George Orwell’s Despair
In the twentieth century, no novelist exerted a stronger influence upon political opinion, in Britain and America, than did George Orwell. Also Orwell was the most telling writer about poverty. In a strange and desperate way, Orwell was a lover of the permanent things. Yet because he could discern no source of abiding justice and love in the universe, Orwell found this life of ours not worth living. In his sardonic fashion, nevertheless, he struck some fierce blows at abnormality in politics and literature.
“There is no such thing as genuinely nonpolitical literature,” Orwell wrote in his essay on “The Prevention of Literature” (1945), “and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near to the surface of everyone’s consciousness….It follows that the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer, though a poet, at any rate a lyric poet, might possibly find it breathable. And in any totalitarian society that survives for more than a couple of generations, it is probable that prose literature, of the kind that has existed during the past four hundred years, must actuallycome to an end.” Soviet Russia supplies the proof: “It is true that literary prostitutes like Ilya Ehrenberg or Alexei Tolstoy are paid huge sums of money, but the only thing which is of any value to the writer as such—his freedom of expression—is taken away from him.”
George Orwell was a left-wing professional journalist, with some of the faults which that unhappy conjunction encourages. Occasionally he wrote hastily and carelessly; he was bitter and arrogant; desiring men to be as gods, he despised them because they had the effrontery to be loud and smelly and stupid. But also Orwell was much more than a leftwing professional journalist. He was fearless, kind, honest, consumingly earnest, and very English. He was the latest representative of the English radical tradition which extends through Langland, Bunyan, Cobbett, Dickens, and Chesterton-a paradoxical radicalism rooted in the experiences and the prejudices of a strong people. In a number of ways-his origins, his poverty, his pessimism, his mingled hatred and pity for the poor, in the subjects of his books—-he resembles George Gissing, who died at a similar age of similar causes after a similar life. Orwell’s radicalism was that which is angry with society because society has failed to provide men with the ancient norms of simple life family, decency, and continuity; the sort of radicalism which does not mean to disintegrate the world, but to restore it. Take him all in all, Orwell was a man, and there is none left in England like him.
English colonials are more conspicuously English than are true-born Englishmen; and Orwell was a colonial born in India in 1908. Also he was an old Etonian. In Burma he was a good policeman for five years, though he hated the work; he became a beggar and a slavey in Paris and London; he taught in England. Then he went to Spain, where he fought as a member of the anarchist P. O. U. M.—for Orwell, despite the flavor of Marxism in his books, detested Communists and Communism. Afterward he wrote much for the leftist press, but was suspect as a deviationist in that quarter. He had no great reputation until Animal Farm was published, in 1945; and he died shortly after the publication of 1984. His was a short life, and not a merry one.
In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) occurs this passage which reveals much about Orwell:
Once when I was thirteen, I was in a train coming from a market town, and the third class carriage was packed full of shepherds and pig-men who had been selling their beasts. Someone had produced a quart bottle of beer and passed it round; it travelled from mouth to mouth, everyone taking a swig. I cannot describe the horror I felt as that bottle worked its way towards me. If I drank from it after those lower-class mouths I felt certain I should vomit; on the other hand, if they offered it to me I dared not refuse for fear of offending see here how the middle-class squeamishness works both ways.
This reminds one of Swift’s disgust with the coarse physical garment of man, and of the same characteristic in Aldous Huxley. We find this loathing repeatedly in Orwell’s descriptions of the hideousness of life in 1984. Influenced by Marxist theory, Orwell attributed this revulsion to his class-consciousness; but I suspect that it goes deeper. Like all true satirists, Orwell was allergic to people. He adored the Platonic idea of a man; he could not abide the vulgarity of the flesh. What he really hated about modern society was its ugliness, its monotony, its cheapness, its commonness. These are like the opinions of Ruskin, but they are not the impulses of a typical collectivistic revolutionary.
