Sunday, October 31, 2010

Some Basic Ideas in Orwell's Work

A Writer with a Definite Point of View About Things
There are certain basic ideas in Orwell's entire work.  His novels, essays, descriptive   sketches,    and   the    volumes   of his biography—all have the same object, which is to impart to the reader a certain point of view, often about some definite, limited topic such as the Spanish Civil War and the treatment of tramps in casual wards, but in any case about some issue over which he felt that he should take sides.
Orwell uses his work as an instrument for strengthening the support for the side which he takes. Orwell was a novelist who did not write any novel which can be regarded as wholly satisfactory; he was a literary critic who never tried to learn his trade properly; and he was a social historian whose history was full of gaps. And yet he was an important writer whose work still matters. It is as polemic that his work is magnificent. He possessed in exactly the right combination the virtues of urgency, incisiveness, clarity, and humour, in short, all those virtues which the polemic kind of writing demands.
His Views, Derived Largely From
His Personal Circumstances
Much of what Orwell wrote was derived from his own personal character and experience.  His opinions were, to a large extent, the automatic result of his upbringing and environment. For instance his hatred of sham and cant was obviously due at least partly to the fact that he came from what he called the "lower-middle-class". The lives of such people were a network of evasions and petty half-deceptions. Orwell himself rejected this attitude to life. In fact, his renunciation of this kind of life was spectacular, because his impatience with any kind of falsity was extremely urgent. His rejection of his own real name (which was “Eric Blair”) was part of this renunciation. But, while all this must be admitted, all his beliefs did not arise from his own personal. All his ideas cannot be dismissed as products of his own personal circumstances, or as mere reflexes. His wish to identify himself with the working class is an example. He has frankly admitted, in the autobiographical passages of The Road to Wigan Pier, that a good deal of this feeling arose from the events of his own life. He had spent five years in the Indian Imperial Police, and this experience had given rise in him to an extreme hatred of oppression and for this reason, when he returned in 1927 to England where the working class was already facing tremendous unemployment, he transferred to them the feelings of sympathy which he had experienced for the Burmese people. In this connection he wrote:
I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself. I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man's dominion over man.
This was the chief reason for his emotional identification with the working people, and this identification he occasionally carried to absurd lengths.
The Rationale Behind His Support to the Working Class
This does not, however, mean that we should dismiss Orwell's advocacy of the working class as a mere personal whim belonging to the sphere of biography rather than that of ideas. We can find a clear exposition of the theme in his essay, Looking Back on the Spanish War, where he writes:
The intelligentsia are the people who squeal loudest aganist Fascism and yet a respectable proportion of them collapse into defeatism when the pinch comes. They are far-sighted enough to see the odds against them, and moreover they can be bribed—for it is evident that the Nazis think it worth while to bribe intellectuals. With the working class it is the other way about. Too ignorant to see through the trick that is being played on them, they easily swallow the promises of Fascism, yet sooner or later they always take up the struggle again. They must do so, because in their own bodies they always discover that the promises of Fascism cannot be fulfilled. To win over the working class permanently, the Fascists would have to raise the general standard of living, which they are unable and probably unwilling to do.
If, instead the word "Fascist" in the above paragraph we use the general term "totalitarian", we get the fundamental reason for Orwell's wish to support the working class. It is a characteristically Orwellian position—grim, realistic, even bleak. But it enables us to dispose of the charge that his support to the working class was a mere personal whim. There is a case for considering his ideas as ideas, and his arguments as arguments, rather than for attributing all his ideas and arguments to purely personal experiences of the writer.
The Value of Honesty, and the Value of Freedom
Orwell was certainly no abstract thinker. His political ideas were of the simplest kind. These ideas were frankly ethical. He believed in the need for being frank and honest; and he believed in freedom for everyone, with no authoritative rule and no tyrannizing, economic or political. These were the two pillars on which all his ideas rested. Nor is it possible to separate these two beliefs of his from each other, because in his eyes both these beliefs were essentially one and the same. He was a very clear-sighted man, and he came to the definite conclusion that modern tyranny works by means of dishonesty and evasion. Dishonesty and evasion enable a government to subject the people to its repressive policies. Man naturally wishes to have the freedom to do what he likes; he does not wish to be enslaved or to be put in a cage. A dictator therefore tries to destroy the desire for freedom. If the dictator can altogether eradicate the desire for freedom, no one will fight for freedom because no one will be aware that there is any such thing as freedom. That is why we have in Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four such devices to destroy the desire for freedom as the Ministry of Truth, Doublethink, Newspeak, etc. It is noteworthy that Orwell's picture of the future is not particularly terrifying from the material point of view. Although he was alive when the atom bomb was dropped twice on the Japanese people, his vision of 1984 does not include weapons capable of destroying mankind altogether. Orwell was not interested in extinction weapons because, fundamentally, they do not frighten him as much as those weapons which destroy man's spirit. According to Orwell, the death of the body is certainly a misfortune for man, but it is not as bad a misfortune as the death of man's spirit. Besides, a dictator who orders large-scale killings of people is easily recognized as a ruthless tyrant. But a dictator who employs subtle methods of destroying the spirit of man and man's love of freedom cannot easily be recognized as a brutal tyrant. That is why Orwell tried to focus our attention at the very heart of the matter, namely the power of a totalitarian state to erase the past by altering and distorting history, until every trace of dissent disappears from the records. This is an important point, and the following extract from the essay already named clearly brings it out:
There is no such thing as science. There is only German science, Jewish science, etc.  The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the leader says of such and such an event, "It never happened"—well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five—well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs—and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.
