Or Not So Well

Glyn Salton-Cox on what "Or Orwell" and "Orwell's Nose" can tell us about the much-studied George Orwell.

Or Not So Well

Or Orwell by Alex Woloch. Harvard University Press. 378 pages.Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland. Reaktion Books. 240 pages.

ONE OF THE THINGS that shouldn’t be said about Orwell is that there’s nothing new to say about Orwell. But one might be excused for saying so, as from a cursory glance the topic appears to be exhausted, with both admirers and detractors of Orwell bogged down in a series of dogmatic positions. Like Orwell’s dismayed depiction of the Republican and Fascist lines in Homage to Catalonia, such entrenchments seem too far away from each other for anything more than desultory pot-shots to be fired from their antiquated critical armories. As Alex Woloch rightly observes in his ambitious new study Or Orwell, the last 30 years or so of this stalemate have continued largely because of the enduring antimonies of “Theory” and “Orwell” — much like “Paul de Man” and “History,” there seems no hope for any sort of reconciliation or synthesis between the thinker and the concept.

Yet clearly, there still remains much to be said about Orwell. Historically speaking, for instance, the role of Orwell’s sexual politics in the formation of the romanticized postwar nuclear family has not yet been explored. Nor has the extent and ramifications of the Popular Frontism of his political thought even though he railed against the Popular Front itself. Present political developments urge further engagement. It is surely worth interrogating Orwell’s complex series of identifications with the British Labour Party in the light of its current crisis, in which the question of vanguardism looms large. Similarly, in current US politics, we could ask what a continuing commitment to the possibility of parliamentary socialist democracy tells us about the Democratic Party’s rejection of vital new generations of radical antiracist, antistate, and queer political formations.

For all the polemical tone here, the point is that it’s important not to dismiss Orwell in the face of convulsive crises of representative democracy, but rather to revisit the key premises of his political thought in order to better understand an electoral imaginary he quite centrally defined. In this vein, Woloch’s Or Orwell positions itself as an attempt to reinvigorate the troubled relationship between radical thought and electoral politics. The prologue, “Reagan and Theory,” sets out Woloch’s two main arguments: the academic left has deserted the electoral field, in which the possibility of democratic socialism still inheres; and a theoretically informed close reading of Orwell can provide vital resources for thinking through this knotty problem. While some aspects are somewhat familiar — do we really need another denunciation of Judith Butler’s semiotic fiddling while the Supreme Court burns? — Woloch’s premises are, like Orwell himself, worth taking seriously.

At the core of Woloch’s study is the claim that both admirers and detractors have fundamentally misunderstood Orwell’s plain style. The starting point here is Woloch’s acute observation that Orwell’s “writing practice” has consistently been misread “as a hydraulic system for his ethical and political commitments.” In a virtuoso series of readings that complicate Orwell’s famous dictum “good prose is like a window pane,” Woloch offers a thoroughgoing critique of the view that Orwell’s style is naïvely empiricist or plainly representational. Orwell, Woloch notes, actually likes a little bit of dust on his windows, especially when they look into a junk shop. His prose is “structured by imbalance — interweaving empathic and restrained tendencies, irony and urgency, gaps and excesses, distension and compression.” In a bold, counterintuitive turn given Orwell’s incessant polemics against dialectical thinking, Woloch argues that the processes of Orwell’s thought and writing are fundamentally dialectical, which allows him to reinscribe Orwell’s (in)famously dogged intentionality into a more complex scene of writing.

Indeed, Woloch’s Orwell is essentially Hegelian: a subject struggling for self-realization in, through, and against language. Orwell’s famous opening to “Shooting An Elephant,” in which he pictures himself as “hated by large numbers of people — the only time I have been important enough for this to happen to me” is broadened by Woloch beyond the “merely biographical or topical.” Indeed, it emerges “as an almost strictly Hegelian enactment of writing’s self-generating and thus dissonant force.” Hegel is again invoked in Woloch’s reading of Orwell’s discussion of V-1 rockets in an “As I Please” column from 1944. Orwell hones in on the strange way in which Londoners wished for the sound of the rocket to continue, as when the sound stopped the rocket was about to fall. Woloch responds: “the lapsed time here is quite similar to that temporal interval, which is, in the Hegelian description, implicated into self-consciousness.” Once again, Woloch notes Orwell’s “quasi-Hegelian language” in an article about book reviewing that conceives of book reviews as “articles in themselves.” For Woloch, the twists and turns of reference in this article about book reviewing are typical of a uniquely self-conscious style, always reaching beyond itself in the moment of self-constitution.

