Thomas Banks: Orwell and the Life to Come
George Orwell was an atheist for nearly all his life. If the account of his school years which he supplied in his long essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” is to be relied on, he had ceased to believe in God by the time he was fourteen years old, and had conceived a strong distaste both for the doctrines of Christianity and for its Founder:
I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs. If I had sympathetic feelings towards any character in the Old Testament, it was towards such people as Cain, Jezebel, Haman, Agag, Sisera: in the New Testament my friends, if any, were Ananias, Caiaphas, Judas and Pontius Pilate. But the whole business of religion seemed to be strewn with psychological impossibilities.
As the boy grew into the man, his views on Christ and the characters of sacred history do not appear to have changed very much, though his early esteem for such oddly chosen heroes as Haman and Judas appears to have left him. But to the religion of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer in which he had been raised Orwell never returned. His guiding allegiances were to the revolutionary working classes, to the socialist movement, and the liberal tradition of free speech. All of these loyalties, as he understood them, were bound to turn him into an enemy of organised Christianity in general and of the Catholic Church in particular. For Catholic intellectuals he rarely had a good word, even if he might on occasion recognise the literary talents of a Chesterton or a Hopkins, or the plainspoken honesty of a Frank Sheed. As for the Catholic culture of his time, to him it principally meant General Franco, mental stagnation, authoritarian politics and repression generally.
These essays appear in October’s Quadrant.
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Contempt for the sacred he carried about like a loaded weapon, and was willing to use it against even fairly innocuous targets. In a letter to a female friend in 1932, he describes an experience at an Anglican parish in a poor neighbourhood where he was temporarily lodging:
My sole friend is the curate—High Anglican but not a creeping Jesus and a very good fellow. Of course it means that I have to go to church, which is an arduous job here, as the service is so popish that I don’t know my way about it … I have promised to paint one of the church idols (a quite skittish looking [Blessed Virgin], half life-size, and I shall try to make her look as much like one of the illustrations in La Vie Parisienne as possible) …
La Vie Parisienne, for those not familiar with the name, was an erotic men’s magazine in the early twentieth century. To quote this much is to demonstrate that Orwell was not, like certain other sceptics, a man burdened with any lingering fondness for the religion he had cast off as an adolescent.
The lessons of war gave his odium more fuel on which to feed. Orwell served as an infantryman with a Loyalist unit in the Spanish Civil War, in which the cause of the Church was closely bound up with that of Orwell’s Nationalist enemies. The cause of literature nearly suffered an irreplaceable loss on May 20, 1937, when the future author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four was shot through the neck by an enemy sniper. Orwell recovered and returned to England with no kinder feelings towards the political Right than those he had carried with him to Catalonia. His encounter with the Catholic Church in the flesh had, if anything, left him even more hard-bitten in his anticlericalism. He wrote approvingly at this time of the burning of Spanish churches in communist-controlled areas, mentioning with regret that Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia was spared during the violence. He treated with scepticism accounts of murdered nuns (stories now known to be horribly true), and, being left hors de combat, continued his war with the Nationalists and their sympathisers with his pen.
One notes in his journalism from the end of the 1930s and the early 1940s with what vigilance he kept accounts of allies and enemies. He was not by nature a bitter man, but he made a point always to know which side of politics a fellow writer was on, and party affiliations certainly factored in his judgments of books and their authors. His professed belief in literary objectivity was not a hypocritical sham, but its application in his own practice had its limits. He was saved from turning into a narrow and tiresome ideologue by his generous instincts and quintessentially English sense of fair play, yet he never let sleep his awareness of who is For us and who is Against.
The political was not everything to him. The doctrinaire Marxist and every other crank who lives to overthrow the established customs of mankind were, equally with the Jesuit and the reactionary, objects of his personal disgust. The civilised decencies of private life he never ceased to value, as the reader discovers in Orwell’s homely reflections on the English pub, the English rose garden and the domestic fireplace. These and other of this life’s unbought graces had in him a devout appreciator. Still, a writer less interested in the world above this world would be far to seek.
