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George Orwell

Discussed in this essay:

Diaries, by George Orwell. Edited by Peter Davison. Liveright. 597 pages. $39.95.

It is August 19, 1947. George Orwell has retired to Jura, a remote Scots island, to obtain the solitude he deems necessary to complete Nineteen Eighty-Four. Good weather and visiting relatives have strengthened the host’s desire for a fishing excursion, so Orwell and five guests board a dinghy, apparently without the life jackets sailors are repeatedly reminded to wear. Before they begin their journey, a worrywart among them asks Orwell whether he has checked the tide tables, and he airily remarks, “Oh, yes, yes, I’ve looked it all up.” Even the load of six lightweight passengers noticeably raises the boat’s waterline.

On the return trip, Orwell pilots his visitors to the edge of a powerful whirlpool that has a reputation as the most dangerous in the British Isles—Corryvreckan, which squirts from the surface of the sea with a great roar, one of those newsworthy monsters whose waves sometimes rise as high as a mast—and the outboard motor is sheared off, the vessel calamitously overturned. The group just barely escapes drowning in the icy water. After waiting several anxious hours on a small outcropping of rock called Eilean Mór, they are rescued by a crew of lobstermen, who see the party’s smoke signal, or perhaps the waving shirt tied to the tip of a fishing pole, and who obligingly offer to return them all the way to Orwell’s farmhouse. “Oh, no, it’s all right. We’ll walk back,” Orwell answers with the assurance of a practiced criminal; he alone still has his squishy boots in service. The rest of the party has to make its way home, barefoot, over three miles of tough terrain.

As was Orwell’s habit, that evening he entered his account of the fiasco in one of the diaries we have before us. I am tempted to think that the page is revelatory. (Not incidentally, this passage and hundreds of others like it are edited with exemplary skill and grace by Peter Davison.)

8.19.47: Since 8.17.47. at Glengarrisdale. Fine weather all the time. Sea calm. Water supply has dried up & will not begin again until it rains. Well in field fairly good water.


Time to Glengarrisdale about 1 hour 45 minutes. On return journey today ran into the whirlpool & were all nearly drowned. Engine sucked off by the sea & went to the bottom. Just managed to keep the boat steady with the oars, & after going through the whirlpool twice, ran into smooth water & found ourselves only about 100 yards from Eilean Mór, so ran in quickly & managedto clamber ashore. H[umphrey] D[akin] jumped ashore first with the rope, then the boat overturned spilling L[ucy] D[akin], R[ichard] & myself into the sea. R. trapped under the boat for a moment, but we managed to get him out. Most of the stuff in the boat lost including the oars. Eilean Mór is larger than it looks—I should say 2 acres at least. The whole surface completely undermined by puffins’ nests. Countless wild birds, including many young cormorants learning to fly. Curiously enough it has a considerable pool of what appears to be fresh water, so there must be a spring. No wood whatever on the island, as there is no place where drift could fetch up. However we managed to get my cigarette lighter dry & made a fire of dead grass & lumps of dry peat, prised off the surface, at which we dried our clothes. We were taken off about 3 hours later by the Ling fishermen who happened to be bringing picknickers round. We left Glengarrisdale at about 10.30, which was about 2 hours after high tide. So must have struck Corryvreckan at about 11.30, ie. when the tide had been ebbing about 3 hours. It appears this was the very worst time, & one should time it so as to pass Corryvreckan on slack water. The boat is all right. Only serious loss, the engine & 12 blankets.

Yesterday fished Loch nan Eilean & a Bhùrra. 12 trout, mostly small. There are a lot of fish in a Bhùrra but I could not catch anything over about 5 ounces. It was very shallow, with a sandy or shingly bottom.

Took out 1 ½ galls, petrol making 43 galls.

Eggs for last 3 days 15 (286).

What is more outrageous: the quiet gamble Orwell took on behalf of others who weren’t asked whether they wished their lives risked, or the cool exercise of power that put the group, barefooted, on the march? Maybe, in Orwell’s diary account, it is the abrupt, offhand transition from disaster (the tipped-over boat) to routine observations (of puffins’ nests and cormorants).

George Orwell could hike all day long through the English countryside: he had vigorous legs; he had searching eyes, an alert nose; he also had to walk because he had no money and a cheap coat, often no place to put his head nor a bench to fold his body on. He’d be frozen, sweaty, wet, beat, but in shape for the extremities of life, and still in possession of the energy, in the evening, to record the day with the calm of a shop clerk. Wherever he ventured, with the aid of some small job to stir the pot, a book was sure to follow: in Burma, as a petty cop; in Paris, a kitchen slave; in London, a tramp; in the fields, a picker of hops; in the ground, a miner of coal; in hospital after hospital, a patient; in Spain, before being shot, a soldier for a confused and hopeless cause; a gardener on a small farm, scratching out his life like a chicken; a media man dodging bombs in London; a propagandizer for the Allies, tormented by the necessity to lie.

Orwell always uses his diaries to log the weather—on dry land and ocean—as a ship’s captain would, or a vegetable farmer. He has space to record distances, times, tolls. He not only drops personal pronouns but also uses the diaries to dispatch other elements to their doom. While writing Burmese Days he began to suspect that it wasn’t just the subject he was writing about but the way he wrote about it that mattered. “I’m trying to find a style which eliminates the adjective,” he told a friend. He wanted to be a man of few words while writing many. As his name changed from Blair to Orwell—an attempt to cover the embarrassment of a shameful colonial past—his books would strive to be worthy of the switch. Not so easily done, putting together something that has never been whole. Several of the diaries are composed almost entirely of sentence fragments. Feelings are erased like fingerprints from a crime scene. In short, the text stands a good distance from what it sees.

1.9.39: Two eggs. Saw large flock of green plover, apparently the same as in England. Clear & fine, afternoons fairly warm.

In a famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” published in 1946, Orwell declared war on euphemisms, clichés, dead metaphors, and pretentious diction, anticipating his use of them in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He hated crowding, whether it concerned sleeping arrangements or dependent clauses. But obedience to such restrictions was an intermittent achievement, and he could not maintain it. While on the road to Wigan Pier he stayed in a room belonging to the Brooker family and described it in this judgmental post-Jamesian manner:

. . . a beastly place it was, with their defiled impermanent look of rooms that are not serving their rightful purpose . . . Hanging from the ceiling was a heavy glass chandelier on which the dust was as thick as fur. And covering most of one wall there was a huge hideous piece of junk, something between a sideboard and a hall-stand, with lots of carving and little drawers and strips of looking-glass, and there was a once-gaudy carpet ringed by the slop-pails of years, and two gilt chairs with burst seats, and one of those old-fashioned horsehair armchairs which you slide off when you try to sit on them.

His excessive use of “and” is characteristic of the loose connections of life and art that compose the Diaries. Orwell loves to enumerate, but only in round numbers. Very soon he will banish alliteration (“huge,” “hideous,” “hall,” “glass,” “gaudy,” “gilt”), articles of ownership (“he” and “she,” while saving “it”), and most of those apt images (“thick as fur,” “slop-pails of years”) that enliven an otherwise jotty prose. If these cuts make reading easier, why then by all means wave the offenders away: his landlady “had a big, pale yellow, anxious face.” She had a face. It was anxious. That’s better.

The result of Orwell’s revisionary practice was a plain, hammer-headed, puritanical prose that would convey to the reader or listener the impression of honesty and truth. He remembers that early in his education he was blessed with an English teacher who insisted, with the same fervor as one might demand chastity from a daughter, on severe simplicity from her pupils. Later in life Orwell put it more grandly. “Prose literature as we know it is the product of rationalism, of the Protestant centuries, of the autonomous individual.” The writers he read and admired as a youth (Maugham, Kipling, Wells) gave us verbal worlds, whether imaginary or captured, with the confidence and directness of the daily news.

There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to “get on or get out,” your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags; and here was this wonderful man [H. G. Wells] who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined.