One might reasonably maintain, however, that the interplay of language and subject across time is itself dialectical — that this was Hegel’s great discovery, and that it is instantiated in writing as such. Woloch almost seems to acknowledge this problem at several points, even as he continues to make claims for Orwell’s unique style. “[T]hese passages, ranging across Part One of Wigan Pier, suggest how almost any thought has the potential to oversubstantialize itself,” he writes. Or, analyzing a moment of self-consciousness in one of Orwell’s London Letters: “Almost any text contains the potential, which is signaled in this gesture, to shift from discussing an outside topic to becoming a reflection (or ‘commentary’) on itself.” In discussing Orwell on how the isolation of Robinson Crusoe could only have been imagined by a very social Defoe, Woloch remarks, “More generally, however, we could argue that any written thought […] entails a critical non-identity between the represented event of thinking and the active interiority of the writer.” This is well put. But why then do we need Orwell, other than to get Woloch going?

But, of course, Orwell gets us all going, at least initially. It’s a telling aspect of Or Orwell that, alongside Inside the Whale and the “As I Please” columns, the two texts Woloch spends a great deal of time on are “A Hanging” and “Shooting An Elephant,” both staples of high school and first-year writing courses. Much of the self-contained elegance of Woloch’s analysis derives from how, for recent generations of Anglophone readers, Orwell has come to stand for good writing as such, which is radicalized by Woloch into an almost total, exhaustive identification of Orwell with writing itself. The same observation can be made about Woloch’s identification of Orwell as “post-structuralist.” It isn’t at all clear that Orwell’s writing itself is generating these large claims about language so much as Woloch’s ingenuity working away on what we are trained to see as the prose of the world.

This isn’t to say, of course, that such a tension isn’t productive, and indeed some of the readings in Or Orwell are exceptionally incisive. Woloch’s discussion of the “column as form,” for instance, which focuses on Orwell’s “As I Please” columns for Tribune in the mid-1940s, offers a startling reconsideration of the relationship between “reflection and immediacy” encoded in the short form in a series of immanent readings worthy of the echo of Adorno in its subtitle. The analysis of Orwell’s joint critique of individualism and totalitarianism in particular is revelatory, and is a bracing corrective for readers used to easy generalization about the relationship between these terms. Most of all, the ongoing stress on “the overlooked” as Orwell’s guiding formal and thematic concern is very well done indeed, tirelessly drawing out the implications of Orwell’s forms of attention in his writing for a broad commitment to social justice.

The real problem here is the political case for Orwell and democratic socialism. I can see a strong argument for careful dialectical thinking and attention to the nuances of language, but Woloch’s relentless attention to form means there’s no real engagement with the detailed content of Orwell’s political thought — a telling phrase that recurs throughout is “formal logic.” This results in some quite strange readings. Examining, for instance, a passage in which Orwell discusses “the advantage that an artist derives from being born into a relatively healthy society,” Woloch makes no comment whatsoever about the question of the relative health of a society. What might this mean for Orwell? What are its strengths as a political statement, what are its limitations and exclusions? We don’t find out.

But the biggest problem of Or Orwell is that the exaggerated claims made for Orwell’s writing creates a markedly antidemocratic strain in Woloch’s analysis. For instance, it is clear from a consideration of witness testimony that Orwell’s remarks on the V-1 rocket are not as original as Woloch makes out. One begins to suspect that the institutional power of “Orwell” as a high cultural figure is implicitly privileged over the incisive aspects of popular reaction. Throughout the book, remarks that might as easily be found in the Mass Observation archive, the project from the period that recorded public attitudes and language, are invested with an almost hieratic brilliance. In other words, political insight might be drawn from a broader social field than Woloch’s study allows.

Woloch might have deployed Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “good sense” as a possible counterweight to the singularity of Orwell’s writing. Gramsci argues that underlying the cliché of “common sense” there is another, more radical layer of popular perception, a revolutionary insight coded within and against the most ordinary of actions and utterances. Gramsci is one of a number of figures who aren’t discussed in Or Orwell, and whose inclusion could have strengthened Woloch’s claim to be rearticulating “Orwell” and “theory.” The Gramscian question could be further pursued through the thinking of the major cultural theorist Stuart Hall; the Hegelian encounter of “Shooting an Elephant” might have benefited from an engagement with Frantz Fanon’s decolonial dialectics; and the very question of democratic socialism left at least this reader wondering how Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s “radical democracy” fit into the picture. Most glaringly of all, Marx is not approached, receiving only one mention in the index. These omissions allow Woloch to make some rather overblown claims, like “[t]he great freeing act of Orwell’s writing is to dissociate Socialism from (what can then be redefined as) its Stalinist negation.” Perhaps — but, as Woloch of course knows, that was also the project of the massive body of leftist thought generally known as Western Marxism. How is Orwell’s “freeing” distinct from, say, the work of Adorno, clearly a major influence on Woloch’s method? Aside from some glancing references and an astute footnote, again, we don’t find out.

