More Orwell

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I’ve been reading George Orwell again. It’s hard to stop: Orwell has to be one of the most winsome and charming writers in the English language, and writing, as he did, in the crucial years of the early 20th century, his writing seems to have permanent relevance, even 75 years later. And he provides a wonderful window into the mindset of the British during WWII, when the outcome was unknown and the stakes seemed enormous. It seems obvious to us now that of course the Germans were going to be defeated and of course the Americans would eventually get into the war, but none of those things were obvious at the time. There’s an atmosphere of sincere alarm in many of the parts from the late 30′s and early 40′s, and it’s quite bracing to read.

But he has his foibles, his socialism which is quite sincere and quite disastrously mistaken. He makes this statement, as part of a long essay about penny dreadfuls:

In a Hollywood film of the Russian Civil War the Whites would probably be angels and the Reds demons. In the Russian version the Reds are angels and the Whites demons. That is also a lie, but, taking the long view, it is a less pernicious lie than the other.

“Taking the long view”? Somehow, I don’t think that the long view of history is judging the Reds Bolsheviks very kindly.

But who care about that? Here’s Orwell on a much more important subject, tea:

Lastly, tea–unless one is drinking it in the Russian style–should be drunk WITHOUT SUGAR. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

And finally, about the habits of a book reviewer:

At about nine p.m. his mind will grow relatively clear, and until the small hours he will sit in a room which grows colder and colder, while the cigarette smoke grows thicker and thicker, skipping expertly through one book after another and laying each down with the final comment, “God, what tripe!” In the morning, blear-eyed, surly and unshaven, he will gaze for an hour or two at a blank sheet of paper until the menacing finger of the clock frightens him into action. Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases–”a book that no one should miss”, “something memorable on every page”, “of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc etc”–will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go. Meanwhile another wad of ill-assorted, unappetising books will have arrived by post. So it goes on. And yet with what high hopes this down-trodden, nerve-racked creature started his career, only a few years ago.

Orwell comments that this description could be generalized, with little modification, to anyone in a literary profession. I’ll make no comment on that.

A quote offered without comment

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One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

–George Orwell, Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali

What Orwell Got Wrong

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So I finally finished The Road to Wigan Pier, as I blogged previously. And did I say this wasn’t a political book? Ha ha! I guess that shows how far I had read, since the second half of the book is entirely concerned with politics, specifically Orwell’s apologia for Socialism.

This, in and of itself, is not something that I would name among Orwell’s mistakes. Orwell makes it abundantly clear that he believes the only real alternatives available to men in his age are Socialism and Fascism, and between the two of them he chooses Socialism. This is a defensible choice, as it’s the choice that the major Western powers all took, banding together to crush fascism utterly, but allowing Socialism (or at least its doppelganger Stalinism) to persist for the next sixty years.

But along the way, Orwell makes two significant errors which are indicative of his time and prejudices. The first is a simple error of fact: Orwell believed that the British were getting smaller, on average:

… [I]t is probable that the physical average has been declining all over England for a long time past, and not merely among the unemployed in the industrial areas. This cannot be proved statistically, but it is a conclusion that is forced upon you if you use your eyes, even in rural places and even in a prosperous town like London. On the day when King George V’s body passed through London on its way to Westminster, I happened to be caught for an hour or two in the crowd in Trafalgar Square. It was impossible, looking about one then, not to be struck by the physical degeneracy of modern England. The people surrounding me were not working-class people for the most part; they were the shopkeeper–commercial-traveller type, with a sprinkling of the well-to- do. But what a set they looked! Puny limbs, sickly faces, under the weeping London sky! Hardly a well-built man or a decent-looking woman, and not a fresh complexion anywhere. As the King’s coffin went by, the men took off their hats, and a friend who was in the crowd at the other side of the Strand said to me afterwards, ‘The only touch of colour anywhere was the bald heads.’ Even the Guards, it seemed to me–there was a squad of guardsmen marching beside the coffin–were not what they used to be. Where are the monstrous men with chests like barrels and moustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my child-hood’s gaze twenty or thirty years ago? Buried, I suppose, in the Flanders mud. In their place there are these pale-faced boys who have been picked for their height and consequently look like hop-poles in overcoats–the truth being that in modern England a man over six feet high is usually skin and bone and not much else. If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. But the process must have begun earlier than that, and it must be due ultimately to un-healthy ways of living, i.e. to industrialism. I don’t mean the habit of living in towns–probably the town is healthier than the country, in many ways–but the modern industrial technique which provides you with cheap substitutes for everything. We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.

