The importance of being empathetic: Remembering George Orwell
Orwell day is an opportunity to think about the role of writing and writers in a time of human crisis like the present.
‘It is impossible to found a civilisation on fear and hatred and cruelty. It would never endure.’
It would have no vitality. It would disintegrate. It would commit suicide.’
‘Nonsense. You are under the impression that hatred is more exhausting than love.’ Why should it be?’
(George Orwell, 1984)
Today, 71 years ago, George Orwell, the great English journalist, essay writer and novelist, died from tuberculosis. Next month is the 200th anniversary of the death of another great writer, the poet John Keats, who also died of TB, at the more tender age of 25.
I want to write about Orwell to get away from Covid-19. Yet, in some ways, a reflection on the deaths of Keats and Orwell puts Covid-19 into the perspective of another great plague, TB. TB has been with us since the dawn of historical records and curable since the 1950s, but it still caused the deaths of 1.4 million people in 2019.
It too has been declared “a public health emergency” by the World Health Organisation, but it has much more discretion in who it kills – only the poor – so it draws less attention and fewer resources.
But that is not my concern today.
Rather, Orwell day is an opportunity to think about the role of writing and writers in a time of human crisis like the present. It is a moment to celebrate Orwell for his ability as a journalist to portray both beauty and ugliness in a way that established empathy and association, leading to anger and outrage in his readers – and, maybe, to try to understand some of the tricks of his trade.
For Orwell writing was “art”, and the connection between words as thought and words and thought was one of his major preoccupations with writing.
In a 1946 essay, Why I Write?, Orwell explained:
“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past 10 years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.”
Orwell is best remembered for his last novel 1984, published just months before his death, and for Animal Farm. But brilliant and prescient though they are, for readers who are Orwell-naïve these two political novels overshadow a large body of his journalism, reviews and longer non-fiction. This is where you really find Orwell’s most astute reflections on the richness of human beings and human experience that he uncovered in the encounters of his everyday life.
In the early 1990s, Penguin published Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, covering the years 1920-1950, in four volumes. (Once upon a time I had them all, sadly I have lost three of the volumes over the years and would dearly welcome finding copies in one of our second-hand bookshops). In this treasure trove I came to love Orwell for the richness of his observations and the way he could order words to bring out the uniqueness of the ordinary, the abnormal in the normal, the beauty and dignity in the most marginalised. He had what John Berger termed “ways of seeing”.
Although I no longer have my paperbacks to consult as I contemplate Orwell I will always recall essays such Shooting an Elephant and Some Thoughts on the Common Toad. The latter was written in 1946 and turns a heartfelt observation on toads emerging from hibernation at the beginning of spring (which, he writes, “unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets”), into a reflection on freedom, the beauty of those things around us that cost nothing and the dangers of homogenising everything until it becomes black or white.
“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.”
The essay was written at a bleak moment in history and in his life, much as we are now as a result of the carnage caused by Covid-19. Nonetheless, the essay is also a reflection how even in adversity, hope – much like the toad – springs eternal. As Shakespeare says in King Lear, “the worst returns to laughter”.
When one generation discovers the problems of the present well articulated in the reflections of a previous generation we call it prescience. Literary critics often comment about the prescience of past writers, particularly those who described visions of dystopia. Orwell’s 1984 is the epitome of prescience. However, rather than prescience the issue may be that until the great conundrums of humanity (inequality, injustice, the meaning of life, love and death) are resolved certain themes keep going round and round, and recurring throughout history.
Looked at this way though, Orwell is really just a contemporary writer: throughout the 1930s and 1940s he reflected on the power of technology to enforce subservience; the capture and subversion of language to inhibit independent thought; the malleability of truth when connected to gaining and retaining power; the aloof self-righteousness of socialists; and extensively on nationalism and patriotism.
All very 21st-century issues!
Why we read
There is, of course, such a thing as writing for writing’s sake. But for people who engage in political writing, the success of an essay or article must ultimately be measured by whether other people read it from start to finish or not, and really think about its contents.
In this regard, much depends on first words. It is often belief and feeling for their first line that helps a writer find all the words and ideas that must follow.
I think Orwell understood this. He was a master of the opening line. Think: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” But, in this regard, one of my favourite lines in all the world’s literature is found at the start to his essay, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, where he begins:
“As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
“They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted, law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.”
So much said in so few words!
But after arresting first lines what really marks out Orwell as a writer of excellence is that to resonate with the reader, to find insights, he instinctively knew that he had to witness them first hand; he had go to the frontlines of human experience, not just as an observer dashing in and out, but as a participant who could submit himself to the subterranean pulse of the people beneath all that is visible and superficial.
That is the power of Homage to Catalonia, his description of the Spanish civil war, in which he was a somewhat hapless volunteer with the POUM; that is the power of Down and Out in Paris and London, in which he described unemployment and homelessness; that is the power of The Road to Wigan Pier, which recreates the conditions of the working classes in Northern England; and How the Poor Die, describing his experience as a patient with an “exceptionally fine specimen of a bronchial rattle” (not by then diagnosed as TB) in a hospital for the poor in Paris in 1929:
“People talk about the horrors of war, but what weapon has man invented that even approaches in cruelty some of the commoner diseases? ‘Natural’ death, almost by definition, means something slow, smelly and painful. Even at that, it makes a difference if you can achieve it in your own home and not in a public institution. This poor old wretch who had just flickered out like a candle-end was not even important enough to have anyone watching by his deathbed. He was merely a number, then a ‘subject’ for the students’ scalpels. And the sordid publicity of dying in such a place!”
All of the above works are examples of a fine literature of empathy and identification that emerge from Orwell’s belief in the dignity of his subjects, even when they were having indignity forced upon them. Orwell didn’t seek to move the reader by dogma or didact, but through activating the five senses, through mining down to the wellsprings of the feelings and emotion which have the greatest influence on human behaviour.
As a young wannabe writer, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language was my go-to place for instruction on how not to write. But learning how to write is another thing entirely. How to achieve a connected detachment, a subjective objectivity; how to express irony and wry wonder at human shortsightedness but never cynicism?
And finally, in a world like ours, how to keep believing like Winston Smith that love is more powerful than hate. DM/MC/ML
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved