Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story , by George Orwell.
Nothing like starting off the weekend with a little Orwell. And I am of the mind that we should never forget why Orwell matters … to borrow a phrase. (That’s a wonderful book, by the way. We actually just brought it up yesterday in a conversation over at Jonathan’s place. It’s one of my favorite kind of blog conversations: it starts out at one place, someone brings something else up, a couple respond to that point, someone chimes in on the original point … and how did we get from Armond White to Orwell? Who knows. But it’s awesome.
Do they still have kids read Animal Farm in 8th grade? That’s when I read it first. It’s simply told, and if you don’t get the allegory – which I probably didn’t as an 8th grader – it doesn’t really matter – because the story is clear, and tyranny is a concept that at least can be comprehended by an 8th grader. The Iran hostage situation was one of the formative events of my early adolescence – that and the hunger strikes in Belfast (well, and of course the miracle on ice too … which seemed to encapsulate the entire WORLD at that time) – The hostages and the hunger strikes were the first couple of times that I was really aware of the news as something I could understand and was invested in. I prayed for the hostages. And I prayed for Bobby Sands. I know it sounds stupid, but I did. We were actually in Ireland while the hunger strikes were going on – so it made it even more palpable to me. It made it real. So in junior high I was beginning to understand that much of reality basically sucks for most of the people on the planet, and things happened that were unfair and totally not cool. A sort of elementary revelation to make – but whatever, I was 11. So I’m not saying I read Animal Farm and thought of the Ayatollah Khomeini – I didn’t – but my understanding of world events was such that I do remember reading the book and knowing that “the fairy story” part of the title was extremely cynical … this was no “fairy story” I had ever heard. Animal Farm is SCARY and I knew enough to be scared of it when I read it the first time.
I re-read the book in 2000 … for the first time since I was an adolescent. This is different from Orwell’s other book 1984 which we had to read in 11th grade – and it immediately hooked me in – it was one of those books I had to read that I loved immediately – like The Catcher in the Rye, A Tale of Two Cities (excerpt here), The Great Gatsby (excerpt here). Some of the books we were forced to read (Tess of the D’Urbervilles (excerpt here), Moby-Dick (excerpt here) I hated and saw the reading list as a kind of purgatory. But there were gems that got through – and 1984 was one of them. Also, the book was called 1984 and I read it in 1984 – so there was this whole creepy aspect to it – but also, I remember feeling relieved, like, “Well, Orwell was wrong – we’ve still got a COUPLE years to go before we have THAT kind of society …” My American girl response. Because of course that society existed in many nations across the world at that time … but it didn’t exist in MY world, and it was 1984! Phew! Dodged a bullet!
Animal Farm languished on my shelves, however, for decades before I picked it up again. By 2000 I was already into my obsession with Stalin – and so a whole other level of the book revealed itself to me. It almost didn’t read as allegory anymore – it almost just felt like journalism. Ha. I know that Trotsky was not, in actuality, a pig like Wilbur … but all of the events of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath are laid out in no uncertain terms in Animal Farm. It’s A to B. The overturning of the old guard. The looting of the farm (like the Bolsheviks looting the Winter Palace). The manifesto released. The intellectual insistence on accuracy of thought. No, you can’t think THIS way anymore … THIS is the correct way to think … The workings of the farm – and how to pick up where the humans left off. And naturally, there is great waste. The cows are milked by the pigs – and the milk lies in the bucket, and is not distributed and then later when someone goes to get the milk – it’s gone, it’s been pilfered. Total anarchy.
The system doesn’t work at first. And so by sheer force of will Napoleon and Snowball – the two main pigs – begin to re-educate all of the animals. If it doesn’t fit with reality, then let’s just change the words we say. For example, they come out with commandments at the beginning of the revolution – one of the commandments is: No animal shall sleep in a bed. Later in the book, when the pigs take over the farmhouse – naturally they want to sleep in the beds. But … oops … the manifesto – that THEY WROTE – says that No animal shall sleep in a bed. So how to deal with the PAST when it doesn’t align with the present? Well, you just change the past then, and you convince everyone that your version of the past is the correct one. “No, no, the commandment said that No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.” A couple of the animals know that that was not really what was said … but eventually it is agreed upon that it is okay to sleep in a bed as long as it doesn’t have sheets.
