Saturday, March 19, 2005

Orwell and Politics

This is a penguin edition of the various political writings of George Orwell. It’s a bit of a hodge podge – fragments of letters, diary fragments, essays, columns, book introductions, book reviews, the complete Animal Farm (why this novel and not Nineteen Eighty-Four is a bit of a mystery) and Orwell’s controversial list of crypto-communists and fellow travellers.

There were large parts of the book I found hard to follow, and frequently I had trouble concentrating. This is due to the intricate political details of the time, of which I am not well aquainted. That aside, there are lots of interesting things in the book.

The review of Mein Kampf chief among them. I was a bit surprised to read this:

‘I should like to put on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler. Ever since he came to power – til then, like nearly everyone, I had been deceived into thinking that he did not matter – I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within reach of him, but that I could feel no personal animosity. The fact is there is something deeply appealing about him. One feels it again when one sees his photography – and I recommend especially the photograph at the beginning of Hurst and Blackett’s edition, which shows Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself.’

This is written in 1940. Orwell goes on to describe the psychological appeal of Hitler’s program:

‘However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death’, and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.’

Best one liner is in Orwell’s review of The Trial of Mussolini, by ‘Cassius’, an anonymous author:

‘In power politics there are no crimes, because there are no laws.’

Another favourite line on responsibility of the press, from an unpublished introduction to Animal Farm:

‘If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way.’

Most intriguing is a review of a book by a Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin, called We. There are so many similarities between this book, published in 1924 (Penguin have apparently published a version in 1993), and Nineteen Eighty-Four, that it is clear the book was a major influence on Orwell’s classic. I would love to read it. Here is a telling line.

‘In the twenty-sixth century, in Zamyatin’s vision of it, the inhabitants of Utopia have so completely lost their individuality as to be known only by numbers. They live in glass houses (this was before television was invented), which enables the political police, knows as the ‘Guardians’, to supervise them more easily.’

This review was published in 1946. I don’t know the exact time line, but I think Orwell had begun writing Nineteen Eighty-Four by this time – or he must have been very close to it. Why mention that ‘this was before television was invented’?? Surely there could have been other methods of surveillance? It shows how Orwell’s novel was merged in his mind with Zamyatin’s.

Other similarities to Nineteen Eighty-Four. The ruler of this state is called the Benefactor (Big Brother). They all wear identical outfits called ‘unifs’ – just how Orwell describes the use of language (IngSoc). The state completely overlooks all sexual activity (Orwell describes sex as a defiant political act in his novel). Even the woman the main character falls in love with is part of a secret resistance movement (like Julia). And on and on and on. It just goes to show no great work of literature comes into its own without some precedent.

This collection also contains many of Orwell’s classic essays. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

From Why I Write (1947)

‘The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one's political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one's aesthetic and intellectual integrity.’

Politics and the English Language (1946)

‘Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.’

‘All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.’

‘Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’

‘But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’

Prevention of Literature (1946)
‘On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy.’

‘Freedom of the intellect means the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings. The familiar tirades against "escapism" and "individualism," "romanticism," and so forth, are merely a forensic device, the aim of which is to make the perversion of history seem respectable.’

‘A totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist. Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact.’

‘There is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, 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.’

‘To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.’

‘It is possible that the Russophile intelligentsia, if they had not succumbed to that particular myth, would have succumbed to another of much the same kind. But at any rate the Russian myth is there, and the corruption it causes stinks. When one sees highly educated men looking on indifferently at oppression and persecution, one wonders which to despise more, their cynicism or their shortsightedness.’

‘At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity. Any writer or journalist who denies that fact -- and nearly all the current praise of the Soviet Union contains or implies such a denial -- is, in effect, demanding his own destruction.’

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