Thursday, February 17, 2005

It Is What I Think, by George Orwell

It Is What I Think forms one of some 11 volumes of the complete George Orwell, and I mean complete. Volume 10 covers the period of 1947-1948 when Orwell was battling tuberculosis and struggling to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four, or as the author frequently wrote in his letters, 'that bloody novel'. This sort of book is obviously only for Orwell enthusiasts. It contains letters, published and unpublished articles, special introductions to his books (notably Animal Farm) and his domestic diaries.

The diary fragments are completely dull. Quite a few of the letters are of minimal interest too. Although there are some which are quite compelling, giving little windows onto Orwell's personality and estimation of himself as a writer. For example, in one letter to friend Julian Simons he writes 'I am not a real novelist anyway'. I understand what he means. He must have known that his three social comedy novels were slight. And as for his two last political novels, they are quite in a league of their own. Are they political treatises, or works of fiction? Orwell further explains his predicament as a writer in the same letter:

'One difficulty I have never solved is that one has masses of experience which one passionately wants to write about, eg. The part about fishing in that book, and no way of using them up except by disguising them as a novel.'

He seems to be saying he's almost a literary fraud! 'Disguising' his experiences as a novel. Many of the letters of course describe his domestic and hospital arrangements, notably his son Richard. When Richard gets a cut on the forehead it was amazing to read how many times Orwell wrote to various friends about the same thing. One small drama happens in your life and you tell everyone about it repeatedly. Also there are many descriptions of the treatment he goes through for his tubercular lung. He must have been incredibly sick. Even when he is 'well' again he describes himself as being able to only get up for a few hours a day to do any work. No wonder Nineteen Eighty-Four has such extraordinary descriptions of the human body totally degraded and humiliated. Orwell was living it as he wrote it.

The real treat of this volume are his articles and columns. Most people think of Orwell as the dreary pessimist, but he's really quite the aesthete too. He loves literature. The essay on Tolstoy and Shakespeare (he discusses Tolstoy's famous antipathy to King Lear) is utterly brilliant. I was intrigued to read Orwell speculate that Shakespeare was more likely than not a bit of a coward. Literary critic Harold Bloom has said much the same thing, but in a much nicer way, suggesting that Shakespeare would have run the other way at the first threat of physical harm (he knew how Thomas Kyd was tortured by the state and Kit Marlowe probably murdered.) In one of his letters he even describes the novels of Charlotte Bronte as 'sexy'! I kid thee not. I was also heartened to read that Orwell was 'pro-Wilde', and a fan of The Picture of Dorian Gray, despite its faults. A review he did of Wilde's Soul of Man Under Socialism is included.

The columns have some real gems, and show how much nothing much has changed politically over the last 60 or so years. For example, discussing a book titled In Darkest Germany, about the suffering going on in the British zone of Germany, Orwell writes:

'This business of making people conscious of what is happening outside their own small circle is one of the major problems of our time, and a new literary technique will have to be evolved to meet it. Considering that the people of this country are not having a very comfortable time, you can't, perhaps, blame them for being somewhat callous about suffering elsewhere, but the remarkable thing is the extent to which they manage to remain unaware of it. Tales of starvation, ruined cities, concentration camps, mass deportations, homeless refugees, persecuted Jews - all this is received with a sort of incurious surprise, as though such things had never been heard of before but at the same time were not particularly interesting. The now-familiar photographs of skeleton-like children make very little impression. As time goes on and the horrors pile up, the mind seems to secrete a sort of self-protecting ignorance which needs a harder and harder shock to pierce it, just as the body will become immunised to a drug and require bigger and bigger doses.'

His discussion of racism reverberates to our day, with our asylum seeker question.

'But the race hatred and mass delusions which are part of the pattern of our time might be somewhat less bad in their effects if they were not reinforced by ignorance. If in the years before the war, for instance, the facts about the persecution of the Jews in Germany had been better known, the subjective popular feeling against Jews would probably not have been less, but the actual treatment of Jewish refugees might have been better. The refusal to allow refugees in significant numbers into this country would have been branded as disgraceful . The average man would have still felt a grudge against the refugees, but in practice more lives would have been saved.'

The strong criticism of the left that he outlined in The Road to Wigan Pier is as vehement as ever.

'The whole left-wing ideology, scientific and utopian, was evolved by people who had no immediate prospect of attaining power. It was, therefore, an extremist ideology, utterly contemptuous of kings, governments, laws, prisons, police forces, armies, flags, frontiers, patriotism, religion, conventional morality, and , in fact, the whole existing scheme of things. Until well within living memory the forces of the left in all countries were fighting against a tyranny which appeared to be invincible, and it was easy to assume that if only that particular tyranny - capitalism - could be overthrown, Socialism would follow. Moreover, the left had inherited from Liberalism certain distinctly questionable beliefs, such as the belief that the truth will prevail and persecution defeats itself, or that man is naturally good and is only corrupted by his environment. This perfectionist ideology has persisted in nearly all of us, and it is in the name of it that we protest when (for instance) a Labour government votes huge incomes to the King's daughters or shows hesitation about nationalising steele.'

He even lambasts the anti-Americanism of the left. How Alexander Downer would gloat quoting the following passage:

'And what, I wonder, is behind the Tribune's persistent anti-Americanism? In Tribune over the past year I can recall three polite references to America (one of those was a reference to Henry Wallace) and a whole string of petty insults. I have just received a letter from some students at an American university. They ask me if I can explain why Tribune thinks it necessary to boo at America. What am I to say to these people? I shall tell them what I believe to be the truth - namely that Tribune's anti-Americanism is not sincere but is an attempt to keep in with fashionable opinion. To be anti-American nowadays is to shout with the mob. Of course it is only a minor mob, but it is a vocal one. Although there was probably some growth of ill-feeling as a result of the presence of the American troops, I do no believe the mass of the people in this country are anti-American politically, and certainly they are not so culturally. But the politico-literary intellectuals are not usually frightened of mass opinion. What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group. At any given moment there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot cry which must be repeated, and in the more active section of the Left the orthodoxy of the moment is anti-Americanism.'

For fans of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the notes of publisher Fredric Warburg are included from his initial reading of the novel. How peculiar that Orwell thought it flawed and not so fantastic as he'd hoped (he blamed his illness on its perceived shortcomings). Nevertheless, Orwell said he did find much in it worthy, and hoped it might sell some 10,000 copies. Needless to say, his publishers thought it brilliant.

Warburg notes that Orwell is now well and truly fed up with ideological socialism.

'The political system which prevails in Ingsoc = English Socialism. This I take to be a deliberate and sadistic attack on Socialism and socialist parties generally. It seems to indicate a final breach between Orwell and Socialism, not the socialism of equality and human brotherhood which clearly Orwell no longer expects from socialist parties, but the socialism of marxism and the managerial revolution. '1984' is among other things an attack on Burnham's managerialism; and it is worth a cool million votes to the conservative party; it might well be the choice of the 'Daily Mail' and 'Evening Standard'; it is imaginable that it might have a preface by Winston Churchill after whom its hero is named.'

What more can I say?

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