Archive for June 13th, 2011

George Orwell: Love, sex, religion, and ghosts

Monday, June 13th, 2011


I have to confess that I’d never had a thought, one way or ‘tother, about George Orwells views on anything supernatural. Frankly, I didn’t know that he had any – that is, until Dave Lull sent me a link for the following piece, Robert Gray‘s “Orwell vs. God,” from the most recent edition of The Spectator.

It probably won’t strike many as too much of a surprise that Orwell (a.k.a. Eric Blair) had a nearly allergic reaction to religion.  But that’s far too simple a characterization of a complex, intellectually tortured, relationship.

Yet as Orwell approached death, his intolerance of religion seemed to relax. In his last year he was delighted to receive a letter from Jacintha Buddicom, whom he had met at the age of 11, and who had become, during his teenage years, the first girl seriously to attract him — though his urgent desire was never returned. In her memoir, Eric and Us (1974), Jacintha Buddicom recalled how the young Eric Blair had loved ghost and horror stories, and how — jokingly, of course — he had given her a crucifix to keep away the vampires. Half the people walking the streets, he had speculated, were ghosts.

As long as his appetite for horror had been confined to imaginary worlds, he had been able to retain a capacity for joy in the real one. Jacintha Buddicom remembered him as a notably happy boy, and her memoir shows him full of kindness and fun, vastly different from the image he later purveyed of the miserable schoolboy at St. Cyprians, and still further removed from the misanthropic cynic who emerged at Eton.

But then in his first year at Eton Orwell had suffered a severe trauma. Infuriated by the bullying of an elder boy called Philip Yorke, brother of the novelist Henry Green, Blair and his friend Steven Runciman had constructed a wax model of their persecutor, and torn off one of the legs. Shortly afterwards Yorke broke his leg; a few months later he died of leukaemia. Sheer coincidence, no doubt, but deeply disquieting for the boys who had created the model. Runciman remained all his life an enthusiast for the occult; Eric Blair, perhaps more profoundly shocked, thenceforward shied away from any suggestion of the supernatural. Evil was clearly rampant, whereas ‘the good and the possible never seem to coincide’. It was at about 14, he later confessed, that he had abandoned his belief in God.

But that’s not all.  Gray continues:

Thanks to Animal Farm...

Yet seven months before Orwell died, he wrote to Buddicom, insisting that there must be some sort of afterlife. The letter, unfortunately, is lost, but Buddicom remembered that he had seemed to be referring not so much to Christian ideas of heaven and hell, but rather to a firm belief that ‘nothing ever dies’, that we must go on somewhere. This conviction seems to have stayed with him to the end: even if he did not believe in hell, he chose in his last weeks to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. [I wonder which translation – ED.]

In his will Orwell had left directions that he should be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Of course no one was better qualified to appreciate the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer; nevertheless the request surprised some of his admirers. A funeral was duly held at Christ Church in Albany Street; and David Astor, responsible for the arrangements, asked if his friend’s body might be interred in a country churchyard, at Sutton Courtenay, in Berkshire.

There was, however, a hitch. One of the churchwardens at Sutton Courtenay, a farmer, seemed doubtful that permission should be given. Had this fellow Orwell, or Blair, or whatever, really been a sound Christian? Fortunately the vicar had the inspired idea of showing the agricultural churchwarden a copy of Animal Farm. It was a title which instantly removed all scruples.

And that’s where he remains.

There’s lots more to the story – check out The Spectator article.

By the way, Jacintha Buddicom was the recipient of more than distant yearnings – John G. Rodwan’s  fascinating, and very well-informed, discussion of hot, steamy sex … well, the desire for hot, steamy, sex, anyway… under the stuffy title, “George & Jacintha: On the Limits of Literary Biography,” is here.

Postscript on 6/14:  Dave Lull wrote to add a note on a parallel theme, a review of David Lebedoff’s The Same Man: George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love and War – it’s reviewed briefly in “A Study of Two Masters of English Prose,” by John P. Rossi.  The thought extends a passage from The Spectator article:  “Perhaps Evelyn Waugh divined something of Orwell’s buried spirituality when he wrote to congratulate him on Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and subsequently visited him in the nursing home at Cranham in Gloucestershire. On the other side, one of Orwell’s last attempts at writing was to draw up notes for an essay on Waugh, who, he considered, ‘is abt as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding unacceptable opinions’.”

More on “taking responsibility” and other hackneyed phrases

Monday, June 13th, 2011
(Image adapted from the Tumblr this isn't happiness, via ffffound)

(Image adapted from the Tumblr this isn't happiness, via ffffound)

My call to arms a few days ago (“Orwell watch #9:  ‘I take full responsibility for...'”) was picked up by Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Beasthere.  The passage he highlights:

I suspect the phrase “take responsibility for” is actually a journalists’ invention, and people like Weiner picked it up from the media, rather than his heartfelt intentions. As George Orwell said in “Politics and the English Language,” this one could be “killed by the jeers of a few journalists.” I call out to journalists everywhere to jeer this phrase out of existence – unless it really means taking responsibility, the way I “took responsibility” for, say, raising a child, by paying for her upbringing, nursing her through illness,  attending back-to-school days, and preparing dinner every night.

Sure would be nice if we could we could drive this phrase into late-night comedy, wouldn’t it?  This expression has been due for the slaughterhouse since the IRA mayhem in the 1960s, and has made its small contribution to dulling our sense that words have meaning, and are meant to convey our feelings, thoughts, and intentions – not conceal them.

Language fails

Meanwhile, the post generated some interesting conversation over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq. I was singled out, rightly, for a little criticism from Art Durkee:  “Calling [Osama] bin Laden‘s death ‘liquidation’ is also pretty Orwellian, it seems to me. Let’s call a spade a spade: it was a retaliatory political assassination.  But then, a great deal of political euphemism is and always has been Orwellian.”

Liquidation is indeed a strange term – did he dissolve into water? “Liquidation” sounds like the final sale at a failing bookstore, anyway. A colleague corrected me when I said “murder,” arguing that murder was a legal term, calling for the prosecution of the murderer.  One is at a loss – what neutral term can one say nowadays? Osama bin Laden’s “offing”?

Art’s p.o.v.:

“I don’t think there is a neutral term. I think you have to call an assassination what it is.

I think we have to be honest when murder is murder, and not whitewash it. (The best argument, for example, that I’ve heard against the death penalty is that it means that murder is criminalized for anyone to commit except the state.) Similarly, assassination needs to be called what it is, and acknowledged as the political tool it has always been, sanctioned or otherwise.

History may show if this particular sanctioned assassination (sometimes called a ‘sanction,’ or ‘termination with extreme prejudice’) was the right and good thing to do. Lots of people are claiming that already, but they’re also ignoring what making someone into a martyr can do. It’s a tricky call, and those who set policy ought to lose sleep over it.

But that’s the whole pattern that Orwell pointed out, isn’t it: the neutralization of language into mechanical, denatured, unemotional, technical terminology that allows one to deal with humans as dehumanized. Turn people into inhuman statistics, and you can sleep at night when you talk about ‘collateral damage,’ or ‘friendly fire,’ for example. Do that kind of neutralization of language enough, and you dehumanize yourself as well, Orwell warned.”

And so did Mark Twain, in ‘The Way Prayer.'”