What Would Not Do To Say – The “Cleansing” of George Orwell

Below are parts 3 and 4 of a six part section on James Wood’s April New Yorker article on George Orwell, “A Fine Rage.” The full version of “What Would Not Do To Say – The ‘Cleansing’ of George Orwell” will appear as part of an expanded version of “Fiction Gutted – The Establishment and the Novel” in paper form in the Liberation Lit anthology forthcoming this summer. The parts of “What Would Not Do To Say” that may be found only in Liberation Lit are “A Real Shove From Above”; “Establishment Innuendo”; “Moving Beyond Class Structure”; and “Valuing the Work of Orwell.” See below: “Establishment PR,” “The Sinister Fact,” and an appendix. [full article, all 6 parts, now available online]

Establishment PR

The basic ideology of James Wood to this point is that of a status quo liberal, that is a neo cold warrior, an ideology that may delude itself to presume it is largely progressive, while essentially manifesting itself as status quo, with reactionary tendencies.

James Wood is typical of the New Yorker, or maybe somewhat more reactionary. His article on Orwell presents the New Yorker’s kind of mental cleansing for and by the liberal and conservative readers of the magazine, the mindset of ruling class culture and society. It’s not only the voice of going along with the ruling establishment to get along, it’s the voice of the blinkered and the blinding.

“If you have gone to the best schools and graduated from Oxford and Cambridge, and so on, you have instilled in you the understanding that there are certain things it would not do to say; actually, it would not do to think. That is the primary way to prevent unpopular ideas from being expressed. The ideas of the overwhelming majority of the population, who don’t attend Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge, enable them to react like human beings, as they often do. There is a lesson there for activists.” – Noam Chomsky

Activists and artists in general. (One such lesson: read and write through Liberation Lit and other liberatory venues.) Though sometimes beneficial in truncated ways, the New Yorker’s literary and other art efforts are often slight, wrong, corrosive, or beside the point. Much of the literary establishment takes its cue from the New Yorker, or otherwise more-or-less shares its class-based affinities, not infrequently with much admiration and the wish to resemble.

Wood points to the contemporary relevance of Orwell’s “coinages” in his novel 1984, such as “‘doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’ and ‘Big Brother’ [that] now live an unexpectedly acute second life” – only “now”? “unexpectedly”? – “in the supposedly free West” but Wood makes no mention that Orwell wrote 1984 based in substantial part on his experience of working as a propagandist for BBC during World War II, where he was surrounded by and part of propaganda techniques, including those of the sort commonly used by the Nazis. Jutta Paczulla notes in the Canadian Journal of History (Spring-Summer 2007):

“When writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell drew on the MOI [Britain’s Ministry of Information] as a model for the novel’s Ministry of Truth. Not only does the Ministry of Truth building in the novel resemble that of the MOI, but Room 101, where the Eastern Service Committee held its meetings, becomes the room in which Winston, the central character in Nineteen Eighty-Four is tortured and broken. Moreover, the atmosphere created by the mutual censorship conducted by [Orwell’s] BBC colleagues is reflected in the novel’s atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety.”

Introducing the first book of the recent two volume edition of Orwell’s work that prompts Wood’s article is George Packer, another of the New Yorker’s liberal apologists for imperialism, as detailed by Edward Herman in “George Packer and the Liberal Struggle to Support Imperialism,” Z Magazine 2005. Packer claims there is:

“a strange gap in Orwell’s work – for he never wrote a novel or nonfiction book about the most historically important event of his life [World War II, during which] he spent ‘two wasted years’ as a producer in the Eastern Service of the BBC.”

