Orwell: A Critical Revaluation due... ?

Read any good books lately? Or perhaps you've a short story you wish to share.
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thatalex
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Orwell: A Critical Revaluation due... ?

Post by thatalex »

I'm seeing more and more critical articles about George Orwell lately.

https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v45/n19 ... t-s-better

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/ ... l-marriage

He's something of a hero* of mine and given the recent spate of woke iconoclasm, it could perhaps become fashionable to use him as a popinjay in the near future. I personally consider that this would be a terrible mistake. It wouldn't be the first that has marred the man's legacy.

The man was a writer (best as an essayist although Keep The Aspidistra Flying is a fine novel) and not a prophet. He's been hijacked, perhaps to the dismay of those who knew him, as an anti-Communist partisan, which is ignorant or disingenuous, depending upon who says it. He no doubt had personal imperfections. Most writers do. There is a strain of misogyny and social conservatism - in addition to homophobia - found in his writing, and I am not surprised that this was reflected in his behaviour.

Yet any reappraisal of Orwell must take into account that he was - bar none - the greatest man of letters in the English language during World War Two. In spite of the profoundly unfashionable nature of "old Left" socialism, which Orwell represents, and the cynical reuse of his authority by Neocons, people who would pick lint off a dead man's shoulders must concede that he was an interesting writer who lived in interesting times.... Times more relevant than ever in 2024.

Doubtless those who would spit Orwell out as being lukewarm on the woke/anti-woke axis resent being force-fed Animal Farm and 1984 in school. These warnings against totalitarianism seem like staid relics of the Cold War and are being regarded as such, while fascism rises in the least likely places... Precisely as it did in the 1930s, when many of Orwell's essays were written.

Modern "woke" leftists do not know the real Orwell, any more than the reactionaries who quote him do. The real Orwell is not so much forgotten as yet to be introduced. He is necessary; our civil liberties have been traded away for a song, with the collusion of many leftists who should know better. The swelling ranks of the blind and hateful right, and the mythic "moderates" in the centre which moves rightward every year, can be blamed for their political idiocy there too. The scope of democracy in Britain has been curtailed by the shrinkage of the democratic, accountable, lawful, and legitimate sphere represented by the state - in favour of the "efficient" private sector efficiently introducing the profit motive into all spheres of our social lives, efficiently co-opting half-hearted attempts to harness and regulate it for good, and efficiently destroying the planet.

The Post-Truth Era needs a lesser-known Orwell than the anti-communist of 1945, but the Woke left can still reclaim plain English and learn to accept people who haven't been to university. It needs more Orwell and not less to do this.
thatalex
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Re: Orwell: A Critical Revaluation due... ?

Post by thatalex »

Discussions, criticisms, comments welcome!
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sharoma
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Re: Orwell: A Critical Revaluation due... ?

Post by sharoma »

Very interesting. I could easily imagine that the state as it exists now, cabals of private companies represented by the Eton-Oxbridge set, would love to have Orwell dismissed and consigned to the black and white parts of the 20th century. I doubt that is even vaguely going on, especially if the current social climate can cancel him for them. It’s currently fashionable to attack the old heroes. I expect all societies go through these paroxysms of guilt. Orwell is a male writer. By today’s standards he is also badly behaved and probably worthy of being cancelled. This would prevent his warnings being discussed anymore. In rather typical fashion, of course 1984 affected me profoundly aged 15. I wasn’t forced to read it; it was a dark form of pleasure. The dystopian novel we were assigned was the less interesting Fahrenheit 451. We also had to read Animal Farm in third year. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t nearly as potent as 1984.

Regarding the first essay linked here, I found it unfair to Orwell and not a pleasant read. Divorcing artists from their personal character is essential to listening to music guilt-free. Criticism of Orwell’s work is valid, criticism of his personal character? If someone wants to dig that up, go ahead. Criticism coming now, after the education system marvelled at Orwell for decades, would be a swing. Why was Orwell glorified for so long? English society was proud of him and wanted every child to be aware of him. I’d say the appreciation readers felt for Orwell was easily greater than Shakespeare. A slight correction now might be a form of fatigue. Maybe we are all sick of hearing about “what Hitler did” and “1984”. It was funny when Blackadder punched Shakespeare because we all found it difficult and boring, an unpleasant part of school. Yet if it also came out that Shakespeare was by today’s standards a terrible person, his era is so long ago that ‘they’ may be more forgiving. Orwell existed in the postwar, albeit briefly, and so his actions can be judged with our standards today. We feel he should’ve known better, especially as he was sympathetic to vulnerable people.