As he indicates by his allusions, Orwell seems to have gotten this idea from romantic images of what pre-Edwardian people were actually like, embellished by childhood memories. But there’s an abundance of evidence showing that people in Orwell’s age were already much bigger than they were before, and WWI wasn’t give more than a blip on the overall historical trend. Orwell states that his intuition "cannot be proved statistically", which is hardly an encouraging sign when making statistical generalizations.

The second error which Orwell commits is one of economics, and it concerns the relationship between technological innovation and profit. He states the following near the end of the book:

The Socialists are right, therefore, when they claim that the rate of mechanical progress will be much more rapid once Socialism is established. Given a mechanical civilization the process of invention and improvement will always continue, but the tendency of capitalism is to slow it down, because under capitalism any invention which does not promise fairly immediate profits is neglected; some, indeed, which threaten to reduce profits are suppressed almost as ruthlessly as the flexible glass mentioned by Petronius. [For example: Some years ago someone invented a gramophone needle that would last for decades. One of the big gramophone companies bought up the patent rights, and that was the last that was ever beard of it.] Establish Socialism–remove the profit principle–and the inventor will have a free hand. The mechanization of the world, already rapid enough, would be or at any rate could be enormously accelerated.

This is almost exactly backwards. Mechanization proceeds rapidly in a capitalist society precisely because it provides the opportunity for profits, and in the absence of a profit motive mechanization and innovation slow down or cease. The actual history of the world’s socialist states bears this out: they were rather quickly able to achieve a base level of industrial mobilization, but after that time their technical progress almost always lagged that of the West. The only exceptions were in military technology (and space exploration, the step-child of the military), where innovation was spurred on both sides by state rivalry rather than market forces.

It’s easy to see how Orwell made this mistake, though: Russia had, in the space of a few decades, turned from being a feudal, agrarian economy into being a competing member of the industrial world. Never mind that this development was essentially unrepeatable, depending on the forced migration of millions of serfs to the cities, and that it was accomplished by grotesque applications of force and the evisceration of whole provinces. (Mao would later condemn a few million of his countrymen to starvation attempting to repeat the trick.) From a certain point of view, the fact that this transition had occurred was proof of the common propaganda point that industrialization and science would speed up under Socialism.

Despite these errors, the book is very good. In fact, it’s rather shocking to discover that a Socialist apologetic could be as good as this was. Let Orwell’s mistakes merely be a reminder that the best writers were still capable of simple errors of fact.

More from Orwell

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Today, I am lazy, and have outsourced most of my blog-writing duties to George Orwell. We continue our readings from Chapter 7 of The Road to Wigan Pier, with Orwell talking about the social conditions in the working-class areas of the industrial north:

Take for instance the different attitude towards the family. A working-class family hangs together as a middle-class one does, but the relationship is far less tyrannical. A working man has not that deadly weight of family prestige hanging round his neck like a millstone. I have pointed out earlier that a middle-class person goes utterly to pieces under the influence of poverty; and this is generally due to the behaviour of his family–to the fact that he has scores of relations nagging and badgering him night and day for failing to ‘get on’. The fact that the working class know how to combine and the middle class don’t is probably due to their different conceptions of family loyalty. You cannot have an effective trade union of middle-class workers, be-cause in times of strikes almost every middle-class wife would be egging her husband on to blackleg and get the other fellow’s job….

In a working-class home–I am not thinking at the moment of the unemployed, but of comparatively prosperous homes–you breathe a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which it is not so easy to find elsewhere. I should say that a manual worker, if he is in steady work and drawing good wages–an ‘if’ which gets bigger and bigger–has a better chance of being happy than an ‘educated’ man. His home life seems to fall more naturally into a sane and comely shape. I have often been struck by the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working- class interior at its best. Especially on winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sewing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat–it is a good place to be in, provided that you can be not only in it but sufficiently of it to be taken for granted.

