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On Shooting at Elephants | The Nation

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On Shooting at Elephants

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My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.
      (Orwell, "Why I Write")

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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Orwell lasted ten years longer, but all of it was much less thrilling. And so, compared to Graham Robb, is Jeffrey Meyers. Whether, after two volumes by William Abrahams and Peter Stansky, one full-length bio by Bernard Crick, another by Michael Shelden, a short and elegant "Literary Life" by the editor of the twenty-volume Complete Works, Peter Davison, and a brilliant black valentine by Raymond Williams in the "Modern Masters" series, we even need another account is open to question. "'Father Knew George Orwell' is a cracked old song," wrote Williams almost three decades ago. But the centennial of his birth will be upon us in three short years, so batten down your aspidistra.

According to Meyers, he felt guilty about everything: "his colonial heritage, his bourgeois background, his inverted snobbery and his elite education," not to mention his behavior as a policeman in Burma, his inability to get himself arrested while he was collecting material for Down and Out and maybe even the uncircumcised penis that so mortified him at Eton among such contemporaries as Anthony Powell, Henry Green and Harold Acton. And so his whole life was a kind of penance, never taking care of himself, doing it all the hard way, always off to another dangerous front, ending up on an island off the coast of Scotland as far away from medical attention as an Englishman with tuberculosis could get. "All these risky moves were prompted by the inner need to sabotage his chance of a happy life," Meyers the schoolmarm tells us.

We've heard this before, from everybody else, and it still doesn't explain anything. How many boys went to Eton and not to Spain? How many writers went to Spain, like Hemingway, and failed to notice anything peculiar? How come Lawrence Durrell and Anthony Burgess never felt guilty about their colonial service or imperial privilege? Who else (who didn't have to) went down the Wigan mines, or into the casual wards of a public hospital to find out how the poor died, or saw a man hanged and decided on the spot, "When a murderer is hanged, there is only one person at the ceremony who is not guilty of murder"?

From Meyers, we also get a surprising amount of sex, all of it depressing. Orwell was nervous about women, apparently not much good in bed and would complain in his "Last Literary Notebook" about "their incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness" and "their terrible, devouring sexuality":

Within any marriage or regular love affair, he suspected that it was always the woman who was the sexually insistent partner. In his experience women were quite insatiable, & never seemed fatigued by no matter how much love-making.... In any marriage of more than a year or two's standing, intercourse was thought of as a duty, a service owed by the man to the woman. And he suspected that in every marriage the struggle was always the same--the man trying to escape from sexual intercourse, to do it only when he felt like it (or with other women), the woman demanding it more & more, & more & more consciously despising her husband for his lack of virility.

How does this square with his adventures in Rangoon brothels or among Parisian trollops and Berber girls in Marrakech? Was the former colonial cop and declassed intellectual only capable of getting it up with the lower orders? Raymond Williams was much exercised by this class angle in Orwell--an unconscious condescension, a double standard, a writing off of the brute masses because he'd come to feel all politics "was a mode of adjustment to one's own wishes and fantasies." Hadn't he, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, projected his own apathy on the oppressed proles by insisting that, "Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me"?

But these are difficult thoughts, getting into what Williams called Orwell's "submerged despairs"--the "radical pessimism" and "accommodation to capitalism" of this self-described "shock-absorber of the bourgeoisie." Meyers will no more entertain them than he will explore the kind of craft questions that bring out the best in Peter Davison--on, for instance, how those magnificent essays about elephants, toads and Dickens got themselves written. Or the precise debt of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Jack London's Iron Heel and Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night. No mention in Meyers, either, of how the 1955 film version of Animal Farm omitted the last-scene melding of men and pigs, which might have opened questions about cultural expropriation, body-snatching and even Doublethink--all for the greater good of the cold war cause. In all Meyers's many pages, not a single sentence stops us in mid-platitude to say anything half as intellectually arresting as these several in Raymond Williams, on Orwell's recurring patterns:

This experience of awareness, rejection, and flight is repeatedly enacted. Yet it would be truer to say that most of Orwell's important writing is about someone who tries to get away but fails. That failure, that reabsorption, happens, in the end, in all the novels mentioned, though of course the experience of awareness, rejection, and flight has made its important mark.

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