Quotes & Commentary #49: Orwell

Quotes & Commentary #49: Orwell

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized parties are at-bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible.

—George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

Yesterday I wrote an essay trying to answer this question: What’s the right thing to do in morally compromising circumstances? This is one of the oldest and most vexing questions of human existence; and there’s no way I’m going to crack this nut in one blog post. That’s why I’m writing another one.

As George Orwell points out, this question isn’t confined to any one sphere of our lives, but confronts us every day, in manifold and invisible ways. When we go to the grocery store, when we buy a shirt, when we download a song, when we get the latest model of smartphone, we are supporting business practices that are largely hidden from us, but which may be morally repulsive.

What is life like for the factory workers who made my computer? What are the conditions for the animals whose meat I eat? Where does the material from my jeans come from, how is it processed, who are the workers who make it? For all I know, I may be patronizing exploitative, abusive, oppressive, and otherwise unethical businesses—and, the more I consider it, the more it seems likely that I do.

Unethical business practices aside, there is the simple fact of inequality. On the left we spend a lot of time criticizing the vast wealth inequality that exists within the United States; and yet we do not often stop to realize how much wealthier are most of us than people elsewhere. Is the first situation unjust, and the second not? Is it right that some countries are wealthier than others? And if not, can we logically desire our present standard of life while maintaining our political ideals?

To the extent that opponents of inequality are immersed in a global economy—and we are, all of us—they are participating in a system whose consequences they find morally wrong. But how can you rebel against a global paradigm? You can try to minimize your damage. You can try to patronize businesses who have more humane business practices. You can become a vegan and buy second-hand clothes.

And yet, it is simply impossible—logistically, just from lack of time and resources—to be absolutely sure of the consequences of all your actions in a system so vast and so complex. It would be a full-time job to be a perfectly conscientious consumer. You can’t personally investigate each factory or tour each farm. You can’t know everything about the company you work for, the bank you store your money in, the supermarkets you buy your food from.

This is the enigma of being immersed in an ethically compromising system. To a certain extent, resist or not, you become complicit in a social system you did not design and whose consequences you don’t approve of. It is one of the tragic but unavoidable facts of human life that good people can still do bad things, simply by being immersed in a bad social system. An economy of saints can still sin.

In economics this has a technical name: the fallacy of composition. This is the fallacy of extrapolating from the qualities of the parts to the qualities of the whole. A nation full of penny-pinchers may still be in debt. A nation full of expert job-seekers may still have high unemployment. Morally, this means a nation of good people may yet do evil.

The question, for me, is this: Where do we draw the line separating the culpability of the individual from the culpability of the system? To illustrate this, let me take two extreme examples.

Since teaching, as a profession, tends to attract idealistic and left-wing people, I think many teachers, old and young, think that the educational system in the United States is deeply flawed. The standardized tests, the inequality between school districts, the way that we evaluate kids and impart knowledge—many aspects of the system seem unfair and ineffective.

And yet, I think very few people would condemn the teachers who continue to work within this system, even if the system tends to reproduce inequality. We naturally blame the policy-makers and not the teachers, who are only doing their best in compromising circumstances.

Take the opposite extreme: soldiers working in a concentration camp. Now, it is clear that these soldiers were not personally responsible for creating the camp, and were following the orders of their superiors. Like the teachers, they are immersed in a situation they did not design, in a system with morally reprehensible results. (Obviously, the results of a concentration camp are incomparably worse than even the most flawed school system.)

In this situation, I’d wager that most of us would maintain that the soldiers had some responsibility and, at the very least, some of the blame. That is, we do not simply blame the system, but blame the individuals who took part in it. The whole situation is so totally, fundamentally, indisputably unacceptable that there are no extenuating circumstances, no deferment of guilt.

Now, there is obviously a very big difference between a system that is (ostensibly at least) designed to reduce inequality and provide education, and a system that is designed to kill people by the thousands and millions. As a result, in both of these situations, the moral verdict seems relatively clear: the noble aims of the first system excuse its flaws, while the horrid aims of the second system condemn its participants.

