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Originally published in Countercurrents Jan 2020:
ORWELL’S ESSAYS PRESAGE HIS MASTERPIECE
Orwell is best-known for his novel 1984. His essays, invaluable for themselves, gain further interest as workshops where Orwell developed the ideas that he was to immortalise in his last and greatest novel.
2020 is the 70th anniversary of Shooting an Elephant And Other Essays: a collection of some of George Orwell’s nonfiction (Secker & Warburg, 1950). Penguin republished these essays in 2003, honouring their continuing relevance. Orwell considered himself essentially a political writer; his prolific nonfiction output engages vigorously with issues still relevant. In pellucid prose Orwell discusses the misconceived economies, the readiness to go to war, and the systematic distortion of truth that springboard authoritarian governments. Orwell’s essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” (L&U, 1941) warns: “An army of unemployed, led by millionaires quoting ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ – that is our real danger.” Were he alive today, Orwell could not be more timely.
Essential reading for themselves, these essays are interesting for another reason. Written in the 1930s-40s, they show Orwell developing the ideas he would immortalise in 1984 (written 1947-48) – the novel for which he is best-known.
In 1984,the world is three superstates at perpetual war; England belongs to ‘Oceania.’ Ostensibly, this war aims to capture human labour and natural resources. In Goldstein’s book, protagonist Winston Smith discovers the war’s real aim: “The essential act of war is destruction… of the products of human labour.” The war is not meant to be won. It is meant to maintain the poverty and ignorance necessary for a hierarchical society.
Orwell wrote 1984 as an exercise in imagining England under socialism. In “My Country Left or Right” (L/R, 1940) Orwell writes: “Morally, every Englishman is trained for war from the cradle.” It is this unthinking readiness to unite against anyone whom the state declares an enemy that 1984 captures, chillingly, in the Two Minutes’ Hate.
Of the two other superstates, Oceania is always fighting now the one, now the other. The current ally and enemy change places in the middle of a live broadcast. Oceanians immediately conclude that their state’s current allegiances have always been so. Must always have been so: for their state is incapable of misjudgment. It was Marx who articulated the idea of the superstructure continually rewriting ‘history’ (things as they are now) as ‘nature’ (things as they always were/things as they should be. Presaging 1984, Orwell’s essays examine historical revisionism.
Revisionism is not the government’s monopoly. In L/R, Orwell describes how WW1 soldiers, who described the war initially with horror, increasingly glorified it via the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. In In “Looking Back on the Spanish War” (SW, 1943), both the government’s attitude to the Nazis, and the Left’s, underwent repeated binary shifts: “…Then, as soon as war broke out, it was the pro-Nazis of yesterday who were repeating horror stories, while the anti-Nazis suddenly found themselves doubting whether the Gestapo really existed.” Orwell discusses war atrocities: “Atrocities are believed in, or disbelieved in, solely on the grounds of political predilection… Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy, and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.” It is this universal intellectual laziness that allows 1984’s perpetual war: Oceanians hate whoever the State tells them to. And, with everything from buildings to gin named “Victory,” Oceanians believe that their state is continually achieving military victories, while their enemies are continually committing military atrocities. To turn their hatred from ‘Eastasia’ to ‘Eurasia’ is the work of a moment.
Historical revisionism, so easily justifiable in wartime, has become profound in 1984. It’s Winston’s full-time job to perpetually rewrite records in Oceania’s favour. Oceania isn’t just always winning the war: it’s also producing more goods every year. Such failures as Oceania does acknowledge are caused by treacheries: to which enemies of the state (bearing marks of torture) fluently confess. In fact, living conditions are poor: but evidence contradicting the golden statistics is not allowed to exist. If people did notice a discrepancy, then Big Brother’s call to sacrifice in the name of war would appease their discontent.
QUALITY OF LIFE
All Orwell’s writing acknowledges two facts: (1) standard of living is important; and (2) a good life involves much that neither capitalism nor authoritarianism offer.
(1) In 1984, perpetual war has successfully reversed standards of living: such that even the Inner Party elite live much more poorly than did the capitalist elite. Meanwhile, statistics showing impossibly high economic output bombard denizens.
The cost of modern warfare depresses standard of living. “You can’t have bombing planes without depressing the standard of living,” Orwell writes in L&U.