For Orwell, complexity was a weapon of the devious—though most issues had many sides. Language laced with Latin brought back the Middle Ages, but its loss cost us an entire repertoire of distinctions as well as the art of close reading. The plain speech he came to prefer (but not always to practice) resembled the landscape of the featureless northern shires, and later in life Orwell found that the Hebrides suited him, especially because there were so few of the Scots he was supposed to dislike in residence. Few welcomed Scotland and its cold, hard, famished clime (secret: very pleasant in summer) the way Orwell did, and once he had the opportunity to live there—World War II was over and Animal Farm was a hit—he took it. There, as he began Nineteen Eighty-Four, he was deeply involved with the evil uses of English. Who are the enemies of the scientific style? They are “narrow-minded, profoundly incurious people, predatory business men, dull squires, bishops, politicians who could quote Horace but had never heard of algebra.” This conclusion has a lot of rhetorical steam, but it does not whistle with the truth.

Anyone who tries to read Orwell’s Diaries will notice his strange interest in arithmetical description. Whatever can be weighed, he will weigh; whatever can be clocked or measured, he will clock and count and measure. What matters to this empiricist is a worker’s income, a goat’s milk production, the length of the average working day, a site’s geographic location, the rate of rainfall, which direction the wind blows. When he arrives in a place, he gives it an anthropological go-round. Goats and cows count. Eggs most of all.

If Orwell is going to reside in a sufficiently spare and strenuous spot, and to attempt with his hoe and shovel a self-sufficient life, he will begin to organize his efforts by making to-do lists, lists that sometimes during their check-off reach poetry.

Move wire of hen-run.

Clear all the grass off the new patch & the bit joining it to the old garden.
Heap turf so as to rot.
Rough-dig the new patch.
Transplant all the fruit bushes.
Clean out & dig the patch where the fruit bushes have been.
Lime the vacant piece, the empty part of the rhubarb bed, & the place where the fruit bushes have been.
Clear out the remaining patch under the hedge & prepare bed for rambler.
Remove most of the chrysanthemums when they have withered back.
Take up & store dahlia roots.
Plant shallots.
Sow broad beans.
Plant phloxes, michaelmas daisies (if not too early.)
Plant roses, rambler & polyantha.Transplant peonies.
Transplant apple tree.
Procure and plant blackberries.
Collect several sacks dead leaves.
Clean out strawberry bed.
Possibly also:
Make up paths in kitchen garden.
Make new bed by gate.
5 eggs.

But let us pretend for a moment that the name Orwell is not familiar. We have popped open our ponderous (1,416 pages) copy of his collected essays and found him writing about Yeats’s affection for fancy language. Sometimes the poet succeeds, Orwell says, despite “straining after effect,” by inventing phrases like “the mackerel-crowded seas,” and “the chill, footless years.” What is the effect desired from these images? They “suddenly overwhelm one like a girl’s face seen across a room.” Orwell has balanced two examples from Yeats with one of his own: Yeats in poetry, Orwell in prose; Yeats with a flourish, Orwell straightforward and simple, yet just as surprising, equally memorable. Our critic of Yeats tells his subject to slim down because “even in this short poem there are six or seven unnecessary words.” This is quite a wonderful presumption. But Orwell is concerned with more sinister matters.

Translated into political terms, Yeats’s tendency is Fascist. Throughout most of his life, and long before Fascism was ever heard of, he had had the outlook of those who reach Fascism by the aristocratic route. He is a great hater of democracy, of the modern world, science, machinery, the concept of progress . . .

This is comparable to accusing an unborn baby of an inclination to stutter. But our guy, we must admit, talks tough about tough stuff, no fancy fluff for him, no sir, he gives it to us straight; but whoops . . .

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep, sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

This is writing of the finest kind: scenes sharply perceived, carefully dispensed, itemized, iconic, and fairly partitioned between urban and rural material, in a sentence that travels up and down the social ladder from neglected railroad tracks to their quiet obscurity. It is a bit purple, purple in a satisfactory way. It also suggests that things are going to hell.

How long have we been forecasting one sort of doom or another? Since the moment we were booted out of Eden. Because we know we shall die, and we don’t want to do that, even though our souls hold prepaid tickets to somewhere possibly nice. Back in the day of John Donne or Jeremy Taylor, hundreds lent their ears to the doomsayers every Sunday, not as fervently as we now do to radio rabble-rousers, but tuned in all the same. Nevertheless—and we must remember this—it did no good whatsoever to get the bad news.