The problem, for most of us, is that we so often find ourselves in between these two extremes (although, admittedly closer to the case of teachers than Nazi soldiers, I hope). But where exactly do we draw the line? Where does our responsibility—as participants in a system—begin? And in what circumstances are we morally excused by being immersed in a flawed system?

The more I think about it, the more I am led to the conclusion that being alive requires some ethical compromise. In this regard, I often think of something Joseph Campbell said: “You yourself are participating in the evil, or you are not alive. Whatever you do is evil for somebody. This is one of the ironies of the whole creation.”

And this quote, I think, is where I have to stop for now, since it brings me to another Quotes & Commentary.

Quotes & Commentary #48: Orwell

Quotes & Commentary #48: Orwell

We have become too civilised to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil.

—George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

What is the right thing to do in morally compromising circumstances? What should you do when, for example, you’re working for a company whose business practices you find exploitative? What if you’re working in a school system that embodies an educational philosophy you think is false or harmful?

Or consider the situation Orwell describes: When you are forced to choose between fighting in a war or capitulating to fascists?

This is a dreadful choice to make. On the one hand, fascism is ethically intolerable, and allowing fascism to conquer means allowing injustice to reign and persecution to run rampant. But to stop fascism means having to fight; and fighting means getting your hands dirty. “Getting your hands dirty” is, of course, a euphemism for all of the morally compromising actions that war entails. You will have to kill strangers, violently and indiscriminately; and in modern warfare the death of innocent civilians is inevitable, considering the weapons we use.

It is one question (which I don’t intend to address here) whether the so-called “collateral damage” of a conflict justifies the war. It is another whether the moral damage of participating in warfare compensates for the moral benefit of defeating an enemy. To use religious language for a moment, my question is this: Does inflicting violence for a good cause imperil your soul? Does the justice outweigh the sin?

Orwell thought the answer was yes, and he lived his principles. He fought passionately, both in word and action, against fascism, even taking up arms in the Spanish Civil War. To pick another notable example, Malcolm X also agreed that violent means were justified when used against violent tyranny. If white people were going to violently oppress black people in America, then why shouldn’t black people fight back with any means necessary? Indeed, I think most people nowadays would agree that violence is sometimes justified by the outcome. Despite all the atrocities of the Second World War, fighting against the Nazis was morally preferable to letting them win.

On the other side of this debate are people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and James Baldwin. The justification for pacifism is that violence corrupts, both the victim and the attacker. By committing violence, even in the service of a noble cause, we degrade ourselves.

This argument sounds religious, and it often is; but you can make this same argument from a secular perspective. James Baldwin, a man totally disillusioned with Christianity, was nevertheless a pacifist, because he thought violence, injustice, and oppression corrupts its agents. Baldwin thought this because the purveyors of violent oppression must create comforting myths for themselves so they don’t have to face their own immorality; and this leads to a disconnect from reality and an inauthentic life.

For my part, the risk with using unethical means for ethical ends is that it forces you to make exceptions in your moral code. You must create an inconsistency in your standards of right and wrong, and this may lead to a slippery slope. In other words, if you make a special rule to use violence against one type of person, this creates a risk that the rule can be abused.

For one, if you decide that violence is allowable against one special class of person—fascist soldiers, let’s say—this leads to the difficulty of determining whether any specific person falls into this class. If you make a mistake, you will commit violence to an innocent person. And it is clear that this rule can be abused (and certainly was during the Spanish Civil War), for example, by anyone who has a score to settle, through a false accusation or other forms of foul play.

The other risk is that, by creating one category of allowable violence, you set a damaging precedent. In the future, perhaps the category is expanded, or other categories of allowable violence are created, citing the first one for authority. In other words, you may unintentionally open the door for unscrupulous people, who wish to cloak their violence in legitimacy rather than use violence to accomplish a noble end.

I am not willing, for the moment, to assert that either Orwell or Baldwin are definitely right (although I admit I’m inclined to pacifism, if only because I’m cowardly). The “right” answer seems to depend heavily on the particular circumstances.

