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Thoughts: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Keep the Aspidistra FlyingKeep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don’t you understand that one isn’t a full human being – that one doesn’t feel a human being – unless one’s got money in one’s pocket?

Orwell lays it on THICK in Keep the Aspidistra Flying employing a stubborn protagonist, Gordon Comstock, to wage his war on money and humanity’s dependence upon it.

However, while I find plenty of circumstances to which I can relate – or even principles to which I hoped to adhere in my own younger days – I find Gordon hypocritical and at times nearly unbearable. I absolutely LOVE George Orwell but I do not classify Aspidistra as a favorite.

The story arc begins with youthful naivety – a socialist declaration of war on capitalist society and its life blood. It then peaks with uncomfortable conflict between Gordon and his relationships; trying to marry his principled boycotts and ambition to live a normal life. We then find Gordon embracing his descent into the mud; wanting only to live a menial and destitute life without money at all. I will not divulge the resolution of this…comedy.

Ultimately, Gordon pits himself against an unwavering enemy which fosters an internal conflict – between rising and sinking, living outside of society on principle or within society on money, treating women fairly or selfishly wallowing in his choices. And yet he glorifies the penniless side only to find utter unhappiness. I imagine those who truly hate money would genuinely rejoice in their squalor rather than blame money for it. Perhaps Gordon only blames a lack of meaning in life to the presence of money.

Mile after mile of mean lonely houses, let off in flats and single rooms; not homes, not communities, just clusters of meaningless lives driving in a sort of drowsy chaos to the grave!

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Posted by on February 20, 2017 in George Orwell

 

Thoughts: A Clergyman’s Daughter

A Clergyman's DaughterA Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In A Clergyman’s Daughter, Orwell wrestles with similar socio-economic issues which he presents in other works. Yet another layer manifests itself as the foundation for his story.

It would seem that Orwell himself materializes in the story, as he often does in his less allegorical novels. The reader can sense how Orwell implanted himself as Mr. Warburton in order to articulate his religious and philosophical ideas. And, like Orwell, Mr. Warburton experiences rejection to marriage proposals from a clergyman’s daughter. But the reader might find Orwell’s experiences shared with Dorothy, the protagonist in A Clergyman’s Daughter, as a hops picker and private school teacher intriguing. What would happen to her, the real clergyman’s daughter whom he loved, if he put her through his life?

Dorothy, daughter of a clergyman, who labors to upkeep the church, its congregation and endeavours, suddenly undergoes poverty-stricken experiences much like those Orwell himself experienced. Who would a person become if their life not only changed direction, but left them completely? What would happen to someone’s life if their faith or lack thereof disappeared?

I imagined Dorothy as a voodoo doll in the hands of Orwell while he pinned her with different horrific circumstances – a guinea pig given different drugs in order to test the effects. I qualified the book as an experiment in the concepts of nature versus nurture and an opportunity for Orwell to further criticize modern socio-economic states. In a way, the book does debate the two elements but adds a more personal element. Ultimately, the story argues for nature since Dorothy imagines her self unchanged. Yet she does not convince me. Perhaps, if anything, the nurturing experiences she endours within the novel help her to know her constant self whom she had little awareness of or familiarity with before going through Orwell’s real-life trials. Originally, like Mr. Warburton, Orwell might have wanted to break the real clergyman’s daughter of her faith because he loved her and felt her intellect wasted. Perhaps by showing her his life and experience she would ultimately see things his way and change. But he finds that putting one nature through someone else’s nurture cannot reshape that nature. The nature remains, the self simply understands it better.

And for Dorothy, she resolves to “seek” and loses confidence that she had “found”, which proves contrary to Mr. Warburton’s convictions that he has “found” the real meaninglessness in life. For him, amusement comes forward as the true meaning in life. Dorothy still feels empty, where he had discovered his fill. Dorothy resolves to do and live rather than think and philosophize, for in doing and living, she finds herself useful and helpful. Her feelings about meaning and faith prove irrelevant to her convictions.

Yet I wonder what Orwell’s audience might take from this philosophical resolution. Unfortunately, I imagine many misunderstandings. He does not promote the idea that women ought to remain busy and ignore nagging inclinations to think. If anything, Dorothy entertained every nag and thought and thought and thought! He does not promote the absence of faith as a concept to embrace or ignore. Perhaps he promotes a balance between what one believes and how one lives and to always prioritize the latter. Or, like in so many great works of art, he promotes nothing. Rather, he simply invites readers near his desk to consider some things with him.

