The Books: A Collection of Essays, ‘Inside the Whale’, by George Orwell

On the essays shelf:

A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell

“Inside the Whale” is a gigantic essay which is a review of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (the book is its focal point), but also spans out to discuss English literature during the crucial decades of Orwell’s life: the 1920s to the 1940s. Everything busted apart then. The 19th century structures were done. It was a new world now. Orwell knew Miller slightly, and while some of his comments on Tropic of Cancer are pretty funny (he “refuses to be impressed” by all the profanity and sex), he was astonished by the book. It gave him hope that the English language was still growing and thriving. How could that possibly be the case, in a book about dead-beats and whores? Orwell writes:

But get hold of Tropic of Cancer … and read especially the first hundred pages. They give you an idea of what can still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e. without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word. The adjective has come back, after its ten years’ exile.

I love that. We know of Orwell’s main concern with language; it is a topic he took up again and again. He was interested in it in a political sense, but here he takes on literature. Besides, it’s all related. How we speak reveals how we think. It doesn’t follow that people with limited vocabularies have big important thoughts. It doesn’t go that way. You need language to be flexible in order for thought itself to be possible. Orwell worked over this thought again and again and again in his work, finally culminating, of course, in 1984, with its terrifying vision of a world where language has atrophied into “Newsspeak”.

Tropic of Cancer‘s scope and accomplishment reminds Orwell of James Joyce, and Walt Whitman, and so the essay is a delight, it’s really a survey course in literature. He’s a lovely writer and thinker, and it’s fun to see him enthusiastic, rather than cranky. For example, it should be no surprise that I loved to read his thoughts on Ulysses, and I think he’s right on the money:

But now and again there appears a novel which opens up a new world not by revealing what is strange, but by revealing what is familiar. The truly remarkable thing about Ulysses, for instance, is the commonplaceness of its material. Of course there is much more in Ulysses than this, because Joyce is a kind of poet and also an elephantine pedant, but his real achievement has been to get the familiar on to paper. He dared — for it is a matter of daring just as much as of technique — to expose the imbecilities of the inner mind, and in doing so he discovered an America which was under everybody’s nose. Here is a whole world of stuff which you supposed to be of its nature incommunicable, and somebody has managed to communicate it. The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives. When you read certain passages in Ulysses you feel that Joyce’s mind and your mind are one, that he knows all about you though he has never heard your name, that there some world outside time and space in which you and he are together. And though he does not resemble Joyce in other ways, there is a touch of this quality in Henry Miller. Not everywhere, because his work is very uneven, and sometimes, especially in Black Spring, tends to slide away into more verbiage or into the squashy universe of the surresalists. But read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. ‘He knows all about me,’ you feel; ‘he wrote this specially for me’. It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike. For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylized, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with the recognizable experiences of human beings.

Marvelous.

And this:

It would be absurd, for instance, to look on Ulysses as merely a show-up of the horror of modern life, the ‘dirty Daily Mail era’, as Pound put it. Joyce actually is more of a ‘pure artist’ than most writers. But Ulysses could not have been written by someone who was merely dabbling with word-patterns; it is the product of a special vision of life, the vision of a Catholic who has lost his faith. What Joyce is saying is ‘Here is life without God. Just look at it!’ and his technical innovations, important though they are, are primarily to serve this purpose.

Orwell is interested in what books like Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer signify. They obviously represent some sort of break with the past. World War I had that effect on artists, worldwide. The old “forms” did not seem up to the task to describing the modern world (although that is a crazy oversimplification). Orwell sees how the language itself has been developing, and while politicians and propagandists and op-ed columnists may have atrophied themselves into Party Platform Mouthpieces, novelists and poets were bold, daring, were going inward so far that it became outward. Ulysses is the most subjective book imaginable. We are inside one man’s head, and we hear his musings about his lunch, his gassy stomach, his worries, his observations. They all pile on top of each other. This is often how the brain works, how memory and the senses work. It is not a “big” book. It is not making a big statement, it does not reach for universality, it is not “topical”. And yet by focusing solely on one man’s interior life, it becomes the most universal transcendent book ever written. The same is true, Orwell suggests, with Tropic of Cancer. It takes courage to not care what was done before. It takes courage to look at the old forms and say, “That won’t work for me.”