Thankfully, most of us will not have to decide whether to use violence against injustice. But by virtue of living in a society, we will certainly have to make many other, far less dramatic decisions about the right thing to do when given only undesirable options.

This question came to the fore during the 2016 elections, particularly among fans of Bernie Sanders. Many Bernie fans believed that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were morally corrupt, and they were not content to vote for the “lesser of two evils.” Now, in the case of Clinton and Trump, it seemed clear to me that Trump was incomparably worse than Clinton, so the choice wasn’t so hard. But in a general sense this question is certainly worth considering.

When faced with two unethical options, there is always a third option: don’t choose. That is, withdraw and refuse to participate. More generally, when you find yourself in a morally compromising environment, you can either attempt to navigate the environment in the least immoral way possible, or remove yourself from the environment.

Let me be a little more concrete. Imagine you are working in a business whose practices you disapprove of. Maybe you think the business exploits its workers—paying a low salary, with few benefits, and asking employees to work long hours—or maybe the business is selling a product under false pretenses, effectively fooling its customers.

Consider the latter case. To be even more concrete, imagine that you’re a salesperson selling a product you know is poor-quality. Your salary and your job security depend directly on how many units you sell. You have no way to improve the product. To sell it requires, if not lying, at least that you omit information—that is, that you fail to mention that the product is shoddy.

Maybe you’re first reaction is to say that the moral thing to do is to quit. If there is no moral way to do the job, then you shouldn’t do it, right? However, if you quit, do you really improve the world? The business will hire somebody else to replace you, perhaps somebody with less scruples, and the moral balance sheet of the universe will be unaffected. Indeed, by quitting, you inflicted harm on yourself by depriving yourself of the salary. And in that case is quitting the least moral thing to do?

This, I think, is the problem with morally compromising systems. By refusing to participate, all you do is damage yourself while allowing others to fill the same unethical role that you resigned.

True, you do have the option, in the example above, to try to create a movement against the business, to spread the knowledge that its products are shoddy (although this may be legally culpable if you signed a non-release form). Even so, when you think about it, the fundamental problem isn’t really that one business is selling a poor-quality product. The problem is that businesses can thrive by stretching the truth to sell products. (Or is the problem that consumers are not sufficiently well-informed? Where exactly does the business’s responsibility end and the consumer’s begin?)

Again, I’m unwilling, at least for now, to give a general prescription for conundrums like these. And yet the question cannot be put off. Life is one morally-compromising situation after another. How can we balance the need to look out for ourselves with the desire to harm as few people as possible?

Review: Bleak House

Review: Bleak House

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Call it by any name Your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally—inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only—Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.

For better or for worse, I read this novel through the lens of two critics: Harold Bloom and George Orwell.

In The Western Canon, Bloom calls Bleak House Dickens’s finest achievements; and he considers the novel to be among the central novels in the titular canon. This opinion is based, in part, on Esther Summerson’s narrative (which comprises half of the book; the other half is told from an omniscient narrator).

Bloom agrees with the conventional opinion that Dickens’s modus operandi is to create static and cartoonish characters, far removed from the constantly changing and evolving characters of, say, Tolstoy or Shakespeare. But in Esther, Bloom thought Dickens had transcended his art: he had created a genuinely Shakespearean self, a narrator who could overhear her own narration, and who engaged in a constant dialogue with herself—a mercurial and growing consciousness.

This opinion is far from popular. I’m not sure I agree with it; certainly she doesn’t strike me as “Shakespearean,” and she would not be at home in any of Tolstoy’s works. Unlike a Shakespearean or a Tolstoyan character, it is difficult to see myself in her. This isn’t just me. Esther has irked critics from the beginning. She is too good for her own good. She is passive, forgiving, unconditionally loving, self-negating, dutiful, hardworking, dreadfully kind, painfully virtuous, devoid of malice, thankful to a fault—someone who lives exclusively for others. It’s hard to like her, because it’s so hard to identify with somebody like that, and such a selfless ideal of feminine behavior strikes us nowadays as both sexist and untenable.

And yet, for me, she is ultimately sympathetic, at least from a distance. I think this is due to her resilience. Her childhood as an orphan is harsh and loveless; she is so thirsty for affection that every slight kindness reduces her to tears. As she grows, she is formed by an ethos of feminine subservience and duty, modesty and virtue, an ethos which she embodies as perfectly as possible.

In Esther, however, this is not a sign of passivity and weakness, but of independence and strength. She does not let the world, so often cruel and unfair, make her spiteful; she does not become bitter and resentful from the blows of misfortune. She is determined to be happy; and she realizes that happiness cannot be achieved through selfishness, but requires generosity, forgiveness, and identifying oneself with others. She realizes, in short, that selflessness is the wisest and best form of selfishness, since it leads to the greatest fulfillment.

Nevertheless, I should immediately add that this ethical ideal is so tinged by Dickens’s patriarchal worldview and sickly sweet sentimentality that Esther becomes more of a fairytale heroine than a religious figure. It is hard to admire her, since she is so painfully self-effacing; it is hard to imagine being her friend, since she always puts others above herself, and friendship is based on equality. She is independent and strong, but only in the context of a world where women are expected to be passive to the point of invisibility.

On second thought, perhaps it is wrong to attribute this irksome self-sacrificing nature purely to sexism; for Dickens also gives us a masculine embodiment of this virtue in the form of Mr. Jarndyce. Jarndyce is almost equally self-sacrificing and self-effacing; his one selfish act is his marriage proposal to Esther, which he eventually retracts; everything else he does for the good of his kith and kin. Granted, he is far more active than Esther, being the masculine patriarch; but this activity is oriented exclusively to the good of others.

All this notwithstanding, I found Jarndyce far less sympathetic than Esther, because his personality is nothing but a benign vacuum. A person—at least for me—is partly defined by what he or she wants; and someone who only wants what other people want is not a person, but a kindly automaton. With Esther, selflessness is made to seem, if not desirable, at least viable; but with Jardynce it is neither. He is palpably a figure of the infantile imagination, a kind of idealized father, protective, caring, loving, and in the end such a fantasy that he vanishes altogether into a ray of sunlight.

Esther’s foil is Mrs. Jellyby. She is a picture of selfish selflessness. Mrs. Jellyby abuses her family, neglects her children, and ignores her husband, subordinating everything to her plans for a small tribe in Africa. On the surface, she is an immensely charitable person, living purely for the sake of this tribe. Her “charity,” however, is manifestly an implement of extreme egoism, reducing everyone else in her house to servants and assistants, directing all attention to herself and her own seeming goodness. She talks incessantly about helping others but never actually does.

In his essay on Dickens, Orwell divides up do-gooders into moralists and reformers. Moralists try to improve people’s behavior and values, and see society’s ills as flowing from personal failings. Reformers take the opposite view; they try to improve the structure of society, seeing individual moral failings as products rather than causes of social ills. Dickens is a classic moralist, and Mrs. Jellyby is his portrait of a misguided reformer.

For Dickens, all goodness is personal—flowing from one individual to another—while reformers, like Mrs. Jellyby, mistakenly believe that goodness is impersonal, which is why she concerns herself with the lives of people she has never met. She cannot make society better because she herself is full of vices; while Esther improves society without even trying, by her every virtuous action and her inspiring example.

Again, it must immediately be said that Dickens’s portrayal of Mrs. Jellyby is also tinged with sexism. Aside from a rash reformer, Mrs. Jellyby is a meddling woman—a woman who thinks she can be a man, a woman who doesn’t know her place, a woman who fails to be a wife and a mother. It is impossible to imagine Dickens using the same tone with a male character. This sexism is something to keep in mind, of course; but it does not, for me, negate his wider point about charity and goodness.