Setting aside the question of whether or not WWII or the Spanish civil war or some other event was “the most historically important event in Orwell’s life,” the point is apparently inconceivable to both Packer and Wood that Orwell’s famed novel 1984 is based substantially on his time working for the BBC during World War II. While Orwell directs the satire of 1984 most evidently toward the Soviet Union, also Franco Spain, the satire applies directly to the propaganda institutions and capacities of the liberal “democracies” where Orwell lived and breathed some of the atmosphere and propaganda realities and irrealities that he describes and conjures up in 1984. Newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother, memory hole – all are longstanding specialties of the BBC, and dominant US media, as Orwell came to know and experience ever more intimately during World War II. Thus, the “strange gap” is resoundingly filled and the centrality of Orwell’s coinages to the West today is not only not unexpected by unbiased observers, but an understanding of the Orwellian has long since been remarked upon and employed in independent media analyses of the dominant corporate media of the US, England, and allied states.

About his state propaganda work at the BBC, Orwell expressed publicly that he kept the “propaganda slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been”…while writing privately in his diary:

“You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not actually believed, there is no strong revulsion. We are all drowning in filth…. I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth….”

“Orwell’s problem,” as Noam Chomsky describes it, permeates the establishment in the US and beyond: How is it that oppressive ideological systems are able to “instill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are completely without foundation and often plainly at variance with the obvious facts about the world around us?” As evidenced in James Wood, George Packer, et al, Orwell’s problem has not lessened since Orwell’s lifetime, and now the Obama administration is a leading part of the problem. There is no mention in Wood’s article about the Orwellian nature of today’s top rulers. No mention that President Obama and his administration’s rhetoric of “change” and “security” purposefully mask the essential preservation of the status quo, let alone continue and escalate the militarism – a state of affairs that recalls “doublethink” and “Newspeak” and “Big Brother” as much as “Fox News…during the last Presidential election” recalls 1984’s “Hate Week.”

By mentioning only Fox News election coverage, Wood softens his weak nod to the relevant immediate, neatly placing Orwell and Hate Week distinctly in the past. (Meanwhile, for similar ongoing Hate Years in regard to immigration see CNN and Lou Dobbs…) This helps the establishment generally and the Obama administration in particular to “manage expectations” raised by sweeping progressive campaign rhetoric. It gives ruling party Orwellisms a pass. It overlooks the brazen duplicitous propaganda of the current rulers – never mind that they all along as background clinically and soberly revealed that their sweeping progressive flourishes were not to be taken seriously, that is honestly. In this empire of lies, to fuel this empire of lies, the financial institutions – the core funders of both the Democrats and the Republicans that are currently thieving bottomless dollars from taxpayers by way of the Obama administration – gave more money to candidate Obama than to candidate McCain. For now at least, the Obama crowd are the establishment’s preferred front faces than are the “Hate Week” “Axis of Evil” demonizers. Wood gives an Orwellian pass to the current rulers.

Like a “good liberal” – though many liberals (Hillary Clinton, for example) ludicrously prefer to be thought of as “progressive and perhaps soon as “socialist” – Wood lauds the establishment line about the basic economic status quo, giving the impression that “upwardly mobile working classes” change society enough to justify it. At least Wood gives no indication otherwise. Where has he written for libertarian socialism or for much or any vision of emancipation from class and conquest? That’s no minor or irrelevant part of literature, or shouldn’t be. He gives a few nods to the oblique or roundabout, say, the allegories of Saramago, while part-and-parcel with the establishment he largely ignores or distorts central works and tendencies in literature that are especially liberatory and comprehensive and basic – for example: of the Victorian era, Victor Hugo’s anti death penalty novel The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) and his anti-class-exploitation novel, Les Misérables (1862); of the “modernist” era George Orwell’s liberatory partisan (nonfiction) narrative Homage to Catalonia (1938); of today Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s unsurpassed novel Wizard of the Crow (2006). Les Misérables and Wizard of the Crow are as great as any novels ever written, plus of more profound, comprehensive, and quality norms than perhaps any. Wood has never mentioned these tremendous works, or others of the sort, while writing out of history the liberatory tendency of which they are part – sent down the Orwellian memory hole – and instead expounds at length along the establishment’s bunkered path.

