Orwell and the Meaning of Life


Orwell’s reputation as a journalist and political essayist hardly needs any buttressing. His name regularly appears in lists of the 20th century’s most important writers. He was the first writer to note–as he lay dying, in fact–that the Allies’s victory in World War Two had not abolished but merely transformed the threat of authoritarianism. We are still tasting the bitter dregs of this prophecy today.

Orwell’s early books, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, were pioneering examples of what we today call “immersion journalism.” Orwell did not just visit the world of the poor to write these books. He actually and truly became poor, and used his perspective to tell society’s upper crust what deprivation looked and felt like, right next door to their comfortable lives.

“Our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.”

In a way, Orwell’s books about economics and poverty make an analogous point to his more famous books about politics and authoritarianism: just as authoritarianism can be seen to survive even inside the walls of a democratic fortress, poverty, it seems, will always be with us, blighting the ranks of the working class even in the richest societies.

Orwell had a nose for paradox and a stomach for–as he put it–“facing unpleasant facts.”

I would respect him even if his legacy stopped here, as a trenchant observer of hard social realities. But the reason I love Orwell and identify with him (and the reason this blog is about him) is because he also wrote very movingly about the meaning of life. Orwell gets surprisingly little credit for his philosophical depth and occasional lyricism.

His own life slipped away tragically early, at the age of 46, the end of a decades-long battle with tuberculosis. (He never liked sports, even as a boy, because he was constantly short of breath. He recalls in his school-days memoir, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” how he was made to run harder as punishment for being “weak-chested” during football.)

Orwell never complained about his fate, even as he felt it approaching. This was probably because he failed utterly to believe there was a department for receiving metaphysical complaints. Orwell was a staunch atheist from the age of 14, and he saw supernaturalism of any kind as an attempt to escape the hard work of real life.

Although he occasionally indulged in hectoring the religious attitude, he usually focused on the positive side of his anti-spiritualist arguments–that human life was an agreeable, often noble adventure that deserved our loyalty and affection; it was not a mere vale of tears to be dismissed with a “this too shall pass.”

Orwell’s deep humanism comes out beautifully in his essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” which initially hits out against Tolstoy’s asceticism:

If only, Tolstoy says in effect, we would stop breeding, fighting, struggling and enjoying, if we could get rid not only of our sins but of everything else that binds us to the surface of the earth–including love in the ordinary sense of caring more for one human being than another–then the whole painful process would be over and the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive.

What, then, we might ask, is the point of life, if not to store up treasure in Heaven, as many of us were taught to believe? Surely if we are not storing up treasure in one place, we are doing so in the other–on the surface of the fallen, sin-stained earth.

One of the stock charges against philosophical materialism (the belief that only physical stuff exists, not ghosts, gods or eternal truths) is that it implies a sort of crass, shallow hedonism. Why not live for the pleasure of the day if there is no higher law to guide us, no heaven or hell to receive us after the crucible of judgment?

But the humanist in fact does answer a higher calling, which proves to be a more serious one than Christianity can envision. In the continuation of the passage above, Orwell responds to Tolstoy’s wish that we break our earthly bonds and seek only after the Kingdom of Heaven:

But a normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is “weak,” “sinful” or anxious for a “good time.” Most people get a fair amount of fun in their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life.

For me, this is one of the most victorious passages not only in Orwell, but in all of 20th century English literature. I spent thirty-odd years wandering into pointless adventures and thinking about life in alternately superstitious and  desultory ways–in short, wondering where I was “coming from.” For years I thought my choice was between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but the power of Orwell’s words awakened me to my real wellspring–the ordinary struggle for life, bound by love to a small group of people on the surface of the earth. Fairy tale kingdoms not only looked decidedly silly next to that reality; they seemed to constitute an insult to real life. If I have a code of ethics today, it is not to insult life unnecessarily.

One of the great pleasures of reading Orwell is that ideas like this one, on par with Epitectus or Seneca, are often hidden away in the most unassuming places.  When I bought my first volume of Orwell’s essays, I moved hungrily from one hearty course to another, looking for the titles I knew to be his classics–“Politics and the English Language,” “Why I Write,” and so forth. Even if you’ve never read any of his lesser-known works, such as “Can Socialists Be Happy?,” you can often see what you’re getting into just by the title.

But not so with, say, “Inside the Whale” or “Raffles and Miss Blandish.” It was only because the subject seemed naughty that I began one day to read “The Art of Donald McGill.” It turned out to be about tits and ass. McGill, it emerges, was a postcard artist of the 1930s and -40s who performed what Orwell called “skits on pornography” by turning out lurid, sexually frank drawings that unmasked the suppressed English libido (yes, there is one).

Going only by Orwell’s reputation, you might think “Donald McGill” would be about freedom of speech, but it’s not. Orwell did not, in fact, want McGill to be censored, but his defense of the cartoonist was more philosophical than political. McGill’s vulgar drawings, Orwell said, were a psychologically healthy expression of humanity’s “unofficial self.”

