I have been on an Orwell jag recently, and have read again Orwell’s collected essays, plus Hitchens and D J Taylor’s biographies of Orwell. I’d like to concentrate on the Taylor bio, Orwell: The Life, as in it Taylor proposes a universal reading of Orwell that struck me as curious.
With care, lyricism and attention to detail, Taylor deconstructs the legends that have coalesced around Orwell, legends in part created by Orwell himself. The first duty of a biographer is to give a sense of subject as human, and it always amused me that people said Christopher Hitchens modelled himself on Orwell. Hitchens was a handsome and carefree liberal who enjoyed the best life had to offer and seemed at ease wherever he was. Orwell was a brave and decent man who never quite overcame the upper middle class prejudices of his background, and for all his good qualities always comes off as awkward, remote, marginalised and slightly sad. As Lionel Trilling said, Orwell’s greatness derived from an unblinking honesty and clarity about both himself and the world around him.
Shortly into the intro, Taylor makes a startling claim:
Broadly speaking he realised – and he did so a great deal earlier than most commentators of either Right or Left – that the single most important crisis of the twentieth century was the decline in mass religious belief and, its corollary, in personal immortality. God was dead and yet the secular substitutes put in His place, whether totalitarianism or western consumer capitalism, merely travestied human ideals and aspirations. The task facing modern man, as Orwell saw it, was to take control of that immense reservoir of essentially spiritual feeling – all that moral sensibility looking for a home – and use it to irrigate millions of ordinary and finite lives. The atrocities of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia – and this point is repeated endlessly in his later writings – could only have been designed by the godless because they presuppose a world in which there is no moral reckoning, and where the only power that matters is the ability to control not only your fellow men but the history of which they are a part and the knowledge on which that history rests.
This lament has rang in the courtyard of public opinion since the Bible was translated out of Latin. Priests, politicians and modish thinkers are forever telling us that the Enlightenment sucked the numinous out of our world: as if the Middle Ages were some benign sunny New Age retreat run by Quaker reflexologists. Taylor surprised me when he made that argument in this context.
Reading Orwell’s fiction, I was struck by how little God there was. When religion is discussed in his books, it appears in a critical light. The revolution in Animal Farm is initially hindered by Mr Jones’s ‘especial pet’, the chatty raven Moses, who beguils the animals with stories of a magical land called Sugarcandy Mountain:
It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds, Moses said. In Sugarcandy Mountain it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges. The animals hated Moses because he told tales and did no work, but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to persuade them that there was no such place.
The Big Brother of Airstrip One is worshipped more or less as a god. A strapped and tortured Winston Smith asks O’Brien if Big Brother could ever die, to which O’Brien snorts: ‘How could he die?’ He goes on to say that: ‘God is power. We are the priests of power.’ Orwell wrote in ‘The Prevention of Literature’ that ‘A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible.’
Down and Out in Paris and London recorded Orwell’s dislike of Salvation Army shelters, which he avoided because of their ‘semi-military discipline’:
In some of them there is even a compulsory religious service once or twice a week, which the lodgers must attend or leave the house. The fact is that the Salvation Army are so in the habit of thinking themselves a charitable body that they cannot even run a lodging-house without making it stink of charity.
And in The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell included the believer in his ranting list of people holding back the working class movement: ‘If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!’
The relative paucity of religion in Orwell’s work is reflected in Taylor’s index. For ‘Religion, interest in’ there are only two page references. Several times, Taylor makes assertions without quotation or analysis to back them up, or when he does, he uses passages from Orwell that can be interpreted in other ways. For example: ‘Human beings had lost their souls, runs the argument of half a dozen of [Orwell's] essays, without finding anything to put in their place.’ Which essays? Presumably not ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ in which Orwell recasts Tolstoy’s attacks on Shakespeare as ‘the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life’ and comes down on the humanist side.
Taylor has another go at this when discussing Orwell’s reflections on the Spanish Civil War. He begins with the observation that Orwell’s experiences in Catalonia made Nineteen-Eighty Four inevitable. ‘It was in Spain that, for the first time in his life, Orwell saw newspaper articles that bore no relation to the known facts,’ Taylor writes. Orwell’s war ‘provided the first intimation that the concept of objective truth was ‘falling out of the world’. Its future history books would be written according to the prescriptions of whoever was in power.’
