As I Please (George Orwell Birthday Edition)


George Orwell was born on this date in 1903 in the city of Motihari which was located in what was then British India (now India).  Aside from having written 1984 and Animal Farm, he also produced a great deal of journalism, some of which he fashioned into novels, like Homage to Catalonia.  Orwell also liked the outdoors and for a period of time grew and raised his own food on the desolate island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides.  When he had a brush with death nearly drowning in a whirlpool along with his young son, Richard, one of his first remarks upon returning to the safety of land concerned the remarkable features of a bird he had just seen.  The Tribune is one of the publications to which Orwell contributed articles when he was still working as a journalist.  After Orwell died on January 21, 1950, at the age of 46, the editors of the Tribune published in place of an obituary about his death what they considered to be their favorite piece by Orwell from among the many he wrote for the paper.  The piece was part of a long running column by Orwell entitled As I Please; this one happened to be the 68th installment and was dated January 3, 1947.  Here it is in full:

Nearly a quarter century ago I was traveling on a liner to Burma.  Though not a big ship, it was a comfortable and even a luxurious one, and when one was not asleep or playing deck games one usually seemed to be eating.  The meals were of that stupendous kind that steamship companies used to vie with one another in producing, and in between times there were snacks such as apples, ices, biscuits and cups of soup, lest anyone should find himself fainting from hunger.  Moreover, the bars opened at ten in the morning, and, since we were at sea, alcohol was relatively cheap.

The ships of this line were mostly manned by Indians, but apart from the officers and the stewards they carried four European quartermasters whose job was to take the wheel.  One of these quartermasters, though I suppose he was only aged forty or so, was one of those old sailors on whose back you almost expect to see barnacles growing.  He was a short, powerful, rather ape-like man, with enormous forearms covered by a mat of golden hair.   A blond moustache which might have belonged to Charlemagne completely hid his mouth.  I was only twenty years old and very conscious of my parasitic status as a mere passenger, and I looked up to the quartermasters, especially the fair-haired one, as godlike beings on a par with the officers.  It would not have occurred to me to speak to one of them without being spoken to first.

One day, for some reason, I came up from lunch early.  The deck was empty except for the fair-haired quartermaster, who was scurrying like a rat along the side of the deck-houses, with something partially concealed between his monstrous hands.  I had just time to see what it was before he shot past me and vanished into a doorway.  It was a pie dish containing a half-eaten baked custard pudding.

At one glance I took in the situation — indeed, the man’s air of guilt made it unmistakable.  The pudding was a left-over from one of the passengers’ tables.  It had been illicitly given to him by a steward, and he was carrying it off to the seamen’s quarters to devour it at leisure.  Across more than twenty years I can still faintly feel the shock of astonishment that I felt at that moment.  It took me some time to see the incident in all its bearings: but do I seem to exaggerate when I say that this sudden revelation of the gap between function and reward – the revelation that a highly-skilled craftsman, who might literally hold all our lives in his hands, was glad to steal scraps of food from our table — taught me more than I could have learned from a half dozen Socialist pamphlets?

A news item to the effect that Yugoslavia is now engaged on a purge of writers and artists left me to look once again at the reports of the recent literary purge in the U.S.S.R., when Zoschenko, Akhmatova and others were expelled from the Writers’ Union.

In England this kind of thing is not happening to us as yet, so that we can view it with a certain detachment, and curiously enough, as I look again at the accounts of what happened, I feel somewhat more sorry for the persecutors than for their victims.  Chief among the persecutors is Andrei Zhdanov, considered by some to be Stalin’s probable successor.  Zhdanov, though he has conducted literary purges before, is a full-time politician with — to judge from his speeches — about as much knowledge of literature as I have of aerodynamics.  He does not give the impression of being, according to his own lights, a wicked or dishonest man.  He is truly shocked by the defection of certain Soviet writers, which appears to him as an incomprehensible piece of treachery, like a military mutiny in the middle of a battle.  The purpose of literature is to glorify the Soviet Union; surely that must be obvious to everyone?  But instead of carrying out their pliant duty, these misguided writers keep straying away from the paths of propaganda, producing non-political works, and even, in the case of Zoschenko, allowing a satirical note to creep into their writings.  It is all very painful and bewildering.  It is as though you set a man to work in an excellent, up-to-date, air-conditioned factory, gave him high wages, short hours, good canteens and playing-grounds, a comfortable flat, a nursery-school for his children, all-round social insurance and music while you work — only to find the ungrateful fellow throwing spanners into the machinery on his very first day.

What makes the whole thing somewhat pathetic is the general admission — an honest admission, seeing that Soviet publicists are not in the habit of decrying their own country — that Russian literature as a whole is not what it ought to be.  Since the U.S.S.R. represents the highest existing form of civilization, it is obvious that it ought to lead the world in literature as in everything else.  “Surely,” says Zhdanov, “our new Socialist system, embodying all that is best in the history of human civilization and culture, is capable of creating the most advanced literate, which will leave far behind the best creations of olden times.”. Izvestia (as quoted by the New York paper, Politics) goes further: “Our culture stands on an immeasurably higher level than bourgeois culture … Is it not clear that our culture has the right not to act as pupil and imitator but , on the contrary, to teach others the general human morals?”. And yet somehow the expected thing never happens.  Directives are issued, resolutions are passed unanimously, recalcitrant writers are silenced: and yet for some reason a vigorous and original literature, unmistakably superior to that of capitalist countries, fails to emerge.

All this has happened before, and more than once.  Freedom of expression has had its ups and downs in the U.S.S.R. , but the general tendency has been towards higher censorship.  The thing that politicians are seemingly unable to understand is that you cannot produce vigorous literature by terrorizing everyone into conformity.  A writer’s inventive faculties will not work unless he is allowed to say approximately what he feels.  You can destroy spontaneity and produce a literature which is orthodox but feeble, or you can let people say what they choose and take the risk that some of them will utter heresies.  There is no way out of that dilemma so long as books have to be written by individuals.

That is why, in a way, I feel sorrier for the persecutors than for the victims.  It is probable that Zoschenko and the others at least have the satisfaction of understanding what is happening to them: the politicians who harry them are merely attempting the impossible.  For Zhdanov and his kind to say, “the Soviet Union can exist without literature,” would be reasonable.  But that is just what they can’t say.  They don’t’ know what literature is, but they know that it is important, that is has prestige value, and that it is necessary for propaganda purposes, and they would like to encourage it, if they only knew how.  So they continue with their purges and directives, like a fish bashing its nose against the wall of an aquarium again and again, too dim-witted to realize that glass and water are not the same thing.

From The Thoughts of Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being.  Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?  Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?  — But this is more pleasant — Dost thou exist then to take they pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion?  Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to nature?

It is a good idea to print this well-known exhortation in large letters and hang it on the wall opposite your bed.  And if that fails, as I am told it sometimes does, another good plan is to buy the loudest alarm clock you can get and place it in such a position that you have to get out of bed and go around several pieces of furniture in order to silence it.

One response to “As I Please (George Orwell Birthday Edition)

  1. Pingback: It’s Such a Good Feeling | Invisible Man

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