A Selection of George Orwell's Essays

Toby Frost

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Here is a selection of George Orwell's essays, available to read for free and uploaded with the permission of his estate. Highly recommended.

 

Extollager

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Here is a selection of George Orwell's essays, available to read for free and uploaded with the permission of his estate. Highly recommended.

An author to relish and to be grateful for, and a friend of a 20th-century poet I admire, Ruth Pitter, by the way.

I'm reading George Orwell: A Life in Letters now, interesting, but for sure one should read a bunch of his essays first.

His novel Coming Up for Air deserves to be more widely read.
 

Toby Frost

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Coming Up For Air is really good, perhaps the best of the "other" novels. I'm looking forward to reading Orwell's Roses by Rebecca Solnit, which is about his interest in gardening and nature. Orwell seems to have known more writers of his day than his books suggest, especially given his "man of the people" persona.

Incidentally, several pubs in the Wetherspoons chain are called The Moon Under Water. Wetherspoons has a reputation for cheap beer and rather unexciting decor, so I'm not sure how accurate that is!
 

Extollager

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Coming Up for Air might be considered as dramatizing a big change indeed, from poetic consciousness to sociological consciousness. There's something more going on there than a story of nostalgia leading to disillusion, which is, perhaps, how many readers would take it.

I'm going to paste below something I wrote for a different venue (The Eldritch Dark) in which I groped for words to express a hypothesis. This is a bit long, but nobody is obligated to read it.

It lends itself to discussion that Chrons policy forbids. It isn't intended to provoke such responses. In good faith, I do think it could be a useful tool for discussing various works of fiction, Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust being another, and an outstanding, example.

Poetic Consciousness vs. Sociological Consciousness

“Consciousness” is not the same thing as “ideas.” Consciousness is the awareness that we experience.* “Ideas” are our notions about things of which we are aware. To be sure, absorbing from others, forming and holding ideas about things may affect our consciousness; if we habitually occupy our minds with certain ideas, we become more attuned to corresponding things.

For example, a young person might grow up with a spontaneous enjoyment of the beauty of certain plants. Then he goes to college and learns that these plants are not native to a region but were introduced by settlers who dispossessed earlier inhabitants. He might come to perceive the plants with distaste, losing his sense of their genuine beauty and forgetting that he used to enjoy them and also forgetting what changed his view of them (their association with unsavory history).

We are in a “participatory” relationship to that of which we are conscious, such as nature. We produce ideas when we think about nature, etc.

POETIC CONSCIOUSNESS has been the natural state of human beings throughout history, till very recently, when sociological consciousness developed. However hard life was for most people, they lived their lives rather than performing them.

While poetic consciousness pervades life, people typically tell stories about their own lives and other peoples’ lives – mostly people who are known to them, such as family members, neighbors, etc. People expect life to make some kind of sense, though it may be funny or painful, and even though people might feel that life is unfair. Whether one is happy or dissatisfied, one feels that much of life is out of one’s hands and in the hands of fate, the gods, God, the progressive onward push of nature, or the like -- but life is interesting and one has some freedom of action, and with it responsibility. Poetic consciousness typically deals with shame and honor, or iniquity and righteousness.

The discipline of sociology is not ruled out by poetic consciousness, but needs to be kept in its place.

SOCIOLOGICAL CONSCIOUSNESS (which might not be a good choice of term) is the characteristic type of awareness learned by people living in modern or so-called postmodern society especially if they go to college, but consumption of media will probably often suffice. Anyone reading this little essay, including me the author, will tend to perceive things and to think about them in terms of numbers and abstractions. The typical procedure of dealing with difficulties of life is to look for social “root causes.” The typical mental procedure is reductive, to say something is really “nothing but” something else.

In sociological consciousness, one is to discover, or fashion, who one is according to some category or other proposed by current thought. A preoccupation with numbers shows itself again and again, even when used in so casual a statement when someone says “I’m 90% sure that….”

Under sociological consciousness, people often interpret life, including their own lives, in terms of popular sociology, psychology, etc. Thinking thus about their lives, they “recognize” the profiles that fit them, and then perform their lives rather than living them.