So there’s that kind of obliteration of the past – one of the main weapons in tyranny’s arsenal. If you can dominate the past, if you can convince a large group of people to accept your version of the past (and even if they don’t accept it – they are afraid to say so) – then you win. You are the alpha dog. Then of course there is Snowball’s disappearance – and how he takes on mythical aspects to those left behind. Everything that goes wrong on the farm is blamed on Snowball. A convenient scapegoat, like Trotsky was. If things don’t work then Snowball is to blame! He’s a saboteur! How convenient, isn’t it … it’s almost like it was scripted. If Trotsky hadn’t existed, they would have had to invent him. And, essentially, they did. He was a real man, but he was re-invented as Enemy Number One, an omnipresent source of mischief and disaster … trains crashed. Trotsky was behind it. Not enough grain. Trotsky sabotaged the harvest (even though he wasn’t even in Russia at the time. He pulled the strings from abroad). In a way, without Trotsky – it is debatable how successful all of this would have been, at least in terms of dominating and terrorizing the population at large. They NEEDED him. Because for the first 10 years after the Revolution, all hell broke loose. Millions of people died. Millions upon millions. Famine, terror, gulags, exile –
And this is something I’ve said time and time again in response to those who want to excuse all of this (these are the same people who would NEVER excuse Hitler’s actions) because they like the idea of Socialism and so they take the stance of “It was a good idea and who knows what would have happened if Stalin hadn’t messed it all up!” (Then, of course, there were those in the West who loved Stalin and were swayed by him – Stalin called them “the useful idiots” – the Beatrice and Stanley Webbs of the world … bought the lie. Funny thing – in the “witness” sections of the movie Reds, Rebecca West, in her big googly-eyed glasses, said, “You know who was an idiot? Beatrice Webb. She didn’t know a thing.” Ha! Go, Dame Rebecca!). But to the “it was a good idea messed up by Stalin” folks, I say: No. It’s not that it was good idea messed up by Stalin. It was that it was a bad idea in the first place. And actually, I’m not even convinced that there were any “ideas” going on at all in the Russian Revolution – that all of that talk and theory wasn’t just a smokescreen for a giant power grab. And Stalin won. That was always the point. (I am thinking now of the “secret book” in 1984 which basically admits that “secret”: that it was never about equality, or workers paradise … it was always about creating an atomized society where one man ruled supreme) You can only think that it was all a good idea if you believe that man himself can change his spots – that he can obliterate his own greed and selfishness. I happen to not believe this. And so I don’t think any of that stuff is a good idea, because it doesn’t factor in, you know, human nature – which has been in evidence since Eve ate the apple and Cain killed his brother for a totally asinine reason. People are selfish, curious, mischievous, and self-involved. This is and always shall be. (This is my beef, too, with the people who use nostalgia as a political weapon. The people who seem to believe that there was a Golden Age in the past – when everything was BETTER. Yeah, it was better if you were a white straight middle-class male – of course it was … come on, peeps! Get a grip! Learn your history! There is no mythical perfect past. Maybe things were simpler – yes – but “simpler” often means that much of the ugliness and prejudice and unfairness which does exist was actively repressed. The definitions were “simpler” and sure that might have been comforting – but only if you were in the dominant group. And so no, I am not down with saying that such a time was BETTER. Sorry. You can count me out of your delusion. Thanks. I know this is a post full of links to my own blog but whatever, that is just evidence that I am self-involved and all is right with the world … It occurs to me that I wrote a bit on this whole “nostalgia” question in my two competing movie reviews: of Pleasantville and Blast From the Past – the two sides of nostalgia, which is not, in and of itself a bad thing – it is when one group wants THEIR version of nostalgia to dominate: OUR version of the good-ness in the past is what everyone should accept! ) So you can blather about “wouldn’t it be great if …” all you want … it still doesn’t change the fact that there is going to be some MORON in your utopia who says, “I don’t WANT my house to look like everyone else’s … I want it to be a little bit taller.” A benign example, but that’s the start of it. (Stephen King shows this in The Stand – excerpt here – with the “new society” created in Colorado … but … but … not everybody cooperates with the rules … not everybody is on board with the utopia … and so what is to be done with THOSE folks? Brilliant.)
