The Books: A Collection of Essays, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, by George Orwell

On the essays shelf:

A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell

I love the first words of Orwell’s 1949 review of Gandhi’s partial autobiography, published in the 1920s:

Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent…

Christopher Hitchens would approve! Orwell’s thoughts on Gandhi are complex: On the one hand, he finds all that asceticism and holiness suspect and also difficult to maintain on a human level. On the other hand, he admires Gandhi’s political smarts and prescience (even a year earlier, nobody would have thought the British would retreat from India the way that they did). Orwell looks at Gandhi’s essential middle-class-ness: his days as a lawyer, taking dancing lessons, and wearing a top hat. Hard to reconcile with the skinny little man in a loincloth, but part of Gandhi’s human-ness, first of all, and also a “way in” to understanding Gandhi’s strengths as a political animal. He did not remove himself from the world. He engaged with the world. Britain must leave India. He did not retreat to a mountaintop and pray (or, he didn’t ONLY do that). He organized the resistance. Orwell has nothing but admiration for that, although some of the beliefs (religious in nature) are red flags to Orwell.

I particularly liked this bit, and find it relevant to our culture today:

No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives,” from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.

Fascinating! We are even more “yogi-ridden” now. I have serious issues with the New Age-ification of our culture, although some of it is helpful. But if you make the mistake of saying to me, (for example), “Everything happens for a reason”, you will get an earful about the atrocities of history, and an obnoxious treatise on how only privileged people who have never known serious deprivation could ever say such a stupid thing. Believe me: ask my poor friends who have tried to comfort me with such nonsense. Now, look, if such a belief helps you and comforts you, then I am certainly not going to tell you to NOT feel that way. Have at it. We all need comforts to get through life. My issue with catch-phrases like “everything happens for a reason” is that in our current-day culture (at least the one in which I operate) it is taken as Truth, when it is really just a trend in thinking, something people believe NOW, but didn’t necessarily always believe. It may be true to YOU that “everything happens for a reason”, but just accept that it is an OPINION, not a FACT. That’s my issue with that kind of thinking. Orwell obviously says it better than I have.

I think a deeper issue I have with those statements that float around in the air now is that people parrot them without thinking about them. It’s a catch-phrase, it’s “something to say” when meaningless things happen. This goes back to Orwell’s great essay Politics and the English Language: when language becomes boiled down, when people speak catch-phrases hoping that there is a deeper meaning underneath, because they don’t have the words available to them to speak in a meaningful way: we’re all in trouble. Because then the catch-phrase is a stand-in for a concept, and the concept is so boiled down by that point as to be meaningless. Language loses its impact. And when that happens, thought itself atrophies.

I know that my feelings about New Age thinking is a feeling, my own opinion. It’s my “take”. I wish the opposite were the case: that those who subscribe to such thinking weren’t such fundamentalists about it. Just admit that these are your feelings, your hopes, that you hope the world works this way, that it helps you personally to believe such things. Don’t think I’m “wrong” for not going along with the trend and for thinking “Everything happens for a reason” is an ignorant (and unhelpful) thing to say. (I’m just using “Everything happens for a reason” as an example. There are so many others. It’s everywhere.)

And there’s that great exchange from Men in Black, which sums it all up for me:

Jay: You know what they say. It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Kay: Try it.

That “Try it” is such a perfect rejoinder to a thoughtless catch-phrase flung at you like “It’s better to have loved and lost …” Only people who have never “tried it” could say such a thing. Or, to try to be kinder (it’s difficult for me in this arena): everyone is different, one size does not fit all. Perhaps YOU were lucky enough to have loved and lost and found it “better” than not having loved at all. But that has NOT been the case for me.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

I felt so validated by that exchange (which is so hilarious to me: to be validated by Men in Black for my unpopular sentiments about New Age pablum-talk.)

Back to Orwell/Gandhi. I chose an excerpt I find particularly interesting, although the whole thing is well worth seeking out. Here, Orwell takes on pacifism, and how it is a useful concept, but perhaps made irrelevant in the 20th century by such regimes as Hitler’s and Stalin’s. He does concede that Gandhi seemed to be open to all questions. His was not a closed mind (except when it came to his religious beliefs: he would rather have let his wife die than be given meat, proscribed by a doctor, to save her life). But in terms of political questions and the world stage, Gandhi was a thinker. His belief in non-violence obviously worked for India (at least in terms of getting the British out), but what exactly were those in Russia to do? Who couldn’t even gather publicly? The British Empire, cruel in so many ways, didn’t even come close to the monstrosity that was Stalinism.

I liked this generosity from Orwell:

But if, by 1945, there had grown up in Britain a large body of opinion sympathetic to Indian independence, how far was this due to Gandhi’s personal influence? And if, as may happen, India and Britain finally settle down into a decent and friendly relationship, will this be partly because Gandhi, by keeping up his struggle obstinately and without hatred, disinfected the political air? That one even thinks of asking such questions indicates his stature.