However, I’ve heard rumor that Orwell all but disowned this work. Admittedly, I have not researched this claim, but will indulge my speculation. If Orwell designed this literary experiment, of replacing a religious woman’s life with his own, he wagers on a certain outcome. Perhaps he wagered wrong. As a literary artist, presumably with integrity, he cannot “force” his desired outcome and settled for the distasteful one he found. Or, in all possibility, he found himself written into a corner, without the desired objective outcome, and had to pretend he had one. In any case, I wish I knew. I didn’t find the book, or concept, half bad, though not his best work.

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Posted by on October 21, 2012 in George Orwell

 

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Thoughts: 1984

19841984 by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine a massive boulder suspended high above the ground; representing unparalleled intellectual exhilaration, the height of scholastic titillation. The weight of the rock represents its significance while also showing its propensity to fall downward. And now you instantly realize its antithesis, as if it had fallen down, and you’re left with a sickened heart and passionate sorrow. Yet somehow, both extremes are accepted to exist simultaneously; become inseparable and co-dependent, an addiction of the mind. This is 1984 – which I both vigorously love but utterly despise.

Throughout the narrative, I found myself, as in any good story, aligning against the establishment – cheering for the success, even if a martyred success, of the protagonist. Generally speaking, it seems that it’s becoming more and more appreciated when a story does not follow the typical form of a problem overcome or defeated by its protagonist. 1984 not only satisfies this growing demand, it almost spits in your face; as if telling you that you never really wanted to see a protagonist fail at all – at least to this degree and to this opponent – to find that you, as the reader, were dooped all the same. And let me just say, the very last sentence metaphorically sums up Orwell’s message beautifully.

Despite its demoralizing resolution, I very much enjoyed the political warnings and exaggerated (I hope) circumstances of the political order. To think that any of this was possible, in ideology or realization, is to feel the keenest fear of one’s own species and of oneself. How could people be capable of the methodical deconstruction of all the good in humanity? And how could any one person not only accept it but promote it? Let’s face it – the Party is BRILLIANT in understanding people and seeing what needs to be done to implement their order. To me, that is as fearful as the consequences of subversion.

At this point it is cliche, but this work is possibly one of the most timeless pieces I’ve ever read!

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in George Orwell

 

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Thoughts: Animal Farm

Animal FarmAnimal Farm by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Socialism? A bad thing?!? Actually maybe not. Though George Orwell penned Animal Farm during the rise of the Soviet Union, I got the distinct impression in this political “fairy tale” that he was not bashing the political state for its ideology, as I had expected, but rather pessimistically professing its doom; its destiny to fail. What I saw was its horrid desecration, which had brought the story full circle; from oppression to oppression – leading the reader to expect another revolution against the rule of the pigs. Personally, I am flirting with the idea that the only true realization of socialism may be in anarchy.

After the first Revolution, certain basic needs were met; namely to enjoy the fruits of one’s own labor. Of course, this is a fundamental aspect of capitalism. But socialism, and Orwell, take this need to a larger scale,; for the group to enjoy the fruits of their labor as a whole. If we backtrack, however, and take this need, this ideal, back to a more primitive level of individualism, we can see the glimmer of anarchy – living off one’s own spoils without leadership or government to get in the way; no human “masters”. I think the problem with applying this ideal to a larger scope of a group or nation is that some sort of leadership is required to implement it and make sure it remains in place. This inevitably and unfortunately leads to corrupt aspirations and abuses of power. There in lies the problem of socialism; an incredibly benign and moral idea downtrodden by the heavy foot of human self glorification.

To be clear, I don’t intend to liken socialism to anarchy. But I think the goal of every person is to earn his own keep with dignity. And I think that socialism provides this idiom when the group or nation is understood as one large individual. In reality, it is not and leadership and government is needed to maintain order; as if the leadership imposes itself as the brain of the large individual.

While reading I actual thought of a story from the Bible, when the prophet, or Seer as they called him at the time, discouraged the Israelites from crowning a king – that God was their king and they needed no other. I think this might be the only way that socialism might work! A nation of people would have to abide by a law, a moral code, unenforced or imposed by any government, in order to survive as an ideal socialist state. And if this is the only way it can survive, it would kind of look like anarchy, with the absence of government, just at a national or group level.

