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George Orwell A Collection Of Essays By George

George Orwell's collected nonfiction, written in the clear-eyed and uncompromising style that earned him a critical following



One of the most thought-provoking and vivid essayists of the twentieth century, George Orwell fought the injustices of his time with singular vigor through pen and paper. In this selection of essays, he ranges from reflections on his boyhood schoolGeorge Orwell's collected nonfiction, written in the clear-eyed and uncompromising style that earned him a critical following



One of the most thought-provoking and vivid essayists of the twentieth century, George Orwell fought the injustices of his time with singular vigor through pen and paper. In this selection of essays, he ranges from reflections on his boyhood schooling and the profession of writing to his views on the Spanish Civil War and British imperialism. The pieces collected here include the relatively unfamiliar and the more celebrated, making it an ideal compilation for both new and dedicated readers of Orwell's work....more

Paperback, 316 pages

Published 1981 by Harvest (first published 1954)

The more of him I read, the more I'm convinced that George Orwell is the most underrated author, maybe even the most underrated cultural figure, of the 20th Century.  Sure, we all recognize that 1984 and Animal Farm are classics, but they are somehow diminished in stature by the fact that we read them in grade school.  Worse, having been force fed these two, most folks are unlikely to continue on and read the rest of his work.  This is a real shame, because it means that they miss out on some of his greatest writings.  In fact, you could make a compelling argument that the most important book he wrote was actually Homage to Catalonia.  Everyone, even if they were being disingenuous, could praise his two dystopian novels, because they were set in imaginary worlds and only alluded to the real world and actual events.  Homage, because it dealt with Orwell's own experiences and with the real life events of the Spanish Civil War, had to be reckoned with by those on the Left who continued to support Communism even after it's brutal nature had become obvious.  After Homage, no one could pretend any longer that their pro-Stalinist stance was really just a form of anti-fascism, because Orwell had demonstrated that there was no essential difference between these two systems of totalitarianism.  Had he written nothing else, this memoir alone would have established him as one of the seminal political writers of our time.

Of course he wrote much more, and several of his essays are rightly considered to be among the finest ever written.  These include fascinating, somewhat idiosyncratic surveys of the work of Dickens and Kipling.  For instance, he concludes that Dickens's reputation as a reformer is undeserved, that the author had little interest in making fundamental changes to the institutions he wrote about so devastatingly.  Instead:

    It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit
    rather than a change of structure.  It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy,
    still more to any political doctrine.  His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is
    sufficiently summed up  in that remark about Strong's school being as different from Creakle's 'as
    good is from evil.'  Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different.  Heaven and
    Hell are in the same place.  Useless to change institutions without a "change of heart"--that,
    essentially, is what he is always saying.

    If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug.  A "change of
    heart" is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo.  But Dickens is
    not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from
    his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.  I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a
    revolutionary writer.  But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be
    just as 'revolutionary'--and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down--as the
    politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. ... Progress is not an illusion, it
    happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.  There is always a new tyrant waiting to take
    over from the old--generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant.  Consequently two viewpoints are
    always tenable.  The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system?
    The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature?  They
    appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time.
    The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another.  Marx exploded a
    hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that
    tremendous crash.  But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is
    being tamped in place to blow Marx to the moon.  Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come
    back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee.  The
    central problem--how to prevent power from being abused--remains unsolved.  Dickens, who had
    not the vision to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that.  'If
    men would behave decently the world would be decent' is not such a platitude as it sounds.

This passage tells us something insightful about Dickens : reflecting upon what Orwell says, we recall that Dickens is indeed more outraged by the cruel working and living conditions of the poor than willing to propose alternatives.  To the extent that Dickens can be said to have influenced the Nineteenth Century, that influence lay not in prescriptions for reform, but in contributing to a change in attitudes towards what kind of conditions were acceptable.  The novels exert a moral influence : they do not suggest concrete political steps that should be taken.

Quite possibly though, the passage tells us even more about Orwell himself.  For the sapper undermining Marxism was none other than George Orwell.  Forget that silly bit of cant about private property, this is merely Orwell clinging to his image of himself as a Socialist.  I don't question that he honestly thought that property should be distributed more fairly, but no one who recognizes that tyranny succeeds tyranny can truly believe in the type of government coercion that would be required to effect this distribution.  One can say of Orwell, as he says of Dickens, that what we carry away from his writing is his "hatred of tyranny."

This hatred is Orwell's negative virtue, but his positive virtues are an abiding humanism, relentless honesty and a thorough moral grounding.  His humanism ironically comes through in his Reflections on Gandhi.  Though he is generally sympathetic to the Mahatma, the essay includes one devastating paragraph:

    Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because "friends react on one another" and through
    loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is
    to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one's preference to any individual
    person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude
    cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean
    loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi
    behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three
    occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food
    prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that
    Gandhi - with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction - always gave
    the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the decision had been
    solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risks might be. There must,
    he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side
    of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which - I think - most
    people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek
    perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not
    push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared
    in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love
    upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must
    avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this,
    but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that
    "non-attachment" is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man
    only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed
    saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is
    probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human
    beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main
    motive for "non-attachment" is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love,
    which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the
    other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is "higher". The point is that they are incompatible. One must
    choose between God and Man, and all "radicals" and "progressives," from the mildest Liberal to the
    most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.

