Tag Archives: George Orwell

A Bit of Naughty-Naughty

When Henry Miller’s novel The Tropic of Cancer, appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography (95).
– George Orwell, from the essay Inside the Whale,  in All Art is Propaganda

IMG_2651

Ah, Henry Miller. We have something going on….Henry and I…. It began in the spring when I was bemusedly alerted by a shallow online quiz that my literary soulmate was M. Miller himself. Well. What to make of that, I hardly knew. I decided I better at least read his work which I wrote about here and where I blathered on a bit about the literary soulmate bit and Tropic of Cancer.

For the most part it is a story of bug-ridden rooms in workingmen’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs. And the whole atmosphere of the poor quarters of Paris as a foreigner sees them–the cobbled alleys, the sour reek of refuse, the bistros with their greasy zinc counters[…]the peculiar sweetish smell of the Metro, the cigarettes that come to pieces[…]–it is all there, or at any rate the feeling of it is there.
On the face of it no material could be less promising (96) –
 George Orwell, Inside the Whale.

Miller and I took some heat for my praise, but then, by pure good fortune I worked with a beautiful poet/artist/activist Cecilia Vicuña this summer and on my first day of work discovered that she had had a small but lovely correspondence with Miller. She adored him, his love and passion for life. I told her the trouble I was having convincing people of his (rather lovely) sincerity, she confirmed, on a personal level, what I had felt reading his book.

Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened. This brings me back to Henry Miller (129).

That, Orwell writes, after a thirty-something page discourse on the history of early 2oth century literature and the effect of politics: fascism, communism, laissez-faire capitalism and many more isms on writers and literature. But, yes– Miller, where were we?- after another of his novels Black Spring, was thrown on my path I started to wonder what was in the water–what was in my water?!  Over the course of the summer as I worked archiving collections of books, books about books, and the art of books with Granary Books, as well as Vicuña’s archive and copious notes and writing….I had compiled a long list of artists, poets, and books that I would read when I got some time. Orwell’s All Art is Propaganda was one of those books. He is, by far, one of my favorite essayist, and what a title! Imagine my lack of surprise when after flipping around reading the essays in odd order as to my interest, I came upon a quite long (45 p.) essay all about, yes, my dear soulmate Henry.

The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible (136).

Inside the Whale is sweeping, discursive, and at the very heart, brilliantly true. Orwell elucidates on the conditions which make good novels possible, how politics affect writers, directly or obliquely, and how Miller’s insouciance, and refusal to get taken in by the flimsy dictats of nation, class, and persuasion, is so sincerely expressed that one can, if one lets oneself, marvel at his genius (a human scale of genius, but genius can be writ small).

Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism–robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale–or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, “constructive” lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine (138).

Orwell’s essay is fascinating historically, but his concerns and thoughts transport the mere temporal- finding a way to stay human in any time is the challenge. For myself, I’m convinced Miller met that challenge, and had fun doing it, I am convinced he had a good heart, and if that is what makes a soulmate for me – I’ll take it.

*title from: From a mere account of the subject-matter of Tropic of Cancer most people would probably assume it to be no more than a bit of naughty-naughty left over from the ‘twenties (97).

Pellucid Prose

“Two thirsts that cannot be long neglected if all one’s being is not to dry up, the thirst to love and the thirst to admire. For there is only misfortune in not being loved; there is misery in not loving.” – Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa

Lyrical and Critical Essays by Camus, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, is a book that sheds a limpid, lovely light on the world. Camus, the “sad and pessimistic” philosopher is really not after all, as anyone who has read The Myth of Sisyphus can attest. The first half of this book is comprised of lyrical essays on travel. Camus’ ability to recover one’s deepest feeling of love and admiration for the environment, city or country, is unsurpassed. In particular his love of Algiers expresses a universal passion of place that strikes the core:

When Algeria is concerned, I am always afraid to pluck the inner cord it touches in me, whose blind and serious song I know so well…No, you must certainly not go there if you have a lukewarm heart of if your soul is weak and weary! But for those who know what it is to be torn between yes and no, between noon and midnight, between revolt and love…a flame lies waiting in Algeria.” – A Short Guide to Towns Without a Past

The effect that Camus’ writing has is to reawaken a passionate love of love and passion. As he writes, “It is futile to weep over the mind,” and “Too many people confuse tragedy with despair. ‘Tragedy,’ Lawrence said, ‘ought to be a great kick at misery.'” Of course my heart always perks up at any mention of D.H.Lawrence, but the point is – the absurdity of pertinacious pessimism. We can despair at the state of the world only when we truly love the world simultaneously. If all of one’s sensibilities are dead – that is tragedy.