Anyhow, I am no political theorist but this was my reaction to Animal Farm; a pleasantly simple read, with character and ideological intrigue.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in George Orwell

 

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Thoughts: Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and LondonDown and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

Down and Out in Paris and London – what a cliche title. Yet as you can see from the above epitaph, this account of the impoverished and employed slaves breaks so many popular assumptions about the depraved degenerates and wandering vagabonds of our societies. It is disheartening to even consider that the brilliant reason for presenting this account in a first-person narrative is not because it was necessarily experienced by the author (which it could have been) but rather so people will, for perhaps only a moment, put their prejudices aside and see the reality of this life; not only of its existence but of its essence.

Readers may note that while reading certain books, their mind may start wondering; reading the words but not registering them, then feeling like they’re trying to recollect a particular thirty second period of a redundant commute. Orwell does not write these books. He has an incomparable talent.

The literary split of the narrative, obviously defined by the separation of the two cities, serves to clearly illustrate Orwell’s thesis about social hierarchy and its inherent haughtiness. His experience in the Parisian restaurant industry serves as a metaphor for what is more literally articulated by his experience in London.

As a plongeur in Paris, the narrator describes first-hand how restaurants, and presumably other institutions of employment, prosper from the illusion of quality service and refinement. It is not only the tablecloths, lighting fixtures, waiter prostration, etc. that build this illusion, but the perspective of the patrons as well. Apparently it is rare, if not impossible, to find a French waiter in Paris. Why? Perhaps it is because they don’t want to serve their own countrymen, feeling that it somehow is below their station as Frenchmen. However, I also wondered if it reinforces the prejudice of the French customer who may want to entertain the notion that other races are naturally created for servitude. If this is true, than why would a restaurant manager hire waiters who would turn the customer off to their illusory station and drive them from the establishment? It’s in his best interest to reinforce the illusion of innate worth.

Orwell further explains how different posts find pride in their work; the cook in being a working man and not a server like waiters, a kitchen hand, or plongeur, only able to associate his pride with his willingness to do anything and do it efficiently. Despite having equal pride, fixed to various instances of human qualities, the caste system develops.

To my reading, these hierarchical systems, which organize the employees and define the relationship between employee and patron, are transient and bolster no claim to the innate worth of any class. Managers in restaurants are only powerful because their place within the system controls the money and labor; yet every link in the chain is important for the machine to work. Similarly, the divide between the rich, or even middle-class workers, and the tramps is necessary for the machine to work. The construction of the hierarchy props up a false sense of a person’s intrinsic value. Even if that value is based on power, all one has to do is break down the social construct and the “powerful” become powerless beyond their own natural ability. Their worth, when isolated and removed from the system, is no different than the tramp or plongeur.

If race and nationality are bricks in the illusive value system, so is religion and charity. Orwell describes casual houses and Salvation Army locations as monetarily free, almost, but expensive in dignity, natural behavior and religious imitation. These prices, like money, only serve to make the benefactor richer in their own self-righteousness. If there goal was to simply feed and house the vagabond, one would think them satisfied to this end alone. When in reality, their satisfaction comes from knowing they “tried” to right the spirit of the tramp.

This compels me to discuss a much broader and equally fallible stigma. The attitude toward vagrancy, even today, is soaked with contempt. After all, homeless people are simply too lazy to get a job and waste all their money on intoxicants. It doesn’t seem possible, within the realm of popular consciousness, to consider that these vagabonds are denied “conventional employment” because of stereotypes rather than merits. Regardless, to be shown anything less than shameless gratitude for the scraps from the higher class’s table is blindingly infuriating. Why? Doesn’t this mean that those of the higher classes see those below them as dependent children? or people who should see themselves as worthless parasites on society?

Undeniably.

The most fortitudinous characters of the middle and upper classes wouldn’t be able to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps from these horrid conditions and in the face of a scornful society which depends on instilling artificial value in place of natural worth. Furthermore, those who have nothing are shown to be sharing the pennies they have amongst themselves, caring for one another, while the “noble sympathizers” and “honorable souls” ask for a man’s dignity in exchange for the same pennies which are of little value to them. What is valuable is reinforcing their own claim to a righteousness they have artificially defined themselves. Perhaps the higher classes are the dependent ones, the parasites on humanity. In order to justify their excess and simultaneously quench this ravenous desire to see themselves as “good” people, they feed on the drudgery and loathsome existence of the homeless. Those in higher classes will call those in the lower to pick themselves up, but what being would wish away their own sustenance? Consider this:

A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.