I admit I haven’t read Orwell’s minor works. I recently finished The Road to Wigan Pier and found it a pleasant and interesting read. Even as a Wiganer I wasn’t offended by the gleeful (I imagine) way a “fellow-Southerner” described them as “the filthy bloody bastards!” Orwell came across as a bit of snob of course, but as Sycorax noted, his eloquent breakdown of socialism and socialists was excellent. He didn’t seem likeable to me, but I was there to read his book, not judge his life. I judge people who litter extremely harshly. Yet I didn’t judge the housewives of 1930s Wigan chucking their refuse into the gutter. Nor did Orwell. That was the most important part to me. Highlighting the plight of the working class from a place of empathy. Orwell dedicated much of his life to developing his empathy, whether fighting in the civil war or staying in the hostels. Maybe it was a form of poverty tourism, but at least he was trying. Every depravity the miners or unemployed experienced was not their fault. He always made sure we kept our critical gaze upon capitalism, not its victims.

Orwell was used to being close to the state. As you say, he was “the greatest man of letters in the English language during World War Two”. He wouldn’t have thought twice about providing that list. Surely it was an act of loyalty rather than the act of a ‘sneak’? Orwell wouldn’t have wanted Stalin’s regime to dominate western Europe, and neither would we.

Orwell was a writer who died so long ago that it feels a bit unfair to dig him up now and try to somehow undermine his reputation and therefore his body of work. I won’t feel comfortable if it becomes known he was a terrible person to women; in that respect he may occupy a similar part of my mind to John Lennon. I was disappointed when I learned that, and I think it did reduce my Beatles appreciation a little. Every time I listen to Wagner, I hear the character in Curb Your Enthusiasm screaming that he was “one of history’s greatest antisemites!”.

It never occurred to me that people would resent being force fed 1984. It’s one of the most important ‘first proper books’ to read if not the most important. If you want to develop a socialist philosophy which keeps you constantly sensitive to the potential terrors of government, it’s essential. My fear is that by consigning it now to irrelevant past people may be quietly lulled by a fiercely authoritarian state. As you say, everything is shifting to the right. No one in the English language has replaced Orwell. If there isn’t to be an updated warning, then we should still honour Orwell for his literary achievements and keep the biographical content to things which can be proven.

I found the tone of The Road to Wigan Pier to be self-deprecating. He was ashamed of the mannerisms he inherited and disgusted by the snobbery he was taught by society. Writing in the 1930s, he must have felt that the inevitable revolution was not coming, yet the squalor and misery brought by the machine age was getting worse, not better. It amazes me that there weren’t more writers back then professing alarm for the state of what Orwell calls ‘the industrial areas.’ Perhaps we feel especially offended because one of our literary heroes is being attacked.

Another credit to Orwell which I formed from reading the essay is that it’s okay to be full of socialist fire as an adolescent. Orwell validates this experience which many of us go through. It’s okay to be that way, it’s almost normal.

Regarding the criticism that he only refers to his wife as “my wife”, it’s fair that this isn’t ideal and denigrates her role by not expanding upon her identity. However, I do think this was the way male writers telling their own story would write back then. As another example, last year I read Titanic and Other Ships by Charles Lightholler. Lightholler has been a hero of since childhood and remains so, despite questionable language in his book (which was published in 1935, Orwell’s period). Despite the book being dedicated to his wife [*], he never once names her in the book itself. The one or two occasions she is mentioned, it’s with “my wife”. I don’t get the feeling he wasn’t devoted to his wife, rather he just didn’t think it relevant to name her when the book is entirely about his adventures at sea where she was not present.

Anyway, apologies if I missed the point entirely there and went off on a few tangents.

[*] The book dedication reads: DEDICATED TO MY PERSISTENT WIFE WHO MADE ME DO IT
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Re: Orwell: A Critical Revaluation due... ?

Post by Sycorax »

I am of 2 minds about this but essentially I think hagiography and/or denial of unpleasant realities is no better than cancel culture in that they are both childish and intellectually dishonest attempts at reconstructing reality which ultimately serve no one.

I am in agreement with both of you about the value of Orwell 110%. He is essential reading for anyone with a remote interest in bettering humanity. He is also one of the few leftist writers with works that are easily digested by teen and young adults. There is a genuine need for Orwell in our society. In the province where I went to school, 1984 and Animal Farm were both required reading in order to graduate and I am glad that was the case. (Brave New World and Lord of the Flies were also on the required reading list, among others).

I also think subjecting him to the "cancel culture treatment" in light of him being a misogynist/homophobic etc is not a helpful response to his legacy. This obsession the Left has with moral purity and perfection reeks of Christian influence and I cannot begin to verbalize how repellant I find cancel culture to be. Are we to cast away every writer/painter/musician/artist who does not meet the new moral purity standards? If we were to do that, there would be nothing to read or listen to.