Oddly, though sociological consciousness refers, often inappropriately, to numbers, it is often in error about the numerical facts. Thus governments and journalism manufacture endless statistics, statements about trillions of dollars to be spent, and so on, and yet these numbers are often misunderstood or are phantasmal. But sociological consciousness needs a pop numericism.

To help you keep poetic consciousness and sociological consciousness distinct, you could use this mnemonic: iniquity vs. inequity. The former term suggests spiritual states, powers or contexts that transcend the social, etc. The latter term implies number is essential for social reformation, etc.

Poetic consciousness typically recognizes the moral dimension of your life and my life, in which I am called to use my freedom rightly or lest I commit morally faulty behavior, which, to take an intense word, could be called iniquity. It suggests also that deliverance from iniquity may be possible.

Sociological consciousness is hardly concerned with, or aware of, objective right and wrong. It typically holds “morality” to be a nothing but “code” by which a social group exerts control over another group, i.e. maintains inequity.

But where poetic consciousness usually allows forgiveness or “payment” for wrongdoing, sociological consciousness often simply relegates offenders to a category of the condemned.

Sociological consciousness tends to be anxious and irritable and susceptible to manipulation, which may indeed be felt by persons as something that they want. Where sociological consciousness prevails, people will tend not so much to exercise the freedom that they feel they have but may fret about restrictions due to “society” or some hated group that is to blame. It’s often not that they personally feel themselves to be un-free, but that, as they think, “people” or some category of people need greater freedom.

Sociological consciousness uses works of imagination -- poetry, art, music, etc. – to reinforce its ideas. For it, Heart of Darkness is not so much about the mystery of evil in the human heart as about colonialism, the ideology of regarding indigenous people as “savages” and “Other,” etc.

Sociological consciousness tends to a kind of totalitarianism, that is, the politicization of more or more of life till it is all absorbed thereby.

A personal note: I’m obvious more sympathetic to “poetic consciousness” than “sociological consciousness,” but the former is not “salvation.”

Again, this outline of poetic consciousness vs. sociological consciousness would readily lend itself to forbidden discussion of current events. But I hope it may be used rather to discuss works such as Coming Up for Air.

Bowling, as a child and youth, experienced poetic consciousness as, I suppose, even modern children will spontaneously tend to do if the environment permits it. Reading the novel will show that the adult Bowling's feeling is not simple unreal nostalgia for his youth; he remembers that there were nasty things then, e.g. torturing small animals. He does not, then, imply that children are naturally innocent and good and that they simply catch the contagion of badness from "nurture." This is an important point! But he does come to sense that his life, and his wife's, etc. have tended to become consumed by a type of consciousness that is largely unreal -- his wife's lectures, the sociological speaker with the light reflecting off the lenses of his glasses -- and that it is leading to worsening conflict, to totalitarianism, etc.

In Waugh's A Handful of Dust, Tony Last is living in the countryside "ruins" of a decaying culture that shows vestiges of poetic consciousness (the bedrooms named for Arthurian characters, the hollow Anglicanism of church, etc.). This culture is being displaced by a "sociological," up-to-date way of experiencing things, of occupying one's mind, etc. suggested by his unfaithful wife's London classes in economics. Brenda's adoption of sociological consciousness enables her pursuit of a young lover for a relationship without love and her lack of deep grief when her boy is killed. Tony ends up in the Brazilian jungle, the captive of a madman who insists on the reading of Dickens novels.

And so on. I think the poetic consciousness-sociological consciousness is capable of a lot of application. For one more example, take Lovecraft. The intellect displayed in his letters is largely "sociological," categorizing people by ethnicity, conceiving the universe as meaningless, etc., but the "other side of his brain" is responsive to sunsets and so on. Anyway, I hope the poetic consciousness vs. sociological consciousness thing will be helpful for some discussion of Orwell and others.

One might apply this tool to some of the essays, certainly.

*“Ideas” as I am using the word here doesn’t refer to Plato’s concept of permanent higher realities that a human being might try to contemplate, but that exist on their own; Plato’s ideas belong to the realm of Being, but may be manifest in some degree in our experiential world of Becoming.
 

Toby Frost

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That's a really interesting way of seeing it. Normally, ugly things are also morally bad (Oceania, Mordor etc) but it gets interesting where the two part company. There's definitely a strong idea that Bowling is crushed by his drab modern life, and that Hilda regards the things that he finds moving as risible and unmanly. Maybe Hilda represents a "modern" person and Bowling is from the older world? I can't remember rightly, but does Bowling say that Hilda would be at home in the coming dystopia?

