Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Tyranny of High Expectations

Aaro may be on holiday, but he still manages to pop up on Normblog’s “Writer’s choice.”

The [Just William] books are also one long poem of praise to anarchism and the unfettered human spirit. I am a supporter of Asbos in general, but if ever there were a literary candidate for one, his name was William Brown.

Thus writes a professional journalist. Perhaps my memory is a little misty, but I can’t recall him doing anything which even merited a clip round the ear from the local bobby, let alone the involvement of a court. William Brown’s spirit did not need fettering as anti-social, because it was mostly harmless. Still one can’t be too careful with kids, so give the little brat one anyway.

Otherwise his choices are anodyne and uncontroversial — to me, anyway. There’s a fiction writer trying to get out of David Aaronivitch:

…but his [Marx’s] description of how the classes behaved during the French crisis of the mid-19th century, and how the bourgeois revolutionaries were — in the words of The Who — fooled all over again, is more than compelling.

Where did The Who sing the words “fooled all over again.”?

And finally, arrived at late because Communists didn’t read Orwell, there’s George.

Dave has listed Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: when did Communists read them? I like his pride in “because Communists didn’t” therefore he didn’t. Worth noting when he rails at whoever he chooses to rail at.

It’s the clarity of the writing, the complete lack of obfuscation, the demolition of convenient intellectual hidey-holes, the absence of bullshit, the intellectual fearlessness.

Well, that’s how Orwell saw himself in Politics and the English Language. Methinks David doth praise too much. Surely for most purposes “obfuscation” and “bullshit” are the same thing. See Jim Holt:

It would, of course, be hasty to dismiss all unclear discourse as bullshit. [G. A.] Cohen [a fellow of All Souls College] adduces a more precise criterion: the discourse must be not only unclear but unclarifiable.

So Orwell is clear, he is clear, he demolishes “convenient intellectual hidey-holes” (I’m trying to think of an example of this), he is clear, and he is intellectually fearless, which sounds like a good thing to be, and reminds us, should we have forgotten, that he was an intellectual.

Anything more different from current fashions among the academic, post-modern ultra-lefts is hard to imagine. No wonder they hate him so much.

Well, spiders are things and are very different from “current fashions among the academic, post-modern ultra-lefts” and I can easily imagine them, especially as one seems to be caught up in my hair as I type. Likewise, sunsets, hangovers, MRSA, diminished thirds, sauropoda, and Croydon facelifts, are all things which are different from academic fashions. This wouldn’t be a criticism by David Aaronovitch, former Communist who didn’t read Orwell because Communists didn’t? Whatever would he know about “fashions among the … ultra-lefts"? Who hates Orwell so much? Perhaps David has confused the ultra-lefts with his parents. Paging Dr Freud. (And don't forget Orwell hated fad diets too.)


Update: I’ve been reading some of Orwell’s essays since I posted this, and I still like Orwell’s style. (This is what infuriated me, and moved me to post, for I am a "post-modern ultra-left" — what David Aaronovitch seems to mean by the term, anyway. I’m a Foucault-admiring Stopper.) Here is George on Swift in Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels:

Swift approves of this kind of thing because among his many gifts neither curiosity nor good-nature was included. Disagreement would always seem to him sheer perversity. “Reason,” among the Houyhnhnms, he says, “is not a Point Problematical, as with us, where men can argue with Plausibility on both Sides of a Question; but strikes you with immediate Conviction; as it must needs do, where it is not mingled, obscured, or discoloured by Passion and Interest.” In other words, we know everything already, so why should dissident opinions be tolerated? The totalitarian Society of the Houyhnhnms, where there can be no freedom and no development, follows naturally from this.

I think David sees a higher clarity in Orwell than Orwell would have been uncomfortable with. In the same essay, Orwell lets himself down toward the end. He is a very good literary critic, but he falls into the Hellalump trap of analysing the writer rather than the text. On Swift (and, somehow, also Tolstoy):


Such people are not likely to enjoy even the small amount of happiness that falls to most human beings, and, from obvious motives, are not likely to admit that earthly life is capable of much improvement. Their incuriosity, and hence their intolerance, spring from the same root.


I’m not happy with the first sentence. If happiness is not enjoyed, in what sense is it happiness. But if Orwell had meant “good fortune” he would doubtless have written that instead. Then he sticks his head into the hunny pot for good measure.


To-day, for example, one can imagine a good book being written by a Catholic, a Communist, a Fascist, pacifist, an anarchist, perhaps by an old-style Liberal or an ordinary Conservative: one cannot imagine a good book being written by a spiritualist, a Buchmanite or a member of the Ku-Klux-KIan. The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction.


Orwell the literary critic was familiar with Byron and Christopher Smart, not to mention the great crazy Russians, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. He had probably heard of Jean Genet. Even if he were to answer that the first two are poets, whose wits from madness are by thin partitions divided, the second two only joined the Battersea Dogs Home chorus after their best work had been written, and the last was not crazy, more determinedly anti-social, he'd still have to explain the movies. I’ll judge Orwell guilty until proved innocent.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There must be an equivalent of Godwin's Law about any ex-Communist or socialist who cites Orwell to prove how iconoclastic the writer is by association when in reality covering a shift to the right. (After all, Dear George was an essayist not a political theorist; an observation that could just as easily be made about DA.)

8/23/2005 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

So he lives in Hampstead. When do you think him and Cohen will be upping sticks and heading East, or South, where a better class of dinner-party guest must lie?

8/23/2005 05:04:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Actually I can see it now, Aaro will lead with a piece titled 'I didn't leave Hampstead, Hampstead left me', followed by a searing column from Cohen, "Why I still live in Islington". In fact given the infamous elastic boundaries of the place in estate agents minds, maybe he could get away with it.

8/23/2005 05:41:00 PM  
Anonymous tom p said...

I reckon that William Brown could well have been slapped with an ASBO if he were around now.
I remember one time when he and the outlaws stole a load of expensive fireworks bought from london by a local retired colonel type.
Also, he frequently terrorised gardeners, cooks and groundskeepers of local families, by shooting crab apples at the m with catapults, stealing desserts and such like, not to mention the fights the outlaws would get into with the Hubert Laneites.

He'd never get away with such things nowadays

8/24/2005 03:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richmal Crompton didn't write down to children for the simple reason that the Just William books were written for adults.

8/24/2005 05:01:00 PM  
Blogger Backword Dave said...

More or less OT, but given DA's description of Orwell, which almost amounts to "He never told a lie," I rather like this cartoon.

8/24/2005 05:24:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschetta Boy said...

I've deleted a few posts that looked like spam. If one of them was yours and it wasn't, sorry.

8/25/2005 06:53:00 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Oh, the invocation of Orwell is so passe, so wretchedly cliched!

Former communists like Aaronovitch never get over their past, and wrap themselves up in Orwell like a comfortable garment. The garment is a good one, a stylish one, but the act of doing so is contrived and obvious all the same.

8/25/2005 07:25:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home