Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Collection of Essays

George Orwell A Collection of Essays (1954)

At last coming to the final titles of a mammoth to-be-read pile upon which I'd been working since February, I am free to read all those books purchased in the mean time and kept to one side so as to avoid further increasing the mass of the aforementioned pile, if that makes any sense whatsoever. Having made efforts to avoid buying an excess of new reading material during this period, that which I have bought has tended to be less representative of my recent reading habits, mainly comprising titles encountered more or less by chance which just seemed too good to pass on. Hence A Collection of Essays, picked up with 1984 fresh in mind, a possibly anomalous title amongst those in a San Antonio library clearance sale. It seemed like something that needed a good home, and the timing was apt.

Only a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of a minor online altercation with a droning leftie, or at least that's probably what I would call her were I politically conservative. I will anagramatically refer to this entity as Mad Oration Ho being as it seems appropriate. I vaguely knew her from dreary atheist bulletin boards frequented back in the days before I had better things to do, and I already found her obnoxious. I think our last point of contact had been whilst she was campaigning to have the image of a menora removed from where it was carved as part of the architecture of a US post office building thus, she suggested, violating the separation of church and state and giving offence to atheists, or some such shite that no-one sane could possibly care about. A few weeks ago she turned up on facebook and so I accepted her friend request, not really knowing why because sure enough she was still a fount of the very worst sort of whining arseache. I spent a couple of days biting my lip, holding myself back from posting clips of Ted Nugent or links to material in support of either the NRA or Westboro Baptist Church, anything to aggravate this steaming leftard as Encyclopedia Dramatica classifies them.

Then finally I popped. She had posted a link to an article crowing over a US survey which had revealed a correlation between political conservatives, gun enthusiasts, racism, and the southern states. I've only been in Texas two years but I'm already somewhat tired of shitheads reducing the entire population of the southern states to a fat, white guy with a gun, so I asked Mad Oration Ho how this really helped anyone given that the correlation was hardly news and the article seemed like just another example of leftards pointing fingers and sneering at the usual easy targets. Being a moron, she didn't understand the question, inevitably assuming I was arguing against the claims of her beloved survey. Perhaps inevitably she adopted the tone of the edumacated secular humanist explaining logic, reason, logical reasoning, and rational logic and reason, to a stupid person; such as I was presumably by virtue of my having failed to congratulate her on her insight.

The point of this story is that it can often be a thankless task subscribing to any view to the political left of centre if you're in possession of even a little intelligence, because one's ideological colleagues often turn out to be bigger arseholes than even those against whom you might all be hopefully united. I myself tend to believe that strong labour unions are a good thing whilst rampant capitalism should be discouraged. I would like these views to gain wider and more popular support but fear that this is unlikely to happen because no-one likes a whining self-righteous tofu-scoffing twat endlessly banging on about changing the name of the planet Jupiter to something less racist; but much as I enjoyed the thought of Mad Oration Ho fuming with rage at any Ted Nugent, NRA, or nutty fundamentalist material with which I might troll her, the problem is that I can't stand any of that right-wing crap either; and to finally get to the point, this is why I appreciate George Orwell, for he understood very well that for certain leftards the need to be seen to take a stance is often of greater importance than the thrust of the stance taken.

Politically, Orwell's views seem similar to my own, and so these essays dissecting numerous interconnected tendencies within the culture and society to which he was born are both fascinating and illuminating, not least because he writes such a clear and well-considered argument untainted by traces of any dogma, point-scoring, or tub-thumping. Of course the world has changed since Orwell's time, but probably not so much as it could have done. We're still making many of the same mistakes, even if the uniforms and the jargon are different. The class system is perhaps no longer quite so rigid as that discussed in England Your England or "Such, Such were the Joys..." but its evils persist by different means; and one might argue that popular culture has moved on from the insular juvenalia of Billy Bunter and others examined in the Boy's Weeklies essay, but many of Orwell's core arguments apply equally well to all those generic entertainment franchises which really aren't quite so sophisticated or grown up as their fans might like to believe; and I always knew there was a reason I never quite warmed to Dickens, a reason Orwell articulates as all details—rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles...

