Sunday, October 31, 2010

George Orwell, The Essayist

During 1940, Orwell wrote three major essays. These were: Charles Dickens; Boys' Weeklies; and Inside the Whale. These essays summarize the ideas of Orwell's previous work.
Art and Propaganda
In the first-named essay, Orwell criticizes Dickens both positively and negatively by asserting that Dickens's criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. But Orwell's conclusion in this essay is that Dickens is sincere, that Dickens hates tyranny, and that Dicknes's moral approach is just as revolutionary as a social approach.
This essay is quite interesting in tone because all the criticism of limitation or restriction is only implied and not explicit or blunt. The essay appears to be far more positive than it in fact is. Furthermore, this essay is best known for Orwell's statement that all art is propaganda but that all propaganda is not art. This statement naturally raises the question: What it is which, when added to or taken away from propaganda, makes it art as well. Orwell speaks of the aesthetic preference as "either something inexplicable or it is so corrupted by non-aesthetic motives as to make one wonder whether the whole of literary criticism is not a huge network of humbug." The idea is a development from Orwell's earlier comments on the purity and potential meaninglessness of art. But from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell found that he could not avoid propaganda and that he could not exclude it from his art. Yet at this stage he is curiously ambivalent about it. In other words, he cannot come to any definite conclusion about the relation of art to propaganda. In the essay on Dickens, he expresses the view that the element which made Dickens's propaganda into art as well was the fact that he cared, that he was sincere. In other words, it is Dickens's sincerity which lends to his propaganda the character of art. And yet Orwell's view is not fully convincing. Dickens cares morally but not socially. While he is against authority, he seeks no way of changing it. He is sincere and true to his private isolated standards, but he is not honest because he takes no account of social contingency. Ultimately one cannot escape social responsibility. Art and propaganda lie together where the private and the public become inter-connected and fused. Unless a writer is consciously extending this connection into political realities, there is always a danger of propaganda without art.
Orwell's Views About Comic Magazines
This essay contains a detailed account of the rhetoric employed by comic magazines, and examines their structure and audience-relationship. Orwell here considers the techniques which are essential to this kind of writing, because these techniques provide the basis for all Orwell's future criticism of fantasy-literature and lay the foundation for his analysis of totalitarian propaganda. The structural details of the weeklies include tautology, repetition of meaningless expressions, slang and nicknames, and a recurrence of "stylized cries of pain". Characterization in these weeklies is simple and clear with a strong moral separation between the good and the bad. There is no character with whom some or other reader does not identify himself, except the out-and-out comics. Orwell subtly links this form of literature with totalitarian strategies. Orwell also refers to the popular demand for these magazines which provide what the public wants to read. While on the one hand such demand appears to justify the existence of such literature, on the other it comes wrapped up in a subtle propaganda. Orwell here notes the submissive nature of the audience-response which is required, and the corresponding need to hide the grounds on which the argument is based. Just as the danger of war propaganda lies in not realizing that it is war propaganda, so here the propaganda is all the better "because it is done indirectly". The boys' weeklies, superman comics, and women's magazines offer no political development and no advance in social outlook; they continually present fantasies of being rich and powerful. Boys' Weeklies is the least ambivalent of the three major essays of 1940. It discusses the techniques of escape clearly, presenting such literature as the basis for propaganda which is not art. The writing of fantasy-literature is most effective if it is without opposition from both the private individual and society. As Orwell was later to note, a similarly isolated public propaganda is always in danger of becoming totalitarian.
Miller's Attitude of Acceptance, a Sign of Decadence
This essay serves as a gathering-point for all Orwell's ideas of the period. It chiefly discusses the effect of totalitarianism   on literature. It begins with a repetition of an early comparison between James Joyce and Henry Miller, and then goes on to compare Miller to Walt Whitman. Both Miller and Whitman accepted the world, but Whitman accepted the world when it was politically easier to do so, despite glaring injustices such as the condition of the Negroes. But to accept the world in an age of concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, etc. is stupid. To accept civilization as it was in Miller's time, and as it continues to be, means accepting decay. Such an attitude of passive acceptance means decadence. From a discussion of Miller, the essay develops into a brief examination of the literary movements of the 1920's and 1930's. Orwell then tries to explain the response to totalitarianism and its effect on literature. It would seem, from the following lines in this essay, that Orwell is advocating passive literature; but actually he is firmly and resolutely opposed to passivity in literature and therefore disapproves of Miller:
For the fact is that being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought. The historical Jonah, if he can be so called, was glad enough to escape; but in imagination, day-dream, countless people have envied him. It is, of course, quite obvious why. The whale's belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between you and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens.
