Robert M. Philmus
In Search of Orwell
Robert A. Lee. Orwell's
Fiction. Notre Dame & London: U. of Notre Dame Press, 1969.
188+xvii p. $2.95 (paperbound).
Jeffrey and Valerie Meyers. George
Orwell: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. NY & London:
Garland Publishing Co., 1977. 132+xx p. (9p. illus.). $18.
Jeffrey Meyers, ed. George
Orwell: The Critical Heritage. London & Boston: Routledge &
Kegan Paul, 1975. 392 + iv p. $27.
Christopher Small. The Road to Miniluv: George Orwell, the State and God.
Pittsburgh & London: U. of Pittsburgh Press & Victor Gollancz, 1975. 220p.
William Steinhoff. George Orwell and the Origins of 1984. Ann Arbor: U.
of Michigan Press, 1975 . 288p. $6.50 (paperbound).
Though seldom are they otherwise fruitful, writings about Orwell continue to come forth
and multiply. The Annotated Bibliography of Criticism on Orwell, Jeffrey Meyers
announces in his preface, "adds more than" 90 items to his previous two
checklists (of 1974 and 1975), "to bring the total to 500." Yet the people at
Garland claim in their flier that Meyers "annotates nearly 500 books and
articles published between 1939 and 1975" (my emphasis). The two statements do not
necessarily disagree, since a handful of items appear virtually without annotation, but if
there is a contradiction here, the truth is on Garland's side. Although the entries are
unnumbered (which sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to track down
cross-references), by my count Meyer lists 496 items in toto. However, I am no more
inclined to quibble over the insignificant shortfall than I am to inquire closely into the
completeness of a bibliography which includes not only monographs and essays but also
notes, fragmentary discussions of Orwell in books mainly devoted to other subjects,
reviews of Orwell's books (omitting, curiously enough, almost all of the ones reprinted in
Meyers' Critical Heritage volume), and some notices of books about Orwell (not
excepting any such reviews written by Meyers himself). Even if Meyers has somewhat
inflated the quantity by throwing in almost anything on Orwell, no matter how marginal
(e.g., an article on 1984 as "valuable preparation for writing a term
paper"), still the sheer bulk of the criticism is sufficient to make one pause. Why,
one is prompted to ask, is Orwell deserving of so much attention? On the other hand, the
general quality of the criticism, of which Meyers' bibliography seems to give a fair idea,
makes one wonder: What did the poor man ever do to deserve this kind of attention?
The Meyers bibliography suggests that these two rather different questions may both be
susceptible to the same answer. To judge from that bibliographical compilation, the
techniques of "pure" literary criticism have rarely been applied to Orwell. The
overwhelming majority of writings about him have little to do with literary
interpretation. They are primarily concerned with the details of his life and with his
political attitudes. By conservative estimate, fully a third of the books, articles, and
whatnot that Meyers records deal exclusively with such matters.
Meyers himself apparently favors a biographical approach. Most of the 60 items that he
asterisks as being "more significant" than the rest (among them, two books and
two articles of his own) are biographical in emphasis. The inference, then, seems
inescapable: that readers have been attracted to Orwell the man at least as much as to
Orwell the writer.
That kind of response is not at all unjustifiable. Much of Orwell's work is not only
autobiographical but personal (or so it appears, in contrast to, say, Joyce's or Wells's
fiction, which can be autobiographical and impersonal, or E.M. Forster's essayistic prose,
which is often personal without being autobiographical). Its personality, moreover, is an
engaging one. The man who enumerates among the most detestable features of his age
"concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned
food, machine guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies,
provocateurs, press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films, and political
murders" ("Inside the Whale") has an unmistakable, somewhat Swiftian,
quirkiness about him that many readers are attracted to. Besides, he almost always
exhibits the kind of anti-intellectualism that fascinates intellectuals -- obviously, in The
Road to Wigan Pier, for instance; less obviously, in 1984. Indeed, in this
century at least, he is perhaps the intellectual anti-intellectual par
excellence. Surely the hold of his personality accounts in large measure for his
continuing reputation. After all, it is no easy task to make a case solely for Orwell the
novelist: his most steadfast admirer must despair at having to defend the literary merits
of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, for example. By the same token, it is equally
difficult to divorce the novels from Orwell's non-fiction.
Nor do I think it advisable to do so. Though distinct from one another in various
respects, Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984, Down and Out in Paris
and London and Homage to Catalonia, and "Shooting an Elephant,"
"England Your England," and "Politics and the English Language" all
have something in common, beyond any relatively superficial similarities among certain
ideas expressed in them. They all present variations on a single, essentially Orwellian,
theme. Whatever his ostensible subject -- whether writing about Burma or the Spanish Civil
War, exploding political cant or the delusions of Fabian-type socialists, or describing
the gyrations of a Major or the ordeals of a Winston Smith -- Orwell ultimately concerns
himself with the diverse modes and species of self-deception.
