Science Fiction Studies

#19 = Volume 6, Part 3 = November 1979

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. $8.95.

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[1973]: 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 aperus 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 incipient McCarthyism.

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 (pp. 373-81).

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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