Wednesday, July 30
Today I read a couple of George Orwell's essays.
It was perhaps twenty years before I saw the significance of this. At the time I could not see beyond the moral dilemma that is presented to the weak in a world governed by the strong: Break the rules, or perish. I did not see that in that case the weak have the right to make a different set of rules for themselves; because, even if such an idea had occurred to me, there was no one in my environment who could have confirmed me in it.
The sanction of the victim again - and I wonder where that realization first surfaced, or if it's been around almost as long as there has been a conflict between what people are taught is right and what actually is.
The question is not whether boys are still buckled into Eton collars on Sunday, or told that babies are dug up under gooseberry bushes. That kind of thing is at an end, admittedly. The real question is whether it is still normal for a school child to live for years amid irrational terrors and lunatic misunderstandings. And here one is up against the very great difficulty of knowing what a child really feels and thinks. A child which appears reasonably happy may actually be suffering horrors which it cannot or will not reveal. It lives in a sort of alien under-water world which we can only penetrate by memory or divination. Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves, and many people appear to forget the atmosphere of their own childhood almost entirely.
People should never, ever forget this. Being a child is often painful, confusing, and terrifying. Romanticizing childhood is at best an act of incredible forgetfulness and at worst one of deliberate dishonesty.
There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare's case must be 'not guilty'. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
Orwell wrote in a world which has since changed immeasurably; his concerns were different and the axes he had to grind aren't mine. Still, it seems good to point out that while the imagery of 1984 and Animal Farm has become a kind of lip-service orthodoxy in its own right, Orwell had a lot of other things to say that would still be worth hearing.