Orwell’s Hinge Year

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

George Orwell wasn’t fond of the year 1938.

He spent a large part of it flat on his back in Morocco, recuperating from a lung hemorrhage caused by tuberculosis. He didn’t believe in the medical theory that put him there, saying in a letter that the idea of certain climates being “good for you . . .[was] a racket run by tourist agencies and local doctors.”

Furthermore, he found Morocco boring. It was hot and dry, of course, but even the politics of the place proved arid. The French were stodgy colonial overseers who had little trouble managing the Arabs. The Arabs, Orwell thought, lacked the political development for mounting a rebellion. “There is no sign of an anti-French movement,” he reported.

Worst of all, though, Orwell couldn’t even write most of the time–he was that weak. Since publishing his first book in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell had kept up the inhuman pace of writing one book each year, also churning out a steady flow of book reviews and the occasional essay. He also fought in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and wrote a book about it. Oh, yes, he had a honeymoon of a year that year with his newlywed wife Eileen. She was smart, pretty and well suited to him. They were in love, and when they fled war-torn Spain, it was with the police “snapping at their heels.”

So maybe after a year like that, 1938 was bound to be a comedown.

So it certainly seemed to be. Orwell wrote to a friend in November of that year, “What with all this illness I’ve decided to count 1938 as a blank year and sort of cross it off the calendar.”

I think we’ve all had years like that. But take heart. You can never really be sure what is surging below the surface when your sea appears to be at a dead calm.

This was certainly the case for Orwell. Not only was there more moving on the surface of Orwell’s life than he let on, 1938 was the year that his boldest ideas began to take shape at the back of his mind. It was a hinge year–he consciously became a political writer and began to intuit the vastness of the threat totalitarianism posed to democracy.

In a short, forceful essay in June, Orwell announced that he had joined the International Labor Party, a socialist group but one that strictly abjured Stalinism. As a movement that was truly for the people, not a communist cabal or the moneyed interests, Orwell believed socialism alone could provide the kind of governance that “in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech” and thus protect his ability to write. But one can’t just cheer on the good guys, he said:

In so far as I have struggled against the system, it has been mainly by writing books which I hoped would influence the reading public. I shall continue to do that, of course, but at a moment like the present, writing books is not enough. The tempo of events is quickening; the dangers which once seemed a generation distant are staring us in the face. One has got to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays into the hands of our always-active enemies.

No sooner had Orwell become a card-carrying party man (in June), his lung hemorrhage happened (in July), and he could neither write nor organize. He would be treated for two months in a sanitorium in Kent followed by six months’ recuperation in Morocco. The doctors ordered him to rest.

Your emotions don’t stop working when you’re laid out flat and unable to do your work, of course. For Orwell, it was precisely an emotional shift in 1938 that would change the shape and color of his thought for the rest of his life.

Orwell had always been, in a searching kind of way, an ironic, dyspeptic, occasionally bitter man. But in 1938, he found his fury. With one European democracy after another caving in to the rising threat of fascist Germany, Orwell worried in a September 1938 letter that the coming war might damage the book publishing industry. This appeared to be a narrow, professional concern, but there was more to it. Orwell was alarmed by a broader threat posed by fascism, to the kind of decent, reflective life that democracy makes possible. The kind of society where good books are written, and read. That could all just disappear.

Some of Orwell’s fellow leftists seemed to relish the coming disturbance of the peace: they actively wanted war over ordinary life. Orwell felt more cautious, though, writing:

But I personally do see a lot of things that I want to do and continue doing for another thirty years or so, and the idea that I’ve got to abandon them and either be bumped off or depart to some filthy concentration camp just infuriates me. Eileen and I have decided that if war does come the best thing will be to just stay alive and thus add to the number of sane people.

Even in a personal letter, where the author is expected to show his cards, I think it is revelatory that Orwell speaks so openly of his fear and anger. I have read all of Orwell’s surviving letters, and none of them predating this one expresses this sharp an emotion. He’s not just horrified by the prospect of being killed or interred (and he means by his fellow Englishmen, who will have turned fascist); he is infuriated.

One of the reasons Orwell felt himself to be on such a knife-edge of history was that his novel-writing, although only inching along, was starting to illuminate the full shape of the beast Europe was contending with. In December 1938 he wrote to a friend that he was eager to finish his draft novel, Coming Up For Air. Well, Orwell was always eager to finish his next book, but he was also consistently self-deprecating about its quality, usually dubbing it a failure before it even hit the presses. This time, though, he was excited, writing to his friend, that his germinating book “suddenly revealed to me a big subject which I’d never really touched before and haven’t time to work out properly now.”