I've always seen Coming Up For Air as a present day story that ought to be poignant and slightly comic, but really wants to be a terrified warning. I think it's hard to separate love of nature (the poetic bit) from politics (the social bit). I find Orwell's writing about nature really interesting, partly because he anticipates more modern conservationists, and partly because it goes against the stock-leftist idea of mechanisation as inherently good*. I think Orwell was also repulsed by what he saw as "unnatural" things, which seems to have been a gut instinct as much as a political decision. They seem to have included technology, mass-produced food, noisy group activities (hello 1984) and, unfortunately, feminists and homosexuals (although he's definitely pro-women's rights).

The trouble about Orwell is that he's so damn vague about everything! He's completely non-doctrinaire, and while a clear feeling comes from his work, it's quite hard to pin down any manifesto or anything like that - which is probably one of his great strengths.


*More accurately, the Communist/Marxist idea. There's probably a case for seeing Orwell as inheriting a completely separate leftist tradition, going back to Victorian Arts and Crafts writers, nonconformist preachers and people like the Levellers.
 

Extollager

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Toby, it's several years since I last read Coming Up for Air, but do you remember if there's much there about Hilda's background? My memory is that Bowling grew up in a village.

There's a passage in one of C. S. Lewis's letters to Arthur Greeves (22 June 1930) that might relate to Bowling's experience. "Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood -- they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course live on a standardised [note the word] international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine today) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours. My pen has run away with me on this subject."

Can that passage be given an unhurried consideration with reference to Orwell and to poetic consciousness vs. sociological consciousness? I think of Orwell's interest in gardening and in growing his own food, his ownership of a goat (Muriel), etc. -- so I am sure you are on to something about a different tradition than that of Marx. Incidentally, I see that Rebecca Solnit has a new book out called Orwell's Roses.
51KprpELiFL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

But the Lewis extract gets at the poetic consciousness idea. It is not that "poetic consciousness" must issue in myths and tales, but it does allow them. Such activity is natural when consciousness is poetic. Likewise an interest in one's (as we now say) "extended family" (people used to just say "family"). But in sociological consciousness the family is often an object of suspicion -- "they f*ck you up, your mom and dad" (Larkin) becomes a characteristic notion; "get out" -- of your family, of the place where you grew up --"as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself." Parents probably don't have any professional credentials, which in sociological consciousness are likely to be important -- the more developed that state of mind, the more the recourse to & trust in them. Now I do think this relates strongly to Orwell, with the importance of Ministries in 1984 etc. But Coming Up for Air is -- I'm almost tempted to say essential for understanding the later novel. (Also the "Moon Under Water" essay.) "Fatty" Bowling is living through the transition from vestiges of poetic consciousness to a type of fulfillment of sociological consciousness. In it, the subjugation of reality to ideology* and to human wishes (the wishes of some!) is further along.

Note that "decorous singing" is natural at The Moon Under Water. That's an indication of poetic consciousness, the spontaneous enjoyment of singing melodic songs. Is this mentioned in Coming Up for Air?

The poetic consciousness vs. sociological consciousness thing is a tool and it might need work, but if it's legitimate, the works of Orwell will be a good confirmation of it.

*2+2=5
 
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Bick

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The trouble about Orwell is that he's so damn vague about everything! He's completely non-doctrinaire, and while a clear feeling comes from his work, it's quite hard to pin down any manifesto or anything like that - which is probably one of his great strengths.
I've always felt that this was the strength of great literature generally, over academic texts, as a conduit for thoughtful ideas about the world and elucidating our place in it. While non-fiction texts tend to present clear, concrete ideas and explanations, there's an ambiguity in the best fiction upon which one can overlay and integrate our own experiences. This allows us to draw conclusions that are a composite of those of author and reader. For me, this is one of the joys to be found in reading novels and stories. I would agree that Orwell is a good exponent of this.

This makes me think I should tee up Coming Up for Air for a re-read (keeping Extollager's comments on poetic consciousness vs. sociological consciousness in mind as I read).
 

