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Saturday, February 5, 2022

Orwellian Love

As published at SubStack, 2/5/22:

[Belgrade, 8/8/20]

Seeing the title, you’re bound to think I’ll describe or discuss some hellish or dystopian loving, but no, Eric Blair was one hell of a lover, among the very best. First of, you can’t love anything, a person, city, dog, poem, painting or plant, if you can’t grasp its distinctiveness, by paying very close attention, often over time.

Most people can’t even see their own children properly. As for their spouse, forget about it! Most have only a vague idea whom they’re sleeping next to, and I’m not even talking about waking up one morning to find out you’re wedded to a bigamist, rapist, child molester, whoremonger or horse appreciator with a colon affectionately abraded by Tacoma Slew.

Brain damaged, we’re living in an attention deficit world, with nearly everyone always restless, if not on the verge of anger, so almost nothing is properly seen, heard or felt, much less reflected upon. Since understanding words in context has become nearly impossible, most are reduced to being triggered by single sounds, which they welcome, for it allows them to go berserk.

Orwellian love is the antidote. Although each Orwell page is infused with this meticulous caress, it’s most vivid in his nonfiction, and the characters we meet are nearly always at the very bottom of the pyramid, as its muscle, bone and sweat foundation, whom pompous assholes dismiss as “losers.”

Knowing that life for most people is a daily exertion that taxes body, mind and soul to their limits, Orwell is careful to describe what they must endure, starting with their living arrangements. Having tape measured their rooms, he tells us exactly their sizes, and often cites how far they must go to use the toilet, where there’s usually a line. In Road to Wigan Pier (1937), his investigation into the appalling lives of the English poor, Orwell ushers us into one miserable dwelling after another:

So there are eight or ten people sleeping in two small rooms, probably in at most four beds. If some of these people are adults and have to go to work, so much the worse. In one house, I remember, three grown-up girls shared the same bed and all went to work at different hours, each disturbing the others when she got up or came in; in another house a young miner working on the night shift slept by day in a narrow bed in which another member of the family slept by night. There is an added difficulty when there are grown-up children, in that you cannot let adolescent youths and girls sleep in the same bed. In one family I visited there were a father and mother and a son and daughter aged round about seventeen, and only two beds for the lot of them. The father slept with the son and the mother with the daughter; it was the only arrangement that ruled out the danger of incest.

In such scrammed spaces, each chore was difficult, and without a bathroom, cleanliness was impossible:  

To begin with, the smell, the dominant and essential thing, is indescribable. But the squalor and the confusion! A tub full of filthy water here, a basin full of unwashed crocks there, more crocks piled in any odd corner, torn newspaper littered everywhere, and in the middle always the same dreadful table covered with sticky oilcloth and crowded with cooking pots and irons and half-darned stockings and pieces of stale bread and bits of cheese wrapped round with greasy newspaper!

Remember that the British Empire reached its territorial peak in 1920, with dominion over 24% of this earth’s land, and these English wretches hadn’t just become poor:

I have been into appalling houses, houses in which I would not live a week if you paid me, and found that the tenants had been there twenty and thirty years and only hoped they might have the luck to die there.

Two worn out old women:

A dreadful room in Wigan where all the furniture seemed to be made of packing cases and barrel staves and was coming to pieces at that; and an old woman with a blackened neck and her hair coming down denouncing her landlord in a Lancashire-Irish accent; and her mother, aged well over ninety, sitting in the background on the barrel that served her as a commode and regarding us blankly with a yellow, cretinous face.

Even with a visitor, grandma was taking a dump at the back of the room, but when you’d been beaten down and living in squalor for decades, you just didn’t give a shit.

Most dismal were folks stuffed into old buses propped on wooden struts. Tens of thousands of families had to live this way in the heart of the largest empire ever!

Orwell on these caravans, “Indeed when I saw them I was immediately reminded of the filthy kennels in which I have seen Indian coolies living in Burma. But, as a matter of fact, nothing in the East could ever be quite as bad, for in the East you haven’t our clammy, penetrating cold to contend with, and the sun is a disinfectant.”

Now, let’s us make a deeper acquaintance with one individual, and though there’s a bunch to choose from, let’s meet Paddy Jaques, from Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).