For this reason it is of interest that Orwell considered the declining belief in the supernatural to be a matter worthy of his concern. He refers to the growing disbelief in the life to come in several passages of his collected works, and never lets himself slip into the facile secularist attitude that this is unambiguously a good thing, the result of growing freedom of mind, public education and all the rest of it. Rather, the collapse of the former Christian confidence in the resurrection and the final judgment was, as Orwell concluded, one of the reasons why his generation had seen the rise of the dictators of Left and Right, secret police and concentration camps. The following passage may be taken to summarise his unease:
Western civilization, unlike some oriental civilizations, was founded partly on the belief in individual immortality … The western conception of good and evil is very difficult to separate from it. There is little doubt that the modern cult of power worship is bound up with the modern man’s feeling that life here and now is the only life there is. If death ends everything, it becomes much harder to believe that you can be in the right even if you are defeated. Statesmen, nations, theories, causes are judged almost inevitably by the test of material success. Supposing that one can separate the two phenomena, I would say that the decay of the belief in personal immortality has been as important as the rise of machine civilization.
Elsewhere he puts the matter even more bluntly: “The major problem of our time is the decay of belief in personal immortality.”
Orwell thought the study of theology a ludicrous preoccupation, but in these passages he seizes upon the root of much modern perplexity. Absent the assurance that there awaits every one of us a resurrection, whether for good or evil, all the great questions of personal conduct become immensely more obscure. When three of the Four Last Things have been analysed out of existence, exactly what moral weight attaches to the one that remains? The grave, if it is the final abode of St Peter and Nero equally, would seem to be a strong argument that the earthly life of the first is not a significantly better model to live by than that of the second. The unconscious dust of the two may even now be mixed together, neither punished nor rewarded. If the dogma of the life to come is indeed a cheat, anyone who discards it in favour of the gospel of Epicurus acts wisely; moreover, with the blessing of St Paul: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”
Orwell was not given to making lazy intellectual compromises. He hated the easy Epicureanism that the modern Western world sold in his day and still sells on its every billboard and pop-up ad in ours. Seldom as he found himself in agreement with Chesterton, who had seen America, he would undoubtedly have concurred with the opinion that the great Catholic man of letters offered after a visit to Times Square: “How beautiful it would be for someone who could not read.” The modern world, so much of which is a skilfully organised means of causing us to forget that we have souls, as well as minds and bodies, presented few attractions that Orwell, any more than his putative enemy Chesterton, found remotely worthy of applause. He never fooled himself into thinking that the conquest of happiness is no more than a question of establishing widespread equality in education, employment, and access to material goods. He knew that men have other needs:
Most Socialists are content to point out that once Socialism has been established we shall be happier in a material sense, and to assume that all problems lapse when one’s belly is full. But the truth is the opposite: when one’s belly is empty, one’s only problem is an empty belly. It is when we have got away from drudgery and exploitation that we shall really start wondering about man’s destiny and the reason for his existence.
Orwell has been dead for seventy years now. The problem of empty bellies is still with us, even if it is not so common in our time as it was in his. For this we do well to be thankful. But it would take an invincible optimism to examine the lives that we live now and conclude that the soul of the West is at all better nourished than was the case when Orwell, a lifetime since, found it famished.
Thomas Banks is a teacher of Latin and literature and a poet who lives in North Carolina. His writing has appeared in First Things, Crisis Magazine and the New English Review. He and his wife offer instruction in ancient and modern literature at The House of Humane Letters (houseofhumaneletters.com).
Christopher Akehurst: Big Sibling is Watching You
Who would you suppose at first sight this verbal snapshot represents?
A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture … seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.
