Tag Archives: George Orwell

Book Porn, no.7

In a 1945 review of The Lear Omnibus, George Orwell said of Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes: “They express a kind of amiable lunacy, a natural sympathy with whatever is weak and absurd.”  He thought Lear at his best when not wholly arbitrary, especially in the longer poems like The Owl and the Pussycat and The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.  Another that Orwell might have mentioned is The New Vestments, which is wonderful for lines like this:

He had walked a short way, when he heard a great noise,
Of all sorts of Beasticles, Birdlings, and Boys

When it comes to comical children’s verse, I agree with Orwell that there’s such a thing as too much nonsense.  A little nonsense combined with some wordplay, however, makes for an awful lot of fun.  Richard Wilbur’s collected opposites and differences I like very much.  But even more beloved in our house (and one of our best used bookshop finds in years, since collectors will pay over $100 for a good copy) is Alpha Beta Chowder by Jeanne Steig, wife of William Steig, who illustrated it.  It’s an alphabet book with plenty of lunacy and absurdity, but it’s less sympathetic than Lear and (like so many of the Steigs’ books) tinged with menace.  Two samples:

I’ll type this one out since it’s hard to read in the image above (I think you can make out the other one below):

Bellicose Brigand vs. Belligerent Bear

A bear and a brigand were bickering bitterly
Under the shade of a baobab tree.
‘The best thing by far,’ bawled the brigand, ‘is baklava.’
‘Bosh,’ boomed the bear. ‘It can’t possibly be.’

‘Why, there’s bric-a-brac, ipecac, blubber, and broccoli,
Bamboo, banana oil, beetles, and brine.’
‘You bandy-legged brute,’ brayed the brigand, ‘you blatherskite!
Baklava beats them all any old time.’

Oh, what a brouhaha: ‘Baklava!’ ‘Balderdash!’
‘Bah,’ barked the bear.  ‘We shall never agree.’
‘Let us pause,’ breathed the brigand, ‘and banish this blabber with
Hot buttered bat bread and barnacle tea.’

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George and Michel

Thanks to a biting lack of free time, I’ve been unable to dig in for another novel at present.  Instead, I’ve been reading (and re-reading) essays – specifically of Orwell and Montaigne.  They make an odd pair, I suppose.  Orwell: the socialist, futurist, atheist, critic, journalist, idealist.  Montaigne: the humanist, classicist, skeptic, Catholic, epicurean, and realist.  Some thoughts:

Orwell in his essay My Country Right or Left says that “patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism.”  Certain incidents and catch-phrases from the recent American election leap immediately to mind.  Of course, both conservative and liberal philosophies operate in each party, and I’m not out to make a political statement.  But in my experience conservative appeals to patriotism do tend toward the dogged insistence that something which never really was still is and can only be ours tomorrow if we do our duty with regard to x and y.  A truer sort of patriotism, per Orwell, is the “devotion to something which is changing but is felt to be mystically the same.”  There’s a difference. 

It’s curious how Orwell’s sentiments skirt the borders of religious expression -and I mean more than his choice of words.  It’s precisely this loyalty to something changing and yet “mystically” identical through time that allows the long-suffering Roman Catholic to cling to an institution which often enough intends him harm, or at least manages to inflict it.  Montaigne, for one, expresses a fidelity to traditional forms of religion which sometimes seems at odds with his thoroughgoing skepticism.  In at least this respect he is a deeply conservative soul.  Of course he lived during the wars of religion that followed hard on the Reformation, and the carnage and brutality of it was all around him.  Rather than zeal or personal devotion, one suspects it was a longing for peace and stability that motivated him to keep with the old faith, along with a firm conviction that human folly was no respecter of persons or parties, which is always a safe bet.

*

In a radio broadcast for The Listener from June of 1941, Orwell reads and discusses Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Felix Randall.  He wraps it up with the following observation:

I have tried to analyse this poem as well as I can in a short period, but nothing I have said can explain, or explain away, the pleasure I take in it.  That is finally inexplicable, and it is just because it is inexplicable that detailed criticism is worthwhile.  Men of science can study the life-process of a flower, or they can split it up into its component elements, but any scientist will tell you that a flower does not become less wonderful, it becomes more wonderful, if you know all about it.

