Wednesday 5 September 2018

Re-reading George Orwell's Inside the Whale

Inside the Whale is a long essay by George Orwell published in 1940; it is one I read more than 40 years ago and again sometime since, and which stuck in my mind as having made some valid criticisms of literary culture in the twentieth century.

So I re-read it yesterday; and was very disappointed!

Now, Orwell is one of those writers who never wrote anything that is altogether not worth reading... because he wouldn't have written anything structured like the preceding sentence! Orwell developed a tremendously sinewy style of clear positive statement. He also wrote in a very personal and opinionated way; yet (somehow) never egotistically. And he strove to be honest.

Since he was an interesting person, he wrote many interesting things; and did so in a way that sticks in the mind.

But Orwell was basically wrong about Life - which is to say he was incoherent. Not slightly incoherent, but extremely so - and this is brought-out by his verbal clarity, and that honesty which prevented him 'editing' his spontaneously-expressed feelings-views into any kind of coherence.

Inside the Whale is incredibly incoherent; just astonishingly so! In terms of a statement, it is all over the place; and I can't imagine what it is supposed to imply. What I remembered from it was the critique of the then-fashionable Macspaunday group (MacNeice, Spender, Auden, Day-Lewis) of upper-class, communist/ pro-USSR, socially-'engaged', anti-fascist then pacifist ('corduroy panzers' as Orwell called them, when they fled to the USA to escape the war), and homosexually-inclined poets

(Orwell was pro-hetero-sexual-promiscuity, but broadly hostile to homosexuality as he knew it, as Established among the English upper classes. Orwell was indeed a pro-natalist - he regarded a high birth rate as a sign of a healthy national psychology.)

What I had forgotten was that the essay was, actually and in its essence, a critique of everybody and everything that in some way - indeed in many and incompatible ways - annoyed or irritated or bored Orwell. Which seems to have been literally everybody, without any exception (Orwell doesn't much like or respect Henry Miller - the subject of the piece). And that's pretty much all that it is...

Thus Inside the Whale is negativistic and has no positive ideal. From this we get a superficial impression that Orwell is writing from the standpoint of common sense - of the ordinary, decent, working, family Man; but of course he wasn't. He was sympathetic to such people and valued them; but very clearly also found them narrow, boring and trivial. The bulk of Inside the Whale is about the surprising virtues (as Orwell perceives them) of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer novel - and that book is not by, about, for, or respectful of, genuinely-ordinary people.

I now think I see Orwell's fatal flaw as a thinker, reasoner and commenter - which is that by rejecting God he rejected even the possibility of objective coherence; and instead substituted the mere fact that these were his feelings, each powerfully stated, as each feeling emerged here and now, in a sequence that was tied together only by the fact that it was George Orwell's feeling. And that's it: nothing more.

Orwell is driven to extraordinary inconsistencies by his rejection of God! He simply cannot accept the fact that ordinary people through history have believed in the reality of God and that religion is the most important thing. Orwell is sure that there is no God; so regards the idea as an upper class tool for manipulation -  indeed (and this is a terrible error) Orwell regards national rule on religious principle (theocracy) as identical with totalitarianism - because ruling on behalf of deity can only be fraudulent.

This view makes ordinary Men, through history - who are believers in God, into dupes about the single most important thing in their lives. Which would mean they are - basically - idiots whose views cannot be trusted on any topic.

Or else it means that ordinary men never really believed in God, and always were comfort-seeking materialists at heart; concerned merely with getting by, getting a living, surviving... And I think Orwell sometimes believed just this; believes that the toughness of real life means that people have no time or energy for thinking about Big Issues - matters such as what God is like, what God wants, what Men are supposed to do, and the nature of life after death. Orwell thinks that concern of ideas and morality is a product of comfort and leisure!

Yet, as we now know - we having lived in a world of unprecedented and general peace, prosperity, comfort and convenience for more than 60 years; that Orwell is completely wrong and the opposite is true! It was the upper classes, such as himself, who first had the leisure and opportunity and material optimism to become hedonistic atheists who regard life as purely material; and when these conditions spread down the classes, so did the disaffection with any religious restriction which imposed suffering or stood in the path of comfort and pleasure.