George Bolling, the novels’ antagonist, felt war coming. So did everyone else in England. But it was the concomitant seismic shift in world politics that alarmed and demoralized Bolling (and Orwell, of course). Contending with fascism on a world scale was going to do as-yet unknown harm to the culture of democracy. One night Bolling attends a noisy political rally where the speaker says, like it or not, England would have to fight fire with fire when it came to German fascism. The only option was ruin and capitualtion. Bolling reflects:

But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke. It’s all going to happen. Or isn’t it?

With the benefit of hindsight, we know this was not just a big idea Orwell was starting to evolve in Morocco in 1938. It was the big idea, the one that would make him Orwell. Once large governments start using advanced technology and the instruments of mass culture to control their nations, they could glimpse the possibility of becoming permanent regimes. If you can get the people to believe anything, you can rule forever. This is the glowing nuclear core of political power in the twentieth century.

Orwell was eventually able to get up and writing in Morocco. Here he is at his desk in 1938, the year he wished he could “cross . . . off the calendar.”

In a review of Bertrand Russell’s 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis, Orwell again evokes a collective downward political movement, toward deeps that would submerge and immobilize the human spirit. He is criticizing Russell’s “pious hope” that, bad as Hitler seems, all tyrannies have come and gone, and Hitler’s will too. Orwell writes:

Underlying this is the idea that common sense always wins in the end. And yet the peculiar horror of the present moment is that we cannot be sure that this is so. It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two and two will make five when the Leader says so. Mr. Russell points out that the huge system of organised lying upon which the dictators depend keeps their followers out of contact with reality and therefore tends to put them at a disadvantage as against those who know the facts. This is true so far as it goes, but it does not prove that the slave society at which the dictators are aiming will be unstable. It is quite easy to imagine a state in which the ruling caste deceive their followers without deceiving themselves. Dare anyone be sure that something of the kind is not already coming into existence?

I generally dislike the device of asking “What would the long-gone notable X say” about this or that current affair. It militates against fresh thinking. But I must admit that I couldn’t get Orwell out of my head on January 6th while watching the MAGA insurrectionists attack police officers with the staffs of Blue Live Matter flags. Anyone can say two plus two equals five when the Leader orders them to: these people were acting it out with their very bodies–they were fighting like hell to show they believed it.

This is a new turn, which not even Orwell anticipated. With all due respect to those harmed by the MAGA cult’s violence, the violence itself is not MAGA’s most horrifying feature. It is how easily replicable the cult’s basis of power–the collective lie–is. When Orwell was just coming to grips with the outlines of dictatorial power in 1938, he was right to observe that strongmen relied on “huge systems of organised lying” imposed from the top-down. Today, though, those systems are self-organizing, bottom up. Orwell wrote in the passage above that the subjects of totalitarianism were at a disadvantage because their rulers still believed in facts, but now there has been a slave revolt of sorts that upsets this truth. The people are outpacing their rulers in the frenzy to make and believe in increasingly outrageous lies. See the small but hateful presence of a MAGA-Q-Anon caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Those are the people.

While Orwell didn’t exactly see this disaster coming in 1938, once again, he intuited the conditions that would make it possible. In one of his last writings that year–a book review about the USSR–he again raised a warning that, for the first time in history dictators could contemplate staying in power forever. He expanded:

In the past every tyranny was sooner or later overthrown, or at least resisted, because of “human nature”, which as a matter of course desired liberty. But we cannot be at all certain that “human nature” is constant. It may be just as possible to produce a breed of men who do not wish for liberty as to produce a breed of hornless cows. . . . Mass suggestion is a science of the last twenty years, and we do not yet know how successful it will be.

The really horrifying turn of the twentieth century was the prospect, first realized in Soviet Russia, that a government could bring its people to believe, with all their being, in obvious untruths. The unprecedented part, of course, was not the forceful propagation of untruths. In his book review, Orwell points out that the Inquisition had already done that. What was new was the idea that an authoritarian regime could create a mass constituency that was culturally encoded to believe its lies, with vigor. As elementary genetics tells us, once you create a new variant of a species, its genes are as good a candidate as any others to compete for survival. The desire to believe in lies, although it appears grotesque, can propagate itself; has propagated itself. These genes expressed themselves in a flash of hideous strength on January 6th at the seat of our government. Now they are in the seat of our government.