Perhaps Orwell’s best insight into Dickens is this: “The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing is the unnecessary detail.” This novel is long; it is unnecessarily long. For the first four hundred or so pages, it seems to be still trying to get going; the plot clanks and clunks into motion like an old steam engine. A partial explanation for this is that the book was at first a serial, the 19th century equivalent of a sitcom, spinning out plots and subplots to fill episodes and seasons, entertaining its readers piecemeal. But it is also due to Dickens’s perspective. He sees life always in the concrete, never in the abstract, and with a vividness of vision and a relish for daily life that fill his novels with energy and color. The plot serves the detail rather than the reverse; the story is just a conveyance for brilliant particulars.

Many things irked me about this book. Dickens’s sentimentality is often nauseating and sometimes comes across a cheap trick, like the overwrought string music playing in the background of a bad soap opera. The transition from an omniscient narrator to Esther’s narration was a brilliant device, but also made the book a bit difficult for me to follow, and easy to put down. Dickens’s characters are always exciting, but his descriptive language can be soporific. He has a tendency to let himself get carried away into prose poetry, all written in the passive voice. Occasionally, these are masterful, such as the famous beginning paragraphs of this novel; but just as often they make me drowsy.

What is miraculous about Dickens is that his books are so apparently simple and straightforward, and yet they can be endlessly analyzed. Perhaps this is because he effortlessly combines so many contradictory elements: social realism with imaginative fancy, sentimental prettiness with grotesque horror, moral preaching with biting satire, advocacy with art, propaganda with poetry. Dickens’s flaws leap to the eye—his inability to create three-dimensional characters, his lack of intellectual curiosity, his superficial view of the world, his inability to appreciate the sublime, his clumsy plots, his mountains of petty details, his soporific prose style—and yet his appeal is nearly universal. That the same writer could entrance both Harold Bloom, the enemy of political art, and George Orwell, the champion of political art, is a sign of his genius. And in the end, when faced with somebody as universal and powerful as Dickens, all analysis can do is reveal the limitations of its method.

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Review: Orwell’s Essays

Review: Orwell’s Essays

A Collection of EssaysA Collection of Essays by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

George Orwell is one of the inescapable writers of the last century. Far from becoming irrelevant, his works seem to become more significant with each passing year (as most recently evidenced by the present administration’s strained relationship with the truth). Orwell himself said that the “final test of any work of art is survival,” and his works seem on track to pass this final test. His dystopian novel recently became a surprise best-seller, almost seventy years after its initial publication. That is more than mere survival.

And yet it isn’t for his political insights that I opened this collection of essays. It was rather—and I feel somewhat silly saying this—for his writing style. Orwell’s writing is, for me, a model of modern prose. His style can accommodate both the abstract and the concrete, the homely and the refined, the pretentious and the vulgar; his prose can satisfy both the academic and the artist, the intellectual and the layperson, the Panurge and the parish priest. It is unmistakably modern, even sleek, while obviously informed by the tastes and standards of the past. It is fiery, angry, and political, while remaining intimate, human, and honest.

Something that repeatedly struck me while reading this collection was an inner conflict in Orwell’s worldview. There are two sides of the man, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes at odds: the writer and the activist. Orwell the writer is captivated by the rhythms of words, the sounds of sentences; he loves ruminating on a strange personality or a memorable story; he is enchanted by the details of daily life. Orwell the activist is outraged at injustice and uncompromising in his moral sense; he sees people as a collection of allies and enemies, taking part in a grand struggle to bring about a better society.

Orwell himself discusses this tension in his little essay, “Why I Write.” In a more peaceful age, he thinks, he could have been an entirely aesthetic writer, perhaps a poet, not paying much attention to politics. It was his firsthand experience of imperialism, poverty, and fascism that activated his political conscience. Specifically, it was the Spanish Civil War that “tipped the scale” for him: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

Be that as it may, Orwell seems to have repeatedly struggled to reconcile this aim with his more humanistic side. In his brilliant essay on Dickens, for example, he spends page after page trying to analyze Dickens as a kind of social philosopher, examining Dickens’s views on work, on the state, on education, and so on. Since Dickens was anything but a philosopher—as Orwell himself admits—this repeatedly leads to frustrating dead ends, and fails completely to do justice to Dickens’s work. It is only in the last section, where Orwell drops this pretense and treats Dickens as a novelist, that the essay becomes deeply insightful. Indeed, it soon becomes clear—it seems clear to me, at least—that Orwell likes Dickens for his writing, and not his activism, however much he may wish to think otherwise.

