Charles Holdefer

Orwell’s Hippopotamus, or The Writer as Historical Anachronism

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In 1939, George Orwell gathered 2,395 eggs, by my count. He started the year convalescing from the effects of tuberculosis in Morocco, a place he didn’t particularly like because of its desert vegetation and the mental distance from the events in Europe that so preoccupied him. In his correspondence and diaries, touching on subjects from hens to Hitler, he is restless, sometimes chafing, at his predicament. He was in the process of finishing Coming Up for Air, a novel steeped in nostalgia for an earlier age, and full of foreboding of coming war and the beginning of an era symbolized by the rubber truncheon. At the same time, as is clear in a letter he wrote to his friend Jack Commons shortly after his arrival in Marrakesh, he could express his poultry farmer’s concern that “the hens in this country are miserable little things.”

This domestic side of Eric Blair, though not a revelation, has received renewed attention since the publication of the Diaries and their recent appearance in blog form on the Internet. Here is further proof, if any is needed, of a man with an eye for immediate conditions and necessary details. Jack Commons was looking after the Blairs’ place in England during their absence, and in an earlier letter Orwell had told him: “I don’t think anyone will drop a bomb on Wallington and it might even be profitable to expand the fowl industry a bit, as eggs are sure to be scarce and sought after.” It would be absurd, on the basis of such remarks, to see Orwell as a war profiteer; rather, this is commonsense advice, in anticipation of a cataclysm. Politics, in a way, was poultry management writ large.

By the end of March, Coming Up for Air was completed and Orwell returned to England where, in the following months at Wallington, amid goats and chickens, he continued to write commissioned book reviews about serious political topics like the Spanish War, totalitarian regimes, and imperialism. He also embarked on his next book: a series of long essays which, though in essence highly political, shift the focus to literature.

Intriguingly, in this time of crisis, Orwell chose to linger over “Boys’ Weeklies” and to offer spirited defenses of Charles Dickens, T. S. Eliot, and Henry Miller—strange bedfellows indeed. While stating that “almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships,” he nonetheless found it important to put Billy Bunter and W. H. Auden into context. Orwell’s 1939 writings continue to demand our attention, not just because of the obvious historical resonance of this pivotal year, but also because the views that he expresses remind us of something other than the turbulence of the times. These writings show Orwell, the political animal, grappling with literary sensibilities that date back to his childhood and precede his political awareness. And yet throughout his reflections he is persistently disturbed by the seeming superfluity of the writer in dire times, a problem that would occupy his political conscience for the rest of his life. My emphasis here will be on Orwell’s sense of the literary situation,  which in 1939 sometimes gets short shrift, and I will gladly join William Pritchard in affirming that Orwell matters “in ways different though not in the least incompatible with those in which Christopher Hitchens says he matters.”

For, as Orwell believed, the coming war was going to “tear Western civilization to pieces,” and the writer was left “sitting on a melting iceberg, [. . .] an anachronism, a hangover from the bourgeois age, as surely doomed as the hippopotamus.” With this in store, aside from the practical matter of gathering eggs, what was a writer to do?

* * *

Or, to use Orwell’s description, what was an anachronistic hippopotamus to do? Coming Up for Air, his first major piece completed in 1939, is a novel obsessed by time, a sense of Before and After. The narrator George Bowling is haunted by an irretrievable past that he sees as “a settled period, a period when civilization seems to stand on its four legs like an elephant.” This era contrasts with the looming prospect of “machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows.” Orwell’s work in every phase of his career is full of animal references, and in the case of large beasts they often symbolize not strength, but vulnerability. “Shooting an Elephant” (1936) is the best known example; even earlier, in Burmese Days (1934), Flory refers to the “murder” of an elephant. George Bowling’s elephant/England doesn’t stand a chance. The big beast motif appears in other, more idiosyncratic formulations, too. Lovegrove, the saddler in Coming Up for Air, is “as out of date as the rhinoceros.” And, for the writer on a shrinking iceberg, who is as surely doomed as the hippopotamus, the anticipated demise seems almost a natural process, expressed by a combination of images that are easy to conflate: that poor hippopotamus with freezing feet! What could be more lugubrious? Is there any way to survive on a shrinking iceberg? How can one escape time? Orwell offers an answer of sorts by evoking another big beast, the whale, but before we turn to this vision of the future, let’s consider Orwell’s vision of the past, which he patiently outlines from a literary perspective in the three essays written later in 1939 and collected in the volume entitled Inside the Whale.