Orwell saw the roots of all this in 1938. It was not a year for crossing off the calendar after all.

“The Hill We Climb”: An Appreciation

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Amanda Gorman’s transfixing recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s inauguration was a literary triumph.

If you only have five and a half free minutes, please watch Gorman’s performance rather than read my attempt to praise it. Here is a link.

But if you can indulge me, I’d like describe how Gorman’s poem struck me. It was a crowning, radiant moment in American literature.

First, “The Hill We Climb” is clearly and powerfully of a piece with Walt Whitman. The hill Gorman has us struggling up is carpeted with Whitman’s leaves of grass. And just as Whitman’s cycle of nature poems was written to unite a wounded, fracturing country, Gorman’s calls us to a “glade,” where our “bruised” nation can draw new strength and “strive to forge a union of purpose.”

Also like Whitman, Gorman casts her gaze fondly over our whole landscape, to “every known nook of our nation,” and hears a hymn rising from all over the land, from “the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states [and] the sun-baked South.” She has us striding out boldly, called to energetic action, but, like Whitman’s Americans, most at peace in the the pastoral, where scripture says “everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”

Second, Gorman’s patriotism in “The Hill We Climb” is searing, and it is uniquely African American. I do not mean it is like “ordinary” patriotism but with a Black twist: I mean it has a depth and quality that can only be voiced by the descendants of slaves. When Gorman’s poem searches for the meaning of the American origin story, we might easily think she will find it–justifiably–in 1619, with the arrival of the first ships bearing slaves to Virginia. There is much to be said, after all, for the recent argument that 1776 was not our nation’s founding moment.

But no. Gorman indicates the unfinished project of our country started exactly where the school books say it did, in 1776–in “the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.”

This remarkable appeal to the Founders’ revolution by a daughter of those most brutalized by the system the Founders perpetuated is the truest form of patriotism. It is harrowed by doubt, tempered by fire, but all the more magnificent because of the severity of the tests it has passed.

In “The Fire Next Time,” one of the greatest essays in American letters, James Baldwin argued eloquently that if we Americans are to “achieve our country,” we will do so by advancing the revolution begun in Boston. And he drew this conclusion in full knowledge of how miserably we had failed to fulfill our national purpose up to that point (in 1963). For many Americans, patriotism is an untroubled, warm love of country. But Baldwin reveals that informed patriotism starts in a very cold place:

The American Negro [he wrote] has the great advantage of never having believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, . . . . Negroes know far more about white Americans than that.

But Baldwin held true to the American vision.

So does Gorman. When she exhorts us to continue the work of our revolution, she speaks from the same place as Baldwin. And Baldwin was speaking from the same place as Frederick Douglass. They all make the impassioned argument that, even knowing the worst there is to know about our history, it is still our original vision of liberty, justice and equality that we must strive for. It is not time to abandon our project and try something easier. We must achieve our country

Finally, Gorman’s use of a rapping meter to deliver her poem was artistically superb and historically significant. Jazz, gospel, and the blues are often said to be the most original American art forms. The fact that they have their roots in the historical experience of racial oppression gives them a moral vividness lacking in all other folk art. Gorman’s rapping delivery, albeit subtle, tapped into this vividness and reminded us that the experience of racial oppression continues to stimulate the most original art forms on the American scene. Whitman heard America singing; so did Amanda Gorman, even as she was singing to us.

Orwell’s Origins as a Social Democrat

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Orwell is such a fixed star in the universe of political writers, we can easily forget how meandering a path he took to reach his mature views. It was only in middle age after fighting the forces of fascism and being menaced by fellow leftists in the Spanish Civil War that his principles as a social democrat clearly came together. For several years as a young man he had held such an odd mixture of traditional and libertarian beliefs he called himself a “Tory anarchist.” (“Hippie Reaganite” might give American ears a sense of the disconnect.)

Still, the social democrat was there in outline all along. When you go back to Orwell’s first writings and read them in order–as I am doing this year–the component artifacts of his mature position are evident and intact even in the beginning. They need very little sifting or piecing together.