Other essays exhibit this same tension. In his essay on vulgar postcard art, for example, he notes how backward is the social worldview expressed in the cards; but he is obviously quite fond of them and even ventures to defend them by likening their humor to Sancho Panza’s. His essay on boy’s magazines follows an identical pattern, exposing their conservative ideology while betraying a keen interest, even a warm fondness, for the stories. In his appreciative essay on Rudyard Kipling’s poems, he even goes so far as to defend Kipling’s political views, at least from accusations of fascism.

It is largely due to Orwell’s influence, I think, that nowadays it is uncontroversial to see the political implications in a movie cast or a Halloween costume. In all of these essays, Orwell worked to undermine the naïve distinction between politics and everyday life, showing how we absorb messages about standards, values, and ideologies from every direction. He did not merely state that “All art is propaganda,” but he tried to show it, both in his analyses and his own works. At least half the time, he is utterly convincing in this. (And indeed, Orwell was such a brilliant man that, even when I think he’s involved in a pointless exercise, he makes so many penetrating observations along the way— incidentally, parenthetically—that his writing fully absorbs me. )

We owe a tremendous debt to Orwell for this insight. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that there is something terribly limiting about this perspective. All art may be propaganda, but it is not only propaganda; it is not even primarily so. There needs to be room in criticism, as in life, for the non-political. We need to be able to enjoy a novelist because of his characters and not his views on the state, a poet for his lines rather than his opinions, a dirty joke or a trashy magazine just because we want a laugh and a break. Orwell would agree with me up to a point, I think, but would also say that every decision to be “non-political” implicitly accepts the status quo, and is therefore conservative. This may be true; but it is also true that such “non-political” things are necessary to live a full life.

Where I most disagree with Orwell is his conviction that the media we consume—magazines, post cards, popular novels, television—nefariously and decisively shape our worldview. For my part, I suspect that people absorb their opinions more from their community, face-to-face, and then seek out media that corresponds with their pre-existing views: not the reverse. Media may reinforce these views and give them shape and drive, but I don’t think it generates them.

All this is besides the point. I admire Orwell, for his fierce independence, for his sense of outrage and injustice, for his facility with words, for his attempt to blend art and truth. In sum, I admire both the writer and the activist, and I think his work should be read until judgment day.

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Quotes & Commentary #41: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #41: Emerson

It is impossible to extricate oneself from the questions in which our age is involved. You can no more keep out of politics than out of the frost.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I suppose Emerson wrote this at a time when insulation was far less robust, since nowadays it is perfectly possible to keep out of the frost. Or perhaps he meant that the only way to keep out of politics was to shut oneself up like a hermit. In any case, though the comparison has aged, the sentiment certainly has not.

Lately I have been reading some of Orwell’s essays, which called this quote to mind. It was Orwell’s essay on Dickens—in which he utters his famous dictum, “All art is propaganda”—that specifically made me think of Emerson.

Is it really true that all art contains political preaching? Is it true that it is impossible to extricate oneself from controversial questions?

To these answers I would give a qualified “yes.” I do not think it possible to create art that is politically neutral, since our thoughts about personality, philosophy, nationality, morality, sexuality, human nature, society, and so forth, all have political ramifications, even if the author has not thought through these ramifications. Every artistic choice—the characters, the setting, the plot—carries ideological baggage, even if this baggage is unintended.

Even if we attempted to create “art for art’s sake”—purely formal art, devoid of any identifiable content—this, too, would have political consequences, since it takes a stance, a very particular stance, on the role of art and the artist in society.

