Orwell’s snake

Phil Ford

Someone (Andrew Sullivan?) wrote that George Orwell was "the first blogger," and the Orwell Prize has taken this thought in an interesting direction. Starting today, the diaries Orwell kept from 1938 to 1941 will be published as a blog, with each diary entry appearing as a blog post exactly seventy years after it was written. Today is the first, an entry Orwell wrote when he was recovering from wounds received in the Spanish Civil War. It is an entry about a snake:

Caught a large snake in the herbaceous border beside the drive. About 2’ 6” long, grey colour, black markings on belly but none on back except, on the neck, a mark resembling an arrow head all down the back. Did not care to handle it too recklessly, so only picked it up by extreme tip of tail. Held thus it could nearly turn far enough to bite my hand, but not quite. Marx [Orwell's dog] interested at first, but after smelling it was frightened & ran away. The people here normally kill all snakes. As usual, the tongue referred to as “fangs”.

A while ago I wrote about going through phases of imitating the various writers I was most taken with, mentioning Adorno and Orwell in particular. This might seem surprising, since the two can be (and have been) thought to be opposites. James Miller an essay in the Lingua Franca collection Quick Studies called "Is Bad Writing Necessary?" that argues that each man represents a model of Left social engagement. (In short: Adorno believed that a too-ready assimilation of the world to concepts is the great modern enabler of tyranny and so booby-trapped his writing against easy understanding; Orwell believed that calculated verbal obscurity is the great modern enabler of tyranny and so made his writing unmistakeably clear. Discuss. Though I don't see why we have to choose — Adorno was a fine writer in his way.) But when one Christmas I was given the Penguin four-volume paperback edition of Orwell's collected journalism, letters, and essays, it deeply affected me. I read these volumes constantly for the next couple of years and tried to understand what Orwell was doing that made even the least of his writings — the little "As I Please" columns he wrote for years in the Tribune, for example — so valuable. For a while I did imitate (semi-consciously) his forthright style, with predictable results, but in time I realized that Orwell works best as a more general kind of model, a model for how to think and see — clear writing flows from clear perception. Honest perception, too—what was perhaps most impressive to me was how Orwell remained so vigilant against letting some received opinion, some cant borne of enthusiasm or righteousness, carry him away from the truth. Of course, there are those on the Left who have never forgiven Orwell for being (as they see it) a traitor, and there is at least one academic study that argues that Orwell was a kind of literary Bob Dylan, a political lightweight whose great accomplishment was to craft a rhetoric of authenticity, an artifice that gives the illusion of political substance. So there are doubtless those who are reading this and rolling their eyes at yet another tribute to Orwell's honesty. (Didn't Orwell say something about avoiding cliches?) And it is true that, whatever Orwell's own commitment to a particular truth, his writings have lent themselves to remarkably elastic interpretations. Christopher Hitchens thinks Orwell would have approved of the Iraq war, Norman Podhoretz thought that he would have approved of nuclear proliferation, etc. Orwell was never himself very consistent, and he's dead anyway, so he won't give anyone the lie. What is left is this literary image of plain humble rightness, easily exploited by hustlers of every political persuasion.   

So maybe there's a good reason for the hatery.* But a lot of Orwell's best writing isn't even political. This despite what he said somewhere about how everything he wrote was political because in a politicized age there's no keeping out of politics. Orwell, like Adorno, was much given to gloomy totalizing remarks of this kind, but he wrote wonderful pages about the simple pleasures of plants and the weather and beer in old-fashioned pink china cups, things that he treasured because the pleasure they offered was still free, which is to say, as yet uncolonized by ideology. In a broad way, his enshrining these pleasures in writing was a political act, in a negative sense. "All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia," he wrote. Against the Communist left he asserted that politics was a disease, not a cure; the Communist enthusiasm for suborning every little corner of life to politics was not a liberation, he believed, but slavery, and in writing about little things he was at least hoping to put off the final subjugation a little longer. And, coming at the end of the GWBush presidency — an era whose thuggish, brutal politicization of science, religion, sex, entertainment, etc. has given it a strange flavor of inverted Communism — this is more attractive than ever.

*Though my god, what a stupid, malicious, mendacious article this is — academic resentment writ small.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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8 Responses to Orwell’s snake

  1. Jason says:

    Please, again I must ask that you cite sources or real information showing this alleged thuggishness, and prove that it occurred with less frequency under Clinton (whose VP and his wife attempted to abridge the 1st amendment), Carter (who shoots cats), or Kennedy (whose brother/AG (imagine if Bush had done that!) approved truly illegal wiretaps on MLK). The underlying assumption that, of course GWB is evil, we all agree on that, the science is settled, is ridiculous.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Sex: 1) the ridiculous business about abstinence education, which has had no effect and for which states are even turning down funding; 2) crippling armed forces intelligence by kicking out gay people who just happen to be fluent in Arabic. Religion: Bush hearing voices in the White House (but we’d rather invent a Messiah-complex for Obama and then hold him responsible for it, so strong is our integrity), Bush et al. in bed with the radical Christian messiah-is-coming-tomorrow types, etc. Religion and Science: the whole Creationism and so-called Intelligent Design nonsense, which is beyond shameful in any serious educational system. Phil neglected to mention the Stalinist transformation of the Department of Justice, while the press looked the other way (I’m exaggerating? Read the Goodling and Gonzales testimony). There is, of course, much, much more.
    Phil’s characterization of the Bush administration’s politicization of all of the above as “thuggish and brutal politicization” is, it seems to me, something of an understatement.
    I suppose there are those who would not consider the science settled on this. But they have already demonstrated that they don’t do science, anyway. Since this is a music blog, shall we drop it?