In April 1931 Orwell published his first political essay, “The Spike.” It was actually an article of what we would today call “immersion journalism,” in which he posed as a tramp and stayed a weekend in a public shelter (called “spikes” at the time). The experience Orwell describes is austere and humiliating. Together with his fellow tramps, he was stripped down to his rags of underclothing, medically screened–ostensibly for smallpox–and locked inside a barn-like building with bare concrete floors. The men received only hard bread, margarine and weak tea for their sustenance. They washed up twenty to a single washbasin.

Although Orwell’s general description of the spike’s misery is memorable, it was one particular tramp who caught his attention. The tramp in question seemed a cut above the 40-odd others, described as “mentally blank” and intellectually unable to grasp their plight. But Orwell’s tramp knew what was wrong: a carpenter, he had lost his tools to a small financial crisis and fell out of work. “It’s idiotic,” he reflected: “six months at the public charge for want of three pounds’ worth of tools.”

This passage points directly to the social democratic principle that welfare should relieve specific shortfalls. It need not be wasteful or even generous if it is smart. Restore that destitute carpenter’s tools today, and relieve the public of paying his room and board indefinitely. What Orwell was witnessing in the spike was a general approach to palliating poverty and homelessness so lacking in thought that it perpetuated the very conditions it was supposed to address. This was basically the same world Dickens inhabited, in which poor houses were kept up as a means of warehousing the poor but with no conception of other kinds of interventions that might break the cycle of poverty. It was almost as if the rich wanted the poor to always be with them.

(Image: Getty)

Orwell’s next essay, “A Hanging,” was published in August 1931. In it he illustrated a far weightier principle of social democracy: that the state must waive its right to kill where it can humanely incapacitate instead. There should be no death penalty. Today we know of several abstract arguments against the death penalty. To me, the most compelling one is based in the error rate of capital convictions. Actual cases of mistakes tell us innocents have been executed; statistics tell us this injustice will continue as long as the death penalty exists.

For Orwell, though, the most compelling “argument” against the death penalty is simply that he is radically pro-life. He cannot, metaphysically, make sense of humans deliberately snuffing out the lives of other humans who are completely under their control.

In the scene Orwell recalls in “A Hanging,” he is a young colonial police officer in Burma. As his detail force-marches a condemned prisoner toward the gallows, the man adjusts his stride to avoid stepping in a puddle. That moment burst upon Orwell’s conscience like lightning. He recalls:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working—bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming—toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less.

Orwell would go on for nearly twenty years speaking and speaking of the wrongs men do to one another, but the wrongness of capital punishment he found unspeakable. All social democrats, indeed all decent human beings, share this belief in the limits of justice–that our system may go up to the point of incapacitating a known criminal, but we dare not take their lives as long as we are in full control of our senses, reasons and actions.

Orwell on Seeing Evil Right in Front of Your Nose

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we are taught as children. And it’s good advice. Much great literature and moral theorizing tells us, very sensibly, that we must look inside people’s hearts and minds to understand what’s going on on the surface.

George Orwell looked as deeply into the human mind as anyone, at least when it came to politics. He admired many of his critics and ideological enemies and thought their beliefs should be given careful, deliberate consideration. But he also believed there are times when you go with your gut–when you can see evil right in front of your nose.

Take goose-stepping. In a 1940 essay, “England, Your England,” Orwell observed:

One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim.

Sometimes the evil you can perceive aesthetically is not so clear cut, but it is still there. Charles Dickens, Orwell wrote, was constantly hitting out against a wickedness he couldn’t quite define. Of his more prosecutorial novels, Orwell wrote, “What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, ‘an expression on the human face’.”

His own camp did not escape this kind of criticism. When Orwell insulted certain English socialists as “juice-drinking sandal-wearers,” he was not merely indulging his own in-born conservative attitude. He knew that his fellow leftists’ ostentatious weirdness would put off the great majority of working people they needed on their side if they were ever going to win elections. Orwell firmly believed that to most of the working class, “a crank meant a Socialist, and a Socialist meant a crank.”

But here Orwell was basically just saying, don’t look silly if you have a serious point to make.

(Getty Images)

Back to the evil that can be directly apprehended in surface appearances. From the first time I watched the video of Donald Trump clomping across Lafayette Square to hold an upside-down Bible aloft in front of St. John’s Church, I thought not only was it a naked, sacrilegious abuse of power, but also that its ugliness was part of its essence. It was the hideous core of Trumpism saying to all its opponents, “Yes, I’m ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me.”

