Eric Arthur Blair, a/k/a George Orwell, has been much on my mind during these fearful times. We've all read Animal Farm and 1984, of course; most of us had to read them. Sometimes, the American system of public education requires that good and interesting books be read. Other times, it might require that Goodbye, Mr. Chips be perused by young scholars. But I speak of what was read in my youth, and can't speak to what is read now.
But I prefer Orwell's essays and nonfiction, for the precision of their style and their insights into many people and things. He's said to have been something of a prophet regarding the politics of the future. I was inclined to agree with this assessment in certain respects, and being an American thought his gift of prophecy was limited or directed to Soviet Communism. But the profound nature of his foresight is most striking in an essay he wrote regarding W.B. Yeats which I read just recently, and it seems to me that in criticizing Yeats he intuited a world to come.
He treats the poet (one I admire) rather roughly in the essay, not as to his poetry necessarily, but the political, social and cultural views which are reflected in his poetry. He portrays Yeats as a frustrated aristocrat, essentially conservative, contemptuous of the modern world and its people, drawn to the occult and inclined towards Fascism. This infatuation seems to have been a characteristic of certain artists and intellectuals of the West of that time--Ezra Pound is the usual example--or at least those of them who were not similarly infatuated with Communism. According to Orwell, Yeats longs for the chaos of the times to produce an authoritarian civilization ruled by a cultured elite, but fails to see that civilization will not be aristocratic. As Orwell sees it: "It will not be ruled by noblemen with Van Dyck faces, but by anonymous millionaires, shiny-bottomed bureaucrats and murdering gangsters."
The cynics among us might say that is a very striking description not just of western civilization, but of our global civilization today (we must of course substitute "billionaires" for "millionaires"). The wise jurists sitting on our Supreme Court were wrong to hold that money is speech, as I've noted before, but it is most certainly power, and those who possess that power become an increasingly small and insulated group. They are served by a host of lackeys who do their bidding and assure that all others will do so as well. Those who do not or cannot turn increasingly to violence as a means to acquire money and power themselves.
This is a simplification of course, but it seems nonetheless to have a certain ring of truth to it, does it not? How did Orwell manage to foresee this state of affairs and describe it so well, so succinctly?
It requires a great knowledge of human nature and history, I would say, as well as art. But also required is a kind of pitiless, almost ruthless, perception. Orwell seems to have no illusions of any kind, or dreams of any kind. He assesses but doesn't admire. His is a grim task; to review, analyze, criticize, and to in most if not all cases to find fault and lay it bare.
This may be a pose, of course. I imagine a critic is inclined to ferret out defects to begin with, and skillful critics necessarily do so most efficiently. One at least seems most efficient when detached. Is this the kind of literary criticism one hears of spoken together with philosophy (philosophy being naught but a kind of literary criticism, I mean)? Philosophy may be said to consist at least in part of the rigorous criticism of language in its use by others. Taken in that way, it may be said that philosophy is literary criticism and intend by it a sort of compliment. But I fear that's not the case, or perhaps I should say not the narrative, there being nothing that is the case that is not part of a narrative, it seems.
Not so much a pose in Orwell's case, I think. It seems to be more of a way of thinking, and thinking ahead to anticipate the future without the benefit of hope or faith in humanity or God. And Orwell may have chosen such an approach deliberately, as he writes that it is to be expected given the decline of Christianity that we will face the future hopeless and faithless, at least as those states were conceived in the past we've abandoned.
Perhaps such cold appraisal is required for one to be an oracle. The priestess of the Delphic oracle was named after the Python, the great cold-blooded serpent slain by Apollo when he established the oracle. Those who consulted the oracle would claim they could still hear the serpent, hissing.