That theme appears time and again in Orwell's prose. Perhaps most crucially, it
constitutes the nexus between the narrative and the expository elements in 1984 --
as I have argued in some detail elsewhere (see "The Language of Utopia," Studies
in the Literary Imagination, 6: 74-78). But it is also prominent in Orwell's
unmasking of the euphemisms that disguise atrocious realities ("Politics and the
English Language"), in his exposure of the Fascist and Stalinist lies about the civil
war in Spain (Homage to Catalonia and "Looking Back on the Spanish
War"), in his examination of the mentality of the "enlightened" colonialist
("Shooting an Elephant" and Burmese Days), and in his analysis of
England, your England, where "corruption ... is seldom of... [the 'conscious']
kind. Nearly always it is more in the nature of self-deception, of the right hand not
knowing what the left hand doeth." Yet an indefatigable reader of the criticism on
Orwell (and such a reader must perforce be indefatigable) would otherwise hardly guess
that self-deception is his main -- and ultimately, political -- theme. Despite its
ubiquity, it scarcely receives mention in what has been written about him.
The exception to this rule among the books under review here is a somewhat perverse
one. In The Road to Miniluv (which I notice Meyers does not list in his
bibliography), Christopher Small speaks of self-deception apropos of Keep the
Aspidistra Flying and 1984; but he does not appear to recognize it as
Orwell's theme. In fact, his point in bringing it up in regard to Gordon Comstock and
Winston Smith is mainly to identify those personages with their creator and suggest that
Orwell was self-deceived. After observing that Comstock "does not fully understand
that" his "is a war within his own mind," Small adds: "neither it
seems does his author" (p. 119). Winston Smith, Small remarks, does not
"fully" realize "[the] importance of [his] dream"; "nor,
perhaps.... [does] Orwell himself" (p. 158). Whoever can assent to these suppositions
about a writer as self-conscious as Orwell will no doubt readily agree that though
familiar with and fond of the Book of Jonah, Orwell suffered from an "evident
unawareness of its import" (P.204).
Underlying claims of this sort is an assumption that psychoanalysts of literature
commonly make: that the subject does not really know what goes on in his or her
"unconscious" mind. The principle itself is fallacious (for the reason Freud in
effect acknowledges when he distinguishes the "pre-conscious" from the
"unconscious" and defines the latter as "the dynamically ...
repressed," "which is not, in itself and without more ado [i.e.,
spontaneously], capable of becoming conscious": see The Ego and the Id, trans.
James Strachey [NY: Norton, 1960], p. 15; my emphasis); and in any event, Small's proof
that it applies to the case in question consists of nothing more than the unsubstantiated
assertion that Orwell "displayed much of the indifference and even hostility to
knowledge of unconscious processes that might be expected in a conventional middle-class
Englishman of his time" (p. 23). With similar bravado, Small announces that 1984
"is a fantasy, and it may well be called a sick fantasy, the product of personal
neurosis" (p. 209).
The last-quoted statement, however, gives a misleading impression about Small's
approach, which is psychoanalytical only in a rather loose sense. His declared intent is
to explain the hold 1984 has upon its readers. Orwell, he contends, "has
given his subjectivity public and objective existence," has articulated in 1984
a "nightmare" "replete with personal meanings" which are
"personal for the [reader] too" (pp. 13-14, 24). The proposition that its impact
derives from the private origins of the fiction -- indeed, that its "prevision ...
reflects ... on the political" "because it is accurate in personal
terms" (p. 141) -- requires, and deserves, a strenuous theoretical defense. As Small
provides none, he is wise to choose not to inquire too curiously and particularly into the
details of Orwell's "neurosis." But he is not so discreet in discussing his
subject's putative fixations. He accords the same status to a dubious hypothesis as to one
that is genuinely useful. That Orwell from time to time entertained, and possibly acted
upon, fantasies of "compulsive degradation" (p. 22) has at least a heuristic
value for understanding not only Down and Out in Paris and London but also
certain aspects of Animal Farm and 1984. On the other hand, to accuse
him of "latent homosexuality" (p.41) is to invite a distorted view of, say, the
idyllic interludes of male cameraderie depicted in Homage to Catalonia.
By far most thought-provoking pages in Small's book are those connected with his
analysis of Such, Such Were the Joys. In that autobiographical fragment Orwell
touches upon his childhood feelings of rejection while at Eton and his concomitant
ambivalence toward paternalistic authority. Small perhaps hints at all this and at its
bearing on the motives of Winston Smith, especially in his relations with O'Brien; but
mostly he concentrates on Orwell as a "no good" rebel against religion who saw
himself as the Satan of Paradise Lost (pp. 169-71 et passim).