If Hume was a Tory by accident, Orwell was a leftist by accident. His instincts were more aristocratic than egalitarian; and, like the genuine aristocrat, he held a thorough going contempt for commercialism and crassness. In words like those of George Gissing, he wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933):
In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service, and the rest of it, what meaning is there except “Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it?” By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.
And so Orwell’s Socialism was that meager and contradictory Socialism which so often pops up upon the Labour back-benches, astounded at the bill for nationalizing steel or enraged at petty interferences with Her Majesty’s subjects. Orwell frankly disliked and feared “scientific” Marxists; he sympathized with the confessedly muddled socialism of the ordinary British workingman, who thought of Socialism simply as shorter hours, better wages, and less bossing about. Of such a workingman he wrote in Wigan Pier: “Often, in my opinion, he is a truer Socialist than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember, what the other so often forgets, that Socialism means justice and common decency.”
This is the sort of socialism which literary men like William Morris and Cunninghame Graham stood for—a socialism perfectly impractical, hopelessly sentimental, but generous, intensely human, and not unlike Tory radicalism. When a man like Orwell begins to see what State Socialism really must become in the age that is dawning, he writes 1984, grits his teeth, and dies.
He loathed the Utopianism of H. G. Wells much as William Morris was infuriated at the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy. Orwell despised, indeed, nearly all his fellow-socialists. “The typical Socialist is not,” he wrote in Wigan Pier, “as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking workingman with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting.”
Orwell’s socialism, then, scarcely can be called a position at all, but only an agonized leap in the dark, away from the pain of consolidated, uniform, industrialized modern existence. Orwell was acutely and miserably class-conscious, as perhaps only a poor and puzzled Englishmen can be, to a degree most Americans find difficult to understand; he thought of himself always as distinctly middle-class, and he wished he were nothing of the sort. So the best solution which occurred to his mind was the merging of all orders of society into a vast inchoate proletarian body. He predicted in Wigan Pier, half in despair, half in hope, that the hard-pressed British bourgeoisie would be reduced to the condition of the working people:
And then perhaps this misery of class prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle-classes the private schoolmaster, the half-starved free-lance journalist, the colonel ‘s spinster daughter with £75 a year, the jobless Cambridge graduate, the ship’s officer without a ship, the clerks, the civil servants, the commercial travellers and the thrice-bankrupt drapers in the country towns – may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches.
Yet Orwell was not candid here. Actually, he was appalled at the idea of being assimilated by the amorphous mass of sweating, cursing, humdrum, unthinking humanity. What he really thought of in the flesh, is suggested by various descriptions of the “proles” in 1984. They are not the paragraphs of a man who loves common people with a vast gregarious joviality. Orwell would no more have called Walt Whitman cameradothan he would have adored Big Brother.
At heart, Orwell hated all innovation. The most ingenious feature of his last book, over which he must have labored with a mordant ‘pleasure, is his burlesque of recent endeavors to revise out of recognition the English language. I refer, of course, to the appendix on “The Principles of Newspeak.” To dehumanize man altogether, Ingsoo has stripped and mutilated the language, converting it into a propagandist’s pidgin-English.
What Orwell yearned after was not the gray egalitarian future, but old England, ante-bellum England, England before the automobile and the council-house and the troubles of our times. His praises of English tradition are almost in the tone of Burke. In Coming up for Air, Orwell expresses himself through George Bowling, a lower-middle-class, middle-aged man who tries to revisit the scenes of his youth and finds that the country he knew as a boy has been obliterated by suburbia, and then smashed by bombs:
There’s a kind of peacefulness even in the names of English coarse fish. Roach, rudd, dace, bleak, barbel, bream, gudgeon, pike, chub, carp, tench. They’re a solid kind of names. The people who made them up hadn’t heard of machine-guns, they didn’t live in terror of the sack, or spend their time eating aspirins, going to the pictures and wondering how to keep out of the concentration camp.
