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George Orwell and the Essayist Style

I recently reread The Road to Wigan Pier, which I first read in the Peace Corps probably about five years ago. I remembered quite liking the first half of the book, particularly the vivid sections on what it's like to work as a coal miner, while disliking the second half, though I couldn't remember why. It was something about socialism and the middle class, and it seemed vaguely muddled.

This impression was confirmed on second reading. The description of coal mining indeed remains brilliant, especially in structure. Orwell maintains a great sense of pacing, carefully building up each new agony that the miners endure, so that by the end a real appreciation of the awesome difficulty of coal mining is developed, as opposed to simply reaching for analogies or hyperbole.

The second half, however, is pretty bad. On occasion, as when Orwell is describing the peculiar anxieties of having grown up middle class, and why middle-class people like himself struggle with embracing socialism, he makes some good points. But elsewhere, as in his description of machines, he's just blowing smoke. As part of a general tirade against machines civilization, here he tries for a reductio ad absurdum against the idea that people might cultivate deliberately archaic methods of production as a way of occupying themselves:
But it may be said, why not retain the machine and retain ‘creative work’? Why not cultivate anachronisms as a spare-time hobby? Many people have played with this idea; it seems to solve with such beautiful ease the problems set by the machine. The citizen of Utopia, we are told, coming home from his daily two hours of turning a handle in the tomato-canning factory, will deliberately revert to a more primitive way of life and solace his creative instincts with a bit of fretwork, pottery-glazing, or handloom-weaving. And why is this picture an absurdity—as it is, of course? Because of a principle that is not always recognized, though always acted upon: that so long as the machine is there, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap. One sees a good illustration of this in the matter of travel. Everyone who has travelled by primitive methods in an undeveloped country knows that the difference between that kind of travel and modern travel in trains, cars, etc., is the difference between life and death. The nomad who walks or rides, with his baggage stowed on a camel or an ox-cart, may suffer every kind of discomfort, but at least he is living while he is travelling; whereas for the passenger in an express train or a luxury liner his journey is an interregnum, a kind of temporary death. And yet so long as the railways exist, one has got to travel by train—or by car or aeroplane. Here am I, forty miles from London. When I want to go up to London why do I not pack my luggage on to a mule and set out on foot, making a two days of it? Because, with the Green Line buses whizzing past me every ten minutes, such a journey would be intolerably irksome. In order that one may enjoy primitive methods of travel, it is necessary that no other method should be available. No human being ever wants to do anything in a more cumbrous way than is necessary. Hence the absurdity of that picture of Utopians saving their souls with fretwork. In a world where everything could be done by machinery, everything would be done by machinery.
I think we can conclude he was wrong here. In fact, the hugely advanced machine age (Wigan Pier was written in 1937) has not obliterated all desire for hand work. People are not very systematic about it usually, enjoying extreme conveniences like the airplane and the Internet without much thought, and even power planers, tablesaws, angle grinders, and so forth. But a reasonable number of people, like my friend Brad, do carry out basically manual manufacturing, by picking methods which usually use a lot of mechanical conveniences but also preserve a reasonable space for skill and hand work. Some even make quite a good living at it:

The Birth Of A Tool. Part III. Damascus steel knife making (by John Neeman Tools) from John Neeman Tools on Vimeo.

Of course, that is quite apart from the idea that one could provide for large-scale production and employment through adoption of deliberately inefficient and archaic methods. But in his contention that people would not possibly do this, Orwell was just wrong, as previously in the same section when he scoffed at the idea that white-collar people would stay in shape through working out with dumbbells.

That's the danger of the classic essayist method, which relies so much on the perspicacity of insight and quality of writing. When the subject is coal mining, and Orwell is down in the mine and speaking with the workers, his aim is true. But when it comes to the general politics of socialism, or future projections about the direction of civilization, a more systematic approach is a big help, I think, either with theory or some kind of systematic evidence. Simply relying on impressions for such large-scale phenomena risks allowing prejudice to creep in (Orwell clearly despised machines) and thus undercutting the authority of the writer's voice when he puts a foot wrong.


  1. In fairness, he'd have admitted this had he lived long enough; cf. his willingness, in I think a Partisan Review letter, to itemize his false prophecies about the war from 1939-40 (imminent socialist revolution etc.).

    I wonder, too, if theory is a help or a hindrance. Would contemporary theories of the trajectory of machine civilisation have come nearer the mark, or are they just sublimated forms of Orwell's intuition?


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