To save their place in the hierarchy, the educated and wealthier classes depend on the plongeurs and degenerate of the world to stay in their place. If anything about this caste system was natural, it wouldn’t necessitate this social “order” to maintain it. If there were anything real about the current system, the logical discord of discouraging vagrancy by encouraging inhumane practices, of putting out one fire with another, would not exist.

I know this sounds malicious; as though those in the upper classes are generally hateful. I don’t intend to make that argument and neither does Orwell. This is as flawed in reasoning as to assume that all vagabonds are innately worthless. Yet this acknowledgement should not, and does not, serve as a crutch. It is not enough to settle for being “faultless” in driving this machine. The machine itself is absolutely corrupting for both the degenerate and the blessed. It is understandably attractive for those with power and assets and soothing for the “down and out” to be understood. Whether at fault or not, and whether victimized or not, it is important to see the other as they really are and not accept trivial prejudices that relieve us of natural responsibility for our fellow man.

Orwell’s storytelling is fluid, captivating and oftentimes entertaining. His social philosophies are digestible and, in this case, very personable. But do these qualities matter if we pass them off? Is there any value if our ears are closed and our minds hardened? Simply put, can you walk in the soleless boots of a tramp, work in a sweltering cellar kitchen, and then look to the person who’s place your taking and see your equal? Your self?

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in George Orwell

 

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Thoughts: Burmese Days

Burmese DaysBurmese Days by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To introduce this edition of Burmese Days, Malcolm Muggeridge describes George Orwell as a self-contained dichotomy. In most of his published works, Orwell criticizes apparent social injustices but also abhors certain behaviors and choices of those under the powerful thumb. In other works, he rails against the imbalance of capitalism but warns against its solution – the terror of totalitarian regimes and their infant roots in socialism. While many readers may tire of Orwell’s lack of conviction, I find honesty and clarity. So many writers struggle, almost unnaturally, to find the answer which would catapult them into history as a visionary hero. Orwell naturally cringes at injustices, even when one injustice seeks to trounce another. Like a King Arthur of old, Orwell discovers, rather than invents, the idea that justice exists in personally discovered truths which each person must embody and live without the control of outside forces; like a benign anarchy.

In British-occupied Burma, during the days of English imperialism in India, Orwell pits characters from both sides of the racial divide against each other and around Flory, a man obviously symbolic of Orwell himself – voicing the distress and injustices of the social outcast but with flaws of his own. Flory’s ailment rises from a raging sense of loneliness while posted in Burma with the local English government. Yet despite his feelings toward the injustices in Burma, he pursues solace in someone only because of her skin color and country of origin. Under the surface, I think they both despise what the other has to offer.

But while Flory pursues his remedy, other men, proud of their English “club”, rage violently and bitterly against the native people who represent the cause of their loneliness; spitting hateful slurs and harboring disgustingly little value for their lives. Yet even as Orwell paints a discouraging image of white men, Burmese officials and citizens exercise poor habits and deplorable means of rising to the top of the status quo.

Both sides are flawed but exist within one system.

The interminable argument over the white man’s burden and the supposed “inferiority” of under-developed countries proves inconsequential when it comes to the good and happiness of the people involved. Whatever motivation inspires men, either the occupied or occupying, benign or ill-conceived, will not be more effective than a personal exercise of acceptance and integrity in unjust and imbalanced circumstances.

The book resolves beautifully, as only Orwell can do. His characters respond to circumstances invented by Orwell in the only fashion they can. As discouraging as the resolution may seem, it signifies the backward arrangement of power versus the simple, uncontrollable flow of justice. When men arrange the power system, right and wrong dissolve and those in power flourish while those out of power diminish. No sense of moral right can survive in such a system with rules which only work in favor of keeping the powerful in place. Because our world revolves around these types of systems, we can choose to participate or do what is right while in positions dictated by a twisted system.

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Posted by on January 2, 2012 in George Orwell

 

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