The Very First Lesson Orwell Learned

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

When Orwell wrote down the very first political lesson he learned, he still went by his birth name, Eric Blair. The lesson was this: It is often illegal to be somewhere, and since poor people have less choice over where they happen to be at any given time, it is most often they who lack a legal right just to stand, sit, or lie around. The police move them on, to the next place it will be illegal for them to be.

The 17-year old Blair had been travelling by train. Beckoned by an acquaintance waving from a village station, he got off, was delayed, and was, as it turned out, left behind. There were no more trains that day. Even later in life, when he became known as George Orwell, Blair never had much money in his pocket. That day, he records, he had seven and a half pence, or about $5. It was enough to pay for dinner or a bed at the local Y but not both. It was August, so he decided to buy food and skip the shelter.

In a letter to a friend, he wrote that once he had bought his dinner, he sought out a palace to sleep rough, “finally [coming] to anchor in a corner field” near some garden plots.

As dogs began to bark nearby, Blair worried that, “people frequently got fourteen days for sleeping in someone else’s field & ‘having no visible means of support’.” And that described him to a T. He was illegally occupying the only place he could be, given his options.

I mention this episode for a few reasons. First, in the huge shadow of Orwell’s later, more formidable writings, it is often forgotten that his first political inklings were very simple ones about the plight of the poor. This was the very first one.

Second, like so many of Orwell’s small, offhand observations–such as calling London’s plutocrats the “one percent” in 1943–this one would grow into its own weighty branch of political discourse. It applies directly to refugees and asylum seekers. (Our whole approach to the southern U.S. border, for example, is to shrink the space in which potential refugees have standing to plea their cases. We are doing our damndest to make it illegal for them to be anywhere.) The whole edifice of the Jim Crow South rested on the legal power to use poverty as a stand-in for race and therefore a pretext for racial oppression. It kept Blacks in “their” place, which was almost nowhere. Southern whites simply made it illegal for the poor to be anywhere they might try to exercise a human right. Then all they had to do was apply the law.

Third, Blair’s letter highlights why it is not, as is often alleged, hypocritical for privileged members of society to acquaint themselves with the plights of others. Yeah, of course he got on a train the next day and just went home. When Orwell published Down and Out in Paris and London and then, a few years later, The Road to Wigan Pier, he caught the full force of the standard reactionary critique of this kind of thing: that comfortable do-gooders posing as the poor are merely dabbling in others’ suffering, something that is in poor taste and morally dishonest. A white, middle-class student, like Orwell sleeping in the field, can at any time remove himself to the comforts of home. They can never know the full extent of what it means to be poor.

To which the rest of Orwell’s writings would say: Yes, that is absolutely the point. Only those who can return to the comforts of home can approach the halls of power, where injustices are redressed. Were an activist to transform himself to a poor person, he would an unremarkable instance of the injustice he opposed. Orwell saw, many decades before the idea of a “social justice warrior,” that the allies of the oppressed must come from the privileged class, and they will always look awkward doing their jobs. But their jobs must be done.

This Is Us

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Two years ago I stopped commenting directly on the deprivations of Trump World. This was basically for two reasons. One, I concluded that Trump was below comment. I try to keep a certain tone here, and it would be brought down if I were I to opine, say, that Trump is 300 pounds of orange dogshit in a suit. Hardly salutary stuff, even if true.

Two, discussing our current politics on social media doesn’t accomplish anything. I got tired of the pointlessness of flame wars long ago. No one actually learns anything from Facebook fights. Temperatures are raised, hours are wasted. Notice how similar are the feelings produced by “winning” and “losing” an argument online.

But the insurrection in the capital Wednesday pushed me to comment one last time. You see, I had already referred to Trump’s movement as a mob several years ago. On Wednesday it took concrete form. When Trump’s footsoldiers actually went marauding through Washington, I thought, What did the “respectable” enablers of this virulently ignorant cult think would come from their efforts? That they would just get their juicy tax cuts and the rabble would fade back into 4chan?

In the Atlantic yesterday, Graeme Wood answered a related question. “Every decent person knew,” he wrote, “that Trumpism would lead somewhere like this, with red-capped mobs befouling the halls of government and terrorizing the very Republicans who had indulged their leader for the past four years.”

The lunacy of firing up the crassest, stupidest, most loathsome people in the country and expecting a politically desirable result seems self evident. But here’s the main thing that galls me about yesterday’s unrest: it reflected who we really are, not the bizarre outcome of a secretive scheme.