Although the sexism of this passage has not aged well, its underlying message still rings remarkably true. Each of us, Orwell says, has a Sancho Panza lurking inside us:

There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantage of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. His tastes lie toward safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with “voluptuous” figures. He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One, to be unfaithful to your wife, to bilk your debts, and so on and so forth. Whether you allow yourself to be influenced by him is a different question. But it is simply a lie to say that he is not a part of you, just as it is a lie to say that Don Quixote is not part of you either, though most of what is said and written consists of one lie or the other, usually the first.

Is Orwell suggesting an unrestrained wallow in licentiousness is good for us then? Not exactly. As usual, he is trying to balance both sides of a morally significant debate. There is a sound reason, Orwell argues, why the social control of sexuality has conditioned us to aim so artificially high (for sainthood) and to believe that sexual “purity” is somehow bound up with human nature:

A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise. So also with all other jokes, which always centre around cowardice, laziness, dishonesty, or some other quality which society cannot afford to encourage. Society has always to demand a little more from human beings than it will get in practice. It has to demand faultless discipline and self-sacrifice, it must expect its subjects to work hard, pay their taxes, and be faithful to their wives, it must assume that men think it glorious to die on the battlefield and women want to wear themselves out with childbearing. The whole of what one may call official literature is founded on such assumptions (my emphasis).

Many writers have arrived, in one way or another, at this conclusion. You can find it expressed a dozen different ways in Shakespeare, for example. Why does Orwell revisit it? He believes that the “worldwide conspiracy” to pretend that our baser selves do not exist comes with dangerous moral consequences. A free, thinking being ought not lie to itself about who or what it is. To do so debases one’s dignity, devastates the human person at its very foundation.

Admittedly, I am putting words in Owell’s mouth at this point. It was Kant who believed that lying to a human was an attack that bordered on violence. Orwell seems to be saying that lying to ourselves compounds the outrage. McGill’s vulgar, sexist, salacious postcards proclaim a sacred truth from within our inner nature, one that tries to keep us honest with ourselves about who we are. Orwell concludes his essay, “The corner of the human heart [McGill’s drawings] speak for might easily manifest itself in worse forms, and I for one should be sorry to see them vanish.” Although we need not obey our inner Sancho Panza, we should stop promoting the lie that he does not exist, or that his existence is shameful.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Orwell had a particular scorn for sainthood. And I believe he did, although it might be more accurate to call it horror. Recall that the most terrifying monsters of 1984 are the officials of the Ministry of Love. They are the elect who guard the highest ideals of Oceania’s society. It is O’Brien, the high Minister of Love, a saint and fundamentalist, who tortures Smith to the breaking point. Beware sainthood, Orwell tells us again and again: it is a variety of fanaticism.

Despite the high pitch of Orwell’s fear of otherworldliness, he never gave in to demagoguery as he was denouncing it. His most nuanced critique of sainthood appears tucked away in his essay, “Reflections on Gandhi.” Again, Orwell surprises us with his philosophical depth.

While Orwell gives Gandhi high marks for political activism, he cautions against the ascetism and otherworldliness of Gandhi’s expressed spiritual pieties, which were based on vegetarianism, sexual abstinence and the avoidance of close friendships. (In 1984, Orwell has Big Brother’s regime make idols of these last two ideals, requiring the party faithful to avoid both sex and intimacy.)

The defining sin of otherworldliness, Orwell argues, is that its partisans “too readily assume 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 is a failed saint.”

Not only does this idea not ring true philosophically for Orwell, but he also thinks it to be bad for ordinary political engagement. “Gandhi’s teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.”

Why does Orwell keep coming back to this idea that we should accept ourselves as we are, that we are not a race fallen from a mythical heaven? There are probably too many reasons to count, but one is bald optimism. Despite the real-world evils Orwell witnessed and fought against, he was too much an optimist to think we ought to invent reasons for loathing ouselves in the very core of our individual being.

And this attitude was no mamby pamby I’m-okay-you’re-okay sort of thing. Orwell believed at the bottom of his heart that we are nothing if we cannot conjure up the loyalty and vulnerability it takes to love others. Although he often accused E.M. Forster of limp-wristedness, Orwell was at the end of the day an advocate of Forster’s most lapidary injunction, “Only connect.”

The very peak of Orwell’s writing for me comes in a passage in “Reflections on Gandhi” where he is putting the sharpest point possible on his attack on asceticism. It so lyrically sums up the meaning of life that I hope one day it might be understood by my successors to sum up the meaning of my life and that it might be recited with some justice at my funeral:

This attitude [of asceticism] 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.

At the end of 1984 it is not a political principle that brings about Smith’s death warrant; it is his fastening of love on Julia, another human individual. Since we all live with death warrants, we should all be so brave as Smith and live primarily to love others, principles be damned.




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