In Orwell's opinion, Miller found himself inside the whale and felt quite contented there. Miller had performed the essential Jonah act of allowing himself to be swallowed by the whale and had remained passive, accepting the world as he found it. Orwell himself does not, of course, approve of this attitude of acceptance. The essay ends with the flat statement that Miller was not a great author and that, although he was imaginative enough, he was completely negative, unconstructive, amoral, and a passive accepter of evil. Both the outspoken propagandist and the passive accepter are tools of totalitarianism, according to Orwell. Without art, the propagandists are essentially passive, obeying a party line and not having their own ideas. Passive accepters, while being openly passive in the face of totalitarianism, in effect provide an audience which makes its propaganda possible, because they never argue back.
An Ambiguity in This Essay
In spite of what we have said about Orwell's view, there is a certain ambiguity in this essay. The ambiguity lies not in Orwell's analysis of the situation but in his failure to spell out the alternatives. He hints at the novelist who is not frightened and who presents orthodox opinion, but he does not elaborate the dangers of this alternative reaction to totalitarianism. He demonstrates the need for a public and private inter-action to arrive at a personal politics, and he illustrates the negativity of party politics alone; but he does not go on to present his own stance towards the two aspects.
The Need For the Preservation of English Culture, and the Creation of a Homogeneous Society
In 1941 Orwell wrote a long essay called The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. The essay was written when German bomber-planes were raiding London every night. (These continuous raids came to be known as the "blitz"). Although the essay is on the whole a cheerful one and contains Orwell's firm belief in the future of England and of socialism, it begins with a sense of total upheaval and moral void. The ethic of power, says Orwell, has emerged unchallenged, and the individual conscience has been absorbed by the State. In the face of the apparent victory the totalitarian mind, Orwell proposes that civilization, and particularly the British people, can still survive and eventually prevail. Basically, Orwell demands two pre-requisites for the transformation which can turn society away from its present direction. These pre-requisites are: the preservation of English culture, and the creation of a homogeneous society. This essay is, then, a re-statement of Orwell's beliefs which had evolved during the previous decade. It stands as a culmination of his political “search". The political faith which he states in this essay remained substantially the same until his death.  He did have doubts during the next nine years or so about the possible realization of socialism, but he   never questioned the validity of his ideas.  Toward the end of his life, however, he saw that socialism would be more difficult to achieve and would take longer to  be  achieved than he had visualized in 1941.
The Uniqueness of English Culture, According to Orwell
The chief merit of this essay lies in the fact that it is a gathering and arrangement of ideas which were found in Orwell's previous work but which had never before appeared so clearly and definitively. For example, the English culture, which forms the basic defence against the modern State in Orwell's ideology but which was rather a vague concept in his previous writings, is here described in detail. The characteristics of the English culture, according to Orwell, are: an innate resistance to regimentation and uniformity; a horror of power-worship; a hatred of militarism; and a deeply ingrained moral sense. The uniqueness of this culture, in Orwell's view, lay in its combination of an insistence on the individual's worth, balanced by a respect for law. The chief problem facing Orwell and socialism was how to convert this culture into a workable political programme. How were the people to be brought to power? The people had remained submerged in society because of the rigid class system; they had been dominated by a corrupt ruling class and betrayed by the intelligentsia. Orwell traces the failure of the educated people to their separation from the English common culture. Fascinated by Russian communism, the British intellectuals had been directing their energies chiefly against their country during the period between the two World Wars. Instead of acting as a positive and constructive force, the British intellectuals had been merely critical and negative. In this connection Orwell says:
If the English people suffered for several years a real weakening of morale, so that the Fascist nations judged that they were decadent and that it was safe to plunge into war, the intellectual sabotage from the Left was partly responsible.
But, despite the difficulties of transferring power to the common people and the threat of Fascism, Orwell believed that English socialism was not a very distant prospect. All depended on the English people winning the war; and victory, conversely, depended on the creation of socialism. During the period of the blitz, Orwell did observe a disappearance of certain class-privileges. This development he attributed both to the unifying effect of the war-effort and to the gradual growth of the middle-class during the preceding twenty years, a process which had been quickened by the war itself. In all this he thought he was witnessing the beginnings of a classless society.