Bowling praises continuity, and the placidity that comes with acceptance of immemorial ways: “What was it that people had in those days? A feeling of security even when they weren’t secure. More exactly it was a feeling of continuity. All of them knew they’d got to die, and I suppose a few of them knew they were going to go bankrupt, but what they didn’t know was that the order of things would change. Whatever might happen to themselves, things would go on as they’d known them.” And now the world is falling into the hands of “the streamlined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets.”
The past, Orwell thought, was gone irretrievably; and yet the decent people in his books are reactionaries, men who try to turn back to the old ways. Little of the past survives for them to recapture—hardly more than rags and tatters of nursery-rhymes, as in 1984.
As for the present, Orwell found it intolerable. He thought of it as the Great Depression of his early years in England: the dole and massive unemployment. He became a Socialist because he believed (knowing very little about economics) that under “capitalism” there must be perpetual unemployment on a vast scale. Worse than the material privations of life on the dole was the damage done to character; he had known many decent working men, he said, who had disintegrated morally after a few weeks or months on the dole: denied work, they felt useless, rejected by society, and fell to pieces. They would not be worth hiring again.
The migrant farm-laborer and the London beggar were the subjects of his second novel, A Clergyman ’s Daughter (1935). There has been no truer or more dreadful writing about the lot of the destitute and the outcast. The scene of the derelicts—men and women—in Trafalgar Square at night was the wild power ofLear. Yet it is possible to conceive of a degradation worse than this. For if the present is Purgatory, the probable future will be Hell. Orwell foresaw the approach of a totalist society from which faith, custom, common sense, justice, order, freedom, brotherhood, art, literature, and even sexual love would be eradicated. The new “socialist” oligarchy would live for the intoxication of brutal power; the administrative and technical people, party members, would live in terror and stupor; the proletarian masses would exist on the level of beasts. This new society never will end, says O’Brien, the agent provocateur in 1984: it will writhe eternally, its energizing spirit the lust for power. Religion will be dead, but materialism will have failed; freedom will have been exchanged for security, and then security will be chucked through a “memory hole’’ into the central incinerator. O’Brien is candid with his victim Winston:
Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopia that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self abasement. Everything else we shall destroy -everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the link between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no curiosity, no employment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But aIways—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling forever on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.
This terrifying passage raises a question; and Orwell did not answer that question. Such a triumph ofpleonexia is more than conceivable: we see it dominating China’s “Cultural Revolution,” in which heritage of civilization is denounced and destroyed, and in which the only gratification remaining even to the masters of society is stamping upon a human face. But here is the question: what force or appetite, immensely stronger than human wishes, inspires the ambition to trample forever upon an enemy who is helpless?
Just such a culmination of sin is described in Christian orthodoxy. It is called the reign of the Anti-Christ. And it is produced by the intervention of a supernatural hatred, working upon human depravity. It is the overthrow of the normal by the abnormal. It is the apotheosis of Satan.
Orwell saw the Church in disrepute and disorder, intellectually and morally impoverished; and he had no faith. He could not say how the total corruption of man and society would be produced; he could not even refer to the intrusion of the diabolical; but he could describe a coming reign of misrule wonderfully like the visions of St. John the Divine. He saw beyond ideology to the approaching inversion of humanitarian dogmas. All the norms for mankind would be defied and defiled. Yet because he could not bring himself to believe in enduring principles of order, or in an Authority transcending private rationality, he was left desperate at the end. A desperado, literally, is a man who has despaired of grace.
The politics and the poverty of the future would be indescribably worse than the shabby politics and the grimy poverty of the present age. A few years after Orwell’s death, the leader of the Vestigial Liberal party announced that he and his colleagues were drawing up a program founded upon “the forward-looking ideas of George Orwell.” This he said without a smile or a grimace. It would not be easy to find a more interesting example of the impoverishment of political imagination.
Books on or by Russell Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Dr. Kirk may be found here. Reprinted with the gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review (Fall, 1968).
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