February 06, 2003

Smart, Frustrating Essay on...

Smart, Frustrating Essay on Orwell: By the New Yorker's Louime questionable shadowboxing with the artist's hype. Italics will be mine.

He was not looking to make friends. But after his death he suddenly acquired an army of fans — all middle-class intellectuals eager to suggest that a writer who approved of little would have approved of them.
Well, no. Speaking as only one Orwell fan, I couldn't care less what his corpse might theoretically think of me, or my incoherent rag-bag of beliefs. Those blessedly few who walk around claiming to be Orwell's heir always make me feel slightly embarrassed, as if Uncle Todd was waving his penis again.
Orwell's army is one of the most ideologically mixed up ever to assemble. John Rodden, whose "George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation" was published in 1989 and recently reprinted, with a new introduction (Transaction; $30), has catalogued it exhaustively. It has included, over the years, ex-Communists, Socialists, left-wing anarchists, right-wing libertarians, liberals, conservatives, doves, hawks, the Partisan Review editorial board, and the John Birch Society: every group in a different uniform, but with the same button pinned to the lapel — Orwell Was Right.
Well, no, again (and what about left-wing libertarians, dammit!). Orwell was wrong about quite a few things, as Menand details later in the column, most notably his conviction that capitalism was a failure and socialism was the future. But I think any close reader of his non-fiction will find many things to squawk about -- the point is not that he was always Right, but that he presented one of the most compelling examples in 20th century writing of how one can go about trying to think clearly and grapple proactively with the important events of the day, even while being poor and goofy-looking. It's a question of comportment and approach, not test results.
Hitchens says that there were three great issues in the twentieth century, and that Orwell was right on all three: imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. What does this mean, though? Orwell was against imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Excellent. Many people were against them in Orwell's time, and a great many more people have been against them since.
Too flip by half, sir! Read the contemporaneous non-fiction of any British writer from 1930-1942, and tell me who comes out better, and more quickly, on these questions. It was a time and place we can barely comprehend, looking back. Respectable thinkers were flirting with Mosley, intellectuals were embracing Stalin ... impending doom was heavy in the air, and absolutely no one (that I've read) was predicting a world half as good as the one we enjoy now. Yeah, Orwell was hardly perfect on these questions, but he was pretty damned good.

Another quibble:

"Homage to Catalonia," which appeared in 1938, was, indeed, brave and iconoclastic (though not the only work of its kind)
Was there another sharply written insider account of Stalinist perfidy within the Spanish Civil War that I'm not aware of?

Finally, the main objection:

His personal essays, especially "Shooting an Elephant" and "Such, Such Were the Joys," are models of the form. Still, his qualities as a writer are obscured by the need of his admirers to claim for his work impossible virtues.
No, they are not. Great and inspiring work is great and inspiring work, period; everything else is occasionally amusing distraction.

Posted by at February 6, 2003 03:25 PM
Comments

Trotsky also opposed imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism and I don't here too many people singing his praises.

Posted by: frank at February 6, 2003 04:40 PM

Trotsky also opposed imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism and I don't here too many people singing his praises.

Posted by: frank at February 6, 2003 04:40 PM

Uncle Todd sounds like a neocon.

Posted by: Louis at February 6, 2003 05:09 PM

Leave me out of this!

Posted by: Uncle Todd at February 6, 2003 06:09 PM

Dead on. As for the many groups who claim Orwell as their future visionary, I only have experience with the right. I have met quite a few people who lean to the right politically who have only read 1984 or Animal Farm, and did not realize that Orwell was socialist. I pointed them in the direction of Homage to Catalonia, a GREAT book, mainly in the sense he is very honest. I don't think many of them would like his views in The Road to Wigan Pier. I read that book and distinctly remember him outlining a social program, and then writing disparaging remarks about those who ask the rather shallow (in his mind) question: how do we pay for it all? It was at that point that I realized although I'm a big Orwell fan, it was most fortunate that we never met--he would have no patience for a libertarian oriented view. It's been claimed that since he did not follow the standard leftist track of the 30's and 40's (and beyond) and become a pathetic apologist for communist brutalities that he was ideology free--I do not believe that. However, he was consistant and fair in judging all views, including his own, which is a rather rare quality.

Posted by: Steve W at February 6, 2003 10:19 PM

Steve -- Nicely put.