(2) In 1984, the state aims to destroy every natural human attachment and pleasure. Family. Friends. Sex. Nature. Culture. For loyalty to the state must replace everything. Winston’s generation remembers life pre-Revolution; their reeducation is tentative. But children have no direct memory of another time; given the world’s systematic deculturation, neither do children have indirect access to a past which could become the hope for a future. Defying the Party-line, Winston enjoys physical pleasures: non-procreational sex, the “creamy pages” of a notebook, and nature. All three pleasures are punishable by death. But not illegal: “Nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws.” For the “goodthinkful” citizen should, instinctively, desire to do only what directly furthers the Party’s only real aim. Absolute power.
All Orwell’s writing is a struggle against this reduction of the human to a single-minded Party drone. In “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” (1946), Orwell celebrates the signs of approaching spring. For Orwell, enjoying non-commodified nature is an act of political resistance. “The bombs are piling up, the police are prowling, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers… but neither dictators nor bureaucrats can stop the spring.” Is it “politically reprehensible” to enjoy nature, rather than spend one’s time groaning about war and capitalism? Quite the contrary. For Orwell, as for Marx, it was for non-commodified pleasures that the Socialist Revolution was worth fighting for. Nature. Leisure. Purpose. Community. Creativity. Capitalism replaces these pleasures with luxuries. Fascism replaces them with a scapegoat that demands endless sacrifice. Winston and Julia’s joy in nature and in sex are deeply political – like Orwell’s joy in spring.
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LANGUAGE and LITERATURE
In 1984, the State is systematically reducing English to Newspeak: an impoverished language that will allow Doublethink (“Black is white”), sever all links with the past, and prevent the clarity of thought required for revolution. “Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – the whole literature of the past will be destroyed: they’ll exist only in Newspeak… changed, not merely into something different, but into something contradictory of what they used to be.” The Ministry of Truth floods the proles with songs, films, and fiction mass-produced and on the lowest level of culture: intended merely to distract, and thus to maintain the status quo. The impoverishment of language and literature preoccupies Orwell’s nonfiction.
In Politics and the English Language (1945), Orwell writes: “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, demands a lifeless, imitative style… [For] political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” This style consists of stitching together prefabricated phrases and “making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” Even non-political writing has become infected by verbosity, jargon, quadruple negatives, and other obstacles to clarity: to the extent that, often, “the writer seems indifferent whether his words mean anything or not.” Many people acknowledge this ongoing impoverishment of language, but consider any resistance “a sentimental archaism.”
Orwell attacks this complaisance. “The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes” – therefore, concern with language is an urgently political concern. “The Prevention of Literature” (1946) documents that intellectuals have stopped demanding the liberty to discuss political issues. (Instead, they are content with the liberty to discuss sex – echoing 1984’s Julia, whom Winston calls “a rebel from the waist down.”) Intellectuals self-censoring, and disengaging from politics, is a precursor of authoritarianism.
The English language is declining as a tool for clear thought. What about literature? It’s literature that provided the bond to human culture that Parsons’s children lack; it’s this lack of all bonds – bar the bond to the state – that makes his children denounce Parsons to the state. In “Books vs. Cigarettes” (1946), Orwell analyses one popular excuse his contemporaries give for not reading: expense. Orwell estimates his own annual expenses on books vs. two other indulgences: cigarettes and alcohol. His estimate punctures the excuse of not reading on the grounds of expense. In “Bookshop Memories” (1936), Orwell documents his contemporaries’ unwillingness to read the English classics on the ground that “they’re so old!” Orwell’s comprehensive and entertaining dive into “Boys’ Weeklies” (1940) observes that the fictional world in these magazines has remained, for many decades, politically stagnant.
Here is another feature of populist literature in a totalitarian state: literature as an escape from, and a denial of, reality. Is it a coincidence that popular film and fiction post-WW2 have been dominated by fantasy? A society that has abandoned serious literature, literature that wrestles with reality; a society that refuses to pay for books; a society that seeks, in culture, only an easy escape from life’s harshness – is a society already on its way to 1984. We are tubefeeding ourselves machine-produced mass culture.
Mass culture as intravenous sedative.
Have you read Orwell’s nonfiction? While his big ideas are profound and provocative, here are some of his smaller ideas that intrigued me. What’s your view?
- ‘By age 30, most humans have lost any sense of personal ambition, and have become devoted to their families or communities. In your experience, is it exceptional for personal ambition to survive one’s 20s? Might Orwell have been right in his day? Perhaps today expanding opportunities have extended the ‘window or opportunity’ for most people?
- Orwell says working in a bookshop put Orwell off books. Clearly this is an exaggeration: he kept buying books, mostly secondhand, and of course he kept writing books, and reviewing other people’s. Have you found that doing something you loved professionally has put you – or someone you know – off it?
- Do you think academic jargon is necessarily inaccessible?