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Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Phillips on Orwell and Plain Speech

The misappropriation of ‘Orwell’ (the mythical version of Eric Blair) by different factions has gone on for much of the six decades since his death. During the Cold War, and the years running up to the actual 1984 in particular, his last great fictional dystopia was routinely misinterpreted as a frontal assault on all forms of socialism and, in some cases, a defence of the individual libertarianism favoured, at the time, by Margaret Thatcher. Such distortions of both 1984 itself and Orwell’s ‘position’ generally were promulgated by right and left alike, the latter resorting to some quite peculiar means to ‘prove’ that the man who’d committed the fundamental leftist sin of criticising the Soviet Union in the 1930s was a reactionary. In Inside The Myth, for example, a collection of ‘views from the left’ edited by Christopher Norris and published in 1984 (of course), you’ll find Alaric Jacob’s ‘Sharing Orwell’s ‘Joys’ - But Not His Fears’, an essay which, in attacking Orwell’s depiction of preparatory school life in ‘Such, Such Were The Joys’ for being unduly negative, effectively defends private education. Orwell, it’s implied, was a greater enemy to progressive thinking than an entire nation’s socially unjust education system.

Post-Cold War, of course, there have been some more sober reappraisals but two serious misapprehensions persist. The first is that 1984's pessimism is the product of Orwell’s ill-health. Only the other week, on the 60th anniversary of the 1949 publication of the novel, the Observer’s Robert McCrum directly linked Orwell’s TB diagnosis with the grimness of the tale. No doubt, illness made typing up the manuscript difficult but, as anyone who’s read ‘Homage to Catalonia’ will have noticed, the experience of Winston Smith is noticeably similar to that of a certain Eric Blair, member of the Trotskyite POUM in Spanish Civil War Barcelona when the Stalinists turned on their former allies. It’s probably fair to say that 1984 owes more to Stalin’s paranoid intervention in Spain than it does to the novelist’s chest X-rays.

The second misapprehension is to do with language and form. Orwell, after all, made some seemingly unequivocal statements about the need for clarity, for language like a window pane. He also seemed to attack the avant garde (most noticeably in his essay on Salvador Dali and the more wide-ranging ‘Inside the Whale’). On the face of it, he was an opponent of experimentation, a champion of plain-speaking, one of Al Alvarez’s famously ‘negative feedbacks’ on post-war English writing.

It seems hard to refute this. And yet Orwell also championed the likes of Joyce and Henry Miller and, in his own fiction, proved a tireless experimenter. After the Forster-esque Burmese Days (arguably his least successful novel), there was the decidedly Joycean stylistic mixed bag of ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter’ (complete with playlet echoing the ‘Nighttown’ episode in ‘Ulysses’), the bitter streams of consciousness in Keep The Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air (a blunt parody of Proust, with a watery sausage standing in for the famous Madeleine) and then, of course, the fables, Animal Farm and 1984 (which draw on European traditions as much as the legacy of Swift). Equally, all three of his full-length (so-say) ‘documentaries’ play with convention, pushing at the boundaries of the relatively new genre of reportage, The Road To Wigan Pier in particular throwing journalism and polemic up against autobiography and satires. This is not a literary conservative’s body of work. Opacity and self-indulgence were his enemies, not modernism and experiment.

Tom Phillips is a Bristol-based poet and writer. He reviews for Eyewear.
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