Orwell Lecture

Birkbeck, University of London – December 6th 2007

George Orwell Lecture

In 1968, I was at university and some of us thought that the world was changing around our ears. Well, more than that actually: the world was changing and we were helping it change. America was in Vietnam, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, there were struggles for civil liberties in the US, for equality in South Africa and something extraordinary was happening in France – there seemed to be some kind of mass uprising going on over there. I don’t want to spell out my take on the precise significance of these events nor how they inter-related – another time maybe. My point is simply that in 1968, these times felt special, new and genuinely upending or – the word of that moment – revolutionary.

I was studying English Literature at a university where the literature of English was understood to begin somewhere round the ninth century and end at 1900. The word ‘English’ in this context was not a synonym for ‘anglophone’ – American literature, for example was not included – but it was a synonym for British and Irish. And though literature prior to Chaucer required what felt to me like translation, translation of other kinds of text – even of Norman French, a language that had a mighty bearing on  the way English was and is spoken and written, was again not permitted.

Over the three years of study, we were taken on what I see now was a trip down a corridor, walking from author to author, noting how one great writer in some mysterious way or another was the father of the next – yes, one or two mothers were allowed in too, notably George Eliot. Occasionally, a door off the corridor was opened and the loud, unruly sound of that author’s epoch was allowed to burst in on upon us – at one moment described as, say, ‘The Elizabethan World Picture’, the next, say, as ‘The Enlightenment’.  Other doors marked, say, ‘The English Civil War’, ‘The French Revolution’, ‘Industrialisation’ remained shut even though some of the world’s most famous scholars of these episodes were running classes on these subjects for students of History, just a few yards away. So, down the corridor, we ran: ‘Beowulf’, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Metaphysicals, Restoration Drama, the Augustans, Jane Austen, the Romantics, Dickens, Hardy and – whoa – we reached those authors who inconsiderately wrote both before and after 1900: irritating people like Hardy and Bernard Shaw.

Incidentally, there was also a phase of study on what was called ‘Language’ – not ‘linguistics’, note – which was in essence a parallel corridor to the literary one, because here, down through the centuries, words gave birth to words, ‘wroghte’ became ‘wrought’; constructions bore constructions: ‘givest thou’ became ‘do you give’. All this happened seemingly without the agency of people. It was very important to know when these things changed but irrelevant to ask why, or really who was doing the changing.

So, my head was a peculiar place to be. At one moment, caught up in the frantic, impatient discussions about the various ends of Communism, Imperialism and Capitalism and the next on whether the impact of a metaphysical poem depended or not on the ‘yoking’ together of heterogeneous images. In the space of minutes I was leaping from Ho Chi Minh to ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun…’. No bad thing in itself, but at that very moment, in the thick of it all, I didn’t feel in my bones that there was any connection that could be made between the two.

Until George Orwell.

Now Orwell’s fiction was of course well beyond the end of the corridor as were most of his essays. However, as I guess many of you will know, Orwell wrote about ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. A little context here: the pedagogic method of Oxford University was primarily through the means of the one-to-one tutorial.

Somewhere, far off, in an outrageously twentieth century building, dons put on gowns and gave lectures on whatever took their fancy. I remember one hour on the first word of ‘Beowulf’, which, as you all know, is ‘Hwaet’. However, these lectures were not compulsory. The real meat and potatoes came in writing a weekly essay, reading it to the tutor and entering into a discussion with the tutor until the hour was up. These essays and conversations were not guided by any stated method or theory. You simply wrote and said the kind of thing that people called ‘respected critics’ wrote. If they leaned towards discovering, say, ‘patterns of imagery’ – fair enough. If another leaned towards trying to figure out an author’s intention, again fine. Some seemed to see the author as a puppet-master, assembling scenes, plots, characters and structures as a means of controlling readers’ emotions. Occasionally, we would be taken into the land of genres – tragedy, comedy, the ballad, the novel, though this had to be done either with reference to ancient Greeks and Romans, or to the English. There was no contamination from France, Germany or Italy though nods were made to authors and texts we wouldn’t read. The names of Boccaccio, Goethe, Flaubert were on the corridor doors, but the doors weren’t opened.

