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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Review: People of the Sierra

Review: People of the Sierra

The People of the SierraThe People of the Sierra by Julian Alfred Pitt-Rivers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writing is an activity which links a person with the world of formality.

Julian A. Pitt-Rivers was, in the words of his mentor E.E. Evans-Pritchard, “in every sense a son of Oxford and an Oxford anthropologist.” Julian was the descendant of an aristocratic family. His grandfather, Augustus, the pioneering archaeologist, was along with Sir Edward Taylor a founder of the anthropology department at Oxford. (The famous anthropology museum in Oxford is named after him.*) Julian’s father, whose absurdly long name I will not write—alright, fine, it is George Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers—was enormously wealthy. A vigorous anti-Semite and Eugenics proponent, George was jailed during the Second World War. Julian himself, among his other accomplishments, was tutor to the King of Iraq.

With a pedigree like that, it’s easy to see how his book became a classic in the field.

My interest in The People of the Sierra was sparked, naturally, by it being about a village in Spain. But for those with an interest in anthropology, such as myself, the book is significant independent of your specialty. This is because this book was one of the first ethnographies published about a community in Europe. True, it was a small, poor, agricultural community, and it was in a region of Europe commonly regarded as exotic, but it is Europe nonetheless. As such, the book is a landmark in the field.

The book’s classic status is due not only to its groundbreaking subject matter, however, but also to its high quality. Julian Pitt-Rivers was a true disciple of his advisor, E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Everything from the writing style to the analysis bears the traces of EP’s influence. And this is a good thing, for EP was one of the great masters of ethnography.

The central theme of Pitt-Rivers’s analysis is the contrast between the local and the national forces that shape the pueblo. In nearly every sector of life, there are two social structures at play. The first is that of the pueblo; it is self-contained. Moral rules are enforced by the community; there are certain—unwritten but universally known—appropriate ways of acting, and infractions are punished by loss of respect. The second structure is that of the state. Its authority is derived from somewhere far outside of the pueblo. Its laws are explicit, and infractions are punished with fines or jail time.

This theme is explored from a variety of different angles. One chapter, for example, explains the practice of giving members of the town nicknames. These nicknames are never used to a person’s face, and yet everybody in the village knows them. Indeed, you might know a person’s nickname without knowing their surname. Surnames are important, most of all, in dealings with the state. Thus you can see the contrast between local and national, informal and official, even in people’s names.

Tension exists in this state of affairs, because these two systems are often out of alignment. Many things are regarded as immoral which are not illegal, and vice versa. An important concept, for example, is vergüenza, shame, which is the regard that one pays to the social norms of the pueblo. To call someone a sinvergüenza is a serious insult; to be without shame is to be almost inhuman, since it puts you beyond the realm of society; it is to be a pariah. By contrast, it’s obviously not illegal to be without shame, and many of these pariahs are employed by the state as informers.

This is the book’s theme in a nutshell. For me, however, the book’s lasting value has far more to do with its style than its substance. Pitt-Rivers’s writing is remarkable more for what it excludes than for what it includes. There is not a word of jargon in these pages; a polysyllabic word is never used when a shorter one will do; sentences are crisp and short; there is no pretentious name-dropping, no unnecessary citations.

The book itself is brief, and yet Pitt-Rivers’s writing is so economical that he manages to give a full-blooded picture of the community. The first two sentences give an adequate taste of what follows: “This book is about a Spanish town. More precisely, it examines the social structure of a rural community in the mountains of southern Spain.”

Why social scientists no longer write like this, I cannot say. So read this, if only to remember a time when clear, strong English was used in anthropology.

*Thanks to Wastrel for bringing this to my attention.

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Review: Essays of E.B. White

Review: Essays of E.B. White

Essays of E.B. WhiteEssays of E.B. White by E.B. White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is really no way for a man to put his arms around a big house plant and still remain a gentleman.

E.B. White’s name, along with Will Strunk’s, is now synonymous with good style. If that isn’t a compliment to a writer, I don’t know what is.

My first encounter with the duo was in my high school English class of junior year. My teacher was old-fashioned enough to believe that we should learn how to use punctuation. This came as a shock, since none of her predecessors had spared so much as a moment on a semicolon. It was with bewilderment and wonder, then, that I opened up The Elements of Style and encountered this sentence: “The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.” How often is so much instruction packed into so few words?

