As I Please: Orwellian Insights

The term “Orwellian” typically implies something ominous, especially in the realm of politics, thanks to the British writer’s monitory fantasies 1984 and Animal Farm. But here I use the adjective more loosely, referring to Orwell’s perceptive treatment of a wide range of subjects.

Many of the essays appearing in As I Please, the third volume of his collected articles and letters, were originally published in a Tribune column (1943-45) of that same name. There is Orwell’s delightful piece about his favorite pub, “The Moon Under Water.” He describes it as “uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries.” At this establishment “it always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano,” and so forth. Orwell admits further on that it is not a real place, but an imaginary farrago based on his favorite drinking establishments. Other essays offer a defense of English cooking and advice on how to make a proper cup of tea.

There is a fascinating bit of wartime sociology in a discussion about the antagonism between American soldiers and their English hosts. In it we glimpse something of the writer’s persistent fairness. He called for open debate about the causes of animosity and resentment, whereas most contemporaries tried to sweep it under the rug. To his mind, “it is just because one does want a good relationship between the two countries that one wants plain speaking.” This is markedly different from the typically insincere musings on “tolerance,” both then and now.

While one may not always agree with Orwell, his objectivity is disarming. In recalling the descriptions of misery in Victorian England by early radicals, he notes “The London slums are still bad enough, but they are nothing to those of the nineteenth century. Gone are the days when a single room used to be inhabited by four families, one in each corner, and when incest and infanticide were taken almost for granted.” Although he was a Marxist (at least selectively) Orwell admits that the socialist dogma that the “condition of the working class will grow worse and not better” was an incorrect prognosis. Economic progress had occurred without the need for revolution.

In a reflection on religion and immortality, the author opines: “I do not want the belief in life after death to return, and in any case it is not likely to return. What I do point out is that its disappearance has left a big hole, and that we ought to take notice of that fact.” Orwell further confides that “The western conception of good and evil is very difficult to separate from [immortality]. There is little doubt that the modern cult of power worship is bound up with the modern man’s feeling that life here and now is the only life there is.” He concedes that secularism has yet to furnish popular moral deterrents or encouragements to supplement waning Christian belief. Sadly, one notes, Britain’s ethical veneer has become even more tenuous in the decades since Orwell wrote.

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