In the Twenties, when Eric Blair was not yet George Orwell, but instead a reluctant cop for the Kingdom of Great Britain in the territory called Burma, he discovered it was as distasteful to be the boss on the block as to be the peasant in the field. He would take pride in his dinky overlordship, which fostered a corrupting attitude of superiority, only to suffer the social seesaw’s standard humiliation: being compelled to serve another boss, observe another set of conventions, and obey a higher law. In Burmese Days Orwell complains:

It is a world in which . . . free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. . . . Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil.

What is the customary solution for political disgust and the isolation that follows? Join something. Belong. Cling. It’s 1936 and there is a war in Spain. Think so little of your life as to risk it. And your wife’s life too, why not? Join something made of capital letters: POUM, or, in English, the United Marxist Workers’ Party. Enter the nightmare of “isms,” “ists,” and “ologies.”

Traditionally there are two ways an individual might be related to an organization, and Orwell tried both: the utilitarian, which regards the group as an instrument to its ends, the way we do the silverware to the mashed potatoes; and the collective, which defines each member by functions or positions. If a fork proves to be merely stainless, or a wife mislays her dowry, or a stock lies about its profits, the instrumentalist simply dumps the shaky investment, acquires a new wife who suits, and buys table forks with a guaranteed imprimatur; while the corporation, so long as it remains a true collective, can fire its CEO or resist divorce with the help of the Catholic Church (you may not like your wife, but you love marriage). Orwell was an idealist: the BBC didn’t ask him to step forward, but it did need a propagandist for its Eastern Service and Orwell wanted to be of use. Eric Blair was a pragmatist: he might consider publishing with Victor Gollancz, but only if they’d pay him enough money. Who will win these tugs of war in each of us? Individual greed, or the ruthless ambition of the collective?

In Spain, the enemy took Orwell’s measure. Eric was nearly 6’3″, in a trench dug for a Spaniard. His friend Jack Branthwaite said to him, “Eric, you know, one of these days you’re going to get shot.” A bit later, Eric was talking about his experience in a Paris brothel when he (God willed it) fell to the ground, a bullet (where?) through his throat. 7mm round. Mauser rifle. From 175 yards.

For someone who joins a collective, at first there is the fellowship of the group to enjoy: others of the same mind, the infusion of virtue that good deeds provide. You used to be bullied and sat last in class, but now you break windows with the eagerness that a brick has for glass. Orwell detests the type. He was half one.

The utilitarian appears to be crass and selfish. He won’t treat others as ends but only as means, and he is loyal to a cause only so long as it profits him. He is a perfect capitalist figure. The financier, who invests in many things, often decides to build the hospital that keeps him alive, and concludes his thus prolonged life with a few years of philanthropy. Orwell detests the type. He was half one.

If you are an individualist, as Orwell was on sunny days, but also join forces with others to make a group, a group like POUM with its own ideas and desires, you will soon grow restive about certain rules, and reluctant to sacrifice your own interests or betray your principles for the sake of the collective. You will become unreliable. Suspicious. The collective will begin to follow your friends to their assignations. Accusations will begin to fly. You can’t swat all of them. You are accused of Trotskyism.

13 July 1937: “Tribunal of Espionage & High Treason, Barcelona 13 July 1937./ERIC BLAIR and his wife EILEEN BLAIR/Their correspondence reveals that they are rabid Trotskyites./They belong to the I.R.P. [sic] in England./Liaison with ILP in England (Correspondence with D. Moyle and John McNair). . . . One has to consider them as ILP liaison agents of POUM.”

And so Orwell eventually tries to live a self-sustaining life. Beholden to nobody, he refuses offers of help, and walks home alone to his own pond, his own garden and its walls. He doesn’t take orders from anybody. Actually the island has plenty of fish that regularly bite, dangerous waters, and a salubrious climate beneficial to Orwell’s tuberculosis. Because in addition to his political stances, all of which indicate the presence of a social illness that is going to kill the lot of us, he is a lifelong patient himself. From his Diaries one hears scarcely a cough; there are only blanks in the calendar to mark his sanatorium stays.