There was a learned alley we could go down called ‘influence’ and indeed engage in arguments about who was the greatest influence. Was Keats influenced more by Shakespeare than Shelley? This was part of the way in which we learnt that one author or even the inert object of one book was the progenitor of another, a birthing that took place in the corridor. Related to this was the practice of mimesis. You could use the space of the essay to say what an image, passage or scene of a book was like.

There was a bloodhound amongst us too, who could sniff out criminal offences, such as sentimentality, cliché, inconsistency, coyness, unbelievability, and something that involved what they called ‘pandering’. Authors, we gathered, shouldn’t have pandered to this or that unsatisfactory, low, tendency in us or in society. I can’t believe that I was alone in thinking that this bloodhound had a particular high status as it was with him that I could prove that Wyatt was a minor not a major poet or that ‘Measure for Measure’ was ‘flawed’.

In the midst of this there was also a lengthy dialogue about paradox and irony. Sometime around the time the tanks arrived on the streets of Prague, I remember that a feeling was engendered in me that there was something uniquely English and uniquely brilliant about English Literature’s ability to be ironic. As I didn’t have anyone else’s literature to compare it with, at least not since A-level French and visits to ‘Candide’ and ‘Tartuffe’ – I think I took this at face value. Well, I say that, though my first trip round Jonathan Swift was a disaster. That week’s essay was on ‘A Letter to a Very Young Lady on her Marriage’ where Swift appeared to me at the moment of reading to be telling the woman how to behave, what to wear and even how to think. Accordingly, I wrote my essay, paying close attention to the imagery, structure, contrast and tone and then with my bloodhound unleashed, I spotted the flaw: a hectoring tone, a tedious repetitious style, a snobbish de haut en bas approach to the woman. I read it to the tutor. There! Surely, I had done the job. He looked up. ‘You don’t suppose that Swift was being ironic, do you, Michael?’  Irony! Oh blow. I hadn’t thought of it. No worries, next week, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. See you next Tuesday.

Now, here I was face to face with one of the great mountains of English Literature, covered in inscriptions like ‘classic’, ‘satire’, ‘irony’ but also ‘flawed’. Its surface was crawling with references to eighteenth century people and events that would reveal the true meaning of scenes in the book. After several days  – perhaps interrupted by the cruel murder of Martin Luther King, the Tet Offensive or the call of Women’s Liberation – my back was bending under the strain. I went to the bookshop and bought: ‘Modern Judgements – Selections of Critical Essays, General editor P.N. Furbank, Swift’, edited by A Norman Jeffares’, (1968) – yes, 1968.

And here they were, Leavis on the irony of Swift, Kathleen M. Williams on Gulliver’s voyage to the Houyhnhnms, W.E. Yeomans on the Houyhnhnm as Menippean Horse and – George Orwell. Didn’t he write ‘Animal Farm’? ‘1984’, ‘Homage to Catalonia’, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ – yet here he was talking about ‘Politics versus Literature – an examination of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. How that phrase, ‘Politics versus literature’ resonated! Exactly. Would Orwell square the circle for me? Jeffares in his introduction tried to head me off at the pass:

‘George Orwell’s well-known article, [is it well-known, I had no idea], which is now somewhat dated [oh dear, is it?] in its language and approach…is based on political assumptions of the 1930s and 1940s [aren’t the other essays based on the political assumptions of their time too?] and has all Orwell’s originality [that’s ok then] – as well as distaste [oh dear] informing its criticism.’

Even so, I read the essay. It’s hard some 40 years later to recapture the mix of excitement and I think, the sense of revelation, I felt on reading this piece. In a matter of minutes I thought I was being released from the ritual of literary critical game-playing, the one I had learnt to play pretty well – and instead, being given the licence to read ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and talk about its ideas. Suddenly,  a connection was made between the battle of ideas going on around us in 1968 and what I was studying. Eng Lit could be a place where there was a battle of ideas too.