For all the book’s conceptual elegance, this lack of engagement both with a broader social field and with major theorists represents a spilled opportunity. The central question that the book tantalizingly raises — that of the articulation of socialism, electoral politics, and democracy more broadly — is never more than briefly and hesitantly approached, and any sense of political praxis other than that of writing itself vanishes from view. This study will be valued as a highly original interpretation of Orwell (as a study of Orwell’s style it is doubtful to be superseded any time soon), and as an extremely brilliant example of theoretically sophisticated close reading, but I think it unlikely to contribute substantively to debates about socialism and democracy as such.

It’s harder to guess what readers will make of John Sutherland’s quixotic Orwell’s Nose. Subtitled “a pathological biography,” Sutherland’s short jeu d’esprit is concerned with Orwell’s ongoing obsession with the odiferous, and was occasioned by Sutherland’s own loss of the sense of smell.

In the case of Orwell’s Nose, one can, then, surely be forgiven for taking a symptomatic approach. Sutherland is perhaps best known for his meticulous authorized biography of Stephen Spender, and he has carefully curated Spender’s legacy to this day. In the light of this arduous labor, it’s hard not to see his Orwell book as the sudden lifting of a massive repression — irreverent, conjectural, even scurrilous, Sutherland’s narrative delights in the funky underside of this most revered of literary figures, even as it clearly exhibits a continued affection for him.

A lot of the material in Orwell’s Nose is already well known, but Sutherland excavates it in new, if not exactly fresh ways. Sutherland is interesting on Orwell’s episodes of sexual violence, arguing that they are typically occasioned not only by an outdoor, pastoral setting (as has been noted), but that the olfactory aspect of the countryside might play a part. The fennel masturbation scene in A Clergyman’s Daughter comes into clearer focus with this particular reading of Orwell’s psychopathology. Sutherland also advances the curious twist on Orwell’s often-noted masochistic tendencies, that he actually was engaged in a long game of suicide-by-cigarettes, a gloomy meditation somewhat leavened by an appendix detailing different brands of cigarettes enjoyed by Orwell and his literary creations. Such is the gleeful pleasure Sutherland takes in these strange admixtures of horror and delight, that it seems unfair to mount a critique of the book’s political and methodological assumptions, which appear at points to condemn any theorization of the political. And to give Sutherland his due, he is unflinching in his discussion of Orwell’s frightful treatment of his friends, and makes no apology for Orwell’s rampant misogyny (even as he is a rather glib about its more violent manifestations).

What makes Sutherland’s book so apposite is how it tropes the experience of reading Orwell itself. Like Orwell entering a working-class interior, for many readers the stench of Orwell’s views is so revolting that it’s hard to overcome, however formally nuanced one might discover his writing to be, and however seriously one tries to take his formulations. This might sound rather like a cheap pot shot, but it is a genuine problem. Orwell still needs to be further explored — even if, perhaps, pace Woloch, this might be carried out symptomatically. The question is how one can start to approach Orwell from a critical perspective, without drawing the obvious series of inferences: that, say, there is a direct line from “Notes on Nationalism” to “All Lives Matter,” and so there’s no point thinking about racialization in Orwell, or that Orwell’s thoroughgoing homophobia makes him a completely barren site for an investigation of midcentury sexuality.

These two studies, in their very different ways, do begin to clear the ground for such work. Sutherland’s book is at turns frivolous and admiring, but it is important to have all the dirt on Orwell from someone who obviously likes him. In direct contrast to Woloch, who takes the validity of Orwell’s political aspiration as a given, I do think that Orwell must, from the very start, be opposed (as the reader may have guessed by this point). Yet one of the fundamental guidelines of polemical critique is that the critic must first assemble the strongest possible version of the position they wish to oppose, even to the point of constructing a more elegant architecture of that position than exists in its original formulation. Woloch’s greatest contribution, then, may be that he has given us the best case for scholarship critical of Orwell’s so-called democratic socialism rather than a defense of it. In other words, as Marx famously rendered Hegel, perhaps Or Orwell needs to be stood on its head.


Glyn Salton-Cox is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His monograph From the Homintern to the Ministry of Love: Queer Leftist Writing of the 1930s is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.

LARB Contributor

Glyn Salton-Cox is assistant professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is guest editor, with Leo Mellor, of a special edition of Critical Quarterly on “The Long 1930s” (October 2015); his work has also appeared in Modern Language Quarterly and Comparative Literature. His monograph From the Homintern to the Ministry of Love: Queer Leftist Writing of the 1930s is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.


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