But of course Orwell died at just 45 years old. And at his age I had much the same views as he did. His great virtue was a capacity to learn from experience; and maybe Orwell would in later life have learned about fundamental metaphysical assumptions, in the way that he certainly learned about superficial political assumptions. However, there was not much sign of such incipient wisdom at the time he died; since, perhaps weakened by illness, he re-married: with a young, attractive but notoriously manipulative and (ahem) flirtatious woman just a few months before his demise.

At the time of his death, and considering the 'positive message' of 1984; I don't think Orwell had gone any deeper than the lethal illusion of the sexual revolution: that sex - freed from religious constraints - could and should replace God as the focus of Life. As a member of the upper classes, Orwell had already experienced and embraced the sexual revolution (in the earliest form of extra-martial promiscuity positively regarded) a couple of generations before it later filtered-down to the common man.

So, in the end, I am forced to regard Orwell as a great writer of genuinely-memorable - but mostly negative and critical and hope-destroying - fragments; and as such wholly representative of the (evil-tending) incoherence and subjectivism that has plagued Western intellectual life. This scattergun destructivism, presumably, is why Orwell gets cited-in-support by almost everyone in mainstream politics; from Margaret Thatcher to the extreme Left! - he provides excellent cover for attacking enemies, because everybody shares some of Orwells many enemies.

Orwell was, in fact, a major contributor to exactly the cancerous cultural decadence and decline - and indeed totalitarianism - that a part of him so much loathed. Because totalitarianism - transhumanism and the omni-monitoring and micro-control of thought in pursuit of material and hedonic goals - is an inevitable end-point of the atheism that was Orwell's foundational belief.  


Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that I will dispute the idea that atheism was Orwell's foundational belief and instead say that atheism was what denied Orwell the foundation of belief that could have made him a happier man (if perhaps not any better or even quite so great a writer).

What made Orwell such a great writer (and I'll make no bones about him being great) was that he honestly hated things that were indeed hateful. And he mostly was on target when he identifies the aspects of something that made it hateful.

A quote from the referenced essay is illustrative. "On the whole, in Miller's books you are reading about people living the expatriate life, people drinking, talking, meditating, and fornicating, not about people working, marrying, and bringing up children; a pity, because he would have described the one set of activities as well as the other."

What a sermon is contained in that observation, the moral content of which is summed up in just two words, "a pity". In a sense, Orwell is here endorsing your contention that, in maturity, he would come to have seen religion for the good it did in comparison to the evil of atheism. Indeed, a little thought reveals that he badly wanted to write some activities into the second part that would have been even more explicit an endorsement of religion, but restrained himself from doing so.

I find that there is much about human religion which incurs and deserves honest hatred like Orwell's. Most particularly, I'm appalled that there should be any difficulty about each individual human so inclined simply appealing to God for revelation and receiving it.

Of course, there are a lot of false revelations that are peddled under the label of religion, and these are worthy of hatred in their own right. But the fact that most humans are, most of the time (and perhaps all their lives), incapable of clearly distinguishing a direct spiritual communications of divine will from the effects of their most recent meal is not a falsehood. Incidentally, this is the reason that the scriptures mention fasting so often in conjunction with prayer.

That is, I speak not of 'bad' or 'wicked' people. Ordinary good people who wish to know that God loves them seem to have no better way of discovering this than to have someone no better than myself (but hopefully not worse either) tell it to them.

That appalls me, and I've never gotten a particularly satisfactory explanation of it from God other than that His idea of 'good people' doesn't include being particularly spiritually sensitive and discerning. That's a very merciful (and thus 'good', I suppose) explanation but it isn't one that I much like.

Still, just for my own sake, I hope Orwell is among the saved in the end. He'd make no end of trouble in Hell.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - It may be that Orwell is one of those people who would have been explicitly Christian, if only the Christian churches did not insist that one can *only* be a Christian as an obedient church member.