grasp his position… There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old -- generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature?... The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem -- how to prevent power from being abused -- remains unsolved.

[It] is fatal for a caricaturist to see too much.

One thing that often gives the clue to a novelist’s real feelings on the class question is the attitude he takes up when class collides with sex. This is a thing too painful to be lied about… One sees that at its most obvious where a class-distinction is also a colour-distinction. And something resembling the colonial attitude (“native” women are fair game, white women are sacrosanct) exists in a veiled form in all-white communities, causing bitter resentment on both sides. When this issue arises, novelists often revert to crude class-feelings which they might disclaim at other times.

By this time anyone who is a lover of Dickens, and who has read as far as this, will probably be angry with me. I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his "message," and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a "message," whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda… On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.

From “Inside the Whale” (1940):

Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships -- an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence… The literature of liberalism is coming to an end and the literature of totalitarianism is barely imaginable. As for the writer, he is sitting on a melting iceberg; he is merely an anachronism, a hangover from the bourgeois age, as surely doomed as the hippopotamus. [Henry] Miller seems to me a man out of the common because he saw and proclaimed this fact a long while before most of his contemporaries -- at a time, indeed, when many of them were actually burbling about a renaissance of literature.

From “England Your England” (1941):

[The British ruling class] could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out of date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face.

From “Looking Back on the Spanish War” (1942?):

Early one morning another man and I had gone out to snipe at the Fascists in the trenches outside Huesca… This time no Fascists appeared, and we stayed too long and were caught by the dawn…. At this moment a man, presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at 100 yards, and also that I was thinking chiefly about getting back to our trench while the Fascists had their attention fixed on the aeroplanes. Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at "Fascists"; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a "Fascist," he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.

From “The Prevention of Literature” (1946):

…a bought mind is a spoiled mind. Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another, literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.

From “In Front of Your Nose” (1946):

There is no use in multiplying examples. The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield. When one looks at the all-prevailing schizophrenia of democratic societies, the lies that have to be told for vote-catching purposes, the silence about major issues, the distortions of the press, it is tempting to believe that in totalitarian countries there is less humbug, more facing of the facts… Actually, however, the avoidance of reality is much the same everywhere, and has much the same consequences… To see what is right in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

This is only a scant selection from the rich offerings between the two volumes. There’s Orwell on why he writes, Orwell on T.S. Eliot’s religiosity, Orwell on the effects of being beaten at boy’s school, Orwell on Tolstoy, Orwell on quietism and Leftism and Kipling and tea and being a book reviewer and whether Socialists can be happy. Really, I can’t pick favorites -- each essay, even the most flawed ones, is a solid example of how words ought to be used. There is Orwell’s “Reflections on Gandhi” (1949), which he begins with the splendid sweeper, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases.”

Even Orwell’s detractors must secretly wish that he could be resurrected, that he could comment on this moment in history, on our current wars, and on our current writers. There’s something that tugs at me about the thought that he’s dead, that spring stays spring but toads and writers die, even if the body of their work is ritualistically quaffed by angry worshippers in some secular communion. He disliked sainting, but he didn’t like scapegoating, either, or what Hitchens calls “body-snatching”, all the ways we scurry around to claim and repurpose a dead writer, to use him for slogans or make him a straw man. George Orwell himself, back when he was still Eric Blair or after taking on the pen name that would turn into a household adjective, made things so simple, without ever simplifying them. I can read! And I’m going to read George Orwell as if no one has ever read him before, without sparing a moment to think of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. Luckily, they can’t.