The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Orwell Would Have Hated You, Stupid. And Me Too.

When Orwell died, he left clear instructions that his notes and papers be destroyed. It’s typical of the way the world has always treated him that I’ve read them all for the simple reason that his dying wishes were ignored, and all his essays, letters, and short manuscripts are now available in an annotated Penguin collection, a format, by the way, which he would have despised.

There’s quite a lot of debate about Orwell’s politics, all against a near constant background hum of his words and works being co-opted in support of everything from Chinese Communist Party propaganda to libertarian arguments against regulation. As with most figures in history, in order to understand his politics it’s probably beneficial to know a little something about the man himself. Everybody will have read the Penguin bio, so would know that he was born Eric Arthur Blair, that his father was an official of the British Empire, and that he therefore went to Eton on a scholarship, but I’d hazard a guess that that’s generally as far as it goes.

Orwell was a man tortured by class. This can be very clearly seen in multiple works. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a semi-autobiographical account of a starving writer caught between his parlour communist posh friends and actual working class folk who despise him, there is a telling quote. The protagonist has a financial windfall and goes on a champagne-fuelled binge. Somewhere in the middle of this, he catches a sort of pitying look from one of his posh mates and reflects on his own mendacity, thinking that “…the rich take their pleasures gracefully…”, and seeing his own feverish, poverty-driven excesses as ridiculous aping of his ‘betters’. In Wigan PierSuch, Such Were the Joys, and even when disguised as a tramp and meandering from Spike to Spike in Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell is plagued by a sense of his class, the idea of being a ‘gentleman’, and the fact he has not the money to sustain this position. He hates the charity of his friends, the shame he feels in his own poverty, and the system which, to his mind, debars him from simply and permanently becoming a navvy or dustman. In fact, the only time he doesn’t seem hagridden by the constraints of his social status is during that passage of Down and Out where he is living as a dishwasher, or plongeur, in Paris.

It’s during this period that we get to see another side of the man. The bulk of this passage of writing, which I would highly recommend as incisive social history, has to do with food, not having enough, and the trials and tribulations involved in trying to keep fed. Orwell was so hard up he recounts waiting five days for a cheque to clear before he can eat, stating that his sole refuges were tobacco, without which “life would not have been tolerable”, and a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, which were all he was “capable” of reading. In the context of being this hungry, he lists a series of disasters which can befall a poor man. Queuing for five centimes worth of bread, the girl clumsily over-cuts the loaf for the customer before him, saying, “You don’t care about a couple of sous extra, no?”. This causes Orwell to walk shamefacedly away, as should the same thing happen to him, he has not even a sou to cover it, going without bread as much because of his shame at his poverty as the poverty itself. Or another time, starving in a garret, he is boiling milk and potatoes in a spirit stove when an insect of some kind falls into the pot. He recounts, as a matter of course, that the whole meal must then be thrown away. But even in the midst of all this we see a keen spirit of observation reminiscent of the Enlightenment novelists and thinkers who were among his literary heroes. He notes that a man’s description of what bread tastes like to a starving man (thick, wet, doughy) is accurate. He records faithfully a typical example of tenement gossip, involving a miserly eccentric suspected of being a paedophile, and a shipment of cocaine (nothing changes). He notes with the care of an eighteenth century naturalist the lassitude, sensory changes, changes in mood, in texture of spittle, associated with both starvation and extreme fatigue. He records in full the alcoholic boasting of a teenager claiming to have raped a virgin newly installed in a brothel. Orwell is that very rare type of observer who is fastidious and methodical enough to make observations of value, and willing and able to become intimately familiar with the dregs of life.

And here, I think, is the key to understanding where Orwell stood. He stood alone. If there was a tide making, he would almost certainly swim against it. He has been described as a “perpetual political misfit”, and this is true. We can see it in his essays where he excoriates right wing patriots and revolutionary communists alike, where he agonises over whether or not to support his country’s war effort, rails at Auden for his use of the phrase “necessary murder”, accuses Dickens of childish parochialism while praising his imagination and social activism to the skies, staunchly defends English cooking, English murder mysteries over American, and rails passionately against the existence of the compound word ‘onto’. And we can see it in his journalism, his unflinching and strangely unsympathetic accounts of the very poor, his furious frustration with Spanish anarcho-communists, parlour socialists, his doubt of the veracity of his own socialism, and his frank disgust at the smug self-satisfaction of his friends and supporters on the left. And we especially see it in his literature. Animal Farm, amongst other things, is much more a tale of ideologues enforcing their own particular vision of the state without reference to the people than it is anything else. And as for 1984, only a fool or a teenager would allow themselves to be distracted by all the quaint futurism and buzzwords like “newspeak”, and thereby miss the central point of that work, which is despair. Despair at the limitations of the proletariat, at the cowardly conformist mendacity of humankind, of any possibility of human redemption or perfectibility. Two plus two equals five not just because the state says so, but because the people will grant this and anything else besides, merely in order to feel safe and fill their bellies. To be relieved of the burden of actually having to think about anything.

While it’s not possible to sum up a human in a single sentence, it is possible to say a true thing about them, and the true thing in Orwell’s case is that he was uncompromisingly rational. He hated all forms of mob enthusiasm, all manifestations of blind and mindless party allegiance. He prized self examination above all things, and was contemptuous of anyone either unwilling or unable to think past their own feelings. And this is why a libertarian co-opting his arguments against totalitarian control in support of deregulation is basically the equivalent to pissing on his memory. The whole attitude of ‘my ideology right or wrong’ was deeply invidious to him, as was the kind of obtuseness capable of blurring the distinctions surrounding his own arguments. And as for communists and ersatz socialists repeatedly and determinedly missing the point of his calls for revolution, the same applies. And as for me, I think he would have been deeply annoyed by my faith in the military, my tolerance for homosexuals and Catholicism, my cowardice in choosing to feed myself by teaching the children of the rich. And he would have been seriously unhappy about the fact that I read all his letters. So I don’t quote him in support of my ideas as I’m very well aware that he would not have liked me. And nor would he have had a single second for the unreflective armchair activists and keyboard warriors who spew out what passes for political discourse today.