BY MATTHEW HERBERT
You could get the impression that I spend most of my time actively demoralized by failures of the human spirit. It’s true I have more words of scorn than praise for my fellow man in this journal, and I occasionally find myself wearing an Edith Sitwell scowl of icy contempt at the outrages we humans visit on our meager stores of reason and decency. Every time a Marjorie Taylor Greene-type quacks out an assault on the very idea of human intelligence, Sitwell’s visage hovers into my mind’s eye to implore on our behalf: Must we endure these things?
It’s pretty rich that I even call myself an optimist. I suppose I’m an optimist in the same way Paul was a Christian: I know without doubt it’s what I’m called to be, even if I never feel like I’m quite up to the mark.
Anyway, as I explained about the title of my blog WAY back when, I do not consider myself wiser, braver or more optimistic than the average Joe. But, inspired by my hero George Orwell, I do feel called to develop those virtues through writing. They are indispensable for leading a serious, fulfilling life.
The quotation, “wiser, braver, more optimistic,” is from Orwell of course. In an inconsequential 1946 essay, “A Nice Cup of Tea,” Orwell is explaining why he prefers the Indian variety of tea over Chinese. The Chinese stuff, although it is not to be despised, has “not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.” Orwell’s preferred cup is a question of caffeine buzz. I like that. Let us not scorn chemical assistance as we beautify our souls, it says to me.
I thought today I would talk through the meaning of Orwell’s landmark 1940 essay “Inside the Whale.” The reason I chose this text is because it is widely regarded as one of Orwell’s most pessimistic. It’s also unusually difficult reading for an Orwell essay, wandering in uncharacteristic loops rather than coming straight to the point. Since my own brand of gloominess is directly informed by Orwell’s, it will be worthwhile to try to work out what was really going on in his head at this dark hour.
So, “Inside the Whale” is a longish essay that doesn’t seem at first like it’s going to pack a political wallop. Orwell simply asks why Henry Miller’s scandalous 1935 novel Tropic of Cancer stood out so starkly from the rest of 1930s English-language literature. One reason, he says, was Miller’s acceptance of existence in its fullness–from the mundane, even tawdry muck of the street to the transcendence of the heavens. The novel ends with Miller impoverished and battered by life but serenely watching the Seine flow by. Orwell hears the confident strains of Whitman rising from Miller’s musical writing. He almost equates Miller with Whitman in a kind of American optimism. But then,
Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, [Orwell wrote], but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality, and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth century America, men felt themselves free and equal, were free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure Communism. . . . Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without boot-licking.
Ah, those were the days. But today it is 1940 Europe; Hitler and Mussolini are on the march, France has capitulated, and Stalin, it turns out, has cut a secret deal to leave Hitler alone. The English people are on food rations and expecting to be bombed any day. “Unlike Whitman,” Orwell writes, “we live in a shrinking world. The ‘democratic vistas’ have ended in barbed wire.”
At the end of “Inside the Whale,” we see it is not simply the prospect of defeat by the Axis that worries Orwell. He thinks war threatens to ruin the English even if they win. The manufactured sense of national unity required to beat Hitler and stand up to Stalin will undermine freedom and prosperity, Orwell believes. This is because England, like the rest of the “democratic” west, will have to construct a totalizing scheme of propaganda that substitutes oligarchy for real democracy and teaches the masses to love their masters. Already, then, we see the darkest theme of 1984 stirring in Orwell’s mind.
The development that pushed Orwell into full-blown pessimism was that his fellow socialists were getting blindly and enthusiastically behind the war with Germany. Orwell thought they should back the war tactically but still keep their powder dry for a socialist revolution that would take down Britain’s own fascist appendage, its colonial regime. As recently as 1939 Orwell told a friend in a letter that they should prepare then, before the government stepped up surveillance, to “start organising for illegal anti-war activities.” He wanted to set up a secret press.
Why was Orwell on such a knife edge? Why, at this moment of national existential crisis, could he not get fully behind the war against fascism? Because he saw that, just over the horizon, governments including his own would have the means to get the people to believe lies all the time, even in peacetime. This was a threshold from which there was no coming back, he thought. Bleakly, he wrote,
Until recently, the full implications of [the fascist challenge] were not foreseen, because it was generally imagined that Socialism could preserve and even enlarge the atmosphere of liberalism. It is now beginning to be realised how false this idea was. Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships–an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence.
This was the nadir of Orwell’s interior life before (or during) the war. While he would, in a few years, go on to tout his own “power of facing unpleasant facts,” no liberal could be blamed in early 1940, he said, for wishing to stay enveloped in the womb-like protection of the legendary whale’s belly, impervious to storms raging outside. (Much of the middle part of the essay wanders around this theme, arguing in an uncharacteristically desultory way that all of English literature since 1930 had contributed to this complacence.)
For a brief moment, Orwell gives in to the welcoming blindness of the whale’s belly, writing, “At this date it hardly even needs a war to bring home to us the disintegration of our society and the increasing helplessness of all decent people. It is for this reason that I think the passive, non-cooperative attitude implied in Henry Miller’s work is justified.”
Orwell was spectacularly wrong in his predictions about the war. He wrote in “Inside the Whale” that “It will either last several years and tear western civilisation to pieces or it will end inconclusively and prepare the way for yet another war that will do the job once and for all.” World War Two set the standard for conclusive endings, and it resulted in a stable world order that jumpstarted new prosperity and broadened the realm of liberal democracy. It may be too early to say what the ultimate fate of “western civilization” is, but Orwell was certainly wrong about it being destroyed in the near term.
But later, Orwell would write about sticking to his dire pronouncements even after the war in 1984 that his prophecies were were warnings, not predictions. It’s up to us, he wrote, to make sure they do not become predictions. It is in this paradox that my optimism merges with Orwell’s: there is no sense telling decent people that very bad things are afoot if you have no reason to believe they can act to avoid or reverse the worst outcomes. Political pessimism, done right, is really optimism for the thinking person.
In real life, there was no need for Orwell’s long-contemplated socialist revolution in Britain. Britain would actually vote–not fight–after the war for a system of social democracy that would erase many of the most durable structures of economic injustice Orwell (and the British people) had known. Indeed most of Europe would unite behind an unprecedented scheme, not of nationalist propaganda, but mutual pacification and cooperation. And who knows–if Orwell hadn’t been willing to be wrong about his most dire political warnings, Europe’s leaders might not have dared to form the world’s first bloc of social democracy. That is something to inspire the optimist in all of us.