|The Early Days of a Better Nation
Wednesday, November 02, 2011
I spent a lot of time outdoors, often getting thoroughly cold and wet, but I also had plenty of time and space to read and write. And naturally enough, in this cheery environment I thought about the gloomiest writer who ever stayed on Jura. I'd recently re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the SFX Book Club, and - in dark evenings and the odd torrential afternoon - on Jura I browsed through The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, as well as the informative locally-published booklet 'Orwell on Jura', and an essay on the same subject by Bernard Crick in a nice little collection, Spirit of Jura: Fiction, Essays, Poems from the Jura Lodge, copies of which are liberally scattered around the house.
There's a common misconception about Orwell on Jura: that he went there to die, and that in going there he more or less deliberately made sure that he would. This is usually accompanied by a mental image of Jura as a remote, cold, wet, wind-swept miserable place, more or less ideal for writing a grey dystopia and then pegging out. Not a bit of it! Jura's climate, though indeed wet and windy, is mild. Palm trees grow in front of the hotel. Lizards live in the drystone dykes. The island is only remote in the sense that it's a (breathtakingly scenic) trek to get there. It's less than a hundred miles west of Glasgow. As Bernard Crick put it, Orwell didn't go there to die, he went there to write.
Re-reading his essays brought me to a thought that rather surprised me:
If George Orwell hadn't written Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he'd be remembered as the author of a few depressing novels. Selections from his non-fiction would now and again be reprinted by AK or Pluto Press, with kindly introductions by Michael Foot or Tony Benn. The political right would have no interest in him at all.
He's always a pleasure to read, but as a political thinker he was neither original nor important. His criticisms of the left were sometimes unfair, but hardly unique. On the rare occasions when he put forward a positive programme of his own, or endorsed that of others, there's not a cigarette paper between him and the state socialists. Considered purely as a platform, 'The Lion and the Unicorn' shares a surprising number of planks with 'The British Road to Socialism' though to be fair the latter doesn't look forward to blood running in the gutters and red militias billeted in the Ritz.
Orwell's writings have an odd place in British culture. For many people, Orwell's essays and books are the only political writings from the 1930s and 40s they'll ever read. A fair bit of Orwell's political writing from that time consists of disparaging other political writing of the period - particularly the writing of the left. From 'Politics and the English Language' you can get the impression that such political writing consisted mostly of crass apologetics in dreadful prose. The result is that nobody bothers to read it, and Orwell's view reigns unchallenged.
'If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.'
There's no necessary connection between political truth and verbal clarity. Let's take some writers whose politics Orwell would reject. Nothing could be stronger than Orwell's detestation of Fabianism and Stalinism. George Bernard Shaw stood for the first and more or less endorsed the second, yet The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism is a delight to read. Not all the Communists and fellow-travellers were hacks. (Orwell's citation of a rant from that quarter is tellingly under-referenced: 'Communist pamphlet' - I ask you!) T. A. Jackson and A. L. Morton wrote their best-known books in clear and vivid English. John Strachey was at his most lucid when he was at his most wrong. Professor J. B. S. Haldane's science essays are still read for pleasure. The Trotskyist C. L. R. James wrote one literary masterpiece; Trotsky himself was constitutionally incapable of writing a dull page, and in Max Eastman he found a translator worthy of his style. On the democratic, non-Marxist left, Lancelot Hogben, one of whose lazier paragraphs Orwell's famous essay holds up to scorn, was the author of Mathematics for the Million and Science for the Citizen - he was no Isaac Asimov, I'll give you that, but mastering these two books can set you up for life (or university, at any rate) which is more than can be said for Asimov's Guide to Science, fine volume though that is. Hogben's two big books sold hundreds of thousands. His style can't have stood in many readers' way.
That's not to say Orwell didn't have a point. I've always relished this passage from Perry Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism:
By contrast [with Marx's published work], the extreme difficulty of language characteristic of much of Western Marxism in the twentieth century was never controlled by the tension of a direct or active relationship to a proletarian audience. On the contrary, its very surplus above the necessary minimum quotient of verbal complexity was the sign of its divorce from any popular practice. The peculiar esotericism of Western Marxist theory was to assume manifold forms: in Lukacs, a cumbersome and abstruse diction, freighted with academicism; in Gramsci, a painful and cryptic fragmentation, imposed by prison; in Benjamin, a gnomic brevity and indirection; in Della Volpe, an impenetrable syntax and circular self-reference; in Sartre, a hermetic and unrelenting maze of neologisms; in Althusser, a sybilline rhetoric of elusion.What can you say?
Well! - what you can say is that if you work your way through Anderson's egregious collocation of vocables (and yes, I have looked up 'egregious') every word of this makes sense, and for all I know may even be true.