Orwell has a whole section in this essay about A.E. Housman, a hugely popular and influential poet in the 1920s – and, of course, he has a giant reputation to this day. But he was popular in his own day in a way that faded quickly. Orwell wrote his essay in the 1940s, and he found it interesting that Housman was so “in” so recently, and at the time he was writing Housman’s enormous popularity was “not at all easy to understand”. Orwell writes:

In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of The Shropshire Lad by heart.

And so what was it about Housman that “hit” on such a profound level to that particular generation? If you’re a Housman fan, you will love to read Orwell’s thoughts. Orwell thinks Housman’s popularity had to do with his cynical “strain”, a sort of defiant anti-establishment voice, wrapped up in the old English forms of God and country and fields and streams. Housman expressed perfectly the weariness of the youth culture at that time, who came of age during the mid-teens, and saw the world erupt in a monstrous war.

The essay ends with a discussion of literature and politics, and what happens when writers become attached to politics (or, to one particular side in a political argument). Orwell sees the self-censorship at work in some of those writers: “I probably should temper this argument, because it will get me into trouble”, and of course time has not been kind to the really political propagandist-type novelists of the 1930s. Those days are done. Some of the writing may be fine, but the novels or poems are locked in that particular decade, and do not travel very well.

‘Inside the Whale’ was written in 1940, and was included in a book of essays called Inside the Whale. WWII was exploding. Totalitarianism was on the march. It was a long long way from the days of the 1920s, when people like Joyce and Eliot and Miller began to rise, with different voices, voices more appropriate to the modern world. What would come next? What would this new war do to literature, to the English language? Orwell was already concerned about the deterioration of language, and fascism and totalitarianism made it worse. He was watching everything he loved fall apart.

Here’s an excerpt:

A Collection of Essays, ‘Inside the Whale’, by George Orwell

If one looks at the books of personal reminiscence written about the war of 1914-18, one notices that nearly all that have remained readable after a lapse of time are written from a passive, negative angle. They are the records of something completely meaningless, a nightmare happening in a void. That was not actually the truth about the war, but it was the truth about the individual reaction. The soldier advancing into a machine-gun barrage or standing waist-deep in a flooded trench knew only that here was an appalling experience in which he was all but helpless. He was likelier to make a good book out of his helplessness and his ignorance than out of a pretended power to see the whole thing in perspective. As for the books that were written during the war itself, the best of them were nearly all the work of people who simply turned their backs and tried not to notice that the war was happening. Mr E. M. Forster has described how in 1917 he read Prufrock and other of Eliot’s early poems, and how it heartened him at such a time to get hold of poems that were ‘innocent of public-spiritedness’:

They sang of private disgust and diffidence, and of people who seemed genuine because they were unattractive or weak. … Here was a protest, and a feeble one, and the more congenial for being o feeble. … He who could turn aside to complain of ladies and drawing rooms preserved a tiny drop of our self-respect, he carried on the human heritage.

That is very well said. Mr MacNeice, in the book I have referred to already, quotes this passage and somewhat smugly adds:

Ten years later less feeble protests were to be made by poets and the human heritage carried on rather differently. … The contemplation of a world of fragments becomes boring and Eliot’s successors are more interested in tidying it up.

