Outside the Whale
- Discussion (9)
Page 4 of 6
It is impossible not to include in any response to 'Inside the Whale' the suggestion that Orwell's argument is much impaired by his choice, for a quietist model, of Henry Miller. In the forty-four years since the essay was first published, Miller's reputation has more or less completely evaporated, and he now looks to be very little more than the happy pornographer beneath whose scatological surface Orwell saw such improbable depths. If we, in 1984, are asked to choose between, on the one hand, the Miller of Tropic of Cancer and 'the first hundred pages of Black Spring' and, on the other, the collected works of Auden, MacNeice and Spender, I doubt that many of us would go for old Henry. So it would appear that politically committed art can actually prove more durable than messages from the stomach of the fish.
It would also be wrong to go any further without discussing the senses in which Orwell uses the term 'polities'. Six years after 'Inside the Whale', in the essay 'Politics and the English Language' (1946), he wrote: 'In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics". All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.'
For a man as truthful, direct, intelligent, passionate and sane as Orwell, 'politics' had come to represent the antithesis of his own worldview. It was an underworld-become-overworld Hell on earth.
'Politics' was a portmanteau term which included everything he hated; no wonder he wanted to keep it out of literature.
I cannot resist the idea that Orwell's intellect and finally his spirit, too, were broken by the horrors of the age in which he lived, the age of Hitler and Stalin (and, to be fair, by the ill health of his later years). Faced with the overwhelming evils of exterminations and purges and fire-bombings, and all the appalling manifestations of politics-gone-wild, he turned his talents to the business of constructing and also of justifying an escape route. Hence his notion of the ordinary man as victim, and therefore of passivity as the literary stance closest to that of the ordinary man. He is using this type of logic as a means of building a path back to the womb, into the whale and away from the thunder of war. This looks very like the plan of a man who has given up the struggle. Even though he knows that 'there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics",' he attempts the construction of a mechanism with just that purpose. Sit it out, he recommends; we writers will be safe inside the whale, until the storm dies down. I do not presume to blame him for adopting this position. He lived in the worst of times. But it is important to dispute his conclusions, because a philosophy built on an intellectual defeat must always be rebuilt at a later point. And undoubtedly Orwell did give way to a kind of defeatism and despair. By the time he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, sick and cloistered on Jura, he had plainly come to think that resistance was useless. Winston Smith considers himself a dead man from the moment he rebels. The secret book of the dissidents turns out to have been written by the Thought Police. All protest must end in Room 101. In an age when it often appears that we have all agreed to believe in entropy, in the proposition that things fall apart, that history is the irreversible process by which everything gradually gets worse, the unrelieved pessimism of Nineteen Eighty-Four goes some way towards explaining the book's status as a true myth of our times.
What is more (and this connects the year's parallel phenomena of Empire-revivalism and Orwellmania), the quietist option, the exhortation to submit to events, is an intrinsically conservative one. When intellectuals and artists withdraw from the fray, politicians feel safer. Once, the right and left in Britain used to argue about which of them 'owned' Orwell. In those days both sides wanted him; and, as Raymond Williams has said, the tug-of-war did his memory little honour. I have no wish to reopen these old hostilities; but the truth cannot be avoided, and the truth is that passivity always serves the interests of the status quo, of the people already at the top of the heap, and the Orwell of 'Inside the Whale' and Nineteen Eighty-Four is advocating ideas that can only be of service to our masters. If resistance is useless, those whom one might otherwise resist become omnipotent.
It is much easier to find common ground with Orwell when he comes to discuss the relationship between politics and language. The discoverer of Newspeak was aware that 'when the general (political) atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.' In 'Politics and the English Language' he gives us a series of telling examples of the perversion of meaning for political purposes. 'Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet Press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution are almost always made with intent to deceive,' he writes. He also provides beautiful parodies of politicians' metaphor-mixing: 'The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot.' Recently, I came across a worthy descendant of these grand old howlers: The Times, reporting the smuggling of classified documents out of Civil Service departments, referred to the increased frequency of 'leaks' from 'a high-level mole'.
It's odd, though, that the author of Animal Farm, the creator of so much of the vocabulary through which we now comprehend these distortions – doublethink, thoughtcrime, and the rest – should have been unwilling to concede that literature was best able to defend language, to do battle with the twisters, precisely by entering the political arena. The writers of Group 47 in post-war Germany – Grass, Böll and the rest, with their 'rubble literature', whose purpose and great achievement was to rebuild the German language from the rubble of Nazism – are prime instances of this power. So, in quite another way, is a writer like Joseph Heller. In Good as Gold the character of the Presidential aide Ralph provides Heller with some superb satire at the expense of Washingtonspeak. Ralph speaks in sentences that usually conclude by contradicting their beginnings: 'This Administration will back you all the way until it has to.' 'This President doesn't want yes-men. What we want are independent men of integrity who will agree with all our decisions after we make them.'
Every time Ralph opens his oxymoronic mouth he reveals the limitations of Orwell's view of the interaction between literature and politics. It is a view which excludes comedy, satire, deflation; because of course the writer need not always be the servant of some beetle-browed ideology. He can also be its critic, its antagonist, its scourge. From Swift to Solzhenitsyn, writers have discharged this role with honour. And remember Napoleon the Pig.
Just as it is untrue that politics ruins literature (even among 'ideological' political writers, Orwell's case would founder on the great rock of Pablo Neruda), so it is by no means axiomatic that the 'ordinary man', I'homme moyen sensuel, is politically passive. We have seen that the myth of this inert commoner was a part of Orwell's logic of retreat; but it is nevertheless worth reminding ourselves of just a few instances in which the 'ordinary man' – not to mention the 'ordinary woman' – has been anything but inactive. We may not approve of Khomeini's Iran, but the revolution there was a genuine mass movement. So is the revolution in Nicaragua. And so, let us not forget, was the Indian revolution. I wonder if independence would have arrived in 1947 if the masses, ignoring Congress and Muslim League, had remained seated inside what would have had to be a very large whale indeed.