A Paradox in Orwell's Thinking
There is certainly a paradox in Orwell's political thinking here. On the one hand, his radicalism sprang from an intense conservative impulse, while, on the other hand, his socialism was progressive and revolutionary. This paradox is implied particularly in an important passage with which The Lion and the Unicorn concludes:
By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging democracy, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.
Orwell felt sure that, unless the structure of society was altered, the vital resources in the English culture would not blossom or bear fruit. Ultimately, Orwell's patriotism, which emerges fully in this essay, developed out of a desire to establish something stable, a basis for political morality, or, we might say, a substitute for religion. But his desire was essentially a preservative instinct, or a demand that the present and the future be built upon the past which had, in his eyes, proved to be permanent and vital. He thought revolution to be a necessity, but he also believed that revolution, divorced completely from traditional wisdom and the national culture, would result in Stalinism, in an "Animal Farm". The check on, and the guidance of, power must be derived from an established cultural heritage. That is why he rejected international socialism and turned his efforts to the creation of an English socialism. The former always deteriorated into a tyranny because it lacked the preserves of a unified culture.
His Admission of an Error of Judgment
The confidence and optimism which are found in this essay did not last. As the war progressed, it became evident to Orwell that he had misinterpreted the signs of 1940 and 1941. He later admitted his mistake, with his usual frankness and honesty.
Some Important Essays Written Daring 1946-48
Orwell's discussion of literature and politics reaches its climax in five major essays written by him during 1946-48. These essays are:
(1) Why I Write
(2) The Prevention of Literature
(3) Politics and the English Language
(4) Politics Versus Literature
(5) Writers and Leviathan
The whole discussion of literary purpose in these essays is made from an understanding that literature is inevitably bound up with a political context in contemporary England. By politics, Orwell means two things. The first is the desire to push the world in a certain direction in order to alter other people's idea of the kind of society which they should aim at. The second meaning of politics is the mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia found in party politics. In party politics there is a pressure toward conformity that culminates in the opposites of totalitarianism and anarchy which are, on examination, close to each other. The height of totalitarianism occurs when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force. It is this pressure toward conformity that upsets the relation between politics and the individual writer. The times are such that, whether an author likes it or not, he will develop a strong feeling that he ought to do something about the world; and this makes a purely aesthetic attitude to life impossible.
Political Writing and Art
In this essay Orwell mentions four reasons why an author writes. The reasons are: (1) sheer egoism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. He then explains how these affected literature and politics in the middle of the twentieth century. Orwell never completely worked out a satisfactory answer to the problem of judging political literature. He does suggest a standard in this essay when he says that "what I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art." To achieve this end, the writer must find some way to reconcile his life and interests with his political responsibility. As an example of the difficulty of this task he refers to his Homage to Catalonia, in which he tried "very hard to tell the whole truth without violating my literary instincts." That book is flawed, however, as he agrees, by his inclusion in it of a long chapter defending the Trotskyites and scolding the newspapers for their distortion of the truth. In explanation he says: "I could not have done otherwise. I have happened to know, what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused. If I had not been angry about that I should never have written the book." Orwell concludes this essay by saying:
Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
The Imperative Need of Integrity in an Author
The central theme of this essay is integrity. Orwell here argues that the acceptance of any political orthodoxy by an author would lead to a loss of integrity. Discipline and group loyalty in such a case would necessarily keep questions of truth in the background, because the writer would be asked to write on subjects with which he cannot sincerely and truthfully deal if he has to defend the ideology with which he has identified himself. According to Orwell, it is part of the historical purpose of the imaginative writer to report the response of his senses, and not to distort what he actually sees and hears. The essay Why I Write sums up this position by saying that political bias should be frankly stated because the more one is aware of it, "the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one's aesthetic and intellectual integrity." The retention of integrity is also important, says Orwell, because literature is inseparable from honesty. His argument is that, if political pressure towards conformity forces a writer to tell lies in his work, his creative faculties would dry up. By telling lies Orwell does not mean inventing fictions but asserting something in which the writer does not himself fully believe. Now, the totalitarian State is based on a system of organized lying. Personal opinion and conviction are unnecessary in a totalitarian State because "truth" will either be an ever-shifting party interpretation or something impossible to recover. The pressure which such shifts exert on the writer will necssarily deprive him of personal opinion and force him to lie, ultimately drying up his creative talent.