First, there’s “Charles Dickens.” Orwell devotes more than twenty thousand words to a sympathetic but unsparing assessment of this author’s strengths and weaknesses, both aesthetic and political, with special emphasis on the moral dimension of Dickens’s writing. This aspect of his work, Orwell argues, allowed Dickens to be subversive without offering any particular constructive suggestions. Dickens was not interested in society as much as in human nature. He had no remedy to propose or sense of historical process, only a general attitude, along the lines of “if men would behave decently the world would be decent.” Orwell attempts to see if this might be something more than a platitude. Does this moral approach offer any real hope for the survival of the hippopotamus? Aside from Orwell’s somewhat nebulous references to “decency,” the closest thing to an answer comes in the consideration of Dickens’s technique, when Orwell focuses on more explicitly literary concerns. While allowing that “all art is propaganda,” he is quick to point out that not all propaganda is art. Moreover, art is not only propaganda. This is particularly evident in Dickens’s gift for rendering individuals. The novels offer “rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.” Orwell observes that “the characters simply go on and on, behaving like idiots, in a kind of eternity.” This sounds like a criticism, and in a way it is, but Orwell is also expressing, I believe, a sort of envy. Oh, if only it were still possible to write that way! In an eternity, unencumbered by the urgency of the present! Orwell says of Dickens: “No modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality” (my emphasis). In an astute close reading of a passage from The Pickwick Papers, Orwell focuses on what he identifies as the unnecessary detail (here, a baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it) and argues that this apparently extraneous detail (and the accumulation of others like it) is the key to Dickens’s survival. Their superfluity is not a flaw but an asset, because they mark, morally speaking, a sort of generosity. Orwell concludes with the famous description of how he imagines Dickens’s appearance and the sound of his laughter as “generously angry.” Such a writer, he contends, will be despised by “all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

Biographers such as Bernard Crick have suggested that in this appraisal Orwell is unconsciously describing himself. Perhaps—though one might qualify this speculation with another, that Orwell is describing what he wants to be, what in 1939 he is still struggling to achieve. Finding the vital “unnecessary detail” is, after all, no simple matter for the artist. “Unnecessary” with respect to what? The appeal to mere escapism will not suffice, because much of what appears unnecessary in the present is in fact purposeful and is tainted by the smelly little orthodoxies of the past. Seeking to locate his own experience as a reader within a larger historical perspective, in “Boys’ Weeklies” Orwell justifies his study of ephemeral magazines by asserting their deeper cultural significance. (Although this idea is unremarkable in 2011, after half a century of various versions of cultural studies—some of them quite smelly—Orwell was treading new ground in 1939.) He sums up the principal features of the mental world of magazines like the Gem and Magnet as follows:

 The year is 1910—or 1940, but it is all the same. You are at Greyfriars, a rosy-cheeked boy of fourteen in posh tailor-made clothes, sitting down to tea [. . .] after an exciting game of football which was won by an odd goal in the last half-minute. There is a cosy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The King is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound. Over in Europe the comic foreigners are jabbering and gesticulating, but the grim grey battleships of the British Fleet are steaming up the Channel and at the outposts of Empire the monocled Englishmen are holding the niggers at bay. [. . .] After tea we shall sit round the study fire having a good laugh at Billy Bunter and discussing the team for next week’s match against Rook-wood. Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever.

Although this kind of eternity is not as hellish as O’Brien’s version in Nineteen Eighty-Four (“Imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever”), it is obviously not a state of affairs Orwell desires to preserve. It’s not really an eternal set of circumstances, anyway: it’s more a form of mummification. There is none of the “unnecessary” (in the sense of non-purposeful) vitality to which Orwell credits Dickens’s survival. On the contrary, there is much implied social purpose of a very dubious sort. In Coming Up for Air, George Bowling conjures up a similar timeless atmosphere as he recalls his childish pleasure in reading Chums: “It’s bliss, pure bliss.” In Orwell’s novel, the memory is marked by a shift to the present tense. George cannot believe that this kind of bliss will survive in the world of the present, and he grows exasperated at Porteus, the retired schoolmaster, for dismissing Hitler and Stalin as “ephemeral” and entombing himself in so-called “eternal verities.” In George’s view:

This, of course, is simply another way of saying that things will always go on exactly as he’s known them. For ever and ever, cultivated Oxford blokes will stroll up and down studies full of books, quoting Latin tags and smoking good tobacco out of jars with coats of arms on them. Really it was no use talking to him. [. . .] A curious thought struck me. HE’S DEAD. He’s a ghost. All people like that are dead.