Irish, Paddy was the first tramp Orwell got to know well, “He was a tallish man aged about thirty-five, with fair hair going grizzled and watery blue eyes. His features were good, but his cheeks had lanked and had that greyish, dirty-in-the-grain look that comes of a bread and margarine diet. He was dressed, rather better than most tramps, in a tweed shooting-jacket and a pair of very old evening trousers with the braid still on them. Evidently the braid figured in his mind as a lingering scrap of respectability, and he took care to sew it on again when it came loose.”

Though a tramp two years out of work, Paddy was no lazy bum, “And he had a low, worm-like envy of anyone who was better off—not of the rich, for they were beyond his social horizon, but of men in work. He pined for work as an artist pines to be famous. If he saw an old man working he would say bitterly, ‘Look at dat old—keepin’ able-bodied men out o’ work’; or if it was a boy, ‘It’s dem young devils what’s takin’ de bread out of our mouths.’ And all foreigners to him were ‘dem bloody dagoes’—for, according to his theory, foreigners were responsible for unemployment.”

So ignorant, Paddy asked Orwell “whether Napoleon lived before Jesus Christ or after.” And, “He could read, but he had a kind of loathing for books. On our way from Romton to Edbury I went into a public library, and, though Paddy did not want to read, I suggested that he should come in and rest his legs. But he preferred to wait on the pavement. ‘No,’ he said, ‘de sight of all dat bloody print makes me sick.’”

So what? I’ve met so many who were similarly ignorant, but most were decent and companionable, with much life experience undistorted by smugness or arrogance, hence a degree of wisdom. It’s the sneering morons who are insufferable.

Honorable, Paddy would not steal a bottle of milk from a doorstep, even when starving, and he shared his last crust with Orwell “more than once.”

Paddy’s religion is distilled to being grateful for free “cups o’ tay from de convents”:

‘It’s hell bein’ on de road, eh? It breaks yer heart goin’ into dem bloody spikes. But what’s a man to do else, eh? I ain’t had a good meat meal for above two months, an’ me boots is getting bad, an’—Christ! How’d it be if we was to try for a cup o’ tay at one o’ dem convents on de way to Edbury? Most times dey’re good for a cup o’ tay. Ah, what’d a man do widout religion, eh? I’ve took cups o’ tay from de convents, an’ de Baptists, an’ de Church of England, an’ all sorts. I’m a Catholic meself. Dat’s to say, I ain’t been to confession for above seventeen year, but still I got me religious feelin’s, y’understand. An’ dem convents is always good for a cup o’ tay…’ etc. etc. He would keep this up all day, almost without stopping.

What’d a man do without nunnish ceylon, eh? You’ve got to have religion!

Though Orwell’s political thinking evolved during his short life, he had, from beginning to end, a steadfast focus on the common man, as seen close up, individual by individual, with all his complexity and deviations from cliches. In this, he modeled himself after Jack London, whose The People of the Abyss was clearly a benchmark.

Orwell’s stance can also be deduced from what he says of other writers. He speaks of Dickens’ “horror of proletarian roughness. He shows this unmistakably whenever he writes of the very poorest of the poor, the slum-dwellers. His descriptions of the London slums are always full of undisguised repulsion.” Dickens’ recoil from “whole submerged populations,” Orwell observes, is similar to how “modern doctrinaire Socialist contemptuously writes off a large block of the population as ‘lumpenproletariat.’” This, we know well, for the most strident leftists are often the most bourgeoisie. I’ve seen their comfy houses. As for Chesterton, “‘the poor’ means small shopkeepers and servants.”

To begin to see, feel or understand anything, you must get much closer, without averting your eyes or covering your mouth and nose, of course, or are you insane?! We’re unified by smells. Discussing a chapter from Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen, Orwell elucidates:

Mr Maugham describes a high Chinese official arriving at a wayside inn and blustering and calling everybody names in order to impress upon them that he is a supreme dignitary and they are only worms. Five minutes later, having asserted his dignity in the way he thinks proper, he is eating his dinner in perfect amity with the baggage coolies. As an official he feels that he has got to make his presence felt, but he has no feeling that the coolies are of different clay from himself. I have observed countless similar scenes in Burma. Among Mongolians—among all Asiatics, for all I know—there is a sort of natural equality, an easy intimacy between man and man, which is simply unthinkable in the West.