Accordingly, Small reads 1984 as "a monstrous parody" of a
"religious parable" in which Smith, "[t]he sinful soul, full of guilt and
immeasurable wickedness, desperately resisting the call to obedience," figures as a
type of Job, " delud[ing] [himself] with the belief that [he] can somehow hide from
[the] Omniscience" of "God-Party" (pp. 160-61).
While this qualifies as an authentic insight, it also raises doubts about the truth of
Small's methodological assumptions. For one thing, his continual allusions to possible
literary sources suggest that Orwell's "vision" may not really be
"private" and "subjective" after all. If, for example, O'Brien's
threatened "rat-torture" of Smith "contain[s] a memory of Octave Mirbeau's The
Chinese Torture Garden" and has a "striking parallel" with Freud's
case history of the "Rat Man" (pp. 167-68), is it valid to conclude that it is
"accurate in personal terms"? Then again, is it logically consistent to invoke
influences of this kind and elsewise rely upon overt autobiographical revelation and at
the same time claim that the author is "unaware" of his "obsessions"?
And finally, can the "personal" and "political" meanings of 1984
be reconciled? Affirming that they can, Small in the end implies that Orwell's
"sickness," as it found expression in 1984, amounted to a loss of faith
reflective of the "sickness" of society at large. But the several
"obsessions" that he scares up lend themselves to another, and more
thorough-going, synthesis, clearly in conflict with the admonitory significance of
Orwell's "fantasy." From this alternative perspective, Orwell appears as an
outsider fascinated by authoritarianism and ultimately drawn, along with Winston Smith, to
the Devil's Party (in an un-, indeed anti-, Blakean sense of the phrase).
Such a notion complements the charge first levelled at Orwell by Isaac Deutscher: that
he finally succumbed to a "mysticism of cruelty." William Steinhoff devotes the
better part of two chapters in his formidably long volume on 1984 to rebutting
that and cognate accusations. Though apparently willing to admit the inconclusiveness of
his argument against the idea that Orwell subscribed to a (neo-)Machiavellian theory of
power-hunger as the basic motive of human behavior (see pp. 204-05), he is adamant in
insisting "that Orwell's beliefs [not be] confused with O'Brien's" (p. 208).
Orwell repeatedly lashed out at worshippers of power; and he issued 1984 as a
warning not only of "the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable"
but also against the "totalitarian ideas" that "have taken root in the
minds of intellectuals everywhere" (the phrases quoted come from Orwell's 1949 letter
to the editor of Life magazine; Steinhoff gives them his endorsement on pp. 215
and 219). Remaining committed to "rationalism," he "demonstrate[s] the
consequences of abandoning reason in favor of a cruel logic applied rigorously and without
limit" (p. 209).
All this is about as far as Steinhoff goes toward interpreting 1984. His
primary focus is on the book's "origins," and as a result 1984 recedes
into the background. To be more precise, he is chiefly concerned with the sources of the
ideas in 1984, and these he traces to antiutopian fiction from Wells to Aldous
Huxley, to the tracts of James Burnham, to the author's previous novels, and especially to
Orwell's essays and journalism.
George Orwell and the Origins of "1984" is a solid -- and uninspired
-- piece of work. Steinhoff breaks no new ground in it, but he goes over the old with
painstaking thoroughness. Even so, there are some notable omissions. In "Utopias and
Other Fiction," the first chapter of his survey of "Literary Fore-runners,"
Steinhoff cites The Island of Dr. Moreau, surely a questionable influence on 1984,
but not "A Story of the Days to Come," which corresponds more closely to
Orwell's book than We or any other suggested precursor does. The reader will also
search in vain for some mention of "Looking Back on the Spanish War," the essay
in which Orwell voices "the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is
fading out of the world" and imagines with horror "a nightmare world in which
the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past" (Orwell's
emphasis) -- the essay, in other words, that represents his fullest and most unmistakable
anticipation of ideas afterwards incorporated in his vision of the Party. Then, too,
Steinhoff occasionally ignores evidence not to his purpose. Relegating Zamiatin to the end
of his discussion of Orwell's "utopian" predecessors, Steinhoff abandons any
quest for resemblances and instead stresses the dissimilarities between We and 1984;
but although he quotes the plot summary from Orwell's review of We, he says
nothing about Orwell's acknowledgement of his debt to the Russian. Here and elsewhere, the
amount of space Steinhoff allocates to a given subject is not necessarily proportional to
the conviction that his findings carry. Having spent one entire chapter and parts of
others on Burnham, he contends that Orwell rejects "Burnham's theory of power...
[and] many of Burnham's predictions," but accepts "Burnham's ideas" on
"the concentration of industry and hence of its control, the erosion of capitalist
ideology and morale, the rise of a class of managers to replace the owner-capitalists, the
emergence of superstates, and the potential perversion of the ideal of socialism" (p.