That, then, was the possibility which frightened Orwell more than bombs, and that is the reason for the relative absence of bombs from his terrifying vision of the future. He wanted to indicate the more deadly danger, namely the destruction of man's spirit and man's desire for freedom. He also felt that some people might unconsciously increase that danger. For instance, anyone who talked or wrote in vague and smooth language was an enemy of freedom because such language tends to cover up the issues which it claims to be discussing.
The Importance of Vivid and Truthful Language
According to Orwell, the language of free men must be vivid, candid, and truthful. Those who take refuge is vagueness do so because they have something to hide. He was convinced that frankness and candour are the price which we have to pay for freedom. That is the reason why Orwell's own language is an excellent model of English prose style. His language is characterized by a perfect simplicity and clarity.
Orwell's Opposition to Orthodoxies and "Isms"
Orwell noted also that large numbers of modern people had attached themselves to some sort of orthodoxy for mental and moral support. It might be Roman Catholicism; it might be communism; it might be anarchism; it might be pacifism. For most practical purposes Orwell did not see much difference between one form of "ism" and another. In fact, any word ending with "ism" was enough to provoke his contempt. Thus in The Road to Wigan Pier he wrote bluntly:
The Communist and the Catholic are not saying the same thing; in a sense they are even saying opposite things, and each would gladly boil the other in oil if circumstances permitted; but from the point of view of an outsider they are very much alike.
And this opposition by Orwell to any "ism" was not merely temperamental; it was not merely the consequence of his being a born rebel. It was based on a number of firmly reasoned arguments. One of the chief of these arguments related to the nature of the imagination.
A Genuine Writer's Attitude to Dogmas
In Orwell's opinion, an author who sacrificed his intellectual freedom was not a genuine author. The ability to create, to imagine story and character, depended, in Orwell's view, on the free use of the mind and the imagination. And this is exactly what an orthodoxy or "ism" of any kind tends to prevent. Anyone who accepts a statement of beliefs and who declares himself in favour of this or that "ism" is bound to commit himself to a certain amount of hypocrisy, conscious or unconscious. No intelligent person can ever shallow wholesale any dogma such as Marxism or Roman Catholicism. People who accept such dogmas without any reservations do so for reasons which are not intellectual in a strict sense. If people like grocers and grave-diggers or their like accept these "isms", there is not much harm done. But if any author does so, he is finished.
Orwell's Literary Criticism
Orwell's literary criticism is not that of a professional but of an amateur. Actually, literary criticism is a trade which one has to learn, which is something specialized, just as the writing of history is specialized. But Orwell had not thought deeply enough about the nature of criticism. He had the amateur's tendency to talk only about what caught his attention and to brush aside the rest. His essay on Tolstoy's criticism of King Lear, is in many ways superb; but it contains some mis-statements and even absurdities. He says, for instance, that Shakespeare has in this play told the story rather clumsily. He says that the story is too drawnout and has too many characters and sub-plots. In Orwell's opinion it would have been better if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated from the play. Now, these remarks by Orwell show that he had not studied this play with the acuteness of a real literary critic. He did not realize that the numerous echoes and inter-penetrations between the main plot and the sub-plot are the chief technical means which Shakespeare used to bind the play into a unity. However, we must not deny that Orwell's essay on King Lear contains also many moving and impressive utterances about human life. It is an essay which will continue to be relevant as long as human beings have moral problems.
Orwell's Valid Estimate of Kipling
Therefore it is not for the sake of literary criticism in the real sense that Orwell's essays on books can be perused. Like his novels, his literary criticism is a blunt, honest presentation of the important issues as he saw them, usually with a strong practical bias. But it must be admitted that in a few cases this limitation actually operates as a strength. The essay on Kipling is perhaps the best example. Kipling is not an author of subtle shades or recondite and abstruse effects; his work presents no technical problems, even simple ones like that of the relationship of plot and sub-plot in King Lear. It was therefore possible for Orwell to arrive at a valid estimate of Kipling merely by being clear-sighted about Kipling's subject-matter. The result is the best defence which Kipling has ever had. It was characteristic of Orwell that he found something to admire in Kipling. He saw that it did not excuse Kipling's follies, or make him a more pleasing writer, but in Orwell's eyes a readiness to make decisions and do something was worth a great deal of subtlety.
The Problem of Faith, Not Dealt With in Orwell's Work
All his life, one of Orwell's favourite targets of ridicule was the "progressive" who cares more that his ideas should be "advanced" than that they should be realistic and workable. In his essay on H. G. Wells, for example, he pointed out that what had kept England on its feet during the year 1940-41 was the intense emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. If the English left-wing intellectuals, says Orwell, had succeeded in breaking down this feeling of the English people, England would have been conquered by Germany. This view of Orwell's shows that what interested him was not the theoretically tidy or impressive soultion, but the one that worked—and worked here and now. In fact, all the strengths and weaknesses of Orwell's work come out of the fact that he is a writer of polemic. It may seem to some people surprising and disappointing that Orwell should have steadfastly refused to tackle in his work the problem which he thought to be the most urgent of all, namely the problem of faith. As early as A Clergyman's Daughter, he emphasizes his view that human life is futile without religious faith. And as late as the essay on Arthur Koestler, he wrote: "The real problem is how to restore the religious attitude while accepting death as final." If this was indeed the real problem, we may ask why he did not deal with it. The reply is that he believed that privation and brute labour should be abolished before the real problems of humanity can be tackled. The chief problem of our time is the decline in the belief in immortality. Now this problem cannot be tackled while the average human being is either toiling like an ox or trembling with fear of the secret police. So Orwell postponed the chief problem and preferred to deal with the one nearest at hand.

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