Orwell

The George With A Point

 

Orwell Utopia quoteIn yesterday’s podcast I mentioned something that a certain George Orwell once said and thought it was publishing here at greater (thought not great or full) length.

It comes from an essay called Why Socialists Don’t Believe In Fun and the whole thing is well worth the read.

However, I particularly like the last part. It also particularly adaptable. With a couple or word and/or tense changes, there are many situations in the world of today that you could apply it to…

Socialist thought has to deal in prediction, but only in broad terms. One often has to aim at objectives which one can only very dimly see. At this moment, for instance, the world is at war and wants peace. Yet the world has no experience of peace, and never has had, unless the Noble Savage once existed. The world wants something which it is dimly aware could exist, but cannot accurately define. This Christmas Day, thousands of men will be bleeding to death in the Russian snows, or drowning in icy waters, or blowing one another to pieces on swampy islands of the Pacific; homeless children will be scrabbling for food among the wreckage of German cities. To make that kind of thing impossible is a good objective. But to say in detail what a peaceful world would be like is a different matter.

Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wider course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness. This is the case even with a great writer like Swift, who can flay a bishop or a politician so neatly, but who, when he tries to create a superman, merely leaves one with the impression the very last he can have intended that the stinking Yahoos had in them more possibility of development than the enlightened Houyhnhnms. 

Orwell & The BBC

The BBC wesbite has a section about Orwell and whilst it has some information about his decision to leave, specifically his resignation letter. I think both the letter and the site however are missing out the major points in his decision to leave.

What Orwell saw at the BBC during war time helped him to create the Ministry of Truth after all.

Anyway, I think some of the more important points about is decision to leave are included in this little audio clip, reproduced with kind permission from the author Michael Shelden whose Orwell book is probably the best biography of him that is out there.

For more on the BBC you could try listening to this.

 

Milliband Wins Award

Well, it is me who is giving out the award and it is for the outstanding example of doublethink so far this year.

Just to remind you, the definition of Doublethink as defined by Orwell is…

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present you… Ed Milliband (bold is mine)…

“This government have abandoned the pretence that they can govern for the whole country. They have betrayed Middle Britain.

Oh No, Not Another Brave New World / 1984 Comparison

Actually this isn’t a comparison as such, nor is it another ‘Who was right?’ article. I was looking for a post somewhere which compared what the two had said about each others work and couldn’t find one so I decided to do it here. As you will see, whilst both taking pains to praise the work of the other, they also both maintained that their own nightmare vision was closer to the truth.

Orwell of course died long before Huxley and was therefore did not have the chance to see how the fame and importance of the two books (particularly his own)  grew steadily throughout the 20th century. Therefore I will give him the first word here…

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a sort of post-war parody of the Wellsian Utopia, these tendencies are immensely exaggerated. Here the hedonistic principle is pushed to its utmost, the whole world has turned into a Riviera hotel. But though Brave New World was a brilliant caricature of the present (the present of 1930), it probably casts no light on the future. No society of that kind would last more than a couple of generations, because a ruling class which thought principally in terms of a “good time” would soon lose its vitality. A ruling class has got to have a strict morality, a quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique.

Before Orwell died however...

In October 1949, as George Orwell lay dying of lung disease in a London hospital, he received a letter from Aldous Huxley. Huxley had just read Orwell’s recently published 1984.

To get a letter from the older, more eminent Huxley was a big deal for any writer, but for Orwell it held special meaning because Huxley was the author of Brave New World (1932), the visionary novel with which 1984 was being roundly compared. Huxley had also been one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton.

Huxley was overwhelmed by 1984, telling Orwell “how fine and how profoundly important the book is.”

But while he agreed that the future would be dominated by totalitarian regimes ruling sheep-like subjects, Huxley did not share Orwell’s violent vision of torture, “boot-on-the-face,” sex repression and endless war.

