BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Orwell is renowned for his “plain,” “direct” style of writing, a reputation he occasionally buttressed with acts of self-promotion. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” he called for political writing to be fresh, clear and to the point. In another essay, “Why I Write,” he opined, “Good prose should be transparent, like a windowpane.”
Good advice if you can take it. Sentence for sentence, Orwell took his own advice pretty well. When it came to broader matters of theme and message, though, his record is mixed.
The picture Orwell paints with the image of a windowpane is one of the writer doing her job by looking the objective truth full in the face and recording what she sees. The plain facts are out there, shining straight in. But the light that shone through Orwell’s windowpane often came through at an angle, and it often refracted into unexpected quadrants and created new hues. Orwell didn’t just write about what was right in front of his nose, despite suggesting pretty forcefully that this is what writers should do.
The fact is, many of Orwell’s best essays are masterpieces of misdirection, especially the ones from early in World War II. They are not at all about what they purport to be about.
Between April 1940 and February 1942, Orwell wrote several pieces with tepid-looking titles, which were nominally about (1) an obscure English aristocrat who mourned the fading power of poetry, (2) an erratic, little known attack by Tolstoy on Shakespeare, and (3) an appreciation of smutty postcards. These abstract ideas were wafting from the mind of a man who was dying to be in the action–shooting Nazis, filling sandbags, or passing buckets of water hand over hand to dowse the flames of the Blitz. “It makes me writhe to be writing book reviews etc. at such a time,” he wrote in his diary in June 1940, “and even angers me that such time-wasting should still be permitted.” But there he was, stuck at his desk: Orwell was in a weird place.
As early as September 1939, Orwell wanted above all to be useful to English society. He knew that England would soon be fighting an existential war against Nazi Germany. He tried and tried to get into the Army, into the Home Guard, into a government agency of some sort. He wanted to physically resist fascism, as he had done in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. But he was too sick with tuberculosis for the Army and too politically suspect for a government agency. For a full year before he finally became a sergeant in the Home Guard and then a BBC radio commentator, all Orwell could do was sit at home and write. He hated this waste of his time: It makes me writhe. Although he still found thinking about literature intrinsically pleasant, as he told friends, bookish flights of fancy seemed meaningless with the war going on.
But literature was the the thing Orwell knew, so, as he waited, for weeks and then months, he stuck to it. Little surprise that when he bent his mind to books, the words that came out of his typewriter were actually about fighting fascism. Literature was just the windowpane through which he saw that fight.
The reason I’m writing this essay is that Orwell’s choice of titles in this period can easily put off a whole class of potential readers, yet the essays behind those unhelpful titles are immensely valuable. People who have only read Animal Farm or 1984 are missing a huge part of the thought of the 20th century’s most important English-speaking polemicist if they don’t read a good-sized sample of these lesser known pieces.
So, hands up–who would like to read Orwell’s April 1940 review of Personal Record 1928-1939 by Julian Green? Julian who? My point exactly. We feel hardly a tickle of interest when Orwell indicates in the first sentence that Mr. Green’s reflections on poetry are lofty but “commonplace.” Green, we learn, has exquisite, “almost effeminate” literary sensitivity; he is old fashioned, a relic of a dying age in which “simply to preserve your aesthetic integrity seemed a sufficient return for living on inherited money.” He’s not only an aristocrat; he’s an aesthete.
But not just any aesthete. Unusually, Green knows he is obsolete as a social type. This is what catches Orwell’s eye.
The world is changing in ways that will render poets and the things they value useless, Green records in his diary. Hitler is not just killing people; he is warping the very possibility of European civilization by destroying the place that beauty and leisure occupy in a developed society. But Green stands up and mounts the only kind of protest he is capable of. Orwell writes of him, he “is far too intelligent to imagine that his way of life or his scheme of values will last forever. . . But what is attractive in this diary is its complete impenitence, its refusal to move with the times. It is the diary of a civilised man who realises that barbarism is bound to triumph, but who is unable to stop being civilised.”
The recalcitrant will to resist mind-killing brute force is the animating spirit of Winston Smith in 1984. Like Julian Green, Smith can see that a system of powers is rising that will crush him, but he cannot help living as a free man until it does so. He is unable to stop being free. That is the human spirit, distilled.
Orwell actually wrote two essays on Tolstoy’s weird attack on Shakespeare, one in May 1941, and a longer, better-known one in March 1947.
The gist of Orwell’s first essay is that Tolstoy called Shakespeare “one of the worst and most contemptible writers the world has ever seen.” His plays were unserious, incoherent plagiarisms of nonsensical tales, railed Tolstoy. The assault was personal. Tolstoy seemed angered by Shakespeare’s continuing popularity. The only way to explain Shakespeare’s appeal, Tolstoy said, was by reference to an arcane conspiracy theory positing that a cabal of 19th century German critics had somehow conned all of literary society into believing that Shakespeare was a genius rather than a fraud.