  3. Fëanor says:

    Hiya. I’m not sure why Orwell should be the first blogger – surely any regular diarist could be considered one as well? As for publishing historical diaries online, those of the wonderful Samuel Pepys are being published as a blog:
    340 years after he wrote them. Enjoy!

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Feanor — That is awesome. Thanks so much for posting this! I’ll add it to the links.
    Jason — “again I must ask that you cite sources or real information.” No-one with your email or IP address has ever posted a comment here, so your weary, put-upon tone — here I am again, having to hold these liberal knaves to some minimal standards of evidence and argumentation! — seems a little out of place. The idea is, I think, that a casual reader will read through this post, see your comment, and be left with the vague impression of brave dissent against the brutish orthodoxy of academia — a rather well-worn narrative, which gains plausibility through repetition. (An eminently reasonable strategy, since it can be seen to work in any political campaign one cares to name.) All of which suggests to me that you’re not a real reader at all, but one of those Keyboard Commandos who go troll through the blogosphere trying to stunt criticism of The Leader — you know, “winning the war of ideas.” But ideas don’t seem to be at stake in affairs of this sort — it’s just more of the game-playing and bad faith that has become the cognitive signature of the Bush administration. Note that I say “the Bush administration”: the supposed evil of any one man is not the point. It’s the total of political actions of a certain time, and the style by which they are done, that constitutes a presidency. The president is in a sense simply the metonym of the political movement he leads. And the present-day conservative movement has become, as Sullivan likes to say, depraved. Proof of this?
    I should emphasize, though, that I do not believe such things represent, or indeed have anything to do with, any real and honorable conservatism.

  5. Jason says:

    The “again” is because every music blog in existence seems to include reflexively the “GWB is a tyrant and must be stopped” rhetoric at some point, generally without any real evidence of this. The fact that, unlike in China or the Soviet Empire, you are free to say these things about a President belies this so-called thuggishness. I am not blindly defending “The Leader”. I’m asking that, in lieu of accusations, maybe some documentation can be used. And possibly some perspective. Many of the things people complain about in the Bush administration are things that didn’t cause a similar furor when Clinton or Kennedy or any Democrat was in the White House.
    The T-shirts you linked to are sophomoric and juvenile, yes, but so are the far greater in number anti-Christian, anti-Republican, and anti-Bush propaganda that I see everywhere.
    Having been declared a Troll, I now intend to combat that by commenting more frequently (I believe I have done so before, apparently not from the address or computer I currently use; I’ll try to be consistent henceforth). Unless, of course, that was a Critical Hit and I am thus rhetorically vanquished.
    I should ask,though, what does constitute “real” conservatism?

  6. Phil Ford says:

    Jason — I’m very glad to hear that you might stick around for a while.
    The question of what “real” conservatism is a large one and deserves a post of its own. If I’m being a hard-boiled history-of-ideas guy, I’d say that there is no “real” conservatism (or any other -ism) apart from its history — all the various incarnations of conservatism (including GWB’s) are equally conservative by virtue of their shared place within a genealogy. My favorite line to this effect is Nietzsche’s: only that which is without history can be defined.
    But evidently that’s not what I was thinking when I said that GWB’s kind of conservatism isn’t real conservatism. So I guess I would say what I mean is, if the term has any meaning at all, it’s right there in the word itself — it’s about conservation. If it means anything it is about respecting custom and continuity and the necessity of both to individual communities (whence comes the traditional emphasis on states’ rights). Conservatism, it seems to me, distrusts social engineering and upholds the traditional sites of authority (the church, the military, the family, the University) as bulwarks against the enthusiastic visions of central planners of one sort or another. I don’t call myself a conservative, but I respect this philosophy and share some of its values. But what I do not respect is the how the Bush administration has continued to appeal to those traditional sites of authority in the service of just the sort of statist adventurism that conservatism (as I understand it) should oppose. The fact that movement apologists have gone from saying that torture never happened to saying that it’s just a few bad apples to a kind of jaunty sadistic joking about torture (OK, fine, we torture, big deal) is a mark of just how far conservatism has gone from any kind of concern about overweening state authority.

  7. Jason says:

    It seems that where we agree is that conservatism is not doing well at being the small government anti-authoritarian entity it claims to be in the packaging. I can deal with that. As I said earlier, GWB is not the face of that kind of conservatism, he’s not doing a great job at slowing the parent-state’s growth. However, I think that the rhetoric of calling him evil and thuggish is inaccurate. I’ll agree to disagree, and try to ignore politics here to my best capability. After all, as someone above me said, this is supposed to be about music.

  8. eba says:

    Calling GWB thuggish is totally accurate.

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