This scene is still reduplicated in a majority of English homes, though not in so many as before the war. Its happiness depends mainly upon one question–whether Father is in work. But notice that the picture I have called up, of a working-class family sitting round the coal fire after kippers and strong tea, belongs only to our own moment of time and could not belong either to the future or the past. Skip forward two hundred years into the Utopian future, and the scene is totally different. Hardly one of the things I have imagined will still be there. In that age when there is no manual labour and everyone is ‘educated’, it is hardly likely that Father will still be a rough man with enlarged hands who likes to sit in shirt-sleeves and says ‘Ah wur coomin’ oop street’. And there won’t be a coal fire in the grate, only some kind of invisible heater. The furniture will be made of rubber, glass, and steel. If there are still such things as evening papers there will certainly be no racing news in them, for gambling will be meaningless in a world where there is no poverty and the horse will have vanished from the face of the earth. Dogs, too, will have been sup- pressed on grounds of hygiene. And there won’t be so many children, either, if the birth-controllers have their way….

Curiously enough it is not the triumphs of modem engineering, nor the radio, nor the cinematograph, nor the five thousand novels which are published yearly, nor the crowds at Ascot and the Eton and Harrow match, but the memory of working-class interiors–especially as I sometimes saw them in my childhood before the war, when England was still prosperous– that reminds me that our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in.

One reads with horror Orwell’s description of the "Utopia" awaiting far in his future. A century from Orwell’s time is only twenty years from now. And while some of his vision has come to pass (invisible heaters, furniture of rubber, glass, and steel), horses are still with us, and so are dogs.

But now contrast Orwell’s discussion of the working-class family with this discussion of the British riots. Some things have gone better than expected. Some things have gone worse.

A dandelion grows in City 17

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The Atlantic has an amazing gallery of photographs from North Korea. Every photograph in the set is striking, but none more than the first one.

Pyongyang at dusk

The North Korean capital of Pyongyang at dusk

There is a surreal, science-fictional quality to this photograph. All of the buildings have a similar blue-gray color, streaked with mold and decay. Every window seems to be dark. A single automobile lurks at the bottom margins of the shot, with a lonely pair of pedestrians nearby. Were it not for their presence, this would seem to be a dead city, the victim of some apocalyptic evacuation. And I experienced a delirious shiver of ostranenie when I realized that perhaps the strangest thing about the city was that it bore no scar of advertising.

The Pyongyang of this photograph doesn’t seem like a real place. It seems rather like a pure archetype, an image of the Stalinist wasteland that has populated the Western imagination of the Soviet states since the 1950s. It seems impossible for any real city to be so desolate. This is a city where the worst thing we can imagine has already happened. This is the London of 1984. This is City 17.

And yet.

My in-laws lived their entire lives in Communist Romania, under the dictator Ceausescu until his deposal in 1989. They have fond memories of this time, and will often tell me wistfully of how peaceful and orderly their world was before the turbulence of the revolution. My wife remembers playing with her sisters while they stood in line to buy milk, and pinching the baby so that people would let them move forward in line. They had to wait in line for milk, because it was rarely available and tightly rationed, but this was normal and expected. She has pictures of herself, dressed in a new dress with her hair up in bows, singing the anthem beneath the portrait of Ceausescu on the schoolhouse wall. They lived in what we would consider dire poverty and repression, but these facts did not define their lives. They managed to get married, to have children, to play with their classmates and dress in new clothes, to sing songs and bicker with their sisters.

This is not to say that there were no difficulties, that we should envy the Communist system, or that we should make light of its crimes. It is rather to marvel at the resiliency of those who lived there. Though they lived in a dystopia, they still lived. No one told them that it was a dystopia and that they were obliged to be unhappy. And unburdened by that knowledge, many of them were happy.

Another striking photograph from the set above shows two female soldiers walking hand-in-hand down a crowded street. They aren’t looking at the photographer. They aren’t performing at a state-sponsored event meant to honor the regime. Nor are they characters in a drama meant to impress on us the horror of their situation. They’re living their lives.