The Effect of Party Politics
Here Orwell moves from theoretical conjecture into practical considerations through a reiteration of the question of integrity. Political conformity creates a gap between one's real and declared aims. This gap leads to insincerity, and from insincerity to vagueness, imprecision and bad writing. A writer's acceptance of my political orthodoxy makes it necessary for him to exercise a certain degree of censorship upon his own writing because he is under an obligation to reflect the party line. Party politics exerts not only a limiting but also a destructive effect on the individual. The limiting effect occurs through the loss of personal conviction, as a result of which the writer uses hackneyed phrases and idioms in order to keep to the party opinion. Loss of conviction also encourages the writer to obscure the real issues so that he may not be accused of faulty logic. The destructive effect is due to the ability of the pre-fabricated phrases to relieve the writer of personal responsibility to the extent of "partially concealing his meaning even from himself." Orwell in this essay suggests that the language should be simplified as far as possible: "If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy." He even offers certain guide-lines to achieve simplicity. But he adds: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." The most important point, he says, is to let the meaning choose the word, rather than blindly to assume the representational nature of language. To do so, the essay suggests that we should begin by attempting to think of the meaning visually or sensually, in material terms. Here one "can choose the phrases which will best cover the meaning". Finally, one should think of the impression which the words will produce on other people.
The Modern Writer's Dilemma
Here Orwell deals with the modern writer's dilemma and how to come to terms with it. The dilemma is: Should a writer get involved in producing political literature? The answer to this question is that a writer has no choice these days because the times demand political involvement and comment. If a writer belongs to the group of people who fully believe in a certain political creed, then there is no problem for him. But if a writer belongs to that much larger group of people who at various moments lack conviction, then he must separate party politics as far as possible from his political writing. Orwell examines the question from the reader's point of view, in his study of Swift in this essay. As a reader, Orwell finds himself disagreeing with Swift not in the literary field but in the political field. Orwell suggests that it is the reader who must learn to separate a writer's ideas from the writer's literary skills in order to be able to enjoy a work. A reader's separation of these two aspects is essential. A disagreement with the political idea in a work can affect a reader's enjoyment of the artistic and aesthetic qualities of that work. If a reader allows his own political beliefs to influence his aesthetic sense then he will be basing his critical judgments on the shifting ideology of political necessity and not on personal conviction. Just as the toss of personal integrity leads to weak language and a poor style in writing, so it leads also unacceptable critical judgments.
Acceptance of Any Political Discipline, Undesirable
In the essays already considered above, Orwell notes that "current literary criticism consists quite largely of a dodging to and fro between two sets of standards," so that political theories can fit aesthetic judgments. In Writers and Leviathan, he becomes more insistent, saying that every literary judgment consists in "trumping up a set of rules to justify an instinctive preference, yet with a dishonesty which is sometimes not even quarter-conscious." Literary judgments constructed in this relative manner, he says, not only lack the conviction of the critic but fail to assess the fundamental issues at hand. The result is that writers with and without belief are lumped together indiscriminately, so that valid political convictions can be dismissed as belonging to a faulty style rather than being examined and discussed in terms of practical politics. Orwell goes on to say that the "acceptance of any political discipline seems to be incompatible with literary integrity". Here the key words are: "acceptance"; "political discipline"; and "literary integrity". Acceptance means an unquestioning passivity, and control by the State. Political discipline refers to a political party and implies a compliance with its directives, explicit or implicit. Literary integrity stands for individual responsibility to define personal politics and express oneself with belief and conviction. Orwell does not mean to say that the writer should keep out of politics, but that there should lie a "sharper distinction between his political and his literary loyalties". The writer can cooperate with party politics in his everyday life, while rejecting orthodoxy in his writing which should be "saner", more distanced, and more able to criticize than party politics. In Orwell's view such a stance is in the end more productive and helpful than conformity. Party politics functions on short-term, negative rhetoric for expediency; while personal politics involves long-term, positive rhetoric, not necessarily expedient but in the end highly practical. The essay ends with Orwell's view that the belief that the truth will prevail is distinctly questionable. But Orwell is here thinking of "truth" not as an absolute which all people will recognize in the same manner. He here views "truth" as an external materiality which each person evaluates differently. What can be in common is the activity of evaluation, not the end-product; and that is an activity which requires a challenging moral effort which many people tend to avoid.

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