In the excerpt below, poor little Mollie – the mare – shows us that problem with the mindset, when applied to individuals. She is mainly concerned with the fact that there might be no sugar after the Revolution, and she also doesn’t want to have to give up her pretty ribbons in her mane. I mean, she is painted as a ridiculous individual – they’re trying to talk about upheaval and social change, and she worries about her sweet tooth. BUT THAT’S THE THING. That’s human nature. If you can somehow create a human race who will never say, “But I like sugar – I want to have sugar as a treat every day …” … then maybe you can have your perfect society. You can count me out of it, though … because I’m with Mollie. There are things I WANT, that have nothing to do with the “greater good” … they are my interests, my individuality expressing itself. Yes, we clump up into packs – human beings are wired that way … but the individual cannot be crushed. Greed, or … just the experience of wanting more … seems to be wired into us. Lots of people just don’t LIKE that about the human race and say stuff like, “Wouldn’t it be great if people were just satisfied with what they had and didn’t want more?” Yeah, well, I think it would be great if I could have a pet centaur – and I would take him on walks past Alexander Hamilton’s bust … and then I would leap on his back and we could fly over the Manhattan skyline singing “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay” … but I know that I can’t. I don’t waste too much time being sad about the fact that centaurs don’t exist, and therefore I can’t “have” one – because if I did – I think I would have a problem with, you know, reality. And reality is tough enough for me to accept and deal with … without adding my own fantasy disappointments on top of it. Regardless, this is my view, and it’s very hard for some to admit that – people who devoted their lives to defending the Soviet Union – at all costs … because they believed in the idea. And you can turn yourself inside out, saying: that it was a bastardization of true socialism (which obviously is the case – just talking in terms of the stated ideas now – Orwell makes that point in Animal Farm, with the sort of give and take the animals have with the truth and with their original goals).
In the tyranny of Stalin, what eventually became clear (and Robert Conquest makes the point again and again in his books on Stalin, that the men surrounding Stalin – while brutes and murderers themselves – were not as beyond the pale as Stalin, in terms of conventional morality … Conquest says, like a refrain: “They didn’t understand Stalin yet”), was that the point was not to bring about Socialism. The point, for Stalin, was to never relax the terror … or, perhaps he would allow it to relax for a couple of years, after big purges – but that would only be a lull, to make people lower their guards – so that he could then re-assert the terror. This kept people on edge. Psychologically, it was devastating. After everyone was dead, all of his comrades, the only guys left around him were the toadies, the sycophantic imbeciles, illiterates – who were brutal enough to do what was necessary and not question why. Kirov is a prime example of one of the higher-ups in the Party who had an independent mind. He and Stalin were good friends and they went way back. But Kirov headed up the Party apparatus in St. Petersburg and Stalin became convinced that it was a kind of fifth column … and Kirov … Kirov began to haunt Stalin, haunt his every thought. Kirov was a big deal. A big wig. But he must be made to disappear. And he was. To quote Robert Conquest (from his great book The Great Terror):
This killing [the murder of Kirov] has every right to be called the crime of the century. Over the next four years, hundreds of Soviet citizens, including the most prominent political leaders of the Revolution, were shot for direct responsibility for the assassination, and literally millions of others went to their deaths for complicity in one or another part of the vast conspiracy which allegedly lay behind it. Kirov’s death, in fact, was the keystone of the entire edifice of terror and suffering by which Stalin secured his grip on the Soviet peoples.
