Sunday, April 7, 2013

Orwell and Wells

George Orwell is another fine essayist I enjoy reading, along with Vidal, Hazlitt, Montaigne and others.  Not quite as ornate or elegant in his language, perhaps, but most insightful.  He wrote an essay regarding the odd couple of H.G. Wells and Adolph Hitler I find interesting enough to comment on here.

He begins with a succession of quotes of Wells from various publications of the time, superciliously denouncing Hitler but most of all asserting he is a kind of silly, preposterous buffoon; mentally defective, perhaps, but relatively harmless.  One sees that the quotes are taken from writings made over time--Wells goes on to minimize the threat of the Nazis and the German war machine.  Even after the war has commenced, he opines that the Germans are played out early in the conflict and will soon enough disappear along with their barbaric ways.  Wells comes across as something of a simpleton; all will be well, in the garden, he tells those who troubled to read him in those troubled times.  Just wait until winter ends.

Orwell doesn't quite treat Wells as a simpleton, however.  He seems to treat him more as an intelligent, talented man who is dangerously naive, and also a kind of anachronism.  An Edwardian liberal among fascists and totalitarians, commenting snootily and ineffectively while they demonstrate how completely Wells failed to comprehend humanity.  He notes that Wells seemed incapable of grasping the extent to which emotion and the irrational dominate our affairs, especially our violence and our propensity for war.  Orwell remarks that Napoleon is the villain of Wells' sweeping and opinionated Outline of History.  I've read that far less than impartial stab at history, and am inclined to agree.  It's a bit like Bertrand Russell's "history" of western philosophy--anyone different from the author comes out looking either nasty or ridiculous.

While Orwell plainly considers Wells to be terribly impatient of reality, and especially of our part in it, he considers others to be disingenuous if not dishonest and hypocritical.  This comes across not only in the essay in question, but in another in which he writes of his memories of the Spanish Civil War in which he participated on the Republican side.  The left wing intelligentsia are targeted by Orwell in that piece.  Although they were otherwise anti-war up to that point, they glorified it and rhapsodized over the fight against Franco in that case.  Orwell isn't apologizing for the fascists and imperialists; he notes their illusions as well.  He is out to maintain that war, any war, is disgusting and that those who fight wars do so without any thought for those who insist that they take part in it, always for a good cause, but somehow manage to avoid fighting it themselves.

Orwell knew us better than Wells.  What would Wells think of us now?  Would he believe that the perpetual war of our times ("perpetual war for perpetual peace" pace Charles Beard and Gore Vidal) is just a frolic and a detour engaged in by humanity on its inevitable rise to One World Government, peace and welfare for all?  There is indeed such a thing as willful blindness, and it's likely H.G. would be as blind now as he was then.  We hold our illusions very dear, particularly our intellectual illusions, I think.

Intellectual illusions are eminently affordable; that is to say, sustainable.  This is because such illusions are generally those held, and savored, when there is nothing to lose and by those who have nothing to lose.  They are held by the comfortable, who have the time and opportunity to indulge in them and have no need of testing their beliefs by fighting for them or otherwise putting them to the test personally.  Those holding intellectual illusions assume no risk but, to the extent those illusions make a difference in our lives, expect others to do so for them.

Wells had his, and others of his kind now, on the left and the right, religious and non-religious, have theirs.  Strangely, and tragically, it seems the most powerful of those illusions involve the lives and conduct of others.  We are never so eager and certain than when we are telling each other how to live.  Thankfully, relatively few of us have the power to compel others to do our bidding, but those few are growing in power and it has never taken more than a few to make the lives of many miserable.

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