All of which might be Mad Oration Ho style arse-ache were it not for the fact of Orwell being such a lively writer; but the down side is of course that home truths can be both sobering and slightly depressing. This is how the world was in Orwell's time, and it's as bad or even worse now - although knowing this is still somehow preferable to the delusional leftard for whom the routine railing against injustice has become something like a comfort, an action born of the need to be observed in occupation of a moral high ground, a position generally associated with a degree of privilege for:

People with empty bellies never despair of the universe, nor even think about the universe, for that matter.

As a fully grown man with eyes, ears, and a functioning brain, Orwell was as critical of the left as he was of those to whom he voices opposition, and it is this capacity for self-examination, to remain critical even of those with whom one might appear to be in some agreement which makes him such a valuable essayist and commentator on literature itself. In this latter capacity, his looking forward to our own age makes for pessimistic and yet prescient reading, with art subsumed by entertainment, insulated like the biblical Jonah within the whale. It's nothing that wasn't restated in 1984, but it's nevertheless an argument worth repeating.

But from now onwards the all-important fact for the creative writer is going to be that this is not a writer's world. That does not mean that he cannot help to bring the new society into being, but he can take no part in the process as a writer. For as a writer he is a liberal, and what is happening is the destruction of liberalism. It seems likely, therefore, that in the remaining years of free speech any novel worth reading will follow more or less along the lines that [Henry] Miller has followed—I do not mean in technique or subject matter, but in implied outlook. The passive attitude will come back, and it will be more consciously passive than before. Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism—robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale—or rather, admit you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, "constructive" lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine.

Whilst I'm obviously biased, I suggest the world would be a better and fairer place if we had a few more like Orwell, and if a few more like Orwell were taken seriously. This would of course mean that we would need to be able to actually hear them over the white noise of Mad Oration Ho and her hectoring ilk. Therefore it's probably fair to say that we're all doomed, but I suppose it's better to at least be aware of the fact and to understand why than not.


  1. As an honest-to-god Communist, while I find Orwell's English patriotism annoying, he was spot-on about the ability of partisan language to encourage brain death. Newspeak is alive and well in corporate media, and political debate seems all about verbal bullying and anathematization.

  2. I don't really like or agree with Orwell a lot of the time and think he was a bit of a snob and became increasingly pro establishment come the cold war but enjoy reading his non fiction stuff even so. It'd be interesting anyway because he's describing the dog days of the British Empire which I personally think is a VERY different era from now although you do notice intriguing similarities. He also has a good eye for details and the redeeming quality of conceding things which contradict his opinions. Most of his fiction isn't very good, there's a reason 'Coming up for Air' and 'The Clergyman's Daughter' are largely forgotten although I have a soft spot for 'Burmese Days' which is probably more autobiographical. His essays are great though, I think that one about boys comics from the 30s is one of the most fascinating things I've ever read and up there with his account of working as a kitchen porter in Paris and that essay about Raffles Vs Miss Blandish is great too.

    Oddly I'd say his closest contemporary today is probably Theodore Dalrymple who has the same sort of very clear prose and reportage and willingness to follow thoughts through to their logical conclusions. He's actually pretty right wing, but he was a prison psychiatrist rather than just some pontificating pundit so he does actually know what he's talking about. Well worth reading some of his stuff if you like Orwell's prose style and having your ideas challenged...

  3. Interesting. Is there any one particular Theodore Dalrymple title you would recommend as a decent place to start? They all look reasonably promising from what I can see.

  4. I thought Dalrymple's 'life at the bottom' was pretty good although you can find quite a lot of stuff by him online. I certainly don't agree with all of it but he's as good as people like Adam Curtis on the power of ideas and how lives are wittingly and unwittingly shaped by them...

  5. Dalrymple - I recommend starting with "Our Culture, What's Left Of It".