If you don’t know the essay, Orwell’s broad thesis is this: in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ Swift attacked or criticized humanity. But this attack came from what Orwell calls Swift’s ‘perverse Toryism’. This wasn’t simply a party political standpoint but a cast of mind. So, for example, the book appears not only to attack crank science but all science or even intellectual curiosity itself.  In its place, Swift seemed to Orwell to revere the past, especially, classical antiquity, uniformity and above all else, ‘reason’ – by which Orwell thinks Swift meant his own self-defined idea of ‘common-sense’.

In the opposition between the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, Orwell read a Swiftian contempt of humanity and a refusal of life, as expressed through love, friendship, curiosity, fear and sorrow. Politically, says Orwell, this is either Swift’s envy of those who can and do enjoy life, or nihilism.  In fact, the society that Swift appeared to be commending was in essence totalitarian as it was uniform and conformist.

Follwing this analysis, there is a mini-essay on what we would now call literary theory: does the merit of art lie in the work itself, or in the appreciation it arouses? If you feel a book is pernicious, do you dishonestly try to prove that it is aesthetically feeble? Can you disassociate literary quality from subject-matter? Is there a way in which the appeal of ‘Gulliver’s Travels” depiction of, say, the Yahoos, is not that we agree with what is implied there about us, but that through an act of recognition, we acknowledge that part of us is despicable. Though Swift totalises ‘man’ as filth, we can respond to this, says Orwell, whilst knowing or believing that human beings can be ‘noble’ and that life is worth living. So, Orwell asks, can a book be good even if it expresses a ‘palpably false view of life’? He claims that the critics of his day believed that a book had to be ‘progressive’ to be good. He writes:

‘This ignores the fact that throughout history a similar struggle between progress and reaction has been raging, and that the best books of any one age have always been written from several different viewpoints, some of them palpably more false than others.’

Then, in his closing remarks, he says, so all we should ask for in a writer is that he [sic] shall genuinely believe in what he is saying. This means a good book can be written by a Catholic, Communist, Fascist, pacifist, anarchist, Liberal or Conservative, but one can’t imagine a good book written by a spiritualist, a Buchmanite, or  a member of the Ku-Klux Klan. So what we ask of writers is talent and conviction. Swift, he says, did not possess wisdom, he did possess a ‘terrible intensity of vision’. The durability of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ goes to show that if the ‘force of belief is behind it, a world-view, which only just passes the test of sanity, is sufficient to produce a great work of art.’

I should say here, that this last sequence, what I’ve called the ‘closing remarks’, seems to me now a powerful mix of  the vague and the unsustainable. As it happens I have a clear memory of not bothering with the whole of this mini essay on literary theory. I had an essay to write, but I will return to it in a moment.

What grabbed me much more was the notion that a writer has ideas, embodies them in stories, plays and poems and that it’s possible to discern the ideas implied by literature and that these ideas can be attached to the author. In fact, it should be possible, it followed, to deduce attitudes from knowledge of the author or of the book. There is, I figured, some kind of direct channel between author and text, resulting in a text being a distillation of an author’s attitudes, feelings and opinions. What a reader can do, then is be an Orwell – discern through the conflicts, oppositions and outcomes of a text, what these attitudes, feelings and opinions really are.  This, I triumphantly  felt, is what reading and criticism is about and for. In fact, in a matter of days, I set to work on what I had studied before: ‘Beowulf’, ‘King Lear’ and tried to apply the method. ‘Beowulf’ – epic poem. A warrior culture produces a narrative that can comfort and sustain that warrior culture, thus – key moment, when Beowulf’s blood appears on the surface of the pool, at the bottom of which he is grappling in a life or death struggle with Grendel’s mother. How do Beowulf’s companions behave? They all leave, bar one. It is the one who stays, the one who is faithful and believes in the power of his leader, whose attitude is vindicated by the outcome of that episode in the story. So should we warriors behave! Stand by your leader till the very end! I couldn’t make much headway with ‘Lear’ until I found John Danby’s ‘Doctrine of Nature’ and felt I could crack that one too. ‘Lear’ became less about old age, forgiveness and the like and much more about a struggle between attitudes and values of an old and order and a new, highly local and relevant to England, London in the late 1500s, early 1600s.