Before I go on, I will try to define what I mean by “politics.” To me, politics is the struggle between demographic groups for resources and power. Politics isn’t politics without controversy, since it necessarily involves a zero-sum game. This controversy is typically carried on in highly charged, stringently moral language; but the fundamental motive that animates political struggle is self-interest.

Where I disagree is that I think the political content of art is usually uninteresting, and plays little role in the art’s quality. There is no contradiction in saying that a great novel may embody backwards political principles, or noting that a movie that champions progressive values may be boring and amateurish.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, it stuffed to the brim with the politics of his age; and these political passages are, in my opinion, inevitably the weakest and most tiresome of the poem. The Divine Comedy is great in spite of, not because of, its politics. Likewise, the political implications of Milton’s Paradise Lost are chiefly of historical interest, and for me neither add to nor subtract from the poem’s artistic force. Nothing ages faster than politics, since politics is always embroiled in transitory struggles between factions.

Orwell’s essay itself, ironically enough, also illustrates the limitations of seeing art as propaganda. Orwell attempts to treat Dickens as a sort of social philosopher—trying to furrow out Dickens views on the state, on the economy, on education, on the good life—only to repeatedly hit a wall. Dickens was not a reformer, and not a revolutionary; he was, if anything, a moralist, as Orwell himself admits. But above all Dickens was a novelist, something that should not need pointing out. His books are far more interesting as novels than as sermons.

Do not mistake my meaning. I am not arguing for “art for art’s sake.” Some art cannot be properly appreciated without noting its political message. I am, however, arguing that the political implications of a work of art do not exhaust its meaning, nor do they even constitute its most valuable meaning.

The aesthetic is as valid a category as the political and the moral. And by categorizing something as “art,” we implicitly acknowledge that its aesthetic qualities are its most important traits, and determine its ultimate value. Even if we insist otherwise, the very fact that we differentiate between polemical cartoons and portraits, between political pamphlets and plays, between national anthems and symphonies, belies the fact that we consider art a special category.

How anyone chooses to interpret a piece of art is, of course, up to them. Great art is distinguished by its ability to inspire nearly infinite reactions. But I do believe that every interpretation, if it wishes to respect the work in question, ought to increase our appreciation of it, or at least to try.

When somebody reads a novel solely for its political content, and then evaluates it solely on the extent to which it agrees or disagrees with the interpreter’s beliefs, the work of art is turned into a mere weapon of political struggle. In other words, to treat art merely as propaganda is not to respect it as art.

I have heard many movies and television shows denounced for their political implications; nowadays there are endless controversies about representation in media. Now, I believe the question of interpretation is undoubtedly important. But to condemn or champion works of art purely on this criterion is, I think, just as narrow-minded as ignoring the question of representation altogether.

Art speaks in different languages to different people. This is its magic and its lasting value. And anybody who thinks that they unequivocally “know” the meaning of a work of art, and is so politically self-righteous that they think they can pronounce eternal judgement on its worth, is acting tyrannical, even if they are mouthing sentiments of egalitarianism.

* * *

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that this anxiety about representation and political values in art, so common nowadays, is grounded in a certain, tacit theory of human behavior. This is the belief that our media exerts a decisive influence over our values and actions. Indeed, I’m sure this proposition would hardly be regarded as controversial in some circles.

But isn’t it equally possible that our media is just a reflection of our values and actions? And doesn’t the very fact that people are often politically dissatisfied with their media prove that we are not under their control? For, if the influence of media were decisive over our political perspective, how could we ever be dissatisfied with it?

Artists and art critics tend to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are naturally prone to believing that humans are motivated by ideas, since that’s what motivates intellectuals. Thus they can be expected to pay too much attention to art as a social force, and not enough to the other things that drive human behavior, like economic trends or political institutions, since art operates on the level of symbols. 

And since much of our discourse is framed by intellectuals—people tend to become politically conscious in college, under the influence of professors—it seems likely that paying too much attention to the political power of art would be a pervasive error, which I believe it is.