Skip to main content

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.

Comments

  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?

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

On Refusing to Vote for Bloomberg

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg is attempting to buy the Democratic nomination. With something like $400 million in personal spending so far, that much is clear — and it appears to be working at least somewhat well, as he is nearing second place in national polls. I would guess that he will quickly into diminishing returns, but on the other hand spending on this level is totally unprecedented. At this burn rate he could easily spend more than the entire 2016 presidential election cost both parties before the primary is over. I published a piece today outlining why I would not vote for Bloomberg against Trump (I would vote for Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Biden), even though I live in a swing state. This got a lot of "vote blue no matter who" people riled up . They scolded me and demanded that I pre-commit to voting for Bloomberg should he win the nomination. The argument as I understand it is to try to make it as likely as possible that whatever Democrat wins t

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves tha