In college I picked up the habit of rereading Strunk and White at least once a year. Probably I should do so more often, since verbal profligacy—Strunk’s sworn enemy, the capital sin of writing—is something that I can’t seem to shake, no matter how often I try. One of the reasons I picked up this book was the hope that, by observing White at work, his example might serve where his precepts failed.

With White, the style is the man; and any discussion of his works inevitably becomes an analysis of his prose. To begin with, White is not what I’d call a vocal writer. A vocal writer is one whose writing seems to come alive and speak, whose writing cannot be read in your own voice, only in the author’s own accent. White’s writing, while personable, charming, and full of feeling, does not leap from the page into your living room. It is writerly writing.

His style is conversational, not aphoristic. His sentences are not pointed, his wit is not barbed, his lines are not militantly memorable. His writing is loose; it breathes like a cotton shirt; it is drafty like an old wooden cabin. You might say that his essays are a controlled ramble, a balancing act that looks like a casual stroll. They take their time. Like a scatterbrained errand boy, they pause in a thousand places for momentary rendezvous and covert dalliances before reaching their destinations.

White seldom speaks in abstractions, and hardly makes an argument. His writing is held together not by the logic of ideas but by the tissue of memory. This is partly why the style is unfilterable from the content. There is no thesis to take away. He is not trying to make a point, but to communicate his perspective, to encapsulate a piece of his personality.

White’s personality is delightful. Modest and gently humorous, he is animated by a curiosity for the little things that comprise his world. He can study a train schedule with avidity, he can spend hours gazing at a spider’s web, he can write poetry on the life-cycle of a pig. This is what makes him such a consummate essayist. In the humdrum facts and quotidian occurrences of life he hears music and meaning, and spiderlike weaves his own web to stitch them into a delicate structure:

As I sat at table, gnawing away at a piece of pie, snow began falling. At first it was an almost imperceptible spitting from the gray sky, but it soon thickened and came driving in from the northeast. I watched it catch along the edge of the drive, powder the stone wall, and whiten the surface of the dark frozen pond, and I knew that all along the coast from Kittery on, the worst mistakes of men were being quietly erased, the lines of their industrial temples softened, and U.S. 1 crowned with a cold, inexpensive glory

There is not much to be said against these essays, except what can be said against all stylists. Since what White says is less important than the way he says it, upon finishing the reader is left with nothing but echoes and aftertastes. Yet it is a delicious aftertaste, tart and tangy with a touch of smoke, and it whets my appetite for more.

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Review: The Renaissance, by Walter Pater

Review: The Renaissance, by Walter Pater

The Renaissance: Studies in Art and PoetryThe Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry by Walter Pater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That it has given a new sense, that it has laid open a new organ, is the highest that can be said of any critical effort.

I had no idea what to expect from these essays. The only reason I became aware of Pater was because a copy of this book was sitting on the bathroom floor in my friend’s father’s house. Since my friend’s father is a successful painter, I naturally took note of a book about art so intimately placed. Much later, after finishing Burckhardt’s famous analysis of the Renaissance, and with my trip to Rome looming, I decided that I would finally see why a painter sought out this book for his bathroom inspiration.

Pater was an idiosyncratic fellow, and these essays certainly reflect that. Some of the topics he covers are expected: Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci. Others are more surprising: Joachim du Bellay, a Frenchman who wrote a defense of the French language; two medieval French stories about love and adventure; and Johann Winckelmann, the 18th century German classicist. Clearly, Pater’s conception of the Renaissance was far broader than Burckhardt’s, who considered the Renaissance a strictly Italian affair. Also broad is Pater’s conception of criticism: for him, it is not merely a vocation, but an entire philosophy of life.