The second half of the book consists of critical essays and interviews. One of the books Camus critiques is Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone. I happened to read this book a few years ago right after I read The Stranger, and was well into it when I noticed the back cover describing it as a book considered as a trio of sorts along with 1984 and The Stranger. I had inadvertently read them all back to back and taken as a group there is much to consider about the state of the world then and now. What authors such as Orwell, Camus and Silone try to tell us, warn us, remind us of…is the preciousness of feelingBread and Wine is a wonderful book in its own right as a novel with an anti-fascist heart that breathes with a humanitarian’s sorrowful love of the world.

“The anguish that grips the Italian revolutionary is precisely what gives Silone’s book its bitterness and somber brilliance.” – On Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine

For Camus, the beauty of the world is what holds us to it. Although he grew up in poverty, he acknowledges his advantage of spending those years under the sky of the magnificent Mediterranean sun. As an adult he sees with perfect clarity that poverty is never as debilitating as when it is accompanied by a lack of beauty, “Everything must be done so that men can escape from the double humilation of poverty and ugliness.”  

Most of the essays in this book were written at the inception of Camus’ career as a young man, but this edition compiled in 1958, proves the inspiring passion and simple truth of his philosophy. It shines through, and remains –  true.

“Once you have had the chance to love intensely, your life is spent in search of the same light and the same ardor. To give up beauty and the sensual happiness that comes with it and devote one’s self exclusively to unhappiness requires a nobility I lack.”  – Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa

Heart of Desuetude

“He had heard and read of passion, but had regarded it as something which would never impinge on him, and now here it was…”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

In the third of the Alexandria Quartet series by Lawrence Durrell, (you may recall my earlier posts on the first book Justine, and the second, BalthazarMountolive, the focus of the familiar story is now set upon the idea of power. As the story is seemingly repeated through each new eponymous character the genius of Durrell is really exposed. One begins to reassess the simplest assumptions: what looked like love was mere deception, what looked like an impossible twisted dark corner is true love, true friendship, and affection. Are life and truth so slippery as that? Yes, I suppose it is so.

“Truth is so bitter that the knowledge of it confers a kind of luxury.”  Mountolive

The love of power, the passionate ardor with which it is sought and wielded is examined with some intensity in this story, but it is backlit by a touching friendship and love affair between Mountolive and the mother of Nessim, Leila.  A tragic sort of love crushed by fate and weakness of feeling perhaps… The grunting displays of power  as well as the equally strong attempts to avoid dealing with a position of power, whether that position was sought for or not are shown through personal, national, and vocational relationships. Many people, maybe most, do not actually want to be in charge or deal with the ancillary pressure that a position of power brings; especially as power often devolves into paper pushing bureaucratic horrors.

In the gear up to a writer’s conference that I am participating in starting today (I’m a little nervous, if I focus on Mountolive maybe it will go away, maybe I’ll go away…) but I digress, there were a series of essays that we had to read, each others as well as published works; the one that I loved the most and which reminds me of the themes of Mountolive in many ways, is the one written by George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant. The final line in the story: ” I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”  struck me hard. Sometimes it really is that simple- that pathetic. The acts committed by people in power, acts that wouldn’t have or shouldn’t have occurred and yet somehow seem unavoidable, are so complex. We humans are so strange.

Truth naked and unashamed. That’s a splendid phrase. But we always see her as she seems, never as she is. Each man has his own interpretation.”  Mountolive

The last and final book in this series is Clea. She has been in and out of the first three and I am very curious about her. Durrell is never obvious in which character he will focus on or which perspective. Even from book to book a single character’s life can be revealed and obfuscated in the most interesting and authentic way.

“When you are in love you know that love is a beggar, shameless as a beggar; and the responses of merely human pity can console one where love is absent by a false travesty of an imagined happiness.”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

Sculpture by Eric Ryan, my father.