Thursday 16 October 2014

The greatness of George Orwell - and his fatal flaw

Having discovered that George Orwell's wife is buried just a few hundred yards from where I am writing (in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne), and that Orwell himself seems to have intended to be buried here a trivial micro-factoid in the scheme of things, but has had the effect of making me start thinking again about Orwell.


My generation was fed Orwell at school from our mid teens - some of the essays such as Shooting an Elephant and Boys' Weeklies; excerpts from the documentary books such as Down and Out.. and ...Wigan Pier; and the two late political novels Animal Farm and 1984.

That Orwell was mostly correct about things was not really argued, but assumed; on the basis that he seemed obviously correct to almost everybody; so far as the English were concerned, Orwell was simply expressing the national character better than we ourselves could have done.

Orwell was claimed both by the Left - on the basis that he was explicitly a socialist through most of his life; and he was claimed by the Right - on the basis that his two best known novels are anti-communist warnings against totalitarianism.

In sum: Orwell's influence was much as any writer reasonably could have hoped for. And his warnings about the dangers of Leftism and the operations of totalitarianism were as lucid, as explicit, and as forceful as any writer could have made them.


And yet Britain today is an 'Orwellian' society to a degree which would have seemed incredible even 25 years ago. The same applies to the USA, where Orwell was also revered.

In particular, the exact types of abuses, manipulations and distortions of language which Orwell spelled-out in fiery capital letters 100 feet high have come to pass; have become routine and unremarked - and they are wholly-successful, barely-noticed, stoutly-defended - and to point them out is regarded either as trivial nitpicking or evasive rhetoric.

The current manifestations of the sexual revolution, deploying the most crudely Orwellian appropriations and taboos of terminology, go further than even Orwell envisaged. The notion that sexual differences could so easily be subverted, and their evaluations so swiftly reversed; apparently at will and without any apparent limit would - I think - have gone beyond the possibilities Orwell could have realistically imagined.


(Indeed, it is characteristic of the Kafka-esque absurdity of modern Western life that a plain description of everyday reality - say in a state bureaucracy, the mass media or university - is simply disbelieved, it 'does not compute' and is rejected by the mind. And by this, nihilistic absurdity is safeguarded.)


I think Orwell would never have believed that people would accept, en masse, and so readily go along with (willingly embrace and enforce, indeed), the negative relabelling of normal biological reality, and he substitution of arbitrary and rapidly changing inverted norms: for Orwell, The Proles were sexually normal, like animals, and would continue so. The elites, whatever their personal preferences and practices, left them alone in this - presumably because sexuality was seen as a kind of bedrock.

And this leads to Orwell's fatal flaw - which was exactly sexuality. He was, like most radicals, an advocate and practitioner of promiscuous extra-marital sex - indeed he regarded this as the natural thing, and it would be wrong to suppress it. And he was essentially an agnostic/ watery Anglican; Orwell was not quite anti-Christian as such (although arguably anti-Catholic - on political grounds: he - mistakenly - regarded it as a species of totalitarianism); but I think he saw Christianity as being a personal matter, and one that ought not influence or constrain national laws and public morality.


Orwell was, of course, a patriot - strongly so; indeed his patriotism was a kind of bottom line for him, and he loathed those such as communists and national socialists who put other countries interests above their own; and especially those numerous Leftists in public life (at many levels, and going up to the top - including a King) who subverted Britain and covertly worked to promote Nazi or (mainly) Soviet policies.

At that time patriotism was a given for the mass of English people - although the upper class was full of traitors and fifth columnists, and the Scots, Welsh and (especially) Irish had developed an anti-English nationalism which allied itself with England's Enemies (the Scots and Welsh Nationalists were socialists/ communists, the Irish Republic allied with the Nazis).

But patriotism melted away and was aggressively suppressed in the decades after Orwell's death, and an attempt in 1993 by Prime Minister John Major to use Orwell's description of characteristic Englishness as a rallying point for national revival was mocked and ignored.

A country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist. 


In the end, Orwell's secular morality of 'decent behaviour' (decent, that is, except in the sexual realm - where it was pretty much a matter of grabbing as much as you could get away with); was revealed as spineless, sentimental, and having no basis - once Christianity had been stripped-out of British public (then private) life.

Orwell, like so many radicals of his time and ours, simply took for granted the rock-bottom which was provided by a Christian society - and he thought that we could pick and choose the bits we liked - the essential decency and gentleness and common sense - while leaving out the bits we didn't like: God, Jesus Christ, and the so-called 'puritanical' and anti-fun attitudes to lifestyle such as sex, alcohol, gambling and the like.

(In Wigan Pier, Orwell ridicules the then-strong puritanical strand of English socialism, implicitly including ascetic Nonconformists, as sandal-wearing, vegetarian cranks who put-off the common sense masses.)


But it turned out that the Christian thing was much more coherent, more interconnected and inter-dependent, and much deeper-rooted than Orwell and his contemporaries supposed. The act of digging so deep to uproot and thoroughly extirpate just that single aspect of sexual prohibitions was - in practice - to render ineffectual all decent social rules.

Indeed, the extirpation of Christian sexual morality was less like digging than quarrying - and when the job was done, the gentle, fertile beauties of the English landscape were reduced to sterile rubble.


(Orwell recognized the national significance of sub-replacement fertility - that it was an index of decadence and demoralization - but he did not foresee that exactly this, would be an inevitable consequence of his personal and ideological preferences for sexual 'freedom'. Many of us have made the same error - and continue to do so - in this, as in so many other ways, Orwell was a representative man.)


In the end England's greatest and most formidable foe of totalitarianism, and his legacy of lucid explanation and stern warning, was undone by one fatal flaw.

The sexual revolution, which Orwell supported, weakened then destroyed Christianity as a force in national life - destroyed that massive edifice of religion which was, it turned-out, as a matter of fact, the only thing that stood between England and totalitarianism.



Karl said...

Where do you find Orwell supporting the sexual revolution?

In "The Art of Donald McGill" he notes that "all societies, as the price of survival, have to insist on a fairly high standard of sexual morality." The point of the comic postcards that form the pretext for this essay is that they are merely an outlet for the common man's grumbling against the high standards that must ultimately prevail. "It is only that the other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally."

Bruce Charlton said...

@K - "Where do you find Orwell supporting the sexual revolution?" In his life, and for example in 1984. And his general stance of radicalism and modernism, liberation etc.

But the main point is that he was not religious, did not support a society based on Christianity - or not at all seriously religious - and I think a major reason was sexual. Koestler was the same in this regard.

Contrast with Solzhenitsyn; who correctly understood that the main battle in Russia was not between Communism and Reactionaries, nor Proletarians and Bourgeois - but between Atheism and Orthodoxy - between anti-Christians and Christians (for the Orthodox, the last Tsar and his family were Saints who died for their faith).

Christianity doesn't come into the core argument of either Animal Farm or 1984 - but for Russians, the Church was the focus of the revolution and what came after.