This is the crazy-making world portrayed in Animal Farm. Orwell is brutal, with no sentimentality. He goes for the jugular. If you go back, back to the world of the 1930s … the comfortable political labels that we throw around have no meaning. Orwell was a Communist, he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side – he despised imperialism (his experience as a policeman in Burma, under the flag of the British Empire, convinced him of imperialims being a grave sin against humanity) – he believed in freedom of speech, in the artist being able to say what he wanted to say. He believed in democracy. He felt that democracy was the only way to ensure liberty. His word for his beliefs were “Democratic Socialism”. Again, there are folks out there today who have such a biased view of the word “Socialism” that they are unable to see the more complex historical realities at work – in the hot and chaotic decade of the 1930s. They write it off. They say stupid things. They are hardened in their understanding of the labels. Things would morph – yet again – after World War II – with the descent of the “Iron Curtain” – but in the 1930s, all of this was up for grabs. It was philosophical in nature – and yet there were those (like Orwell) who were fighting for their “side”. Partisans, yes. But Orwell broke with the pack with his anti-Stalinism – Stalin went against everything he believed in, everything he had worked his life for … If turning a blind eye to Stalin was required of the “Left” (and again, that word has been so changed in its meaning as to be nearly unrecognizable – especially when said by retards like Sean Hannity) … then Orwell would have no part of it. There were many many awesome writers and thinkers who were in the same boat. Arthur Koestler. Rebecca West. These are giants of the 20th century. Orwell, because of 1984 … well, it’s stupid, but there’s a feeling out there that Orwell’s book was an endorsement of that kind of tyranny. I mean, people who think such things are nuts, as far as I’m concerned – did they even read the book?? But Orwell is a tough case, man – he’s elusive. If you think you have him pinned down, you are wrong. So people get up in arms about him. They love him for his Socialism but then feel betrayed by his anti-Stalinism. They love him for his love of democracy, but then can’t stand that he was a Communist. Whatever … he is indicative of the upheavals of the 1930s, in general.
Here’s an excerpt from early on in Animal Farm, a nice little fairy story of the tyranny of the 20th century.
I prefer 1984 to Animal Farm – I think it’s a deeper book, more haunting, more of a clearer warning … it leaves the specific spectre of Stalinism behind (which Animal Farm describes very literally – there is no question of who all the main characters are supposed to be- they each have their correlation in the Russian Revolution story) … but 1984 goes for a more universal story, and therefore more terrifying. I’m a big Orwell fan. A couple years ago I read a collection of his essays – which range from memories of boarding school life, his time in Burma, a fantastic in-depth 50 page analysis of Charles Dickens (not to be missed!), and his possibly most famous essay about politics and the English language - an eclectic collection. I love the essays.
EXCERPT FROM Animal Farm: A Fairy Story , by George Orwell.
Three nights later old Major died peacefully in his sleep. His body was buried at the foot of the orchard.
This was early in March. During the next three months there was much secret activity. Major’s speech had given to the more intelligent animals on the farm a completely new outlook on life. They did not know when the Rebellion predicted by Major would take place, they had no reason for thinking that it would be within their own lifetime, but they saw clearly that it was their duty to prepare for it. The work of teaching and organising the others fell naturally upon the pigs, who were generally recognised as being the cleverest of the animals. Pre-eminent among the pigs were two young boars named Snowball and Napoleon, whom Mr. Jones was breeding up for sale. Napoleon was a large, rather fierce-looking Berkshire boar, the only Berkshire on the farm, not much of a talker, but with a reputation for getting his own way. Snowball was a more vivacious pig than Napoleon, quicker in speech and more inventive, but was not considered to have the same depth of character. All the other male pigs on the farm were porkers. The best known among them was a small fat pig named Squealer, with very round cheeks, twinkling eyes, nimble movements, and a shrill voice. He was a brilliant talker, and when he was arguing some difficult point he had a way of skipping from side to side and whisking his tail which was somehow very persuasive. The others said of Squealer that he could turn black into white.