In run-of-the-mill autocracies, the oppression can always be blamed on the one strongman in charge. The people get a pass, morally speaking. Who can doubt, for example, that millions of powerless North Koreans suffer the cruel whims of their dictator simply because of the coercive power he has concentrated in a small ruling clique? It’s not their fault.

But it is different with Trumpian tyranny. This is us.

(Getty Images)

Wednesday’s rabble may not represent a majority of our society, but, linked to more than 70 million voters, they are terrifyingly strong.

Furthermore, this mob draws real strength and purpose from a deep well of toxic illiteracy. There is nothing fake about its political culture, which is unmistakably made in the USA.

Although shameful, this is hardly surprising. Our churches have taught the mob to privilege faith over reason and to worship their leaders as prophets. Gun culture and toxic individualism have produced reverence for political violence. Our laws and lobbyists have put guns everywhere. The self-help movement has persuaded millions they are the center of the universe and they can believe whatever they wish and achieve whatever they believe. Our racist historical legacy has convinced millions that violent protest–no matter how uninformed–is a sacred right reserved for white Americans.

At the bottom of this well is an inexhaustible fund of credulity. And, hard is it may be to believe, this constitutes real power. Once you convince a mob that two plus two equals five, you have bestowed on them a sense of invincibility; that whatever fantasies they believe–bigoted, outrageously stupid, or otherwise–will effect an endless series of victories. When they attack policemen while carrying Blue Lives Matter flags, they draw strength from the moral whiplash they induce in the rest of us. We’re stuck with those pitiful artifacts of reality–logic, facts, rational inquiry and so on. We can’t make sense. And they know this signals a loss of power for us.

In the meantime, the rest of the world may or may not recognize how perilous this moment is. The world’s leading superpower is ruled by a lunatic whose only recognizable loyalty is to a nihilistic cult that has put him at its center and highest altar. Yes, this is us.

Do Your First Works Over

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The mature George Orwell recalled in a 1946 essay, “Why I Write,” that it was not just literature that he had spent his early life composing. To be sure, he had churned out a lot of text in his green years. He wrote plays, poems, articles, book reviews; offered to do translations from French.

“But side by side with all this,” he wrote, “for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind.”

A Leeds public librarian who saw a lot of the 28-year old Orwell while he was hacking away on the manuscript for Down and Out in Paris and London remarked that he “seemed to be in the process of re-arranging himself.” Funny comment. But insightful too. Orwell was simultaneously producing what would become his first major publication and “making up [the] continuous story about” himself. He was constructing his identity.

One of Orwell’s most striking observations in “Why I Write” is this: “I am not able,” he wrote, “and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood.” This from the same man who wrote that it’s important to be your age. He also wrote that by forty, you have the face you deserve. He scorned people for trying to look or act younger than they were. He doesn’t seem keen on looking back. So then what was he “re-arranging”?

Obviously Orwell had something peculiar in mind when he said he could not abandon the world-view of his childhood. He wasn’t talking about wanting to be a child again. But he clearly believed there was something about one’s past that is too important let go.

I took the title of this post from James Baldwin’s 1985 essay, “The Price of the Ticket.” In it, Baldwin wrote this about renewing oneself:

In the church I come from–which is not at all the same church to which white Americans belong–we were counselled, from time to time, to do our first works over. . . . To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.

So my agenda for the year is to know whence I came; to go back and do my first works over, to reacquaint myself with the man whose writing became a pivot in my life. Because where I have ended up, I feel like I have almost nothing left to say, or maybe nothing left to take from the great store of Orwell’s thoughts. This is not because I’ve lost hope in Orwell’s message. I still believe that social democracy offers people the best opportunity for stopping the organized dominion of humans over other humans. But Jesus, is that message faltering. Look where we are.

This year I will be paying off an intellectual debt that’s been bothering me for a long time. Even though I’ve read all of Orwell’s major works and many of his minor ones, I’ve never read a single biography of him. One day in 2008 I was reading Orwell’s luminous essay “Charles Dickens” over a beer, and the next thing you know I jumped straight in, with all the inelegance of an amateur, and, in my own way, tried to take over his lifelong project of turning political writing into art. I wanted to make all his novels and essays mine, but without plagiarizing them if that makes any sense. Having helped myself so liberally to Orwell’s art, I feel obligated to get to know the man himself, or at least the “story” he told himself about himself.

