George Orwell is today best remembered as a writer of novels that warned against the evils of totalitarianism in strong – almost strident – terms. His shorter works are far less widely read now and, in an age that tends to dismiss the value of the essay and even more of the short story as an important political form, tend to be dismissed as worthy of careful scrutiny. But Orwell’s essays provide an excellent vantage point to understand his political philosophy both in general and as it is elucidated in his novels. They also provide us as readers with a wry but finely thought-out series of sketches on the nature of resistance, as Carter (1985) argues.
When we read a work like Animal Farm we see Orwell using a cudgel to make a point about the ways in which human nature is so easily corrupted that even the best and purest ideas – liberty, equality, tolerance – cannot be sustained. It is a very skillful use of a cudgel, but a cudgel it remains. And in being so busy smashing up the world’s social institutions, Orwell conveys the sense that there is simply no hope for the future, no hope for humanity. But when we read an essay such as “A Nice Cup of Tea”, we understand that while the author is certainly not overly optimistic about the ability of people to create and sustain lives of decency and mutual respect, he does believe that many of us can make at least temporarily sustained efforts in this direction (Carter 40).
Orwell understands the importance of small acts of resistance – both to each one of us as individuals and to society as a whole. Each one of these stories relates to us – with different surface details – the importance of standing up for one’s own beliefs in a world that values conformity – even when that conformity is designed to bring us unremitting happiness, as he suggests at the end of “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun”:
Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wider course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness. This is the case even with a great writer like Swift, who can flay a bishop or a politician so neatly, but who, when he tries to create a superman, merely leaves one with the impression the very last he can have intended that the stinking Yahoos had in them more possibility of development than the enlightened Houyhnhnms (http://misicb.tripod.com/lektira/english/socfun.htm ).
In discussing the perfect cuppa, Orwell expresses his own preferences quite directly. He is not interested in preaching tolerance for all the ways of doing things. He wants us to know what he likes and thinks.
… tea should be made in small quantities - that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad (http://www.246.dk/teaorwell.html).
And yet there is really no attempt to be doctrinaire in this story, no attempt to impose his own preferences on the rest of the world. That is one of the reasons that he has chosen to write about something so seemingly trivial as drinking tea. The fact that a person has strong preferences about drinking tea (that may well not accord with our own tea preferences) does not bother us at all. We recognize that it does not matter, that in such a small matter we may indeed be masters of our own lives. And once we recognize this fact we may be able to take the next step (Carter 119). Reclaiming our own sense of power, becoming the person that we are meant to be apart from state influence and the power of others to persuade us to be the kind of person that it is convenient for them to have us be begins with an action as simple as waving aside the proffered two lumps:
Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again (http://www.246.dk/teaorwell.html).
Orwell feels some combination of pity and annoyance (verging on real anger) for those who cannot accept the world as it is, who are unwilling and unable to seek for and accept the pleasure of things-as-they-are. The ability to do so – to take pleasure in sugar for its sweetness and tea for its bitterness – leads to a great deal of the world’s petty sorrows, he argues in his short works as well as much of the world’s great tragedies, as he argues in his novels. For him one of the greatest evils of totalitarianism is not the particular message that totalitarian governments proclaim but rather that in seeking to have total control over the individual totalitarian regimes seek to deny to each individual the ability (and even the inclination) to take pleasure in the world as it is.
This is the central point of his essay “Bookshop Memories”, in which he laments the fact that people buy books not because they actually like them but out of a variety of attenuated motives.
When I worked in a second-hand bookshop – so easily pictured, if you don't work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios – the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one. First edition snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks were commoner still, and vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews were commonest of all (http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/892/).
In asking us to like things as they are – not as we believe others want us to perceive them, Orwell is also asking us to consider the individuality of each thing, which is an essentially anti-totalitarian request. The essence of the nature of citizenship (if one can call it that) in a totalitarian regime is the fact that people are shaped and chiseled and sanded away until they can be used interchangeably by the state. And in turn – in even semi-democratic regimes – it is all too easy to see the world around us as full of infinitely substitutable objects when each one of them should be valued for their specificity. Orwell continues in “Bookshop Memories”
But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro. There was a time when I really did love books – loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old…. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening (http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/892/).
It is also the central message of “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, in which Orwell urges us to find beauty where others do not and cannot. Sometimes happiness is the most powerful form of resistance:
At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The 7 atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it (http://www.sozialistischeklassiker.org/Orwell/Orwelle15.html).
Orwell’s essays and shorter works are also full of the inability of people to make that initial step into resistance, of people who simply go along with what others want them to do because it is psychologically or painful for them to resist. In “A Hanging” we know that the narrator believes this hanging to be wrong.
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working — bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming — all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned — reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less (http://www.sozialistischeklassiker.org/Orwell/Orwelle5.html).
But despite this realization, he does nothing. He is entirely complicit. The only creature who is not complicit is the dog who rushes in to lick the condemned man’s face, calling him back (if he could) to the land of the living. Orwell at least suggests in “Why I Write” that most of us are constitutionally ill adapted to resistance. There is a powerful appeal to conformity. Those of us who can fit in long to do so, which leaves a great deal of the heavy lifting in society to those who cannot fit in, a category of individuals that Orwell includes himself amongst, as he describes himself in “Why I Write.
I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life (http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/whywrite.h tml).
Orwell sees the great advantage of not having been able to fit in as a child, for it gave him an enduring ability not to wish to conform and thus a basis for the kind of anger that can change the world, as he writes later in this same essay when he is discussing Homage to Catalonia, his work on the Spanish Civil War, a work that he says in general was an attempt to be evenhanded to both sides on the conflict:
But among other things it contains a long chapter, full of newspaper quotations and the like, defending the Trotskyists who were accused of plotting with Franco. Clearly such a chapter, which after a year or two would lose its interest for any ordinary reader, must ruin the book. A critic whom I respect read me a lecture about it. "Why did you put in all that stuff?" he said. "You've turned what might have been a good book into journalism." What he said was true, but I could not have done otherwise. I happened to know, what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused. If I had not been angry about that I should never have written the book (http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/whywrite.h tml).
Most people do not have the ability or desire to be so angry, and so those who can must. But all of us have the ability to appreciate a few good books, or the springtime coming of toads, or the taste of tea without sugar. And from there it may be that we find ourselves called to bar the way of the executioner, to topple governments, to refuse each and every form of complicity.
Carter, Michael. George Orwell and the Problem of Authentic Existence. London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985.
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