They really get themselves into a state, don’t they, the social media mob, crouched over their keyboards, some in unsavoury shared houses, others in the more desirable residences enjoyed by Green Guardian-subscribing Friends of the ABC and suchlike, clacking out in transports of rancour the digital screeching that passes for reasoned comment in the obscenity-laden echo chamber of online “debate”. But of course the words above are not of our time, as readers may already have recognised. They are from George Orwell’s description of the daily “Two Minutes Hate” in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell did not foresee the internet but he did foresee the rages that engulf the worldwide mob in our own era. He foresaw the attack on free speech. He also foresaw the kind of lies we have invented to accommodate, for instance, fantasists in the field of sexual identity. What is the difference between insisting that “I am a woman” when biology says you’re a man, and believing “two plus two equals five”, as Orwell’s robotic Party members do when instructed by the omnipotent Big Brother?
When, many years ago, I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four (the title year is set thirty-five years after the date of writing) it struck me as a horrifying excursion into the impossible, more like science fiction than a realisable portrayal of our social future. I have just read it again and far from a fanciful foretelling it flashes like a warning light on red. Much of what it describes is already happening around us.
Stalin and Hitler—and let us never forget that Hitler was not, as portrayed by the modern Left, an extreme right-winger but a socialist—showed us (and Orwell) the barbaric excesses that tyrannies are capable of. But surely, or so I concluded on first reading the book, the kind of vicious intolerance of dissent that kept their—and later Mao Zedong’s—despotic regimes in power could never take hold in our liberal democratic Western society. That was why we had fought the Second World War—to protect democracy—and later the Cold War, to keep the “evil empire” at bay. Our shared Judeo-Christian-Westminster set of values united us, as did our determination to defend our freedom.
Who could have predicted that the gravest threat to our freedom would come not from without but from within? Orwell did. The England he describes—though it could be anywhere in the West—is the product of internal revolution. We got that too.
It wasn’t 1984 but 1968 that fractured our outward unity and released the torrents of hatred of those shared values. The most visible haters were not the supposedly downtrodden working class but students from the prosperous middle class, beneficiaries all of those same values, orchestrated into action by the anti-capitalist effusions of, chiefly, weaselly old Marxist Herbert Marcuse, a refugee from Hitler nestling in tenured privilege in the world’s most capitalistic country. Marcuse persuaded a pampered generation that our values were all wrong and that our society was oppressive, greedy and rotten. And so we were plunged back a century into an age of perennial riots and cries for revolution with which we still live.
Feminists were the first of the new revolutionaries to try and force us down Orwell’s path. They were the first to impose on us, in the form of “inclusive language”, a version of Orwell’s truncated concept-eliminating Newspeak. Any words with “man” in them had to go, so that we finished up with absurdities like person Friday, which had only made sense in Defoe’s formulation, or in having meetings presided over by something you sit on. I haven’t checked but I imagine “Big Brother” is now banned as well. Has he become Big Sibling?
Newspeak is a direct parallel with the contemporary Left’s politically correct language. The essence both in the book and now is to prevent free speech by suppressing words that convey what today’s linguistic censors call “inappropriate” ideas. Language, instead of being a glorious means of expressing our thoughts and imagination, of communicating to everyone, as Matthew Arnold put it, “the best of what has been thought and said”, is to the contemporary leftist an instrument of manipulation. Eliminate the words for concepts you don’t approve of, and you limit what people can say and think, or as one of Orwell’s characters remarks, “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
How many words have been forcibly removed from our vocabulary simply because some politicised offence-garnering identity group has decided it objects to them? In the same way that in Nineteen Eighty-Four the liquidation of inconvenient citizens (“traitors”) is arbitrary and sudden, so it is with today’s linguistic liquidations. Aboriginal, I read the other day, is all at once taboo; colonial, applied to beer, was last June’s hate-word. Long gone are lady, considered by feminists a term of patriarchal oppression, and Christian name, allegedly out of place in a multicultural society. Black gets objected to for imaginary “racist” associations in usages such as “it was a black day” because fanatics don’t understand that the metaphor derives not from the skin colour, which is never true black anyway, but from primitive fear of absence of light. By the same token, if Greens had a little more imagination they might want to do away with “green with envy” (which of course is usually entirely apposite) while the majority of us could affect to be offended by “whited sepulchre”.