So this equality, this easy intimacy between man and man, is entirely natural, though it has become unthinkable in the West. Let’s linger on this contention. First of, the Chinese official’s bluster has a very specific cause. Maugham:

He seemed taken aback when he saw me at the door of the principal guest chamber and turning to the landlord addressed him in authoritative tones. It appeared that he was an official and he was much annoyed to find that the best apartment in the inn was already taken. He was told that but one room was available. It was small, with pallets covered with tumbled straw lining the walls, and was used as a rule only by coolies.

With the best room gone to a white man, this Chinese official has to be accommodated like a coolie, so he goes berserk to show his indignation, an expected performance, but once it’s over, he has no problems mixing with coolies! Maugham:

An hour later I went into the yard to stretch my legs for five minutes before going to bed and somewhat to my surprise, I came upon the stout official, a little while ago so pompous and self-important, seated at a table in the front of the inn with the most ragged of my coolies. They were chatting amicably and the official quietly smoked a water-pipe. He had made all that to-do to give himself face, but having achieved his object was satisfied, and feeling the need of conversation had accepted the company of any coolie without a thought of social distinction. His manner was perfectly cordial and there was in it no trace of condescension. The coolie talked with him on an equal footing. It seemed to me that this was true democracy.

Maugham on how this “true democracy” is achieved:

Now, the Chinese live all their lives in the proximity of very nasty smells. They do not notice them. Their nostrils are blunted to the odours that assail the Europeans and so they can move on an equal footing with the tiller of the soil, the coolie, and the artisan. I venture to think that the cess-pool is more necessary to democracy than parliamentary institutions. The invention of the “sanitary convenience” has destroyed the sense of equality in men. It is responsible for class hatred much more than the monopoly of capital in the hands of the few.

Though that passage has been slammed as disgustingly racist, there is a core, Swiftian truth to it, for shit is our great equalizer. By itself, shit is also a great allegory, moral lesson and sacred text, practically, a genuine universal bible, Zen koan for dummies and contemplative prayer calls, though not necessarily five times daily. If the Chinese, or anyone else, are more cognizant of this, they’re on firmer ground than those who think class, fame or glamor can convincingly mask ordinary stenches. To be fair, though, they’re only a minor, if too persistent, part of who we are. Not all of us stink all the time, though those who do more than make up for the rest of us. Che puzza!

OK, let’s get back to Orwell, and I started this whole piece with the below passage in mind, for it’s very relevant to where we are now, as millions are suddenly unemployed, thus deprived of their very identities. Orwell:

People are wrong when they think that an unemployed man only worries about losing his wages; on the contrary, an illiterate man, with the work habit in his bones, needs work even more than he needs money. An educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the worst evils of poverty. But a man like Paddy, with no means of filling up time, is as miserable out of work as a dog on the chain. That is why it is such nonsense to pretend that those who have ‘come down in the world’ are to be pitied above all others. The man who really merits pity is the man who has been down from the start, and faces poverty with a blank, resourceless mind.

What we do define us. It’s a notion so ancient that many of our names reflect this, as in Smith, Schmidt, Fabbri and Lefèbvre, or Taylor, Schneider, Sarti and Letailleur, etc. Laozi means old master. Suddenly, though, too many of us are rendered useless, by those who clearly think their shit doesn’t stink. Unlike Paddy, we can’t even tramp around in search of companionship or our next crumb.

Are they going to get away with enforcing idleness in isolation on so many? Are we just shit?

[Daegu, 3/11/20]


Linh Dinh said...

A comment by Troy Skaggs at SubStack:

"I've been living alone in a subsidized apartment on a subsidized pension due to a severe tick born illness. This happened to coincide with COVID, so it's been weird to say the least. I've never experienced this much isolation before and have always considered myself a loner. At times, this is flat out neurological torture and I can feel the lack of personal interaction to my core. I'm blessed to recognize this. I don't have a t.v. and have recovered enough to walk again in order to relax and think better. I'd rather be back in a shelter with other men than alone in this apartment. The isolation is killing me and I know it. It's killing everyone else as Linh continually alludes too, they seem too distracted to notice. It breaks my heart, but I want to live differently, and so I will."

Martin said...

Bravo Linh!,

You have written another interesting, entertaining, and thought provoking essay.