200). While one must admire this effort of Steinhoff's to be precise, his conclusion --
"Orwell ... in 1984 ... assurne[s] that Burnham's analysis is correct and...
work[s] out the consequences" (ibid.) -- is no more persuasive than Small's flat and
unpedantic claim that Burnham's theory "enters the story with peculiar effect, as a
kind of burlesque" (Miniluv, p. 208), or Robert A. Lee's succinct
assessment: "that Burnham provided Orwell with many conceptions which he altered to
suit his own purposes" (Orwell's Fiction, pp. 133-34).
Steinhoff's study of "sources and influences" is only slightly more
antiquated than Lee's manner of coming to terms with Orwell's fiction. Lee proposes to
"reveal [Orwell's] progress from an individual, contained, largely parochial response
to social problems to an apocalyptic vision," and to do so by "consider [ing]
the significance of the theme" of each of Orwell's seven "novels" (p. xii),
taken up one by one, chronologically, in successive chapters. He declares at one point
that he has "suggested a continuous and coherent development in Orwell's
writing" (p. 136). In his critical practice, however, the connections that Lee makes
are few and far between, and consist chiefly of
aperçus about "recurring
motifs" -- the 'wounded protagonist,'" for example (pp. 134-35 et passim)
-- whose ulterior meaning (as in this instance) he more often than not does not examine.
The exegeses Lee offers are rather uneven. He puts forward a careful, sensible, and
coherent reading of Animal Farm; and if he does not prove by it that the book
transcends mere allegory by "painting a grim picture of the human condition in the
political twentieth century" (p. 109; surely the fiction is no more parabolic than
Swift's Contests and Dissensions, a work to which it is in many respects
comparable), at least Lee does not wildly overstate the case by alleging that Orwell's
satire is in some way "more powerful and subtle" than the fourth book of Gulliver's
Travels (Small, p. 108). Unfortunately, there is no similar attempt on Lee's part to
make coherent sense of 1984. Instead, his eye is caught by the imagery in the
book: of "St. Martin's Church" (p. 147), of "animals" (p. 151), and
especially of "dust," which he maintains is "a principal element in the
structure of the novel" (p. 137). An insight of that sort somehow brings to mind Dr.
Johnson's harsh sentence against the discoveries of metaphysical poetry: "the reader,
far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of
industry they were ever found."
None the less, Lee's book, like Small's and Steinhoff's, represents an advance over the
criticism of an earlier generation. Whatever else may be said about them, all three go
some way toward removing Orwell from the arena of Cold War polemics. If the Critical
Heritage volume on Orwell does not, that is because Jeffrey Meyers, though promiscuous as
a bibliographer, has for the most part selected only contemporary reviews of Orwell's
books. Of course, the editor of such an anthology need not apologize for including these.
Many of them, as Meyers remarks in his "Introduction," "suggest basic
critical conceptions that are investigated, elaborated and sometimes distorted by later
writers [on Orwell]" (p. 31; Daniel Bell, for instance, mentions Burnham, and Philip
Rahv has several paragraphs on Dostoyevsky, in their respective comments on 1984).
Moreover, the notices of Orwell's last published fiction are instructive also for another,
quite different, reason: as symptoms of the mentality of intellectuals, in America and in
England, during the halcyon days of the House Un-American ActivitiesCommittee. As Samuel
Sillen's diatribe (pp. 274-76) serves to point out, Orwell remains rather sketchy about
the economics of Airstrip One and Oceania generally. Yet critics of various (and sometimes
varying) political allegiances were virtually unanimous in regarding 1984 as an
anti-communist manifesto. That men of intelligence and perception, men for whom Mussolini
and Hitler would hardly have been mere historical curiosities, should thus fail to see
that the "soc" in "Ingsoc" is, so to speak, not only Marxist but
National (as in "Nazi") is a distressing tribute to the infectiousness of
It seems reasonable to demand some commentary from the editor on this phenomenon. But
Meyers, who was in his 'teens at the time of the McCarthy purges, is silent on the
subject. Nor does he give any justification for excluding certain texts not at all
negligible in their influence and impact. A perusal of the contents of his volume reveals
the absence of Lionel Trilling's and Isaac Deutscher's essays on 1984, for
example; and in place of Mary McCarthy's review of the posthumous Collected Essays --
a retrospective appraisal far superior to, say, George Steiner's (pp. 363-73) -- Meyers,
with a characteristic touch of immodesty, includes an undistinguished review of his own
Criticism of Orwell, as of Zamiatin, may be heading in the direction of a balanced
understanding of the man and his oeuvre. If the Critical Heritage volume in any
way forwards that process, it does so despite the interventions of its editor, by
displaying the shortcomings of mere personal reactions to Orwell's alleged political
views. As long as Orwell continues to attract partisans rather than interpreters, he will
not need enemies.
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