If words, then books. In Nineteen Eighty-Four all books from earlier eras when people were free to think have been hunted out and destroyed and such classics as are allowed to remain have been rewritten into unrecognisability. Our contemporary bibliophobes with their schemes for “decolonising” libraries are right on board with that, even if book-burnings are still rare—probably because many young people of today’s protesting sort have trouble reading, as educational surveys repeatedly show, and prefer to destroy visible objects even they can understand, such as statues.
Mobs do not reason, or else, in their anger at, say, slavery, they would protest against present-day slavers—Muslims in North Africa, Asian sweatshop owners—not real or imagined past ones. They don’t reason because they exemplify Orwell’s Newspeak verb bellyfeel in irrationally accepting—bellyfeeling—an assertion, the fundamental one of our time being the leftist notion that Western history as a catalogue of oppression and exploitation has been wholly destructive of the planet, its people and environment. And of course they mindlessly chant slogans of numbing meaninglessness as though repetition were a substitute for content. As Orwell’s Julia, an outwardly keen Party member, advised, “Always yell with the crowd.”
Winston Smith, the principal character in Nineteen Eighty-Four, discovers to his cost that opposition to the imposed orthodoxy leads to a terrible end. Similarly if not yet quite as brutally, anyone in public life who dares to question today’s orthodoxies faces loss of job, income and reputation, irrespective of what the prevailing orthodoxy is, since as in the novel they change from time to time. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the change is one of military alliances, with the two other powers in the world alternating from enemy of Airstrip One, as England has been banally renamed, to friend and back again (the Nazi-Soviet pact was the inspiration for this), each variation requiring instant unquestioning loyalty or hatred from Party members. In our time the changes depend on which identity group is in the current ascendant. We’ve had gays and lesbians demanding marriage and feminists reviling marriage as domestic slavery. We’ve had Aborigines demanding “constitutional recognition” and Aborigines who don’t want to be part of the nation at all. The “trans” lobby seems set now for a good long run, as do the anti-whitists with their desperate hand-me-down emulation of another country’s locally specific racial politics—which now includes the importation from America, by people who in everything else are viscerally anti-American, of alien terminology to describe our Aborigines—“people of colour” and “first nations”.
There are other parallels today with Ninety-Eighty-Four. In the novel there are various hate figures put through the motions of spurious public trials and exposed to vilification and revulsion. We had Cardinal Pell. There is a constant war to keep people afraid. We have a pandemic, and apparently the prospect of more, with all the opportunities for regulating people’s lives that they offer to the dictatorially inclined. We live under constant surveillance, which Orwell foresaw too, with the telescreen in every home and public place. The telescreen ensured, too, a ubiquitous stultifying uniformity of thought. We can experience that by stepping onto a university campus, or turning on the ABC, or reading the pronouncements of our awful Human Rights Commission.
Above all, no humour. There is not a wisp in the book. How could there be when the Left, portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four in the fullness of its triumph over all that is decent and worthwhile, and in our own day obsessed by its dreary paranoia over sex and race, has no sense of humour at all? This is especially manifest at state-sponsored, hence leftism-infused, “comedy” festivals.
In twenty-first-century Australia Nineteen Eighty-Four is still—just—in the realm of dystopian fantasy. But the spirit of Big Sibling presides over every civic, cultural, educational and even sporting institution we have. If we can’t liquidate him, we’re finished.
Christopher Akehurst, a regular contributor, lives in Melbourne. His article “The Continued Decline of the Suburban Church” appeared in the July-August issue.