I once read a Nabokov interview in which the novelist claimed that objects become “more real” to us the more we know about them.  The lily, he said, is less real to an ordinary person than to a naturalist, and less real to a naturalist than to a botanist.  I thought this was bunk, and swapped Nabokov’s lily for a butterfly (Nabokov sidelined as a lepidopterist) and offered up the counter-example of my daughter.  Don’t tell me, I said, that her infant joy doesn’t grasp in the butterfly something too elusive for scientific observation – the simple, raw miraculous fact of the thing.

What I find remarkable in Orwell’s quote above is how he manages to offer the same basic observation as Nabokov while rendering it inoffensive and, to me at least, intuitively true.  (Perhaps it’s the substitution of gradations in wonder for gradations in real-ness?)  It is precisely the pleasure we take in life and in the objects of existence that motivate all living and all knowledge.  In Essais I, 20 (That to Philosophize is to Learn the Die), Montaigne says that

Whatever role man undertakes to play, he always plays his own at the same time.  Whatever they say, in virtue itself the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness.

That is, we always desire pleasure and happiness, and it is perfectly natural that we should.  Even the ascetic in a desert cell is after some form of pleasure, however subtle or transcendent, though he may prefer to call it by a different name.  But all science, all philosophy -all our thirsting after knowledge- is an epicurean pursuit.  We work our minds into the deeper how and why of things only in order to derive a deeper pleasure from them, and hence from living.

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Star-like Isolation

[E]very individual man has an inner life, and is aware of the practical impossibility of understanding others or being understood – in general, of the star-like isolation in which human beings live.  Nearly all literature is an attempt to escape from this isolation by roundabout means, the direct means (words in their primary meaning) being almost useless… “Imaginative” writing is as it were a flank-attack upon positions that are impregnable from the front… The art of writing is in fact largely the perversion of language.

That from a 1940 essay by George Orwell titled ‘New Words.’

Only art, according to Orwell, manages to bridge the chasms between persons and effectively deliver the inner reality of one to another.  Music is an obvious example, and Orwell has some nice things to say about film.  But the art of writing – poetry, the novel, etc. – is paradoxical: it can only achieve its goal by stretching and calculatedly misusing language in such a way as to force upon words a labor for which they are basically unfit. 

I once stumbled on the helpful suggestion (it might have been in Barfield’s Poetic Diction) that a poem, any poem, is best understood when read as if it were a word unto itself, a single word made up of specific component words in a specific order – unutterable any other way.  The same might be said of a novel or a story.  Successful literature makes new words out of the bones of old words.  It manages by calculated accumulation and oblique methods (cadence, music, association and dissociation), to communicate something of the inner reality of a particular human subjectivity which would otherwise be incommunicable.  I suppose this gets at what Orwell had in mind.

But what, then, is the act of reading according to Orwell?  Is it just the consumption of the subjective realities of others?  A cheap ticket to self-transcendence?  Maybe not so cheap: books can be costly and leisure time sparse, and we all need a sense of assurance that we’re not utterly alone in this life.

And what is the act of writing?  The assertion and exploration of the self, yes; but also a terrible devouring thirst to be known, a method of speculative astronomy that strives by means of guessed-at wormholes and gravitational vortices to bridge the gaps between distant suns.

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Bookshop Confessions

In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.

~ George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories” (1936)

In any American city of middling size there are plenty of more-than-certifiable lunatics walking the streets and making themselves at home in the neighborhood bookshop. That’s assuming the neighborhood still has a bookshop. In Seattle, at least, it used to. Seattle in the 1990s was near to bursting with local independent booksellers: places like Elliot Bay, Beatty’s, Twice Sold, Magus, Horizon, Pistil, and Couth Buzzard, to name a few. It also had its fair share of certifiables.

Being unambitious and in no particular hurry to grapple with the duties of adult life, I took a job with a local Seattle bookseller as soon as I finished college in ’95, and stayed on for three years. It’s astonishing to recall how little money I made. I’m not at all clear how I managed to both eat and pay my rent. But the coworkers were a friendly cast and I was happy enough to spend my days surrounded by books.