My “first works,” then, could be more accurately referred to as my “unfinished start.” I will go back and read all of Orwell plus all the reputable biographies of him and the major commentaries. But this will amount to much more than just ticking through a reading list. Going back and reframing and reevaluating your most formative ideas is to court disturbance at the very bottom of the soul. Baldwin, the prophet of re-doing one’s first works, knew this. He wrote, in a 1965 essay:

[H]istory is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.

Orwell, by the way, also felt that writing was a way of recreating oneself through self-criticism in order to rob history of its power. Though he did not speak of great pain and terror, he did write that he had “a power of facing unpleasant facts.” Together with his facility with words, he “felt that this created a sort of private world I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” While I don’t feel that my everyday life is a failure, I do have a sense that too much is falling apart around me. I can’t keep the sky from falling. But I can go back and re-arrange myself, or at least make up a new chapter in the “continuous ‘story’ about myself.” I may testify, or I may stay silent, but I will try–in reading all of Orwell, and more–to know whence I came.

“There Should Be No Lives Like Ours”

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The pivotal event in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1982 novel Deadeye Dick is when the narrator-protagonist Rudy Waltz shoots and kills a pregnant woman in Midland City, Ohio, circa 1950. Rudy is 12 years old, and for a thrill he has fired his father’s Springfield rifle from an attic window. (It’s actually a cupola window: Rudy’s eccentric and grandiose father designed the house as an art studio.) Eloise Metzger, vacuuming in her house half a mile away, is struck between the eyes. She never knew what hit her.

Since Rudy can’t be tried as an adult, the police feel it is only right to get in some rough justice while they can. So they smear Rudy’s face in ink, to “faceprint” him, put him in a cage, and invite Midland City’s notables to come jeer at him. They also have the widower, George Metzger, come down to confront Rudy–and maybe do more.

The police tell Metzger that they would look the other way should he try to grab one of their service revolvers and in the scuffle accidentally shoot Rudy. Or, they could arrange for Rudy to fall down some stairs. Refusing those offers, Metzger is handed an electric cable and encouraged to whip Rudy, who is bent over a table and held down by police. His 12-year old ass bared, Rudy bleats to Metzger that the shooting was only an accident. Instead of whaling on the boy, the widower drops the whip and goes to walk away. But the police implore him: he must at least have something to say.

Bereft and mortified, Metzger says to the heavens: “God–there should not be animals like us. There should be no lives like ours.”

Why did Vonnegut have Metzger say this?

It seems perfectly clear: it is a cry of naked dread, an objection to something having gone drastically wrong in society. Vonnegut never cloaks his liberal horror in literary contraptions like reverie, post-structuralism or what have you. When he wants, say, a lonely, alienated housewife to end her misery through suicide, he has her eat Drāno and liquefy her insides. Still, like the plain-looking parables in Sunday school, there are often deeper meanings to Vonnegut, and it can be instructive to find out what they are.

The most noteworthy thing about Metzger’s lamentation is his use of the plural ours. Isn’t his wife the sole victim here? Whose fates, exactly, is he ruing so bitterly when he says there should be no lives like ours? These:

  1. His wife, Eloise. She was shot and killed on Mothers Day, in her own home, minding her own business.
  2. Her unborn baby, who had no business of her own, as of yet, to mind.
  3. Metzger himself. He has lost his wife suddenly and inexplicably, to an unintelligible combination of malice and randomness. Further, he must explain this loss to his children and continue to raise them as if the world made sense.
  4. Rudy. He doesn’t really know why he fired the gun, only that his action was wrong. He was in a trance-like state. The gun seemed to want to be fired.
  5. Rudy’s parents. Why had they allowed him access to deadly weapons and taught him a fondness for using them?
  6. The police. Amped up on outrage, they abused a child and violated his constitutional rights, including the Eighth Amendment, the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The main peculiarity of the scene is Metzger’s identification with, rather than repulsion from, Rudy. This would be highly unusual in real life. Facing his wife’s killer, Metzger does not condemn him. He refuses to cast Rudy out of the community to which Metzger himself belongs. He won’t go along with the Midland City mob, which had spent all afternoon shouting at Rudy that he was a monster. And even though Metzger may not be aware of their role in the tragedy, we may add more lives to those Metzger wishes had not come into being:

7. The Midland City mob, who turned out to stigmatize Rudy.

Rudy, for his part, understands the point of the police’s exercise in rough justice. They are exalting a moral vision that sharply separates wrongdoers from the innocent wronged. Not just their jobs, but the cohesion of society depends on maintaining this illusion. It is important for keeping people assured that life will not slip into chaos.

