Friday, December 01, 2006


George Orwell's book 1984 alerted me to my vocation. That's not to say Orwell is my favourite writer. So far as it goes I don't have a favourite writer, painter, musician, composer, colour or choice of ice cream. I can never pick one to the exclusion of others. Asked my favourite film and I'd be able to provide a list of ten. But that list would change tomorrow.

Orwell has frequently been relegated to the second tier of major 20th century writers. His prose style, fluent and clear, has nothing on the innovations of Joyce or the radical departures of Beckett or Burroughs. The poetry of DeLillo completely escapes him. Orwell was a lousy poet. As a writer he made virtually no contribution to the main thrust of 20th century culture which was to attack and break all the rules one by one. Aesthetically he was a conservative. And if he hadn't written his last two books doubtless he'd relegated to the dusty corridors of an obscure thesis.

But those two books: Animal Farm and 1984 cast in stone Orwell's position as a 20th century writer of major importance. Of all the writing extant regarding the Russian revolution and other revolutions besides, Animal Farm is a short, neat and totally accurate explication of the core, baneful truth about revolutions and their betrayers. It says exactly what needs to be said, nothing less and not a word over. There are other animal metaphors for the establishment of the totalitarian nightmare (Ionesco's Rhinoceros, but Animal Farm explains more than the psychology, it explains the process.

1984 is the manual for totalitarianism. Totalitarianism, I say, can be found even in the most libertine democracy. Indeed Western culture has recently found it in the most unlikely of places: the Humanities academy, the avant-garde arts and the political left. Various forms of activism and discourse sparking in the 1960s have manifested as somewhat totalitarian mini-realms. Places normally associated with the most radical vicissitudes of liberty are now locked down, unknowing, by its processes.

The most recent anecdote that comes to mind was when I was, playfully, called a fascist by suggesting that contemporary art had the air of the Emperor's New Clothes about it. That is although much of the 'art' on display was a bunch of not much work, with little imagination it was accompanied by a mountain of jargon that further baffled the already baffled punter and made them feel idiotic. The reaction to this of course is simply to nod one's head. Yes I see the Emperor's suit isn't it beautiful.

In the ensuing argument I was labeled a conservative and reminded that on first viewing Picasso wouldn't have looked much to most. I was given only two choices: one - support contemporary art uncritically, two - become a revisionist backslider. Either for or against. Either/or.

Now I don't suppose that my companions could have known that I've dipped into various aspects of the art scene now for quite a while. That I've participated in all sorts of post-fluxus fancy: matrix poetry, video art, situationism etc. I don't suppose they've quite ascertained my enthusiasm for unprovoked shit-stirring either. I can appreciate Dumchamp's witty toilet bowl, I think Piero Manzoni's canning his own shit and valuing it according to the price of gold is a good joke.

But how long does this sort of thing last and remain culturally valid? Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie might be a really fascinating experiment but to paraphrase Andy Warhol it's better talked about than read. I'd bet green money right now that if every novel read like Topology of a Phantom City the market for fiction would completely collapse.

Does this make me a reactionary?

I don't think so. I'm a realist and endeavour to be honest with myself. The choice between La Jalousie and The Big Sleep both as a pleasant way to pass a rainy aftenoon and as a meaningful document of life in the twentieth century is not a real choice. Chandler will be read long after Robbe-Grillet has been forgotten. This is not finally about the victory of the 'right' over the 'left' so much as the simple fact that one book is still meaningful despite the fading of it's immediate artistic context, the other is not.

Of course it does not follow that the 'straight story' has the final word. Ullysses will continue to be read and the myriad of nineteenth century style romances, adventures, mysteries and 'serious' works published contemporary to it are forgotten. As much as Tom Wolfe likes to think that nineteenth century poetics (like nineteenth century economics) have finally triumphed I think he will be proven mistaken in the long run. As impressive as Bonfire of the Vanities is, at least for it's sheer Dickensian detail, it's nothing next to Underworld.

So how does this tangent-laden rant come back to Orwell? What I think after all these years I've gotten from Orwell before every other writer; what I believe writers have a duty to uphold is the willful pursuit of Nietzsche's bad conscience. The determined, bullheaded stand against a crowded room stuffed with upheld fists. No matter what you think of the reason that crowd has.

At a time when the Left supported Stalin (the Right too) Orwell called him as he saw him: a power-famished arsehole killing everyone in his way. Orwell's contribution to the culture, particularly the culture of writers is to uphold the noble virtue of clear and critical thinking, to resist above all the urge to descend into groupthink. I suppose Orwell's influence on me is not so much my aesthetic sensibilities but ultimately on my behavior as a citizen. Nowadays the Right are in ascendance. For a while now the Left have floundered on the lonely high ground of self-appointed moral superiority whilst effective policy has come from the Right.

It is time for this to end. The old cultures of sloganeering chants, declarations of principles sans practical application and most especially reverse bigotry are over. The Left must take stock of all its own bullshit and put it away some where under the 'our mistakes' folder. We must transcend our commitments to doctrinarian approaches to problems and learn once more how to speak and think plainly. And we must listen. Above all we must turn our gaze back to general reality and confront honestly what we see there.

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