Saturday, July 12, 2008

George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and Turning the Cube

Do you want to write about politics? Then go and get George Orwell's Essays and read them*. That was Katha Pollitt's recommendation in her In Depth interview on C-Span2, and I went out right after hearing her to get them. Well, as soon as morning arrived.

The essays are enjoyable reading and a very good guide on how to write clearly, simply and precisely. Writing clearly, simply and precisely on difficult matters is incredibly difficult, of course. Seeing it done made me think that I could do it, too, the way seeing art exhibitions or craft shows always makes me feel that I could do those things, too, even though I can't. That's the real miracle in doing something extremely well: It looks easy and obvious, but only because of all those years of work and training that precede it, that hone and simplify and clarify and strengthen until the work appears to come a whole circle back to obviousness, simplicity and clarity, but on a very different level.

George Orwell is one of those historical figures that both the right and the left want to declare as their own. He was firmly opposed to totalitarianism of all types which meant that he criticized both the Communists and the Fascists, and that's what gives the opening for interpreting him as either a liberal or a conservative. Still, he very clearly states in one of the essays that he was a supporter of Democratic Socialism.

The most famous living fan of Orwell's writings is Christopher Hitchens who has written a book on why Orwell matters. I think Hitchens would wish to be seen as the "Orwell of our era." But what would that mean? Is a man who copies the ideas and writing style of a man dead for 58 years truly the "Orwell of our era"? Whom did Orwell copy, then? There's an odd blindness in all that, like seeing one side of a cube and interpreting that as a fixed two-dimensional square. (Yes, the cube will be finally turned here.) Trying to be Orwell does not mean that one is then automatically the conscience of this generation, but the echo of the conscience of a totally different generation living different crises and witnessing different values.

The turning of the cube struck me as one way of explaining what was so delicious about Orwell's writing. His essays usually start straight and simple, with the accepted views on some then-current topic, as if he was drawing a familiar square for his readers. Once they all saw it clearly he then gently showed them that the square was only one side of a cube, and that by turning the cube a totally different face appearead, also square, but with a new interpretation of the issue. This turning can continue all through the essay and the conclusion then explains the cubeness of the issue.

All that is a way of exploring our blind spots, and Orwell did it extremely well. But it was as if he turned the cube only on the horizontal axis, not the vertical one, and that allowed some blind spots to remain. The essay "Inside The Whale," about Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, offers an example of the latter. Orwell sees Miller's genius as the ability to write about the "ordinary man", the man of sleazy desires and great passivity, and such an ordinary man would use what Orwell calls "vulgar" language. "Vulgar" language and precise descriptions of sex in all sorts of "sleazy" settings are of course an integral part of the Tropic of Cancer.

Orwell wants the reader to identify with the unpleasant male character in the book, to really see the world from his point of view, and that is part of turning the cube. But he doesn't identify with the women who are being used in the book as if they were disposable toothbrushes. I don't think that he even sees that face of the cube at all.

A similar essay is the one about humorous British postcards ("The Art of Donald McGill", 1941), where Orwell almost gets it when he lists the ideas that repeatedly appeared in these postcards:

Sex. - More than half, perhaps three-quarters, of the jokes are sex-jokes, ranging from the harmless to the all but unprintable. First favourite is probably the illegitimate baby.
Conventions of the sex joke:
(1) Marriage only benefits women. Every man is plotting seduction and every woman is plotting marriage. No woman ever remains unmarried voluntarily.


Home life. - Next to sex, the henpecked husband is the favourite joke. Typical caption: "Did they get an X-ray of your wife's jaw at the hospital?" - "No, they got a moving picture instead."

Orwell could put all this down on paper and still continue the discussion without seeing anything at all odd about the hostility towards women in these jokes, about those little triggers that really describe women as the enemy in some ways. Instead he drifts away by following the "obscenity" angle** to the story:

A recurrent, almost dominant motif in comic post cards is the woman with the stuck-out behind. In perhaps half of them, or more than half, even when the point of the joke has nothing to do with sex, the same female figure appears, a plump "voluptuous" figure with the dress clinging to it as tightly as another skin and with breasts or buttocks grossly over-emphasized, according to which way it is turned. There can be no doubt that these pictures lift the lid off a very widespread repression, natural enough in a country whose women when young tend to be slim to the point of skimpiness.

Reading all this now is of course unfair, because we have the benefit of many decades of feminist writings to help us. But still. The idea that if only British women had been fatter the postcards would not have depicted them as all breasts and behinds is an odd stumble from such a clear thinker, and it's a stumble directly caused by not seeing that blind top (or bottom) face of the cube, the one in which we address questions such as why these humorous postcards seem to have been all geared towards a market of men or why there were so few postcards turning women's generalized anger into humor in a similar fashion.

Here's the connection back to Christopher Hitchens: He still writes about women as if they were forks or knives or gin bottles, something to make men's lives either easier or worse, and he still writes to an imaginary all-male audience. This seems a pity. Identifying with Orwell doesn't have to go to such extremes. Besides, I'm fairly convinced that Orwell would have removed that particular blind spot on his own over time. He doesn't come across as a misogynist at all, just a person in a particular place at a particular time with the particular blinders those gave him.

We all wear blinders of some type, and only the passage of time will show where they are. Orwell wore fewer than most and wrote better than most, too.

After all these thoughts about Orwell and Hitchens and the turning of the cube I realized that the current political writing still sees women only whenever it remembers to flip the cube vertically, and that turning of the cube is followed by an audible squeak. Future critiques of the political writings of our era may well point out that squeaking and clicking treatment of women, among many other similar disjointed treatments, as one of our very own blind spots. Perhaps the cube should really be a sphere?

*There are many editions of the essays and they don't always cover the same selection. One place to begin is here.
** Going deeper into the concepts of vulgarity and obscenity would have been a useful exercise there, too. It still is something worth doing, especially in the contexts where something called "locker room talk" is seen as too vulgar for women to hear but otherwise ok. The question why it's too vulgar for women, given that they usually perform major roles as objects of that talk is well worth thinking about.