Review of “Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism” by Alex Woloch


I’m not much on book reviews that say basically I’m reviewing this book so you don’t have to read it.

But: I’m reviewing this book so you don’t have to read it.

In Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism, published in 2016 by Harvard University Press, Alex Woloch uses the tools of literary theory to dissect and examine George Orwell’s supposedly straightforward writing style. Woloch unearths a range of unexpected caveats and nuances behind Orwell’s famous dictum that good prose should be clear and simple, “like a window pane.”

Rather than shining a light straight through a window pane on to plain truths, Orwell’s prose actually contorts itself around the deeply complicated “sheer activity of writing,” according to Woloch’s analysis. You may have thought Orwell simply faced unpleasant truths head-on, but, beneath the surface of Orwell’s plain prose, Woloch espies opaque-seeming currents and describes them like this: “Conceptualizing exploitation entails persistently converging on the actual experience of singular persons stuck in oppressive structure; the ramifications of the structure (unlike the structure itself) cannot be fully articulated.”


But if you think this is the point where I start to parody Woloch–and more generally literary theory–it is not. Despite my conservative attitude about truth, facts, and rationality, I read Woloch’s newfangled book with an open mind and found a great deal of pleasure in many of his insights. If your favorite paintings were Renoir’s large canvases and an art critic invited you to come close and pore slowly over their details with him, would you hold back because you thought you saw something shifty in the critic’s eyes?

There is a wonderful chapter on Orwell’s first collection of essays published as a book, Inside the Whale. In it, Woloch makes some surprisingly accessible points about Orwell’s use of a “threshold effect” to describe the tension of being simultaneously inside and outside an abstract problem. This threshold is where a critical writer always exists, trying to gain access to something in the world but from the domain of her own private interiority.

Literary theory often seizes on a very close reading of short phrases or even individual words to make a larger claim. (See the entire 36-page first chapter on Orwell’s use of “quite bare” in “A Hanging.”) This maneuver can seem maddeningly trivial, because who cares about a single word being repeated throughout a longish text: that happens all the time. Or it can seem like a facile trick, because any competent wordsmith can combine small units of language to mean almost anything they wish.

But by the end of the chapter on Inside the Whale, I believed that Woloch actually had something interesting to say about the structure of Orwell’s writing. The odd thing about Inside the Whale is that it comprises only three essays (“Charles Dickens,” “Boys’ Weeklies,” and “Inside the Whale,” the last entry an extended consideration of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer), and Orwell takes no pains whatsoever to say why he has grouped them together. Woloch actually does a convincing job citing some of Orwell’s recurring phrasing (yes, very plain and ordinary seeming) to argue that the thing that unifies the three essays is Orwell’s structural invocation of the “social horizon,” the boundary between class differences. Orwell doesn’t just say there are class differences in capitalist England: he uses form to dramatize how he thinks about those differences.

So much for such subtleties. Or Orwell is full of them, but I have a suspicion that most Orwell enthusiasts come to the man for the plain meaning of his texts and not for a paisley pattern of literary theoretical details. Still, if you find yourself, as I do, wanting to take in everything written about Orwell, Or Orwell surrenders up a number of more concrete, perhaps more satisfying observations. (We wanted to get up close to the canvas with that art critic for a reason, right?)

That chapter on Inside the Whale? In it Woloch mentions a letter in which Orwell said he wanted to write more “semi-sociological” essays like the three in that collection. And then, almost as an aside, Woloch suggests that Orwell may have casually invented what we now call cultural studies. And this seems true. All three essays, especially “Boys’ Weeklies,” explore the social meaning of popular texts, keeping their pure literary value as a side issue. The instinct of the literary critic is to dwell on the good, the true, and the beautiful, but here we have Orwell pointing out that it might be more socially revealing to pay attention to the actual texts that people buy and read no matter how commercial, ordinary, crass, or transgressive. I daresay I would not have been invited to a graduate philosophy seminar about “The Simpsons” in 1994 had Orwell not blazed a trail in the direction of cultural studies in 1940.

As a writer, Orwell has been “ritualized” and frozen in place as a kind of “figure through which two warring entities–two modes of reading–seek to obliterate each other,” Woloch claims. Indeed Orwell has become so paradigmatic in the contest between “naïve empiricism” (the idea that the world is knowable through plain old observation) and Critical Theory (the idea that our “observations” of the world are always mediated through cant, self-interest, delusion and, above all, ideology) that Orwell is “not just positioned on one side of the theoretical line, [but] has been invoked to structure the boundary itself.”

I think Orwell would like that: he structures the left-right boundary himself. Why not? He once labeled himself a Tory anarchist, a contradiction in basic attitudes if there ever was one. A committed socialist who wanted to smash and recast the very foundations of society, Orwell also disliked anyone who came across as too out of step with societal norms, notably gays, yogis, vegetarians, and men who wore tight shorts or hiked in groups.

So Orwell himself poses a dilemma about thinking and writing and being in the world. He is a kind of living paradox. In one of his most memorable observations, Orwell says that all socialists (like himself) hope for a world that has been expunged of war, famine, dirt, disease, and fear. But then he pauses to ask if there is anyone who actually wants to live in such a utopia? There would be no struggle, which sanctifies life for the leftist. Woloch answers this question for Orwell by quoting at length from his 1943 essay “Can Socialists Be Happy?”:

[. . .] I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another.

Amen. If socialists cannot be happy, let us hope they can keep striving to be.


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