“My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and that these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World … . Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

Later, in the introduction to the 1958 work Brave New World Revisited (Full text available here), which is a non-fiction piece in which Huxley considered if society had moved towards or away from the society he had described in Brave New World,  Huxley gave special mention to 1984 in his introduction…

  George Orwell’s 1984 was a magnified projection into the future of a present that contained Stalinism and an immediate past that had witnessed the flowering of Nazism. Brave New World was written before the rise of Hitler to supreme power in Germany and when the Russian tyrant had not yet got into his stride. In 1931 systematic terrorism was not the obsessive contem­porary fact which it had become in 1948, and the fu­ture dictatorship of my imaginary world was a good deal less brutal than the future dictatorship so brilliantly portrayed by Orwell. In the context of 1948, 1984 seemed dreadfully convincing. But tyrants, after all, are mortal and circumstances change. Recent developments in Russia and recent advances in science and technology have robbed Orwell’s book of some of its gruesome verisimilitude. A nuclear war will, of course, make nonsense of everybody’s predictions. But, assuming for the moment that the Great Powers can somehow refrain from destroying us, we can say that it now looks as though the odds were more in favor of something like Brave New World than of something like 1984.

        In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effec­tive, in the long run, than control through the rein­forcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manip­ulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children. Pun­ishment temporarily puts a stop to undesirable behav­ior, but does not permanently reduce the victim’s tend­ency to indulge in it. Moreover, the psycho-physical by-products of punishment may be just as undesirable as the behavior for which an individual has been pun­ished. Psychotherapy is largely concerned with the de­bilitating or anti-social consequences of past punish­ments.

        The society described in 1984 is a society controlled almost exclusively by punishment and the fear of pun­ishment. In the imaginary world of my own fable, pun­ishment is infrequent and generally mild. The nearly perfect control exercised by the government is achieved by systematic reinforcement of desirable be­havior, by many kinds of nearly non-violent manipula­tion, both physical and psychological, and by genetic standardization. Babies in bottles and the centralized control of reproduction are not perhaps impossible; but it is quite clear that for a long time to come we shall remain a viviparous species breeding at random. For practical purposes genetic standardization may be ruled out. Societies will continue to be controlled post-natally — by punishment, as in the past, and to an ever increasing extent by the more effective methods of reward and scientific manipulation.

There is also film of Huxley talking about this which includes the text of a letter Huxley wrote to Orwell…

Orwell Was Wrong (Just Occasionally)

This article also features at Bella Caledonia.

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I have been an Orwell obsessive since I was 11 years old when I read Down & Out in Paris & London. I was obviously too young to get all of it but I got a taste for his work early and it has stayed with me throughout my life. In fact, I know large sections of it by memory and went on a sort of pilgrimage to the house where he wrote 1984. Furthermore, I used to have a picture of him on my living room wall. It has now been moved to the office (or “smallest room” as it otherwise known) at the insistence of my girlfriend.

That doesn’t mean to say that I don’t think he was occasionally wrong (I’m even breaking one of his writing rules in the first half of this sentence just to see if anyone notices),  but I think most people would agree that he left an amazing body of work behind.

I have also, since a young age, been a firm supporter of Scottish Independence. That said, for a long time the use of the word ‘nationalist’ has sat uncomfortably with me. It is clear to anyone who looks that the Independence movement is not nationalist in the way Orwell described it in Notes on Nationalism

“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

A very short and on the money general criticism of this essay came from the writer Philip Challinor when I interviewed him and he said…

I’ve never got patriotism at all. I mean I know Orwell approved of it but the essay he wrote about patriotism and nationalism is one of the ones I disagree with because I think the aspects of patriotism he disapproves of he has called ‘nationalism’, and the aspects of nationalism that he approves of he has called ‘patriotism’.

I don’t think Orwell could have been counted as a sympthathizer with regards to Scottish Independence. As far as I know the only time he talked about it in his writing was in the same essay…

“Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalism have points of difference but are alike in their anti-English orientation. Members of all three movements have opposed the war while continuing to describe themselves as pro-Russian, and the lunatic fringe has even contrived to be simultaneously pro-Russian and pro-Nazi. But Celtic nationalism is not the same thing as anglophobia. Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism. The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon — simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc. — but the usual power hunger is there under the surface. One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection. Among writers, good examples of this school of thought are Hugh McDiarmid and Sean O’Casey. No modern Irish writer, even of the stature of Yeats or Joyce, is completely free from traces of nationalism.”

There are so many ‘Orwell was right’ articles out there that it is refreshing to do an ‘Orwell was wrong’ one.  In the paragraph I quoted above there is a lot you can take issue with.

For example in the modern context, given that we now all live in the American Empire, and that in many ways the UK is now a satellite territory of the USA (or Airstrip One if you like), ideas about protection of independence simply don’t count. Furthermore, from a historical point of view you could point out that because the UK exists, Scottish Independence does not.

You could point out that there is a lunatic fringe everywhere. You might also say that, in the UK, the majority of the type of right-wing nationalism that he describes is to be found in England.