On to the excerpt:

A Collection of Essays, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, by George Orwell

However, Gandhi’s pacifism can be separated to some extent from his other teachings. Its motive was religious, but he claimed also for it that it was a definitive technique, a method, capable of producing desired political results. Gandhi’s attitude was not that of most Western pacifists. Satyagraha, first evolved in South Africa, was a sort of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred. It entailed such things as civil disobedience, strikes, lying down in front of railway trains, enduring police charges without running away and without hitting back, and the like. Gandhi objected to “passive resistance” as a translation of Satyagraha: in Gujarati, it seems, the word means “firmness in the truth.” In his early days Gandhi served as a stretcher-bearer on the British side in the Boer War, and he was prepared to do the same again in the war of 1914-18. Even after he had completely abjured violence he was honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides. He did not – indeed, since his whole political life centred round a struggle for national independence, he could not – take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins. Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: “What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?” I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the “you’re another” type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer’s Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi’s view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths.

At the same time there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity. As can be seen from the phrase quoted above, he believed in “arousing the world,” which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? The Russian masses could only practise civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to all of them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the Ukraine famine, it would make no difference. But let it be granted that non-violent resistance can be effective against one’s own government, or against an occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practise internationally? Gandhi’s various conflicting statements on the late war seem to show that he felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane? And is it not possible for one whole culture to be insane by the standards of another? And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole nations, is there any apparent connection between a generous deed and a friendly response? Is gratitude a factor in international politics?

These and kindred questions need discussion, and need it urgently, in the few years left to us before somebody presses the button and the rockets begin to fly. It seems doubtful whether civilization can stand another major war, and it is at least thinkable that the way out lies through non-violence.

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10 Responses to The Books: A Collection of Essays, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, by George Orwell

  1. Clary says:

    How right you are. Of course you don’t need my validating you, but you have validadated me in so many ways with your post today.
    I used to think these stupid clichés would dissapear from intelligent people after they’re experienced enough to distinguish between “what they say” and reality. But, sadly, the opposite happens frequently: intelligent people reach some middle age and get tired or their thoughts athroph, it seems, and they begin to tell you common and useless phrases like “everything happens for a reason” and they even tell you they speak from experience!
    I would like to be as passionate as you are against stupidity, I only feel sad. You made my day Happy, and that has nothing to do with Saint Valentine. Thank you.

    • sheila says:

      I am very glad I made you happy and that you felt validated. It is certainly an uphill battle – the culture is just so drenched in this stuff, people look at you like you’re crazy or just a spoil-sport if you don’t accept these things as Facts.

      I would much rather hear someone just admit/acknowledge, “Jesus. It sucks when meaningless things happen” rather than “Everything happens for a reason.” Tell that to the people in the Sudan, you idiots.

      Being passionate against stupidity helps me when I am very sad.


  2. Dg says:

    The Sandy Hook massacre….someone want to tell those parents that everything happens for a reason? Please.
    The best advice I ever recieved-etiquette wise-most times just a hug and a sincere “I’m sorry” is the best route.
    Just loving these essays and yes I also thought of Hitchens while reading… He was probably the closest thing to Orwell In our era.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, the Sandy Hook massacre is a good example where you really shouldn’t be saying stupid things like “Everything happens for a reason.” I get it: people don’t want to feel the horror. But sometimes horror just has to be felt and acknowledged.

      I think the etiquette advice you received was very good! When my father died, and there were so many people at his wake, I cannot tell you how comforting it was the random people who felt comfortable enough in themselves in their own etiquette to just say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Perfect words. Not too much. No advice. Don’t try to comfort. It’s a very good phrase, and really is comforting, even the 100th time you’ve heard it.

      I agree, too: you can really feel the influence of Orwell on Hitchens, which Hitchens acknowledged (and wrote a whole book about, really).

  3. DBW says:

    This is an interesting post. It’s ironic that your comments about truth vs. trite, New Age vs. Fundamentals, and so on are part of a larger post oh Gandhi–a person whose truth is a lot more complicated than the myth that is generally accepted as his “biography.” There was a lot to admire greatly about Gandhi, but, like most humans, there are aspects of his character that are disturbing–although they aren’t part of his conventional narrative. Too many people like simple explanations, and simple choices. Unfortunately, life usually doesn’t work like that. It’s hard to accept that very bad things can happen with no good reason, or that our heroes are often just as plagued with human weakness as the rest of us.

    • sheila says:

      Yeah, that’s why it’s so funny how Orwell starts out the piece: “Saints should be judged guilty …” And then the whole paragraph about: most people don’t want to be saints. He goes into it a bit more in the essay, basically people that try to be “pure”, in whatever way – who try to remove themselves so entirely from emotional connections – it may seem admirable, and it may be fine for them, but it’s not a good political model, certainly. And he totally massacres the pacifists (in words, that is) – for the heartlessness of their position when faced with something like Hitler.

      Tough issues and questions: people still don’t want to deal with it and people still resent Orwell for putting it so plainly.

    • Sean O says:

      Yes. Until recently, I was unaware of just how bizarre some of the human side of Gandhi was.

  4. sheila says:

    // Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. //

    That is so right on. It’s one of my main beefs with a lot of the New Age-y-ness. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I do not have contempt for all of it. But I think Orwell has expressed there perfectly my issue with some of the tenets.

  5. DBW says:

    // Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. //


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