Posted by: Matt Welch at February 6, 2003 11:58 PM

Actually one person who comes out looking pretty well from that 30-42 period is Keynes. As Krugman has written, before Keynes economists had developed an insightful literature of microeconomics. Macroeconomics, however, was a vast wasteland of nonsense. Worldwide depression convinced many intellectuals that there was something fundamentally wrong with Capitalism, but it was Keynes who discovered why advanced capitalist economies were vulnerable to recession, and how government policies could prevent it, in a way that kept private ownership of property, de-centralized decision-making, and the rest of it. And in the 1930's Keynes *did* write a book called "Economic Possibilities for our Grand-children", which was indeed a tad over-optimistic, though not outlandishly so.

I imagine if you read Keynes, Hayek, John Stuart Mill, and maybe Alfred Marshall, all of them relentlessly intelligent and sensible, you can't go too far wrong.

Orwell is weakesknows that there are plenty of Mr. And Ms. Authors you are best off keeping on a pedestal: far away from you.

To paraphrase the famous characterization of the Tsar.

Posted by: Gary Farber at February 8, 2003 08:09 PM

Whoops. There's one I should have used "preview" on.

I was trying to say that I had blogged that back on the 27th, but that your comments are better.

Then I said other stuff, which I'm too impatient to re-create, but they were terribly insightful, I assure you.

Well, they were in English, anyway.

Posted by: Gary Farber at February 8, 2003 08:11 PM

Wait, there's this: However, while as a leftist, I point to pride to what Orwell was right about, as well as, as you say, Matt, how he's right. But I can't point with pride to any of his notions or writings that touch on economics, for the most part, save for the general sympathy for the working person and suchlike. Menand does do an interesting job of pointing out how very wildly wrong Orwell could also be.

I'll go Matt McIrvin one further -- "Literary admiration doesn't have to extend to being fantasy buddies with Mr. Author" and note that anyone familiar with a bunch of writers is apt to know that some Authors are best kept on a pedestal: far away from you.

To paraphrase the saying about the Tsar.

Posted by: Gary Farber at February 8, 2003 08:14 PM

I can point out an example of one thing Orwell definitely got wrong. I can't remember which essay or column it was in -- I think it was in one of his "As I See It" columns, he wrote it during the Blitz anyway. He was complaining about the dreariness of everyday chores, using as an example what one had to go through in those days simply to wash dishes (sometimes no hot water, something horrid called "soap flakes," the threat of impending bombs, etc.). He said something about how a decent social program might set up a dish-providing service for households, where a caravan or something would go around and collect all the used dishes, replacing them with a fresh set, and so on. You know, the in-the-future-we'll-all-eat-from-a-common-cafeteria scheme, supposedly so that women could be freed from the drudgery of the kitchen. Well, that's all very well and good, but being a guy, he didn't know what he was messing with. There is simply no way every woman in the western world is going to do away with her One Set Of Good China. It's just not going to be done.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at February 8, 2003 09:08 PM
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ient to re-create, but they were terribly insightful, I assure you.

Well, they were in English, anyway.

Posted by: Gary Farber at February 8, 2003 08:11 PM

Wait, there's this: However, while as a leftist, I point to pride to what Orwell was right about, as well as, as you say, Matt, how he's right. But I can't point with pride to any of his notions or writings that touch on economics, for the most part, save for the general sympathy for the working person and suchlike. Menand does do an interesting job of pointing out how very wildly wrong Orwell could also be.

I'll go Matt McIrvin one further -- "Literary admiration doesn't have to extend to being fantasy buddies with Mr. Author" and note that anyone familiar with a bunch of writers is apt to know that some Authors are best kept on a pedestal: far away from you.

To paraphrase the saying about the Tsar.

Posted by: Gary Farber at February 8, 2003 08:14 PM

I can point out an example of one thing Orwell definitely got wrong. I can't remember which essay or column it was in -- I think it was in one of his "As I See It" columns, he wrote it during the Blitz anyway. He was complaining about the dreariness of everyday chores, using as an example what one had to go through in those days simply to wash dishes (sometimes no hot water, something horrid called "soap flakes," the threat of impending bombs, etc.). He said something about how a decent social program might set up a dish-providing service for households, where a caravan or something would go around and collect all the used dishes, replacing them with a fresh set, and so on. You know, the in-the-future-we'll-all-eat-from-a-common-cafeteria scheme, supposedly so that women could be freed from the drudgery of the kitchen. Well, that's all very well and good, but being a guy, he didn't know what he was messing with. There is simply no way every woman in the western world is going to do away with her One Set Of Good China. It's just not going to be done.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at February 8, 2003 09:08 PM
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