Gerald J. Russell: Orwell Knew
There is a parlour game conservatives in America sometimes like to play among themselves. The game tries to predict whose dystopia the country (sometimes expanded to include the Anglosphere, or the whole “West”) is most likely to experience. Until the end of the Cold War, the answer was obvious: that of George Orwell. His visions in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four terrified conservatives (and not just them, of course), who saw the rise of communism as the most serious threat to Western civilisation. The barnyard Lenin and Stalin, Big Brother, Newspeak and the rest became Orwell’s metaphors for a totalitarian world government opposed to democracy and the free market. Terms such as doublethink and memory hole entered the lexicon in part because they reflected very real fears at the time.
After the Cold War ended, however, Orwell was somewhat eclipsed by the different dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Instead of a dour communist state, Huxley wrote of a rich, decadent technopolis, whose denizens are deformed through eugenics and whose populace is rendered almost insensate and anaemic by drugs and other pleasures. That vision seemed more suited to the world dominated by a global capitalism rising towards the end of history that promised to convert us into consumers rather than citizens, for our own good. The global elite, sometimes referred to as the “Davoisie” in reference to their gatherings in Davos, Switzerland, would run the world for us. That vision of course had its own casualties, not least the millions of those lost in the great shuffle of global markets, who have turned instead to narcotics, pornography, gambling, video games and other distractions helpfully provided by corporations or government, who are then left to their dissolution.
The brave new world of Huxley’s imagination seems strikingly sophisticated and intellectual when compared to that portrayed in the third possible alternative future sometimes raised along with the other two, the 2006 film Idiocracy. In that movie, which has become something of a cult classic, the population has grown stupid and lazy, with people barely able to function independently while they are ruled by incompetent corporate masters who cannot even understand the system they have inherited but cannot maintain.
Of course, the distinction between the Orwellian and Huxleyan dystopias was always a bit overstated. Huxley’s world is in its way as totalitarian as Orwell’s Oceania, and the proles are also drugged with screens and narcotics. As Ryan Barilleaux has written, a dystopia is not simply a bad political situation, or a civilisation in decline, though these may be present. Rather:
dystopia is necessarily and specifically the consequence of utopianism (the pursuit of utopia in this world, as opposed to the great tradition of utopian speculation). It reflects someone’s program of social and political perfection.
And dystopias have common characteristics, such as abuse of technology, social regimentation and inevitable totalitarianism to implement technology and that social regimentation for dystopian ends. Thus Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale is closer to portraying a real dystopia than Trump is in bringing one about; Trump just doesn’t have a vision of perfection to actualise, however much his opponents would wish such a vision upon him.
In particular, the time seems right for an Orwell revival. He was a man of the Left, and despite (perhaps because of) the current populist wave in parts of the West, the Left has responded with enormous cultural, political and financial power to assert their views in ways that would have won the admiration of Big Brother. Indeed, like the fights in the 1930s among various factions of the Left (which as Richard Bradford recounts, cost Orwell access to some support by those who thought he was not hewing to the party line), today’s progressives seem as intent on destroying the older liberalism of the post-war generation as they are with their putative opponents on the Right, in an echo of totalitarian politics from Russia to Cambodia. Social media platforms routinely manipulate search results to exclude opinions with which they disagree, sometimes in ways that are not obvious. Corporations fall over themselves to announce their allegiance to current orthodoxies, and the past becomes reduced to a binary history of Us versus Them. Moreover, the “Us” and “Them” change as power politics dictates, so everyone is in a constant state of unease about saying or doing the wrong thing, or even referring to someone else who has done or said something contrary to current orthodoxy. As Orwell himself puts it in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dominance of totalitarian ideology creates an “eternal present” where the Party is always right.