The Sinister Fact

Where are today’s liberatory critics? At Counterpunch. Znet. Liberation Lit and related sites. And scattered in some limited handfuls in virtually invisible academic journals. The status quo discourages them and filters them out. One does not become either a New Republic or a New Yorker critic by taking a much liberatory route. Instead one propounds a liberal (and conservative and reactionary) literature of class oppression, repression, distortion, or marginalization. In fact, one had better take issue with those who do venture too close, too deep into the more fully liberatory, as Wood does in chastising Orwell for not appreciating the appeal and benefits of “upward mobility,” while essentially blanking any mention that Orwell went out of his way to put his life on the line for full working class emancipation. Wood, at best, sometimes lauds improvements in the conditions of oppression, while mainly propounding the point of view of the victors, the basic status quo, the so-called “conventional wisdom” of which Wood is largely a synthesizer and delimiter in literature. Orwell dared more – intellectually, not to mention otherwise – and in doing so achieved far more of vital insight and work than Wood and the New Yorker can allow. With the New Yorker goes the vast majority of the literary establishment, academic and otherwise, minimal ranging aside.

In addition to extraordinary work that is especially accomplished, like Wizard of the Crow, there are other less accomplished but extremely important and powerful popular novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that also get regularly slighted and dismissed by the relatively prominent, including Keith Gessen in his introduction to the second book of the recent two volume edition of Orwell’s work. No slight intended! Gessen would no doubt protest, though unless he can read the future, he has no way of knowing that Orwell is wrong, let alone “howlingly wrong when [Orwell] says that Uncle Tom’s Cabin will outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf.”

First, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Woolf’s complete works both remain of general interest, both may try one’s patience, both are valuable and compelling. Second, due to historical and social reasons, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at least as culturally integral as Woolf’s complete works, possibly moreso and plausibly considerably moreso. Meanwhile, the novel continues to sell well, as do Woolf’s works. Third, speaking of the accuracy of “outliving,” in his 1945 essay “Good Bad Books,” Orwell explained:

“Perhaps the supreme example of the ‘good bad’ book is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin, after all, is trying to be serious and to deal with the real world. How about the frankly escapist writers, the purveyors of thrills and ‘light’ humour? How about Sherlock Holmes, Vice Versa, Dracula, Helen’s Babies or King Solomon’s Mines? All of these are definitely absurd books, books which one is more inclined to laugh at than with, and which were hardly taken seriously even by their authors; yet they have survived, and will probably continue to do so. All one can say is that, while civilisation remains such that one needs distraction from time to time, ‘light’ literature has its appointed place; also that there is such a thing as sheer skill, or native grace, which may have more survival value than erudition or intellectual power. There are music-hall songs which are better poems than three-quarters of the stuff that gets into the anthologies…[which] I would far rather have written…. And by the same token I would back Uncle Tom’s Cabin to outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf or George Moore….”

By now, Orwell’s “backing” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin over George Moore appears ever more solid, and time will have to tell regarding the works of Virginia Woolf. At this point, both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Woolf’s works seem they may be equally durable, as much as any other outcome. That’s far from a “howlingly wrong” estimation of the books’ comparative durability after these few decades, let alone of their ultimate durability. But Gessen like Wood conveys a smug, presumptuous, corrosive, and misleading “conventional wisdom.” Gessen conveys an establishment impression that liberatory works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin do not measure up to certain establishment favorites (let alone surpass them socially or culturally), and even are laughingly not worth the time of day – an impression that comes across, intended or not – that great estimations of the lasting nature of such liberatory works are to be laughed at to the point of “howling.” The indoctrination goes deep. Uncle Tom’s Cabin more enduring than Woolf’s complete works? Everyone knows that’s a howler! Wait a minute. The fact is, Stowe’s novel and Woolf’s works both continue to be strong sellers. The jury is still out, and the verdict has not remotely begun to be returned conclusively. But Harvard grad Gessen is howling, his mind educated to its foregone conclusion, however empirically challenged, however theoretically lacking. Which is actually what may sensibly draw a laugh in all this. Upton Sinclair’s kindred novel to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, is doing well also. How finely written is much of, say, the Bible or the several millenia old epic of Gilgamesh? How enduring?