You wrote: "What we do define us." I can see you sitting out on the veranda, sipping a cold beer, collecting your thoughts, tying them together, typing them out, fine tuning them, and then, with a click, sending your "two-cents worth" out into the world.

I have a small quibble with your essay's conclusion. You wrote: "Suddenly, though, too many of us are rendered useless, by those who clearly think their shit doesn’t stink...Are they going to get away with enforcing idleness in isolation on so many?"

I was in the USA for a visit last October and November and I saw signs at nearly every gas station, fast-food restaurant, grocery store, etc., in small towns and in large cities, begging for workers. These places were offering between $15 to $19/hr. as starting pay, paid vacations, healthcare, and they still weren't getting enough takers to open their restaurants to inside dining (only drive-thru) or to stock their empty shelves in a timely manner.

The fact is that in America millions of lower-end workers simply refuse to return to work because they have been paid with Biden Bucks the same amount (or more) not to work. They have been handed billions and billions of freshly printed dollars to do nothing.

The Covid lockdown has been a blessing in disguise to millions of former workers, it has been an extended vacation with pay for those at the bottom end of the labor market and it's a paid vacation that they don't want to end. These former workers have gotten a taste of the welfare lifestyle: of never having to wake to an alarm clock to go to work, of having enough money to live and lots of free time. Why should they go back to flipping burgers at McDonalds, operating a fryer at KFC, or stocking shelves when this work won't improve the quality of their life all that much, especially while the Biden-Bucks "free" money tap is still spraying out cash?

I agree with your thoughts that those in charge think that their shit doesn't stink.

And, in sticking with your shit theme, when you wrote:

"...for shit is our great equalizer. By itself, shit is also a great allegory, moral lesson and sacred text, practically, a genuine universal bible, Zen koan for dummies and contemplative prayer calls, though not necessarily five times daily."

I couldn't help but think of an old Brazilian proverb that goes:

"When shit has value the poor will be born without assholes."

Keep up your always-interesting essays Linh and stay safe.


Wild Bill said...

Linh, I hope this finds you in good health and high spirits.
Although Orwell is always thought of as being highly perceptive, I think it must have developed later in his life than when he wrote "Down and Out in London and Paris".
With all his fine observance of location and human nature, he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he had become entrapped by a web created by the usual suspects that worked smoothly and efficiently to not only rob the very poorest of the society, but have their scam subsidized by the do-gooders of the time. The government of the time was their accomplice as well because the "rules" of survival in the flop houses kept the poor constantly moving, unable to organize and unable to encounter useful employment and thus unable to afflict the government.
I think by the time 1984 rolled around, he had it figured. He died in 1950 of "natural" causes. So many in the years shortly after the war died of "natural" causes.

Biff said...

Only for 30 cents a day, but they love it!


Anonymous said...

Took me a while to see where you were going there. A fine post!

The absolute obtuseness, single mindedness, idiocy, and downright hatred of the working class (especially the unvaccinated), is incredible to me.

Mark Zuckerberg is a putz. He asked Xi to name his child. He also thinks he can have his coders "work from home" while logged in 8-16, probably closer to 16) hours a day with a device over their eyeballs in his shitty metaverse.

The authoritative class has decided that "models" and "cases" are the imperative above all else. Asymptomatic testing has been mental illness for 2 years. People (not them), will end up homeless, addicted to drugs (so many more deaths of despair), but at least they will be alive is the theory. Never forget the relationship between general health and surviving the virus. Close the gyms, or make it pointless to go by requiring masks, but keep fast food open for "safety."

Even NPR was saying a year ago that they fucked it with schools. Obama, Newsom, the champs of the left all send their kids to private school in person unmasked. It's all a fucking joke to them. I just don't get it.

There is a small recognition of this problem amongst the elite. Their only idea to appease the masses seems to be a form of socialism/ communism where the elite keep their billions and give the commoners a stipend. This could happen via a "crypto" either govt or corporate, or some dystopian combo of both. Imagine a Chase bank currency, or a Facebook or google. I don't fucking want to but this is the idea. I really hope it fails spectacularly. The federal reserve could distribute free cash via an app also.

You'll get your $500 a month or whatever it is while they keep their billions. You likely won't have work, and will barely be able to maybe buy food. That's their plan. Don't forget the masking of workers who do work.