Richard Bradford’s Orwell: A Man of Our Time (published this year by Bloomsbury) is largely a straightforward, solid account of Orwell’s life and work. Bradford, author of biographies of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, among others, presents the outlines of Orwell’s professional, personal and intellectual life. But the point of the biography is not to rehash that ground. Instead, it is to bring Orwell into our time. In particular Bradford thinks Orwell is a “man of our time” because many of the things Orwell saw in the 1930s and 1940s have come or are coming to pass:
antisemitism—especially on the extreme left; the toleration by the free world of authoritarian regimes, now because we need them economically; dim-witted materialism; populist politics; brainless nationalism; doublethink as a motor for political discourse—that is, outright lying; the resurgence of seemingly endemic xenophobia; and, of course, Brexit.
Orwell still speaks with authority. We read Orwell because it is evident from even a brief familiarity with his biography that he was largely a man of principle; his experience in Burma, his life of poverty until Animal Farm, his volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War despite poor health, and then volunteering for service on the eve of the Second World War even though he was too old, his tramping about in London, Paris and the English coal mines to experience the lives of the poor and “down and out”. These lend an unmistakable authenticity to his writing, so even when we disagree with Orwell, we know he is writing from a place of deep belief opposed to oppression and injustice.
Bradford is clear, most of the time, about the fact that the “present-day distortion and manipulation of fact” are occurring on all parts of the political spectrum. However, he seems to indicate that the Tories are perhaps a little worse. Indeed, he does more than indicate: his comparison of Nigel Farage with the Nazi Oswald Mosley is explicit. And his easy conflation of nationalism and xenophobia ultimately fails to convince because they need not go together. Indeed, Bradford condemns the call centres and other low-wage jobs that have robbed the working classes of much of their opportunities for advancement, and tries to blame both on Brexit voters. But one message from Brexit, as it was with the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016, is that voters were in part rejecting the free-market globalism that Bradford also seems to oppose.
Moreover, much of the populism currently regnant in the United Kingdom and America does not have a dystopian program of the kind Orwell would recognise. Trump is not (as Bradford recognises) Big Brother, and the Tories are not the Party. The ideological threat in our current age comes more directly from the Left and not the Right. In America, recent efforts to tear down statues and other monuments, making no distinction between those, for example, who supported slavery and those who opposed it, are just one example of the “eternal present” being imposed across society. Other examples include changing dictionary definitions, removing objectionable movies from streaming services, and other actions meant to depict the past (or what some perceive as the past) to be “bad” and the present, “good”. The electronic surveillance anticipated by Orwell’s telescreens is here, and it is run by techno-futurists from Silicon Valley who have little sympathy for reactionary or conservative causes. Though there is no Big Brother on the Left, they have a more clearly developed program and they even have a disembodied version of Oceania’s fictitious enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein; in this case it is “patriarchal oppression” or similar words that serve the same purpose: demonising enemies and rendering civilised disagreement very difficult.
Bradford does recognise that the Orwellian temptation also exists on the Left. He defends the late Sir Roger Scruton from the false attacks on him that led to his removal from an architectural advisory post, and recounts the efforts to whitewash communism in the 1930s and 1940s. But more important, he grasps Orwell’s insight about the role of non-ideologues in a world under siege from totalitarian impulses. In the West, liberals are happy to see progressives charge against those whom they also oppose, never thinking that the revolution will turn on them as well. They think they can have their own private space in which to indulge their freedom while the mob parades outside and attacks their common enemies. But that is a false hope; the ideology Orwell describes is all-consuming, and the liberal fallacy “is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside”. Bradford notes:
Orwell’s anger against the apparent alliance between complacency, indifference, and self-absorption bred out of liberal democracy; such citizens took for granted their entitlements so long as there seemed no danger that they’d be taken away.
That is, until the mob stops looking for the reactionaries and comes for you. Ask Winston Smith what happens next.
Gerald J. Russello is the editor of the University Bookman (https://kirkcenter.org/bookman), a quarterly published since 1960 by the Russell Kirk Center in Mecosta, Michigan