Friday, June 25, 2010

Notes For June 25th, 2010

This Day In Writing History

On June 25th, 1903, the legendary British novelist George Orwell, the master of dystopic fiction, was born. He was born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India. His father, Richard Blair, was a civil servant. His mother, Ida, was a Frenchwoman. When he was a year old, Orwell's mother moved him to England, settling in the town of Henley-on-Thames. As a young boy, Orwell met poet Jacintha Buddicorn. The two children became inseparable.

When they first met, Buddicorn found Orwell standing on his head in a field. When she asked him why he was doing that, Orwell replied "You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up." Orwell and Buddicorn spent a lot of time reading together, writing poetry, and dreaming of becoming famous writers. He also became close to the rest of the Buddicorn family and spent time hunting, fishing, and birdwatching with Jacintha's brother and sister.

While at prep school, Orwell wrote two poems that were published in the local newspaper. He won a scholarship, but during his college years, he was an average student at best. He co-created and co-edited a college magazine and spent more time writing for it than paying attention to his studies. He dropped out of school due to both his poor academic performance (which made future scholarships unlikely) and his desire to travel to the East.

In October of 1922, Orwell went to Burma, (now known as Myanmar) where he joined the Indian Imperial Police. He was posted briefly to Maymyo, then to Myaungmya. By 1924, Orwell was promoted to Assistant District Superintendent and posted to Syriam. In 1925, he went to Insein, home of the second-largest prison in Burma. A year later, he moved to Moulmein, where his grandmother lived. At the end of 1926, Orwell moved on to Kath, where he contracted Dengue fever. He was allowed to go home to England on leave. While home and recovering, Orwell decided that he had tired of colonial life and police work, so he resigned from the Indian Imperial Police and decided to become a writer. He used his experiences in Burma as the basis of his first novel, Burmese Days, which was published in 1934.

Orwell's first published work was a non-fiction book called Down And Out In London And Paris (1933), which is an account of his life as a struggling writer, as he worked at menial jobs to support himself while he wrote. He had moved to Paris in 1928 because of its low cost of living and the bohemian lifestyle that attracted many aspiring writers. In 1929, Orwell fell ill and all of his money was stolen from his room at the boarding house where he lived. He later returned to London and took a job teaching at a boy's school.

Orwell's early books were published by Victor Gollancz, whose publishing house was an outlet for radical and socialist books. Orwell wrote two more novels, A Clergyman's Daughter (1935) and Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936), but later disowned them, claiming that they weren't his best works - he had just written them to earn money at a time when he was broke.

Of the two, Keep The Aspidistra Flying is the better. It's a grim black comedy about an aspiring poet, Gordon Comstock, who comes from an affluent, respectable family, but believes that in order to be a poet, one must renounce wealth. So, he quits his promising new job as an advertising copywriter and takes a menial job while he writes, living in a grubby rented room. He both loves and loathes his new life. Comstock finally feels like a real poet, but he resents having to work at boring menial jobs to support himself while he writes. His poverty is a frequent source of humiliation, and he soon becomes a deeply neurotic, absurd parody of himself.

Later, Gollancz encouraged Orwell to investigate and write about the bleak conditions in Northern England, and he went to the poor coal mining town of Wigan, where he lived in a dirty room over a tripe shop. He met many people and took extensive notes of the living conditions and wages, explored the mine, and spent days in the town's library researching public health records, working conditions in mines, and other data. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is a straightforward documentary about life in Wigan. The second is Orwell's philosophical attempt to answer a nagging question; if socialism can improve the appalling conditions in Wigan and such places around the world - which it can - then why aren't we all socialists? Orwell places the blame on the ferocious prejudices of the middle class against the lower working class and other people who become associated with socialism, such as "sandal wearers" (hippies), health nuts, sex maniacs, pacifists, and feminists. (Orwell's words) He goes on to say that "The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight."