Extollager

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Last Christmas I posted this excerpt from Colin Wilson's The Philosopher's Stone (1969). It seems to me to relate to poetic consciousness vs. sociological consciousness. The narrator goes for a walk on a grey Christmas morning:

"Even the greyness of the sky seemed inexpressibly beautiful, as if it were a benediction. I saw cottages across the fields with smoke rising from their chimneys, and heard the distant hoot of a train. Then I was suddenly aware that all over England, at this moment, kitchens were full of the smell of baked potatoes and stuffing and turkey, and pubs were full of men drinking unaccustomed spirits and feeling glad that life occasionally declares a truce. Then there was the thought that this world is probably one of the most beautiful in the solar system. Mercury is all white-hot rock; Venus is all heavy cloud, and the surface is too hot to support organic life. (Oddly enough, I had a clear intuition that there is life on Venus, but that it somehow floats in the atmosphere.) Mars is an icy desert with almost no atmosphere, and Jupiter is little more than a strange ball of gas. All barren – metallic, meteor-pitted rocks, revolving around the blank sun. And here we have trees and grass and rivers, and frost on cold mornings and dew on hot ones. And meanwhile, we live in a dirty, narrow claustrophobic life-world, arguing about politics and sexual freedom and the race problem."

This passage helps us get at the point that "poetic consciousness" is more real than the "sociological consciousness" that is supplanting it in Coming Up for Air. The experience of "trees and grass and rivers, and frost on cold mornings and dew on hot ones" is more real than the thought-world that people think of as being more real, that is, the thought-world of sociological consciousness as I've attempted to describe it earlier today. It's such a strength of Orwell's essays and novels that he keeps a taproot in poetic consciousness even while he sometimes deals with matters for which the discipline of sociology is an appropriate tool. I suspect that, if we really delved into the matter, we'd find that much of what we relish in Orwell is this connection with poetic consciousness and, conversely, that a fair bit of his specifically sociological thinking (does not = "sociological consciousness") is quirky and even wrongheaded; Malcolm Muggeridge noted that somewhere Orwell wrote that all tobacconists are fascists. What keeps Orwell's specifically political writing worthwhile is largely his opposition to propaganda & so on, as in the wonderful "Politics and the English Language," already mentioned on this thread.
 

KGeo777

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You and the Atom Bomb​



"But suppose – and really this the likeliest development – that the surviving great nations make a tacit agreement never to use the atomic bomb against one another? Suppose they only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are unable to retaliate? In that case we are back where we were before, the only difference being that power is concentrated in still fewer hands and that the outlook for subject peoples and oppressed classes is still more hopeless...."

'Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police State. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a “peace that is no peace”.'

He's talking about today here:


The Prevention of Literature

"To keep the matter in perspective, let me repeat what I said at the beginning of this essay: that in England the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats, but that on a long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all."

"Totalitarianism, however, does not so much promise an age of faith as an age of schizophrenia. A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud. Such a society, no matter how long it persists, can never afford to become either tolerant or intellectually stable. It can never permit either the truthful recording of facts or the emotional sincerity that literary creation demands."
 
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Extollager

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KGeo777's posting of passages from Orwell's atom bomb essay invites discussion of that, but I've just finished a rereading of Orwell's "Marrakech" essay, happily one of the essays at Toby's link. And I wanted to say that it shows how poetic consciousness -- which, again, I see as natural -- can employ observation from sociology as a tool of real though limited usefulness. It is "sociological consciousness," not legitimate sociology, that is antipathetic to poetic consciousness.

"Marrakech" is pervaded by the sense of human living, of real people, souls if you can allow the word, in a parched landscape. Orwell notices -- he's good at noticing things, isn't he? -- that when the "brown people" are seen "sociologically," that is, as the "natives" in a colonial "country," they are almost invisible to him. They would not be invisible to a small child or to an adult who hadn't internalized a categorization of them. Conversely, because Orwell can keep the categorization of them at arm's length, he can encounter several of the people mentioned as people. Giving the old woman a coin could be seen by some sociologically-minded folk as a patronizing imperialist gesture. I see it more as a kind of "namaste," as if Orwell wants to get around the sociological complications of being a white, male citizen of a colonizing nation-state and the recipient as being a brown, female "native" of a colonized territory, and in a sense be like a child meeting a child again.

