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Orwell and the Past
Our final extract from 'Orwell: The New Life' by D. J. Taylor, published 25 May (Constable)
He who controls the past controls the future. Past time in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a shadowy affair, a matter of casual inferences and stray fragments of detail. There may at one point be talk of the nuclear warhead that fell on Colchester during Winston’s childhood, but the wider political landscape, the rise of Big Brother and the formation of Oceania, goes more or less unmentioned. And yet the attitude of the Oceanian authorities to the past is double-edged, highly interventionist and at the same time deeply sinister. Its achievements are not there to be admired, to be explored, or even to be used as a yardstick to measure the triumphs of the present. Rather, they are there to be plundered and falsified as a way of authenticating contemporary reality. History is constantly being manipulated to justify current misdeeds, while history’s visible symbols are constantly being adapted to suit present contingency. Nelson’s statue in the renamed Victory Square is taken down from its plinth and replaced by an effigy of Big Brother, and the nearby church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is reinvented as a waxwork museum of military glory. The past is only useful, or even tolerated, if it does the present’s bidding, and an ‘aristocrat’ is an evil little man in a top hat whom ‘history’ records in the single act of grinding the proletariat into the dirt.
If this was Orwell’s prophecy of a future, late-twentieth-century civilisation, then what did he think it was replacing? His background was that of a thoroughly conventional upper-bourgeois Englishman, educated at an elite school (two elite schools, if you count St Cyprian’s) in the company of boys who were to distinguish themselves in every quarter of politics, the arts and imperial service. Although he claimed to have forgotten every word of Greek he was ever taught (the habit of recalling Latin tags stayed with him) and professed not to believe in God, the formative influences on him between the ages of eight and eighteen were Hellenic and Judaeo-Christian, and he never lost his respect for either of these cultures and the moral values that they set out to inculcate. One definitive proof of these ancestral ties can be found in his request to be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Another, it might be said, is his curious stretching of the definition of blasphemy. One of the oddest things he ever wrote was a letter to Malcolm Muggeridge three months before his death, complaining about a magazine advert he had seen for a brand of socks which featured a picture of Zeus beneath the slogan ‘Fit for the Gods’. ‘I think you will agree that it is in a way really blasphemous,’ he told Muggeridge. Somewhere in this adman’s burlesque a line had been crossed.
And just as his moral viewpoint came pretty much unmediated from the opinions handed down from Eton College chapel and in A. S. F. Gow’s classes in classical literature, so his view of ‘history’ was a traditional one of mighty deeds and battle-bestriding colossi. Certainly, he maintained an enduring interest in the lives of ordinary people: one might note a letter to Eleanor Jaques from 1931 in which he recalls coming across a glass pot from the early Roman era in the British Museum with the words ‘Felix fecit’ inscribed on the bottom. This, to Orwell, was ‘extraordinarily moving’, a bruising collision with past time in which ‘I seemed to see poor Felix’s face just as though I had become him. I suppose he was a slave.’ To set against this is the passage in A Clergyman’s Daughter in which Dorothy ends up teaching in a dreadful private school in the west London suburbs where the children are so starved of basic information that they scarcely know whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa. Halfway through her account of the stupendous depths of ignorance on display, the point of view starts to waver. Dorothy’s voice recedes and Orwell’s takes over:
History was the hardest thing to teach them. Dorothy had not realised until now how hard it is for children who come from poor homes to have even a conception of what history means. Every upper-class person, however ill informed, grows up with some notion of history; he can visualise a Roman centurion; an eighteenth-century nobleman; the terms Antiquity, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution evoke some meaning, even a confused one, in his mind. But these children came from bookless homes and from parents who would have laughed at the notion that the past has any meaning for the present. They had never heard of Robin Hood, never played at Cavaliers and Roundheads, never wondered who built the English churches or what Fid. Def. on a penny stands for.
And what are the historical highlights of which the children of the bookless lower-middle-classes have never heard? Why, a much-romanticised English outlaw whom centuries of mythologising have divorced from any kind of historical reality; the opposing sides in the English Civil War; the architectural face of English Christianity; and the sixteenth-century royal title Defender of the Faith that authenticates the idea of a state church. Of all these glances at Orwell’s historical romanticism, that invocation of the Civil War is the most emphatic of all. When asked who he would have supported in 1642, the paid-up democratic socialist and one-time Republican militiaman declared that he would have been a Cavalier rather than a Roundhead because the latter were ‘such dreary people’. It was style that mattered in Orwell’s view of the past, not utilitarian efficiency.
This conventional, and indeed Victorian, view of past time was important to Orwell not only for itself but for the bulwark it offered against some of the new political systems that were taking its place. One of the key pieces of dialogue in Coming Up for Air turns up in the late-night visit George Bowling pays to his friend Porteous, a retired classics master as detached from the modern world as a cactus in its pot. There is, most critics agree, something incongruous about this encounter. Bowling is an insurance agent; nothing in his background or previous career offers any clue as to how the pair might have struck up an acquaintance, and the suspicion is that Porteous is there to make a figurative rather than a fictional point. ‘All his talk is,’ as Bowling puts it, ‘about things that happened centuries ago. Whatever you start off with it always comes back to statues and poetry and the Greeks and Romans. If you mention the Queen Mary he’d start telling you about Phoenician triremes.’
What does Porteous, snug in his suburban sitting room, think of power politics, of continental dictators, loft ed torches on glass-strewn streets and columns of marching men? And what does he think of Hitler? Extraordinarily, Porteous sees no reason for paying any attention to him. ‘A mere adventurer’ is the verdict. ‘These people come and go.’ Bowling isn’t so sure. ‘I think you’ve got it wrong,’ he suggests. The new breed of dictators are ‘after something new – something that’s never been heard of before.’ What they are after – and here the passage reveals itself as a prelude to Nineteen Eighty-Four – is the pursuit of power for power’s sake, not as a means to an end but because this pursuit is regarded as the only valid objective of life. Porteous, Bowling deduces, is spiritually dead and so is the past that formed him. The world is in thrall to the ‘live gorillas’ of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
All this made Orwell a man out of his time, and the juxtaposition of an intensely conservative background with the radicalism of his politics created an abiding inner conflict. Most of the really revealing moments in his work come when his convictions collide with his upbringing: the incongruity of criticising the Attlee government for not abolishing the House of Lords while putting your adopted son down for a public school seems scarcely to have occurred to him. But if he feared that the values of the past were being swept away on an irrepressible totalitarian tide, then he also believed that bygone civilisation could, in ideal conditions, reconfigure itself. The experience of being in Barcelona in January 1937 informed his view of politics for the rest of his life. ‘Toward European Unity’, published in Partisan Review in 1947, wonders whether some kind of democratic socialism can be induced to put down roots and decides that ‘the only area in which it could conceivably be made to work in the near future is western Europe’. This looks uncannily like a dry run for the EU.
Extract from Orwell: The New Life by D. J. Taylor, published 25 May (£30, Constable) | Available to pre-order here.