Of course, in a sense he is here accusing Gandhi of attempting the same type of human re-engineering for which he honors Dickens, but we'll not ask for too great a consistency.  The real point is his discomfort with Gandhi, he refers to it as "aesthetic distaste," which is notable both for it's intellectual honesty, at a time when Gandhi was an icon of the Left, and for how it reflects his ethical  understanding that there was something monstrous about Gandhi's elevation of the inflexible dictates of his own personal beliefs over the very human needs of those around him.  Orwell perceives the ugly air of fanaticism about Gandhi, and he had learned the costs exacted by fanatics in Spain and that even laudable social goals can not justify the inhuman means to which fanatics resort.  Orwell's ultimate judgment parallels that he makes of Dickens; where Dickens is judged worthy for his hatred of tyranny, Gandhi is held suspect because of his personal tyranny over those around him.  This reflects the central insight of Orwell's oeuvre, that even noble ends can not justify authoritarian means.

In what may well be the greatest of his essays, Shooting an Elephant, Orwell specifically addressing the evils of Imperialism, capturing, perhaps better than anyone else ever has, the real moral damage that men do to themselves when they seek to exercise this kind of power over others.  One day, while serving as a minor official in Burma, Orwell was called upon to shoot a rogue elephant.

    I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought
    not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant--it is comparable to destroying a
    huge and costly piece of machinery--and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be
    avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow.
    I thought then and I think now that his attack of "must" was already passing off; in which case he
    would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I
    did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make
    sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.

    But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd,
    two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on
    either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited
    over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as
    they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical
    rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to
    shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their
    two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there
    with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's
    dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed
    native crowd--seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet
    pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when
    the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow,
    posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he
    shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what
    the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.  I had got to shoot the
    elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a
    sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that
    way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away,
    having done nothing--no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life,
    every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

Even if, like me, you believe that Colonialism was a net benefit to native peoples (see Orrin's review of Things Fall Apart), it is impossible to escape the conclusion that a system which required such actions of it's administrators was evil.  Any system which turns those who administer it into tyrants, wielding arbitrary power over the lives of others, is evil.

Finally, let us turn once more to Orwell's insistence on intellectual honesty, which is nowhere better expressed than in the essay  Politics and the English Language.  Readers will recall the degree to which the misappropriation and misuse of language is an animating concern of 1984 and Animal Farm, but here he makes his case more directly:

    Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad
    way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our
    civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the
    general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental
    archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this
    lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we
    shape for our own purposes.

    Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes:
    it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become
    a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so
    on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all
    the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English
    language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because out thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of
    our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is
    reversible. 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.

He goes on to illustrate his concerns by discussing five examples of such poorly written English, then offers some ways to reclaim the language so that it will once again serve the purpose of communicating clearly, rather than serving narrow political agendas:

    I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would
    argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions,
    and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and
    constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not
    true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary
    process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore
    every avenue and leave no stone unturned , which were killed by the jeers of a few
    journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough
    people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un-
    formation out of existence, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to
    drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness
    unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English language implies more
    than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.

    To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns
    of speech, or with the setting up of a "standard English" which must never be departed from. On
    the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has
    outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no
    importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or
    with having what is called a "good prose style." On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake
    simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case
    preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest
    words that will cover one's meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the
    word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is
    surrender to them. When yo think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you
    want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the
    exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to
    use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect
    will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your
    meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as
    clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply
    accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what
    impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out
    all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and
    vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and
    one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most
    cases:

        1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in
           print.
        2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
        3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
        4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
        5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an
           everyday English equivalent.
        6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in
    anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them
    and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five
    specimens at the beginning of this article.

    I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an
    instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others
    have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a
    pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how
    can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought
    to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one
    can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your
    English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the
    necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to
    yourself. 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. One cannot change this all in a moment, but
    one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly
    enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed,
    melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin,
    where it belongs.

I shouldn't like to load this point with more freight than it will bear, but the modern defenders of traditional language, to an even greater extent than one would expect, have by and large been conservatives.  Of course, preservation is by it's very nature a conservative activity, but Orwell, C. S Lewis (see Orrin's review) Strunk & White (see Orrin's review), Jacques Barzun (see Orrin's review) and others seek not merely to freeze language in amber, but to return it to it's primary function of expressing ideas in a form which is universally accessible and which will remain stable and predictable, whatever the political and ideological vagaries of the day.

Lastly, there may be those who would say that here, as in many other reviews, I've leaned to heavily on the political character of what the author has to say.  Well, here's what Orwell says in Why I Write:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

    1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get
    your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend
    this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists,
    politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen -- in short, with the whole top crust of
    humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty
    they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all -- and live chiefly for others, or are
    simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are
    determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I
    should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in
    money .

    2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words
    and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of
    good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable
    and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a
    pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for
    non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the
    level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

    3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for
    the use of posterity.

    4. Political purpose -- using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the
    world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should
    strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should
    have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
 

This last is particularly well stated.  It strikes me that the very best books we read, from 1984 to A Tale of Two Cities to The Lord of the Rings, do largely seem intended to "push the world in a certain direction."  All are in their own way political texts.

He concludes this essay, which concludes the edition of his essays that I have, with the following:

    Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives
    in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All
    writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.
    Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One
    would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can
    neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a
    baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one
    constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say
    with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be
    followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political
    purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without
    meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Perhaps this explains why the great works so compelling; the author's sense of political purpose provides a unifying structure, a narrative focus and a personal passion which may be lacking in lesser works.

Though they deal with a variety of topics these essays are unified by Orwell's devotion to the truth and his opposition to tyranny in all of it's many forms.  These two qualities combine to make him a moralist in the very best sense of the term, someone for whom the morality of a situation, a choice, a judgment, or an action, is always the primary concern.  The critic V. S. Pritchett referred to Orwell as "the wintry conscience of his generation;"  I think you can drop the wintry.

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