I am referring specifically to the famous “Conclusion” that is tacked on to the end of these essays. In it, Pater puts forward a whole aesthetic philosophy of life: Everything is in flux; both matter and mind are temporary; the only thing we have is the moment; and since death may come at any time, and will come inevitably, the only rational response is to enjoy this moment as best you can. Now, some thought that Pater was advocating hedonism, but that is far from the case. He was, rather, an aesthete; and for him, “enjoying the moment” meant finding the most beautiful shade of green in a field of grass, or observing the play of light on a windowpane—that sort of thing. The ability to be constantly, delicately, indefatigably absorbed in one’s senses, and yet have the focus and taste necessary to select from these perceptions the most lovely, is what Pater meant with his famous suggestion to “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame,” which for him is “success in life.”

At times, the age of these essays showed. This was most conspicuous in Pater’s essay on Giorgione, in which he bases his whole appreciation on one painting, elevating it to the height and epitome of Giorgione’s aesthetic—a painting which is now believed to be by Titian. But for the most part, the essays have retained their force and interest. Indeed, you may not realize how original this book was, since it anticipated and shaped so many of our attitudes about art and the Renaissance. To pick just one example, Pater’s discussion of the Mona Lisa, dwelling on her mysterious smile, certainly helped spur on our fascination for that work.

Nevertheless, I am unsure whether Pater actually deepened my appreciation for the Renaissance works he discussed. This is due, I think, to his ideal of the critic: to be acutely sensitive to the power of art, and to be finely discriminating of what is more or less beautiful. Sensitive and discriminating Pater certainly is. (Several times I wondered if he passed out while writing his essays, since, judging by his breathless and insistent tone, he was always to be right on the cusp of a brilliant epiphany or a transcendent experience. It must have been exhausting.)

But notice was is lacking from his ideal of the critic: to analyze, to discuss, to inform. The critics who have most helped me appreciate art are those who taught me about the painting the artist; who showed me what to look for, how best to situated the painting within a certain context; in short, who pulled me into the world of the painting. But since Pater holds up sensitivty and discrimination as ideals, he is faced with the problem: how does one communicate those qualities, which are personal, to somebody else? To do this, he resorts to writing long rhapsodies, reveries, aesthetic ecstasies about the works under consideration. These passages are almost uniformly brilliant, often breathtaking. Nevertheless, it felt more like watching Pater look at a painting, overhearing the thoughts and associations the painting inspires in his brain, rather than learning how to appreciate the painting myself.

I cannot finish this review without discussing Pater’s prose. He is considered to be one of the great stylists, and this reputation is well deserved. The man was such a brilliant writer that it often seemed irrelevant what he was writing about; he could write an essay on the underside of a mosquito and it would be good literature.

This is not to say that he has no limitations. Most conspicuously, he has not even a trace of the epigrammatic. If a point can be made in ten words, Pater will give you fifty, though those fifty will be as finely crafted as a Baroque statue. His sentences never arrest you or stop you short, but rather overwhelm you, burying you under a pile of clauses, metaphors, images, until you’re short of breath and so dazzled that it seems someone has shone a flashlight in your eyes. Comparisons with Proust and Woolf, especially the latter, come readily to mind; but Pater has a manic insistence that makes his writing uniquely urgent.

Another limitation is that Pater seems incapable of that kind of easy grace, that effortless virtuosity, which many of the greatest writers display. Rather, his prose strains every nerve, exerts every muscle, panting and sweating as it pushes itself onward. This impression is, apparently, an accurate one: According to Wiki, he obsessively polished, tweaked, and rewrote his works, until every word, every sentence, every paragraph was just to his taste. This makes his prose like a super-ornate jewel, breathtaking in its designs, its symmetries, and its technical daring; yet for all that rather delicate and precious, and inevitably a bit ostentatious.

I will leave you with a passage from his essay on Michelangelo:

And of all that range of sentiment he is the poet, a poet still alive, and in possession of our inmost thoughts—dumb inquiry over the relapse after death into the formlessness which preceded life, the change, the revolt from that change, then the correcting, hallowing, consoling rush of pity; at last, far off, thin and vague, yet not more vague than the most definite thoughts men have had through three centuries on a matter that has been so near their hearts, the new body—a passing light, a mere intangible, external effect, over those too rigid, or too formless faces; a dream that lingers a moment, retreating in the dawn, incomplete, aimless, helpless; a thing with faint hearing, faint memory, faint power of touch; a breath, a flame in the doorway, a feather in the wind.

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