Furthermore: What a wicked way to conceptualize people! To consign them to a dumpster simply because they fail to achieve moral perfection-which we all do. We all fail to be morally perfect. I do not like the idea of a society which is so quick to leap on the perceived moral failings of others and throw them away, instead of trying to connect and address whatever happened that caused them to behave in such a manner. It's great we have all this language to identify abuse and bad behaviour, but the way that ends up being weaponized is really sick and leaves no room for growth or redemption. I detest this idea that if someone does something morally "wrong" that we push them away as quickly and brutally as possible.

However, to ignore the fact that Orwell had problematic aspects to him is a bit hagiographic, which I also find repellant.

It is not slandering George Orwell (or "picking" on dead people for that matter-death makes nothing and no one sacred or beyond critique. In fact, the idea of criticizing the dead as being wrong is another Christian fallacy, but I digress) if what is being said IS true and DID happen. George Orwell was abusive to his wife. That's not slander, that is a fact of reality. That happened and it is documented. That is part of his legacy and to ignore that or try to compartmentalize that because we idolize him is intellectual cowardice and I find that intolerable. I deeply admire Nestor Makhno, but I am not going to pretend like he wasn't an absolute villain to his long-time partner just because I happen to admire what he did in Ukraine. I am not going to subject him to weird Utilitarian math equations where we can "excuse" his domestic violence and misogyny because what he did in Ukraine somehow "cancels that out". Nor will I pretend like him being bad to his partner is somehow isolated or not connected to him or his Anarchism. Same goes for Orwell.

Socialists are meant to be concerned with the welfare and treatment of others. Yet Orwell was abusive to his wife. In fact, he was so abusive that there is an entire book on this subject. If we are going to hold someone up as a hero then it is entirely valid and reasonable to examine if their lived behavior lines up with their professed beliefs. That's hardly Orwell being a victim of wokeism, that's just a logical step to take when examining someone as a moral hero.

You cannot divorce people from their problematic actions or beliefs. To do so is to lie to yourself and to others, full stop. The shitty behaviours of all our idols is part of who they are and that shouldn't necessarily be viewed as a bad thing or something to shy away from. The need to ignore or excuse bad behaviour is a response to the current moral purity panic. It validates this new hard line of moral purity if our response to criticism of Orwell is to stick our heads in the sand and pretend he's a perfect Leftist saint (which is not what I think either of you are doing; it is the tendency of many people these days and that is more what I am commenting on). This all-or-nothing thinking we have around morality as of late is both frustrating and incredibly boring.

I think it's much more realistic to acknowledge that people are imperfect and at times they will fall short of their own moral code. I don't think people want to be sold an immaculate hero. I know I don't. I think what people want to see is that despite being deeply flawed at times, we can still do good and contribute in a meaningful way. We do not have to be tricked into a false binary of good and bad when it comes to who we choose to idolize.
Last edited by Sycorax on 17 Jan 2024, 19:47, edited 1 time in total.
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sharoma
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Re: Orwell: A Critical Revaluation due... ?

Post by sharoma »

Well said, Sycorax. A healthy way to approach it is not to deny, but to try and understand why they did what they did. There are no perfect heroes but we (usually) shouldn't cast aside great achievements because of some dubious behaviour. It is good that Orwell's negative traits are being made light of since it helps us to understand that, as you say, no one is perfect; that sometimes we need to balance two opposing views in our perception of someone. An amazing socialist writer, but a bit of a git too. Again, another lesson in the importance of abandoning all-or-nothing thinking! Something I've been trying to cast off for many years.
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Re: Orwell: A Critical Revaluation due... ?

Post by Sycorax »

Pursuant to the conversation around re-evaluating people and the purpose that does or does not serve: Simone de Beauvoir.

I am currently reading "The Second Sex", which is a seminal work of feminism and existential philosophy. I probably should have read this in university but never got around to it as it's a 700-page beast of a book. De Beauvoir is probably the most important female philosopher of the past 150 years or so. Multiple strands of extremely important feminist thought originate from her. She is fundamental to modern philosophy as a whole.

She was also a sexual predator and an advocate for pedophilia. She was a professor and two of her female students have written accounts detailing how she groomed them for sex with herself and JP Sartre and how obviously damaging that was to them. I only learned that from reading her Wikipedia page, and even then I almost missed it because it takes up maybe 1-2 paragraphs. If that wasn't bad enough, she also signed a series of petitions advocating for the removal of the age of consent and for specific pedophiles to be freed from prison in the 1970s.

I am somewhat bemused this was never mentioned in any of my philosophy lectures. I remember hearing about how Heidegger was a Nazi and how Aristotle was a misogynist, but never a word about de Beauvoir being a sex criminal and the implications of that.

It seems to me that de Beauvoir is more due for re-evaluation than Orwell. Her case is more interesting too. It's not exactly a unique evil for men to be bad to their spouses, is it? There will be hundreds of authors and intellectuals who fit that description. But female sex predator and pedophile advocate who laid the groundwork for modern women's rights? That's unusual and I think more significant. De Beauvoir had power and position that Orwell didn't.
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