In the cage under the courthouse, 12-year old Rudy knows he has done a grave wrong, but he also knows that it is not mere revenge that has inspired the decent folk of Midland City to turn him bodily into a taboo. They are trying to isolate and neutralize the overpowering threat of moral chaos. “I wonder,” Rudy reflects, “if it mattered much that I was in the cage in the basement of the old courthouse . . . . A curiously carved bone or stick, or a dried mud doll with straw hair would have served as well as I did, there on the bench, as long as the community believed, as Midland City believed of me, that it was a package of evil magic. Everybody could feel safe for a while. Bad luck was caged. There was bad luck, cringing on the bench in there.”

Evil cannot be neatly circumscribed in the acts and choices of a single individual. It is almost always systemic, with connections going every which way. Under the courthouse, Metzger is appalled at how the police have been transformed by righteous moral outrage into sadistic jackals. Furthermore, they tried to multiply the blight of evil by inviting Metzger to join their debauch. Why did Metzger hold back? His unprepossessing entrance to the dungeon gives a strange clue:

He wore horn-rimmed spectacles, and his eyes were red from crying, or maybe from too much cigarette smoke. He was smoking when he came down the stairs, followed by the detective who had gone to get him. He behaved as though he himself were a criminal, puffing on the same cigarette he would be smoking when he was propped against the basement wall in front of a firing squad.

Metzger knows that his wife’s death was caused by a collective, societal moral failure, not an isolated act of pure evil. And he is a member of the society whose imperfections brought it about. How does he know this? Because he writes about ordinary people living ordinary lives every day, and as such, he knows that life happens to people. We are moral agents, yes, who deliberate and make choices about what to do, but we nonetheless remain imperfectly in control of the harms and goods we cause with those choices. Plus, shit just happens, oftentimes horrible, tragic shit. Taken on the whole, we are moral patients and agents.

Deadeye Dick is above all else a meditation on the meaning of life. Our lives come to us unbidden: we have no idea what they will hold–good or bad–or even what life is. Vonnegut opens the novel by soliloquizing on this mystery:

To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life.
I have caught life. I have come down with life. I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings. Nothing they said could be appealed. They said I was a boy named Rudolph Waltz, and that was that.

Most harms are too complex to accommodate a clear, unambiguous assignment of blame. Rudy arrived in that fateful cupola as a result of absentee parenting, and other accidents of fate. Rudy’s father, Otto, was not so much evil as morally vacant, and just plain weird and self-centered. He had struggled to be an artist in 1920s Vienna in the same circles Adolf Hitler, and the two became friends. Acting in goodwill, Otto may have helped Hitler survive pneumonia one winter. So it goes. After many years back in Midland City, Ohio, Otto’s enthusiasm for fascism faded, but not before leaving a mark on his sons. As teens they commiserated, “Couldn’t we at least have had a father who didn’t say ‘Heil Hitler’ to everyone, including Izzy Finkelstein?”

If there is a clear morality tale to be read in Deadeye Dick, it is about the intersection of small human quirks, missteps, and lapses that lead to large, life-ruining tragedies. It is not the huge, radioactive evil of Nazism in Rudy’s father’s past that leads to the shooting of Eloise. Rather it is Otto’s eccentricity and neglect of basic parenting obligations. Through no fault of his own, Rudy is given a deeply haphazard moral education that can be described as grotesque at best. Then there is the cupola, teeming with guns. Anything–or nothing–could have happened as a result of that combination. But what happened happened.

“That is my principle objection to life, I think” muses the 50-year old Rudy, looking back on his shooting of Eloise Metzger; “It’s too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.”

The narrow, political message of Deadeye Dick is that we Americans stand out among nations in how easy we have made it, through gun culture, to enable people to make such “perfectly horrible mistakes.” Indeed, the more we spread guns and gun-love, the harder it becomes to categorize shooting deaths as mistakes or even tragedies. We choose them. And this is the broader, philosophical message of Deadeye Dick. The attitude of George Metzger, and especially his harsh, strange pronouncement should point us toward lessons we need to learn in collective duty and responsibility. We speak fine words about valuing human life and safeguarding decency and so forth, but our actions to the contrary speak much louder than our words. Maybe there should be no lives like ours.