Orwell actually grants Tolstoy some of his particular criticisms, essentially agreeing that Shakespeare’s mind was “a jumble, a rag bag . . . he had no world view.” And, yes, Shakespeare’s plays were full of extraneous interjections, gaudy bangles and non-sequiturs. But Tolstoy had, according to Orwell, drawn all the wrong conclusions from this mess. Obviously, no small, secretive group of plotters could account for the fact that people still, in 1940, loved hearing Shakespeare. “One must conclude,” wrote Orwell, “that there is something good–something durable–in Shakespeare which millions of ordinary people can appreciate, though Tolstoy happened to be unable to do so.”
In 1984 Winston Smith believes, with a kind of religious faith, that the will of the ordinary people is the only force capable of defeating Big Brother’s totalitarianism. And he believes this despite being part of a very different kind of movement–what he thinks is a secretive resistance group driven by a specialized economic theory. The working class in 1984 evince almost no intellectual spark, but Smith believes in them nonetheless.
Orwell, too, ultimately trusted the masses over the experts to save civilization despite the fact that–like Smith–he advocated for a political view rooted in (leftist) expertise. The masses may be ignorant and even bigoted at their worst, Orwell thought, but their sense of common decency could not be dismissed as mere bourgeois sentimentality. If Britain wished to win the war, the masses’ sense of decency would have to be cultivated, he thought.
Where does Shakespeare fit in again? Just as it was ridiculous to think that ordinary Englishmen would troop in to watch Henry IV year after year because of some machinations of a clutch of scheming critics, it was equally witless to believe that expertise would win out over–or was in some sense better than–what people actually believed. Common decency was durable, and it had to be taken seriously as a political force.
Orwell continued to revere Tolstoy even after eviscerating his strange attack on Shakespeare. He is forever balancing two sides of an argument like that.
In fact, Orwell thought all of life was a balancing act. You would not know this is the main point of his essay “The Art of Donald McGill” until you got pretty close to its end. Indeed, unless you’re into the minutiae of British cultural history you would probably, like me, have no idea who Donald McGill even was. It turns out he drew jokey, semi-pornographic postcards, often featuring women who were plus-sized in all the right places. A short way into the essay you’re thinking it’s going to be about censorship–a wartime concern of Orwell’s–and the conceptual line between smut and erotica. But that’s not it.
As usual, Orwell goes to a much more interesting place than the well-trodden ground. Even the most idealistic moralist, Orwell says, has two sides: the official self (whom Orwell dubs Don Quixote), who always tries to do the right thing, even at risk to his own well-being, and the unofficial self, or Sancho Panza, “a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin.” He occasionally drinks too much and enjoys “soft beds, no work, . . . and women with ‘voluptuous’ figures.” We all have this side to us–the side that would keep, as Orwell did, a few of McGill’s postcards lying around and feel no need to conceal them from polite company.
Bracing stuff, but still Orwell is not quite saying anything new. What he says next, though, is revolutionary–that decent people should be able to admit the existence of their inner Sancho Panza with no loss of moral seriousness. “On the whole, human beings want to be good,” Orwell writes, “but not too good and not quite all the time.” There is a “worldwide conspiracy,” he goes on, to pretend that the unofficial self does not exist. This conspiracy, this determination to lie to oneself about oneself all the time, is what needs to go.
Had Orwell lived till 1990, to see the end of Stalinist communism, the spectacle would not have surprised him. And not because of the economics of globalism or other “inevitable” historical forces, but because Stalinism required deep, wholesale dishonesty from each citizen about what human beings are, and that dishonesty was unsustainable. Decade upon decade real Russian and Czech and Polish people had to pretend to believe in homo sovieticus, a perfectible prototype of human being that always and everywhere put the needs of the state first. But they knew this was a delusion; they were just ordinary people, with foibles and private lives of their own.
What Orwell hints at in “The Art of Donald McGill” is that no system can survive if it forbids privacy, which necessarily entails moral fallibility. In a democracy, the individual must have and safeguard a private self capable of ordering its own scheme of moral priorities. Our ability to distinguish between acceptable lapses and prohibited transgressions without having a code of law imposed on us forcibly from above is the mark of free and equal human beings.
Clearly there is a single theme running through these obscurely-titled essays. (I could multiply examples beyond three, but better, I think to leave them to you to discover, if you wish.) Any idealistic conception of what people ought to be–poets, play-goers, moralists and so forth–must be rooted in what people actually are. Even though Orwell was capable of holding very low opinions of human nature–the most formative book he read was Gulliver’s Travels–he was at the end of the day an optimist. He believed that people were, by some natural inclination to congregate and cooperate, capable of a minimum level of decency and that was enough to carry off a program of liberal democracy. It was an idea that eventually got him out of a weird place.