I think it is also clear that the charge of “power-hunger” doesn’t make a lot of sense. A power-hungry Scottish politician would head straight to London in order to work in the bigger, stronger unit and would not see the benefits in working in a smaller state.

I’ll leave it to others to talk about MacDiarmid, Joyce and O’Casey.

Time of writing is important here though. The first appearance of the Notes on Nationalism essay was in May 1945 so it is safe enough to assume it was written sometime before the end of the war. Orwell during the war had called for a type of “honest propaganda”. We can’t say for sure but maybe this is what he was attempting with the essay.

So in what he says above, I do think he was wrong. Nevertheless, I think people who want independence should be very careful about word choice as the “nationalist” label is still one that is occasionally used to deliberately create false perceptions about what is going on. If not that, then from ignorance of the real situation people immediately assume that because the word nationalist is there then something rightwing and nasty is afoot. The Orwell essay I have been talking about is frequently brought up in these discussions.

After so long it is always difficult to change a name but it might serve if more people would refer to it as The Independence Movement rather than the nationalist one. And what is more… The Independence Movement sounds sexier anyway.

Post Script

With this background I was rather surprised to come across a diary written by Orwell in Cranham Sanatorium in Gloucestershire a few months before his death.

Cranham, 17 April 1949
Curious effect, here in the sanatorium, on Easter Sunday, when the people in this (the most expensive) block of “chalets” mostly have visitors, of hearing large numbers of upper-class English voices. I have been almost out of the sound of them for two years, hearing them at most one or two at a time, my ears growing more & more used to working-class or lower-middle class Scottish voices. In the hospital at Hairmyres, for instance, I literally never heard a “cultivated” accent except when I had a visitor. It is as though I were hearing these voices for the first time. And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness & richness combined with a fundamental ill-will—people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful. No wonder everyone hates us so.

Scotland Sunday Photos 8 – Jura & Barnhill (the house where Orwell wrote 1984)

I have always been an Orwell nut and when I found out that 1984 was written on the Scottish Island of Jura in a house right at the top of the island I thought I would like to go and see it. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity and here are some of the photos.

This was before everyone had a digital camera so these are scanned from prints hence the quality is a bit worse than the other ones in the series

Here is the house where he wrote the book…

The house is actually several miles after the ROAD finishes so Orwell wasn’t kidding when he said he wanted space to write the book. It would probably be harder to find anywhere in Britain where you could be further away from anyone else. You have to walk all the way along here…

 

Here are some other shots from around Jura.


COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT

The idea that sport is “war minus the shooting” has been written about too much but the Italy V Serbia match that was abandoned in midweek throws up an interesting question.

In case you don’t know what happened a group of Serbian right-wing bigoted thugs rioted outside the ground and inside. They also proceeded to throw flares and fireworks onto the pitch and nearly hit the Italian goalkeeper a couple of times. One report even suggested they managed to get in the ground with boltcutters in order to cut their way through the segregation fences.

The match was eventually abandoned after 7 minutes in the interests of safety.

In the aftermath UEFA, the controlling body of European football, decided to award the victory to Italy with a 3-0 scoreline. This punishment has been applied before although not uniformly.

This relates to “war minus the shooting” because collective punishment is  something that often happens in wartime. Someone does something wrong according to whichever government or army is controlling the area and everyone is punished for that one person’s mistake. This is effectively what has happened to the Serbian players and the non-rightwing thug supporters of the Serbian team.

I don’t often defend footballers as they are often spoilt, overpaid brats but the principle is nonetheless the same. Why do we accept this kind of “justice” in sporting terms when it is clearly unacceptable in society as a whole?

The Football Association of Serbia are appealing against the decision they are appealing on the grounds that the Italian police failed to control the Serbian fans that were making trouble. They say that they supplied information about the people in advance and that the incompetence of the Italian police is something that they should not be punished for. They don’t make any mention of collective punishment being unfair.

GREAT MISSING THE POINT MOMENTS IN HISTORY – FOUR – AN AMERICAN PUBLISHER

Another missing the point moment, and this one is a beauty.

One of the most ridiculous gaffes in literary history was made by the first American publisher to receive the manuscript of Animal Farm who rejected it because ‘there isn’t much of a market for animal stories in the U.S. at the moment’.

The picture below was taken when Orwell received the news and had just decided to go and see the publisher in person.

Other great missing the poing moments can be found here.