Then, Taylor makes his deductive leap:
Significantly – for it marks his first attempt to connect his earlier thoughts about religion with the shadow of totalitarianism – Orwell linked this abandonment to the decay of belief in an afterlife. ‘The major problem of our time is the decay of belief in personal immortality,’ he wrote. In the absence of any hope of divine judgement, or even the assumption that what happened on earth after one was dead mattered, autocrats could do what they liked. The challenge was to harness the displaced religious sensibility of a world without God to some common purpose.
It’s worth looking at the long penultimate para in which Orwell’s line on personal immortality is buried. Here it is:
When one thinks of all the people who support or have supported Fascism, one stands amazed at their diversity. What a crew! Think of a programme which at any rate for a while could bring Hitler, Petain, Montagu Norman, Pavelitch, William Randolph Hearst, Streicher, Buchman, Ezra Pound, Juan March, Cocteau, Thyssen, Father Coughlin, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Arnold Lunn, Antonescu, Spengler, Beverley Nichols, Lady Houston, and Marinetti all into the same boat! But the clue is really very simple. They are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. Behind all the ballyhoo that is talked about ‘godless’ Russia and the ‘materialism’ of the working class lies the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them. Ditto, though it contains a partial truth, with all the talk about the worthlessness of social reconstruction not accompanied by a ‘change of heart’. The pious ones, from the Pope to the yogis of California, are great on the’ change of heart’, much more reassuring from their point of view than a change in the economic system. Petain attributes the fall of France to the common people’s ‘love of pleasure’. One sees this in its right perspective if one stops to wonder how much pleasure the ordinary French peasant’s or working-man’s life would contain compared with Petain’s own. The damned impertinence of these politicians, priests, literary men, and what-not who lecture the working-class socialist for his ‘materialism’! All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done. Not one of those who preach against ‘materialism’ would consider life livable without these things. And how easily that minimum could be attained if we chose to set our minds to it for only twenty years! To raise the standard of living of the whole world to that of Britain would not be a greater undertaking than the war we have just fought. I don’t claim, and I don’t know who does, that that wouldn’t solve anything in itself. It is merely that privation and brute labour have to be abolished before the real problems of humanity can be tackled. The major problem of our time is the decay of the belief in personal immortality, and it cannot be dealt with while the average human being is either drudging like an ox or shivering in fear of the secret police. How right the working classes are in their ‘materialism’! How right they are to realize that the belly comes before the soul, not in the scale of values but in point of time! Understand that, and the long horror that we are enduring becomes at least intelligible. All the considerations are likely to make one falter — the siren voices of a Petain or of a Gandhi, the inescapable fact that in order to fight one has to degrade oneself, the equivocal moral position of Britain, with its democratic phrases and its coolie empire, the sinister development of Soviet Russia, the squalid farce of left-wing politics — all this fades away and one sees only the struggle of the gradually awakening common people against the lords of property and their hired liars and bumsuckers. The question is very simple. Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they? Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later — some time within the next hundred years, say, and not some time within the next ten thousand years. That was the real issue of the Spanish war, and of the last war, and perhaps of other wars yet to come.
For me the standout line of this passionate conclusion is: ‘How right the working classes are in their ‘materialism’!’ Orwell does not discount the spiritual questions; he is saying that, look, we live in a world where people cannot afford to eat, and that is going to have to be sorted before we can begin to pontificate on the alienation of the secular world. Could the elites please stop lecturing us on our spiritual bankruptcy, until then at least?
And for me this feeds into Orwell’s essay on Tolstoy, which I’ll quote again:
Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life. ‘Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all’ — which is an un-Christian sentiment. Often there is a seeming truce between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and the next. And the enormous majority of human beings, if they understood the issue, would choose this world. They do make that choice when they continue working, breeding and dying instead of crippling their faculties in the hope of obtaining a new lease of existence elsewhere.
In that essay, he also draws a distinction between mere selfish gratification and the desire to live life to its fullest.
Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life — which, it should be repeated, is not the same thing as wanting to have a good time and stay alive as long as possible.
Orwell did not manage to live a full life, but he understood its importance, and gave it his best, and that is also a part of his greatness.
I don’t say that Taylor’s reading of Orwell is invalid – after all, he’s a serious Orwell scholar and I am a guy in Levenshulme with a blog. But I think that Taylor does not support his case as well as he could have, and that it would have been an interesting experience for him to explore the other readings of Orwell that I have discussed here.
I don’t mean to detract from his biography, which is a fine piece of work and well worth reading. It’s just to say that Orwell, like all the best writers, is someone you never quite finish. You could read him for the rest of your life and there would still be more to find.