So now, as I did before this evening, let’s return to Orwell’s essay and see if it has stood up to the years of theorizing about how readers read, interpret and criticize literature. This is of course, my own highly selective take on the matter.

One of the first moves that Orwell makes is that patrician gesture embodied by the word ‘one’, but also by ‘the reader’, and phrases like ‘it is difficult not to feel’, ‘the assumption is’, ‘no doubt’, ‘evidently’, ‘one would expect’, ‘there is something in…’, ‘of course no honest person claims that…’ ‘even the child’, ‘something in us responds’ and so on. This is the process by which critics write highly opinionated pieces but generalise these views into some kind of universal, omniscient reader. The very critique Orwell makes of Swift – that he totalises human beings – Orwell’s own critical writing imitates. This, to my mind is unsatisfactory. Orwell’s writing here and elsewhere bristles with viewpoint, angle and position and these are his own. He has no need to cloak these in a generalised persona who is supposedly as reasonable as he is. Nor does he need to – if that’s what the process is about – to recruit unseen millions to his standpoint in order to normalise it. The distinctiveness in a reader’s reading is that it can be felt or articulated by a single person. Its generality lies in how it is constituted and constructed out of prevailing attitudes and conditions. In other words, the Gulliver essay is Orwell’s but Orwell’s views are created out of such matters as his struggles with Soviet Communism, British chauvinism, the class system and so on. What he lacks is what the anthropologists call ‘reflexivity’, the ability to reveal or at least debate how what you say about a phenomenon has a lot to do (some would say, everything to do) with who you are and where you’re coming from. Interestingly and delightfully though, Orwell anticipates this crucial aspect of the politics of response here:

‘From what I have written it may have seemed that I am against Swift, and that my object is to refute him and even to belittle him. In a political and moral sense I am against him, so far as I understand him. Yet curiously enough he is one of the writers I admire with the least reserve, and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ in particular, is a book which it seems impossible for me to grow tired of. I read it first when I was eight – one day short of eight to be exact, for I stole and furtively read the copy which was to be given me next day on my eighth birthday – and I have certainly read it not less than half a dozen times since. Its fascination seems inexhaustible. If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ among them. This raises the question: what is the relationship between agreement with a writer’s opinions and enjoyment of his work?’

Sadly, for me, we don’t hear more about the psycho-social outlook of the little George, nor how later on, it resisted being incorporated into the British elite, or indeed if and how it clung to some of its attitudes. I would insist these days, that reading ‘Gulliver’ is not simply or only a matter of reading off its apparent  or implied attitudes. Some kind of transaction or enmeshing takes place between text and the particular reader in question, (realised, constituted and constructed as I have said, from the prevailing attitudes and conditions of the day), and it is out of this transaction that conclusions, such as these by Orwell, are drawn. However, Orwell also anticipates here one of the basic concepts of modern criticism the ‘implied author’ and indeed the ‘implied reader’.

That said, when Orwell approaches one of the paradoxes of the reading process, he gives me, reading the essay today, a crucial insight: why, he asks, is it that we (ok there’s the generalised ‘we’) don’t mind being called Yahoos, although firmly convinced that we are not Yahoos.’

The answer Orwell comes up with is that we are not (my phrase) unitary beings. We are capable of occupying contradictory positions, of having mutually incompatible ideas and feelings. Writing can exclusively express the one side of a matter without us necessary believing in or accepting this is the way life really is. Orwell’s idea here hands a good deal of autonomy over to the reader. It allows for the possibility that readers read resistantly; that just because a text appears to be saying this or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has the effect it appears to be seeking. Some or indeed all of us are capable of saying to ourselves, ‘no it’s not like that – I don’t agree – I don’t believe that ‘  while still wanting to read on, still deriving pleasure from the process. Pleasure, of course, as Orwell makes very clear, may not necessarily be about enjoying what we say we enjoy – it may well be the enjoyment of feeling disgusted. This is clearly expressed (perhaps disguised by projecting it onto children) when he writes:

‘A child, when it is past the infantile stage but still looking at the world with fresh eyes, is moved by horror almost as often as by wonder – horror of snot and spittle, of the dogs’ excrement on the pavement, the dying toad full of maggots, the sweaty smell of grown-ups, the hideousness of old men, with their bald heads and bulbous noses.’