The second section of The Road To Wigan Pier shows the early development of Orwell's personal philosophy and his skill as a satirist, both of which have been misconstrued as endorsements of fascism or conservatism. Orwell was, in fact, a lifelong socialist. Not long after writing The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell volunteered to fight General Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War, using his contacts in the Labour Party to get a letter of introduction. In Spain, Orwell joined the POUM, (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista - the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) an ally of Britain's Labour Party, which he was a member of.

At the time, the POUM was one of a number of leftist factions that had formed a loose coalition to defend the Spanish Republic from the fascists. Another faction, the Spanish Communist Party, which was controlled by the Soviet Union, denounced the POUM as a Trotskyist organization and embarked on a campaign to suppress it, first by falsely claiming that the POUM was collaborating with the fascists, then, near the end of the war, outlawing the party and attacking its members. When Orwell was accused of being a collaborator, he came to hate Soviet communism. He still fought the fascists and was shot in the throat by a sniper. After he recovered in a POUM hospital, Orwell and his wife barely managed to escape Spain following the fall of Barcelona. Tragically, the infighting between the Spanish Communist Party and the other leftist factions would give the fascists the opportunity to win the war.

Orwell's experience with Soviet communism and its methods of propaganda and oppression would have a lasting effect on him and lead him to write his two greatest novels, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Animal Farm was an anti-Stalinist fable set on a farm where the animals are ruthlessly oppressed and exploited by the humans for whom they toil. So, the pigs Old Major (who symbolizes Lenin), Napoleon (Stalin), Snowball (Trotsky), and Squealer (Soviet propaganda minister Vyacheslav Molotov) stage a violent revolution and overthrow the humans. But then, Napoleon assumes dictatorial power, establishes totalitarian rule, and the animals' new utopia becomes even more oppressive and miserable than their existence under human rule.

Declared unfit for military service during World War 2, (though he supervised broadcasts to India for the BBC to help the war effort) Orwell had completed Animal Farm in 1944, but no publisher would touch it because the Soviet Union was a key ally in the fight against the Nazis. It was published after the war, though, to great acclaim, and was adapted an animated British feature film in 1954, and later in 1999 as a live-action American TV movie.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, was Orwell's last and greatest novel. Set in Oceania, formerly England, now a dystopic, totalitarian state of the distant future, it tells the story of Winston Smith, a civil servant who works in the state's propaganda division. Smith grows disillusioned with the regime and its pervasive surveillance and control of the people, so he decides to start a rebellion. The regime's leader is a mysterious figure known only as Big Brother, and he's always watching. The phrase "big brother" was introduced into the English lexicon by Orwell's novel. Other clever touches include names such as the Ministry Of Peace (which deals with war), and the Ministry Of Love (which tortures people).

A masterpiece of science fiction and political allegory, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in June of 1949 to great acclaim. It remains a classic to this day. Orwell managed to complete the novel despite being severely ill with tuberculosis. He also wrote frequently to friends, including his childhood sweetheart Jacintha Buddicorn, who was shocked to learn that the celebrated novelist George Orwell was actually her childhood sweetheart Eric Blair, writing under a pseudonym. Sadly, Orwell died of tuberculosis in January of 1950, at the age of 46. He'd had numerous lung problems over the years, including chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. He was also a heavy smoker - a habit he took to his grave.

In the years since the publication of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the right in the United States and Europe embraced these novels as the bibles of anti-communism. George Orwell became their hero, and this led to a popular misconception that he had been a staunch conservative - perhaps even a fascist - although he was really a socialist.

The lesson Orwell teaches us in his classic novels is that even an ideal as noble as socialism can become corrupted and twisted into something far worse than the ills it seeks to cure. And yet, he remained a lifelong socialist and always hoped for a better world free of poverty, inequality, and social injustice.

Quote Of The Day

"There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher's daughter." - George Orwell

Vanguard Video

Today's video features the original UK theatrical trailer for the classic feature film adaptation of George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was released in - 1984! It starred John Hurt and Sir Richard Burton. Enjoy!

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