The New Yorker’s lead story for the issue of Wood’s essay on Orwell asks as title: “Can Iran Change?” More telling to ask, Can the US? Can the New Yorker change? Can status quo criticism? I suppose they can – at the point of revolution, probably best arrived at step by step. This article on Orwell is certainly no step, except backwards. To further help see why such work gets published as it does, we turn again to Orwell in “The Freedom of the Press,” an excerpt from his suppressed preface to Animal Farm:

“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”

This from even Orwell, who was far from always the most progressive or revolutionary (sometimes the flip opposite) writer or thinker one might find or imagine.



Worth quoting in its entirety is this comment by “driedchar” to a particular blog post of George Packer, “Reading Orwell: George Packer” in the New Yorker April 23, 2009. “Driedchar” is a big fan of John Updike, as noted in another comment. It doesn’t get much more establishment than Updike, a long time New Yorker writer. Yet such is the egregiousness of Wood’s misrepresentation of George Orwell that even from various points in the establishment one may feel compelled to point out Wood’s “irksome…condescension to Orwell and to the working class” and to “the mugging” that Wood delivers, courtesy of the New Yorker, in his article that George Packer calls “excellent.” The comment:

“I agree with most of what Packer has to say, except his reference to James Wood’s “A Fine Rage” as an “excellent essay.” Wood’s piece is filled with questionable statements. For example, when he says, “There is a difference between being revolutionary and being a revolutionary, and journalists are not required to be tacticians,” he implies that Orwell didn’t really understand the realities of revolt. He fails to mention that Orwell fought (voluntarily) on the front lines against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Wood takes a sentence in Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” (“However horrible this system [Fascism] may seem to us, it works.”) out of context and uses it to conclude: “So the example of efficient Fascism is what inspires the hope of efficient socialism.” Wood fails to point out that in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” not to mention many other essays and reviews, Orwell is at pains to distinguish between Fascism and socialism. For example, in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” Orwell says, “Hitler’s real self is in Mein Kampf, and in his actions. He has never persecuted the rich, except when they were Jews or when they tried actively to oppose him. He stands for a centralized economy which robs the capitalist of most of his power but leaves the structure of society much as before. The State controls industry, but there are still rich and poor, masters and men. Therefore, as against genuine Socialism, the moneyed class have always been on his side.” Orwell goes on to describe Fascism as “spectacular, conscious treachery.” Wood is wrong to connect Orwell’s socialism with Hitler’s fascism. He is also wrong to allege Orwell’s “reputation’s later theft at the hands of the right wing.” What exactly is Wood referring to here? Is it something disparaging T. S. Eliot and/or Malcolm Muggeridge said about “Animal Farm”? Wood does not substantiate his allegation; he merely says Orwell’s reputation was stolen by the Right. As far as I know, no such “theft” ever took place. Wood describes Orwell as a “puritan masochist.” Puritan apparently because he is sensitive to squalor; masochist because he repeatedly immersed himself in squalor? A fairer interpretation is that Orwell was onto a great subject – poverty and working class suffering – and that he was very good at describing it. The most irksome aspect of Wood’s piece is his condescension to Orwell and to the working class. He says of Orwell, “But it is too easy to gloat over his contradictions…. Gloat? Implicit in that is Wood’s enjoyment of the mugging he’s administering. Regarding the working class, Wood quotes Orwell on Dickens: “However much Dickens may admire the working classes, he does not wish to resemble them.” Woods then asks, “Why on earth should Dickens have wanted to resemble the working classes? Why would anyone want to, least of all the working classes themselves?” Well, I for one identify with the working classes and proudly consider myself part of them. I believe Wood is coming across here as quite a snob. I have only touched on a few of the many troublesome and problematic aspects of James Wood’s “A Fine Rage.” Far from being “excellent,” as Packer describes it, it is thoroughly rotten and regrettable.” – Posted 4/24/2009, 10:43:14am by driedchar

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