(Incidentally here, it’s not always clear in that little passage whether Orwell is talking about a generalised child’s view of things, or his own!)

However, Orwell also anticipates another notion of contradiction when he pursues his idea of what the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos represent. Orwell suggests that:

‘…Swift’s greatest contribution to political thought in the narrower sense of the words is his attack…on what would now be called totalitarianism. He has an extraordinarily clear prevision of the spy-haunted ‘police State’, with its endless heresy-hunts and treason trials, all really designed to neutralize popular discontent by changing it into war hysteria.’

However, when Swift turns to the society of the Houyhnhnms – which in Orwell’s view is Swift’s ideal – what do they exemplify? ask Orwell, but a form of totalitarianism? Now, this process of spotting the opposition towards one position at one moment in a book and then the apparent celebration of that same position at another moment, has been described as uncovering a text’s political unconscious. It’s a role that several critics have assigned themselves as a way, I think, of escaping the individualised, personalised trap of making the disembodied self of a reader  king of the text, making the text’s meanings subject to the king’s personal biography – you know the sort of thing: ‘I love Juliet because I’m glad she wants to find out if Romeo really loves her before sleeping with him’. Instead, uncovering the political unconscious is a way of incorporating and mixing the politics of the text, the politics of its epoch, the politics of the author, and indeed the politics of the critic.

Problem solved.

But not so fast.

Let’s return to those silly old critics and their fetishized games, the essays I used to write, the exams I passed.

What if, the Houyhnhnms ware not Swift’s ideal after all? What if Swift savages the world then presents the ideal only to demolish that ideal too? Or maybe we don’t even have to commit ourselves that far – but simply hold in our head the possibility that that this is the case. Or, and I’ll give this a special emphasis if I may, what if we listen to how we feel about the Houyhnhnms, and allow these feelings to be part of the meaning we derive?

Let’s take these in turn:

You’ll remember that I read Orwell’s essay in a collection of essays. Suffice it say in 1968 I didn’t bother with the other stuff. I was probably more keen to get on and listen to Aretha Franklin . Orwell, it seemed to me, was in tune with 1968 and that was enough for me. However, being a little, but not much, more patient these days, I read the following two essays in the book. The one by Kathleen M. Williams puts up an extremely good argument for suggesting that Swift presented the Houyhnhnms as a false ideal and counterposed moments of kindness in the book that show the Houyhnhnms’ adherence to reason to be unattainable and unsatisfactory. Meanwhile, W.E. Yeomans anticipates yet another school of modern literary theory when he reads ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ in what we would now call its intertextual space – or at least one aspect of it – namely, in this case, its place in the tradition of a particular kind of satire. Informed by this, it’s possible to see, says Yeomans, that the Houynhnms and the Yahoos are polar, satiric types characteristic of burlesque. Orwell’s uncovering of Swift’s political unconscious comes crashing to the ground. He has not then uncovered Swift’s contradiction.

Perhaps.  But maybe the theory of trying to do it has its value. It’s just that Orwell didn’t get it right in this case.

Meanwhile, what about feeling? What about the visceral, perhaps naïve response that says, ‘I like Juliet, I hate her dad.’. Or, ‘I don’t like either the Houyhnhnms or the Yahoos.’? Though these are, I would argue, one of the reasons why so many of us like reading, criticism finds it very difficult to accommodate them. When I’m working with young, inexperienced readers, I try to ask questions that I don’t know the answers to. I try to make these, ones that help the reader connect what they know about life and what they know about other texts with whatever it is we are reading. Does what you’ve just read remind you of anything that has ever happened to you or anybody you know? Does this text remind you of anything you’ve ever read or seen somewhere else? Cunningly disguised here (if I may say so) are links to intertextuality, structuralism and, if you want go that far, social and psychoanalytical analyses. Couple these with the making of a space in which we invite readers to quiz characters, beings, or even objects in a text or indeed quiz the author, and we have the possibility of raising many of the questions that are customarily delivered up as notes, lectures, and hand-me-down pedagogic points. Even the possibility, which Orwell found so hard to understand, that a text has some autonomy from its author and is not identical with him or her, can easily emerge out of such discussions. Perhaps, for example, when you quiz the author (someone in the class is usually keen to give it a go), the author doesn’t know why he or she wrote this or that!