The store was located just north of downtown and was open late. It was set in a dense neighborhood, thick with bars and restaurants and nightclubs. The Opera House was down the street. There was a convention center and a sports arena too. We were a struggling but busy shop and our clientele was a mixed lot. While working there I sold books and magazines to several famous rock stars (yawn). I chatted occasionally with Ron Reagan Jr., who lived nearby. And while he was in town for an extended performance at the repertory theater down the street, actor Ethan Hawke used to sit on the floor of our poetry section and finger through the stacks for thirty minutes each day. I never saw him buy anything.

Our location and late hours made us a favorite with the local crazies.  These are the folks I can’t help thinking of when I read the Orwell quote above. There was the tattered transient we referred to as “Redbeard” who made a habit of leering at blondes and threatening the lives of strangers, myself included. There was the troubled young woman who was always showing off a ghastly wound on her arm, which she wouldn’t let heal, and who kept a pet rat in her pocket. There was a tall spindly fellow who never uttered more than a mousy squeak but liked to wear a pink tutu, and who once defecated on the floor of the children’s section.

Then there was our favorite, a schizophrenic junkie we nicknamed “The Count,” who was forever changing his clothes and decorating his face (his whole face) with lipstick. He was harmless, really, but had a habit of cackling in a wicked sort of way that disturbed our elderly customers and parents with small children. The Count liked to give gifts and I still have a desk sign made of some exotic wood with the name “Fauzi Daud” carved into it, which he gave me. He claimed to know Roger Waters and Jerry Garcia and the President of the United States, and to have lived as a vampire among the Hebrew slaves of ancient Egypt. One day he told me matter-of-factly that he had fallen asleep at the park, woke up under a bush, and “shattered into a million pieces.”

Less insane but still charming was the fat-faced man with the tiny eyes who would hold the newspaper to his nose in order to read it and who never went anywhere without his ill-tempered dwarf friend; or the walrus-like retiree with a bristly white beard who twirled a cane and faked a British accent while attempting to seduce one of my coworkers, famously offering him, in a lascivious tone we parodied for months, a bite of his “spiced apple tart;” or the uneducated proprietress of a local coffee shop who’d once taken a bullet in a domestic dispute and imagined it gave her a superior perspective and a homey kind of mystical insight.

It was easy to get into trouble working at the bookshop. There was no shortage of illicit substances in the back room and the employees were often high or drunk. Certain kinds of business transactions were known to take place in the parking lot. One of my coworkers, a short guy with an Irish temper, lived across the street and would invite us over for drinks after closing. One Christmas Eve, several of us drank a great quantity of beer and marched around the neighborhood to find an open convenience store and buy cigarettes. On a street corner we passed through a gauntlet of righteously intoxicated panhandlers demanding holiday contributions. Our Irish friend got into a shouting match with one of them and we only barely escaped an all-out brawl by dragging him, hollering and fuming, back to his apartment.

One of my most memorable evenings at the bookshop involved the death of a goose. It was a couple hours after dark when a woman walked in with a big Canada goose in her arms. She was distraught. The bird had just been hit by a car, she said, and we needed to do something about it. She handed the goose, still alive, to my friend W. Then the woman fled in tears. Almost immediately, the goose’s head dropped and it went into convulsions. W set it down and there before a crowd of astonished customers it agonizingly expired on the floor. We boxed it up and pranked a new employee (who’d been in the back room) by telling him the box was full of books that needed shelving in the nature and field guides section. Then we called a non-emergency police number to inquire after the proper disposal of the body. Two hours later a man named Bob came to collect the goose. He was so touched by the way we’d laid a flower on its breast and scribbled farewells on the cardboard coffin that he wept a little.

My bookshop days were a bit of a low-life period. There was plenty of good reading and some good conversation, but in the end this particular bookshop was just a low-life sort of place, especially after dark. I stayed longer than I should have. I told myself that I was playing Prince Hal, that I would “awhile uphold the unyoked humor of idleness” which I was presently enjoying, but that when the time was ripe I would “imitate the Sun” and find better employment. It wasn’t the need to impress any monarchical parent that finally spurred my departure, however. It was marriage. The bookshop itself locked doors for the last time two or three years later.

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