Btw the moment reminds me of the opening of Tolstoy's What Is to Be Done?, which in turn reminds me of a sequence in Peter Weir's Year of Living Dangerously movie. Happily, someone has posted it on YouTube:

 

Toby Frost

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I've always felt that this was the strength of great literature generally, over academic texts, as a conduit for thoughtful ideas about the world and elucidating our place in it.

I agree, and I think your comment is spot on. The problem, it seems to me, is that a vague writer like Orwell gets claimed by everyone, even people who are directly in opposition to what he stood for (not sure if I should give examples). Everybody thinks that he proves their point. There's a temptation to say "Oh, he didn't really mean that part" or "This is a sign that he was changing his mind" or even "He's only referring to the people I don't like". To avoid this, I think it's necessary to remember what is fundamental to a writer: to Orwell, it seems to me that the fundamentals are: "democrat", "Socialist", "countryside" and "patriot but not nationalist", and that anything that goes very far from those is leaving the Venn diagram.

Somewhere (I think it's The Road To Wigan Pier) he says that the great challenge is to improve people's physical existence without ruining their mental existence (not his actual words - he said it better). Both the body (the social) and the soul (the poetic) matter. Bowling tells a story about the village where he grew up: although he has huge nostalgia for that time, a tradesman quietly starved to death from lack of work.

It's such a strength of Orwell's essays and novels that he keeps a taproot in poetic consciousness even while he sometimes deals with matters for which the discipline of sociology is an appropriate tool.

Exactly: the proles had stayed human by keeping things that the Party regarded as pointless. "So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." I think the "useless" is important here, somehow.
 

KGeo777

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Orwell used to be quoted saint-like in some alternative media but then they turned on him and said he was spying for the government.
I didn't read him in school (an essay on the elephant) but he was on the curriculum. I knew a guy who went from reading Nietzsche to Orwell (1984 became his Bible) and then Ayn Rand (oh, the preaching I had to listen to).

It's just fun to say "Orwellian" even if the usage is incorrect.

PS

I think this thread is Orwellian.
 

Extollager

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Happily, I didn't buy Solnit's Orwell's Roses but got it from the library. I sampled a little and got the sense of a book I would find unbearable to read, likely replete with narcissism and virtue-signaling combined with occasional dips into familiar bits of Orwell's biography. Opening the book almost at random, I found these passages:

"I came back to England [she is described on the back dustjacket flap as "A product of the California public education system"] in late summer, not quite two years after I had first encountered Graham and Dawn, the cottage, the roses, and the questions that arose [sic] then. I parked myself in Cambridge, so I could do research, which meant a little talking to people, a lot of reading, some time in Cabridge University's archives, and some looking around. One Thursday while I was there, I wrote a climate change editorial for The Guardian over breakfast and then put a raincoat and a water bottle in my knapsack and took a bus to the Cambridge station. There I bought a sandwich, a chocolate bar, and a round-trip ticket for the short journey to Baldock. The outside of the Baldock station looked familiar from two years before, but I had hopped into a cab then, and the rest had been a blur of a few minutes" (p. 122).

"On my way to England to research this book, I looked at the snack menu on British Air, which included Jaffa cakes, soft cookies with a layer of marmalade capped by dark chocolate, and though I didn't order them there, just seeing them mentioned again made me begin to crave them. I bought some in the airport shop. Then, coincidentally enough, the London Review of Books that I had brought with me had a piece about Jaffa -- 'It happens twice a year. The beach between Tel Aviv and Jaffa fills with Palestinians from the West Bank. For many children this is the only time they get to visit the seaside, even though their homes in the Occupied Territories may be no more than twenty or thirty kilometres away.' Later I drifted into Fortnum & Mason's vast food and upscale housewares emporium in central London on a hot August day and found it thronged with people who seemed to be foreigners buying up tea and biscuits in ornamental tins and other appurtenances of 'Englishness,' a thing that we recognized and desired, at least those of us crowded into the store on a warm summer's day. I wasn't sure if the act of acquiring was one of submission or conquest or a nebulous mixture of both, and I too bought some tea and went to a similarly thronged Liberty of London and bought some floral fabric" (pp. 176-177).

If I were standing in the presence of this author speaking thus, I would likely feel the beginnings of a panic attack and would have to back away.
 

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