Orwell warns us with novels, essays, and radio reports of our future fascisms. He wishes to save us all—well, not the useless rich, the cruel, the indifferent, the blindly bureaucratic. Actually, even Eric Blair is a basket woven with prejudice and dislike. Both George and Eric are suspicious of women and disgusted by gays. They initially hold stereotypical attitudes toward Jews but lose them after positive experiences with actual ones; but they dislike the Scots as if they are the family they want to run from. Orwell’s hated Anglican upbringing taught him to detest the Catholic Church, yet his novels’ characters reflect a good many Christian virtues. Both are fiercely anticolonial, and George also dislikes Americans when he thinks about it, which appears to be seldom, since the Diaries about the war scarcely record our presence. Orwell dallied with pacifism during the pre-Hitler days but, in the end, was scornful of antiwar sympathizers because “pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist.” It serves only to help the enemy. Fascism, of course, is the foe, but Communism quickly displaces it. (Imagine educated individuals, in this day and even at this age, running after another loudmouthed murdering leader; imagine handing your political power, however minuscule, over to a party of any kind; imagine having someone believe for you, as the Church has traditionally done for millions.) Orwell sees totalitarian tendencies everywhere, including in the cliques of poets and intellectuals where in steamy witch-like pots horrible social plans are bestirring. There are too many to name, but all sorts of innocent-seeming organizations were on his shit list. “All scoutmasters are homosexual.” I mustn’t forget the medical profession—one and all. Did I say feminists? Didn’t like them. Oh, and Tories. That would include most of the middle class, all of the idle rich, and—worse—all of the busy wealthy.

The procedure Orwell adopts for his writing goes like this: find a social class (but the hunt should be among workmen, farmers, or outcasts, not the white-collar), insert yourself into that class, lead your daily life the way they do, dissolve what you learn into notes, and serve the result to the public. Your claim upon their attention will be this: The resulting text will be more detailed, correct, and informative than the competition’s—traveler’s reminiscences, tourist guides, memoirs, and other autobiographical equipment—because you are interested only in the “unfortunate,” because you want to reform society, not to enjoy the countryside or celebrate your good old life among the cannibals. Do you wish your readers to shed a tear over the impoverished condition of the exploited, or over your description of their plight? If you were really going to tell the truth about what you found along the way you would first have had to grow up among the crop you wished to harvest, which clearly you cannot accomplish. You would have to unknow things—how far in meters it is to the next town, Plato’s Symposium, the average life span of a lobsterman, Lawrence of Arabia, the cost of a pair of shoes in the desert. Oh, that last your subject may also know—perhaps you share something after all—but will you know how it feels if one day he has a pair that fits?

A significant proportion of the Diaries is devoted to the war, especially the bombing of London, and these pages are filled with a fuller prose than the garden has been getting. If you want to experience George Orwell healthy, in harmony with his own sympathies—and, yes, on his best behavior as a reporter—you must turn to the Essays, many of which are truly beautiful and unexcelled. For instance a short piece of brilliant reportage called “Marrakech” began its life in the Diaries but reached maturity in the magazine New Writing, where it appeared in December of 1939. This is how Orwell begins:

As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.

The theme is the invisibility of the brown man and his poverty. There is plenty of propaganda here, if that’s what you want to call it, but it is properly done.

Orwell is watching a bit of the Senegalese army marching past. The thought is: Suppose the African people, who are invisible to themselves, should suddenly see their situation and “turn their guns in the opposite direction.” And he concludes:

It was a kind of secret which we all knew and were too clever to tell; only the negroes didn’t know it. And really it was almost like watching a flock of cattle to see the long column, a mile or two miles of armed men, flowing peacefully up the road, while the great white birds drifted over them in the other direction, glittering like scraps of paper.

In addition to social connections of a pragmatic or idealistic kind, there is a third way of understanding the relations of individuals to the state. It was first demonstrated, as far as I can calculate, by Socrates, when he refused to avoid his death penalty and escape Athens. We need to see society as an extension of ourselves, an invisible part of our anatomy that assists us every day without dominating us and that, like our own arms and legs, we tend when injured, and whose welfare we consider at all times. The relation resembles that of a violinist to his instrument—useful but more than something useful, cared for like an esteemed friend. If such a part of us fails, we do not discard it for a peg leg, nor are we fired from our job because we cannot play hopscotch. We may be a disposable member of the symphony, but our violin is us to us. The relation is sometimes—oh dear—called love.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Middle C,is forthcoming from Knopf in March.

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