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.

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