These three had elaborated old Major’s teachings into a complete system of thought, to which they gave the name of Animalism. Several nights a week, after Mr. Jones was asleep, they held secret meetings in the barn and expounded the principles of Animalism to the others. At the beginning they met with much stupidity and apathy. Some of the animals talked of the duty of loyalty to Mr. Jones, whom they referred to as “Master,” or made elementary remarks such as “Mr. Jones feeds us. If he were gone, we would starve to death.” Others asked such questions as “Why should we care what happens after we are dead?” or “If this Rebellion is to happen anyway, what difference does it make whether we work for it or not?”, and the pigs had great difficulty in making them see that this was contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The stupidest questions of all were asked by Mollie, the white mare. The very first question she asked Snowball was: “Will there still be sugar after the Rebellion?”
“No,” said Snowball firmly. “We have no means of making sugar on this farm. Besides, you do not need sugar. You will have all the oats and hay you want.”
“And shall I still be allowed to wear ribbons in my mane?” asked Mollie.
“Comrade,” said Snowball, “those ribbons that you are so devoted to are the badge of slavery. Can you not understand that liberty is worth more than ribbons?”
Mollie agreed, but she did not sound very convinced.
The pigs had an even harder struggle to counteract the lies put about by Moses, the tame raven. Moses, who was Mr. Jones’ especial pet, was a spy and a tale-bearer, but he was also a clever talker. He claimed to know of the existence of a mysterious country called Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died. It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds, Moses said. In Sugarcandy Mountain it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges. The animals hated Moses because he told tales and did no work, but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to persuade them that there was no such place.
Their most faithful disciples were the two carthorses, Boxer and Clover. These two had great difficulty in thinking anything out for themselves, but having one accepted the pigs as their teachers, they absorbed everything that they were told, and passed it on to the other animals by simple arguments. They were unfailing in their attendance at the secret meetings in the barn, and led the singing of Beasts of England, with which the meetings always ended.
Now, as it turned out, the Rebellion was achieved much earlier and more easily than anyone had expected. In past years Mr. Jones, although a hard master, had been a capable farmer, but of late he had fallen on evil days. He had become much disheartened after losing money in a lawsuit, and had taken to drinking more than was good for him. For whole days at a time he would lounge in his Windsor chair in the kitchen, reading the newspapers, drinking, and occasionally feeding Moses on crusts of bread soaked in beer. His men were idle and dishonest, the fields were full of weeds, the buildings wanted roofing, the hedges were neglected, and the animals were underfed.
June came and the hay was almost ready for cutting. On Midsummer’s Eve, which was a Saturday, Mr. Jones went into Willingdon and got so drunk at the Red Lion that he did not come back till midday on Sunday. The men had milked the cows in the early morning and then had gone out rabbiting, without bothering to feed the animals. When Mr. Jones got back he immediately went to sleep on the drawing-room sofa with the News of the World over his face, so that when evening came, the animals were still unfed. At last they could stand it no longer. One of the cows broke in the door of the store-shed with her horn and all the animals began to help themselves from the bins. It was just then that Mr. Jones woke up. The next moment he and his four men were in the store-shed with whips in their hands, lashing out in all directions. This was more than the hungry animals could bear. With one accord, though nothing of the kind had been planned beforehand, they flung themselves upon their tormentors. Jones and his men suddenly found themselves being butted and kicked from all sides. The situation was quite out of their control. They had never seen animals behave like this before, and this sudden uprising of creatures whom they were used to thrashing and maltreating just as they chose, frightened them almost out of their wits. After only a moment or two they gave up trying to defend themselves and took to their heels. A minute later all five of them were in full flight down the cart-track that led to the main road, with the animals pursuing them in triumph.
Mrs. Jones looked out of the bedroom window, saw what was happening, hurriedly flung a few possessions into a carpet bag, and slipped out of the farm by another way. Moses sprang off his perch and flapped after her, croaking loudly. Meanwhile the animals had chased Jones and his men out on to the road and slammed the five-barred gate behind them. And so, almost before they knew what was happening, the Rebellion had been successfully carried through: Jones was expelled, and the Manor Farm was theirs.