My general point here is that it is through approaches like this, democratic in spirit, which seem to me to be most suited to the literary impulse, and most in tune with the reasons why we read fiction and poetry, watch plays and films, in the first place. At first glance, this may appear to be a question of the politics of the classroom, but I’d claim more. How we learn to read, and how we learn to discuss and criticise literature is part of how and why we respond to it in the way we do. So I’d like to suggest that the politics of the literature-reading classroom, right from three and four year olds, through to university, is indeed part of the politics of response. It’s my view that our response at this time is controlled far too closely by government. Look closely at the curriculum and strategies for primary and secondary schools, and you’ll see specific methods of literary response laid down and these are enforced by means of inspections, tests, exams and selection processes. These methods turn again and again on the matter of teachers asking questions that they already know the answers to, and what’s more these questions are not much more than watered-down versions of the very processes I was encouraged to write about at university.

What’s more – I could go on – it is now quite possible, easy and likely for a child to read a whole text, a whole book in school for the last time at the age of eight. From then on, literature is in many schools, in many areas, reduced to passages, extracts and worksheets, where the purpose of the passage is that it provides a context for a school student to answer questions of supposed fact about the passage concerned – questions of trainspotting metaphors or proving why this or that technique is ‘effective’. (Strangely never ‘ineffective’!) Meanwhile, we have government (the opposition agrees) deciding that every single child in every single classroom will learn how to read following a particular method of sounding out letters and combinations of letters. This will cost millions. However, nowhere near the same effort or money will be put into getting books into children’s and school students or their parents’ hands so that they can get to feel why reading might be worth doing. How mysterious.

In the context of this discussion today, I see all this as anti-literary. It flies in the face of general public statements about the value of reading. It flies in the face of the democratic circulation and open-ended discussion of books. And indeed flies in the face of the kinds of intellectual struggle over how we criticise books that we see Orwell conducting in his essay on ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.

So, I’d like to say, ‘Thank you, George.’ You were the bridge over which I crossed to help me make a particular kind of sense of literature in a particular time.

George W.Bush told us that maybe Iraq does resemble Vietnam. Putin deposed himself so that he could become King. South Africa’s coal miners have been on strike. Sarkozy tries to fight both the public employees and the immigres of the banlieues, someone has just released a Box set of rare and previously unissued Aretha Franklin tracks and I’m reading and writing about ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.

Re-reading Orwell’s essay reminded me of one way in which all this fits together. Listen to the relish, fun and mischief of this:

‘[Swift] denounces injustice and oppression, but he gives no evidence of liking democracy. IN spite of his enormously greater power, his implied position is very similar to that of the innumerable silly-clever Conservatives or our own day – people like Sir Alan Herbert, Professor G.M.  Young, Lord Elton, the Tory Reform Committee or the long line of Catholic apologists from W.H. Mallock onwards – [what did Orwell have against Catholics, exactly? No matter, he goes on:] people who specialize in cracking neat jokes at the expense of whatever is ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’, and whose opinions are often all the more extreme because they know that they cannot influence the actual drift of events.’

Books of the past, when read now, connect with our lives in ways that could never have been predicted at the time of their appearance. Orwell shows us how we can, if we choose, enjoy outrageous anachronistic comparisons. And I would go further: I don’t think we can ever wholly escape from them. They are what we respond with. Some of us have known Penelopes who’ve waited for their Odysseuses and some who didn’t. And even if they’re not ‘bent double like old beggars under sacks’, I, for one, watch the TV  and think that ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori’  still is an ‘old lie’ .


[All extracts cited above come from:
George Orwell ‘Politics vs. Literature: an examination of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1950) as it appeared in  ‘Swift, Modern Judgements’ edited by A. Norman Jeffares’ London: Macmillan (1968) pp. 192-209]