Similar remarks are scattered throughout Mr MacNeice’s book. What he wishes us to believe is that Eliot’s ‘successors’ (meaning Mr MacNeice and his friends) have in some way ‘protested’ more effectively than Eliot did by publishing Prufrock at the moment when the Allied armies were assaulting the Hindenburg Line. Just where these ‘protests’ are to be found I do not know. But in the contrast between Mr Forster’s comment and Mr MacNeice’s lies all the difference between a man who knows what the 1914-18 war was like and a man who barely remembers it. The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and a sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible. And a gesture of helplessness, even of frivolity, might be the best way of doing that. If I had been a soldier fighting in the Great War, I would sooner have got hold of Prufrock than The First Hundred Thousand or Horatio Bottomley’s Letters to the Boys in the Trenches. I should have felt, like Mr Forster, that by simply standing aloof and keeping touch with pre-war emotions, Eliot was carrying on the human heritage. What a relief it would have been at such a time, to read about the hesitations of a middle-aged highbrow with a bald spot! So different from bayonet-drill! After the bombs and the food-queues and the recruiting-posters, a human voice! What a relief!

But, after all, the war of 1914-18 was only a heightened moment in an almost continuous crisis. At this date it hardly even needs a war to bring home to us the disintegration of our society and the increasing helplessness of all, decent people. It is for this reason that I think that the passive, non-co-operative attitude implied in Henry Miller’s work is justified. Whether or not it is an expression of what people ought to feel, it probably comes somewhere near to expressing what they do feel. Once again it is the human voice among the bomb-explosions, a friendly American voice, ‘innocent of public-spiritedness’. No sermons, merely the subjective truth. And along those lines, apparently, it is still possible for a good novel to be written. Not necessarily an edifying novel, but a novel worth reading and likely to be remembered after it is read.

While I have been writing this essay another European war has broken out. It will either last several years and tear Western civilization to pieces, or it will end inconclusively and prepare the way for yet another war which will do the job once and for all. But war is only ‘peace intensified’. What is quite obviously happening, war or no war, is the break-up of laissez-faire capitalism and of the liberal-Christian culture. Until recently the full implications of this were not foreseen, because it was generally imagined that socialism could preserve and even enlarge the atmosphere of liberalism. It is now beginning to be realized how false this idea was. Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships — an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence. But this means that literature, in the form in which we know it, must suffer at least a temporary death. The literature of liberalism is coming to an end and the literature of totalitarianism has not yet appeared and is barely imaginable. As for the writer, he is sitting on a melting iceberg; he is merely an anachronism, a hangover from the bourgeois age, as surely doomed as the hippopotamus. Miller seems to me a man out of the common because he saw and proclaimed this fact a long while before most of his contemporaries — at a time, indeed, when many of them were actually burbling about a renaissance of literature. Wyndham Lewis had said years earlier that the major history of the English language was finished, but he was basing this on different and rather trivial reasons. But from now onwards the all-important fact for the creative writers going to be that this is not a writer’s world. That does not mean that he cannot help to bring the new society into being, but he can take no part in the process as a writer. For as a writer he is a liberal, and what is happening is the destruction of liberalism. It seems likely, therefore, that in the remaining years of free speech any novel worth reading will follow more or less along the lines that Miller has followed — I do not mean in technique or subject matter, but in implied outlook. The passive attitude will come back, and it will be more consciously passive than before. Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism — robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale — or rather, admit you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the worid-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula, that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, ‘constructive’ lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine.

But do I mean by this that Miller is a ‘great author’, a new hope for English prose? Nothing of the kind. Miller himself would be the last to claim or want any such thing. No doubt he will go on writing — anybody who has ones started always goes on writing — and associated with him there are a number of writers of approximately the same tendency, Lawrence Durrell, Michael Fraenkel and others, almost amounting to a ‘school’. But he himself seems to me essentially a man of one book. Sooner or later I should expect him to descend into unintelligibility, or into charlatanism: there are signs of both in his later work. His last book, Tropic of Capricorn, I have not even read. This was not because I did not want to read it, but because the police and Customs authorities have so far managed to prevent me from getting hold of it. But it would surprise me if it came anywhere near Tropic of Cancer or the opening chapters of Black Spring. Like certain other autobiographical novelists, he had it in him to do just one thing perfectly, and he did it. Considering what the fiction of the nineteen-thirties has been like, that is something.

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