In the title essay of Inside the Whale, Orwell offers a critical demonstration of this general indictment. He begins with a survey of Housman and the nature poets, whose appeal he identifies as irretrievably adolescent, and then he categorizes the conservative or politically detached writers of the high modernist twenties, including Joyce, Eliot, and Lawrence, as “temperamentally hostile to the notion of ‘progress.’” He saves his most biting remarks, however, for the leftist writing of the thirties, which he sees as a perverse extension of English public-school education and an illustration of Cyril Connolly’s “Theory of Permanent Adolescence,” according to which boys’ experiences at “the great public schools” are so powerful that they “arrest their development.” And what this next generation of public-school boys has got up to is, in Orwell’s judgment, much more pernicious than old Porteus’s “eternal verities.” They have embraced the politics emanating from Moscow with an unquestioning religious fervor. Orwell singles out W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice. “‘Purpose,’” he observes sardonically, “has come back,” bringing with it “a sort of Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing.” This might not matter so much if it remained just a matter of atmosphere, in the naïvely earnest spirit “of ten-minutes’ straight talk on the dangers of self-abuse.” Unfortunately, the stakes are much higher, and here Orwell shifts from general mockery to personal attack. According to D. J. Taylor, the genteel side of Orwell’s literary sensibility is such that he would have preferred to avoid this kind of confrontation, and indeed there are parts of this essay that contain a wistful trace of the “happy vicar” described in one of Orwell’s early poems. (“A happy vicar I might have been / Two hundred years ago / To preach upon eternal doom / And watch my walnuts grow.”) But Orwell has his Swiftian side, too, dating back to his early youth, and when he works in this vein he is no stranger to invective, or to going straight for the jugular. Orwell acknowledges Auden’s artistic gifts, and adds, “some years ago I described Auden as ‘a sort of gutless Kipling.’ As criticism this was quite unworthy, indeed it was merely a spiteful remark.” Note, however, that he takes the occasion to repeat the remark—and this is only a preliminary jab. His ensuing attack on Auden’s pamphlet version of “Spain” is well-known, and after seventy years it remains one of the most devastating critical slap-downs in twentieth-century English literature. His argument turns on Auden’s use of the phrase “the necessary murder” (a phrase the poet later decided to change):

It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men—I don’t mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore I have some conception of what murder means—the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells. To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is ‘liquidation,’ ‘elimination,’ or some other soothing phrase. Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.

There’s no need to restate the political merits of Orwell’s argument here, but I would like to underline the contrast between the “necessary murder” and what I have referred to as the “unnecessary detail.” Orwell’s embrace of the latter leads him to cite with approval E. M. Forster’s appreciation of T. S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, which, though a feeble protest, was “more congenial for being so feeble.” Orwell seizes on this remark and amplifies it into a judgment more significant than the protest prize equivalent of “Miss Congeniality.” He explains:

I should have felt, like Mr Forster, that by simply standing aloof and keeping in touch with pre-war emotions, Eliot was carrying on the human heritage. What a relief it would have been at such a time, to read about the hesitations of a middle-aged highbrow with a bald spot! So different from bayonet-drill! After the bombs and the food-queues and the recruiting-posters, a human voice! What a relief!

It is human frailty, perhaps even that bald spot (an unnecessary detail?), that ultimately contributes more to humanity than a grandiose purposefulness that is morally bankrupt. And this underlying conviction also helps to explain Orwell’s defense of Henry Miller, whom he describes as “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” Miller’s amoralism, it seems, is more acceptable than Auden’s because it convinces Orwell of its disinterestedness, its honesty, however unpleasant—above all, its fearless individuality. There is no coercive groupthink here, no pretension that Time and History are on its side.*

The reference to Miller as a Jonah is also telling. Coming Up for Air gave an intimation of Orwell’s fascination with this Bible story, which figures largely in the evocation of George Bowling’s lost world of Lower Binfield. In “Inside the Whale,” this huge beast offers a psychological insight about how to deal with the immediate future. Orwell underlines how, in the account in Scripture, Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish. If many people remember it as a whale, this echoes a confusion commonly held by children about whales: it is a lingering fragment of “baby talk” that persists into adulthood, showing the power of the Jonah story over the human imagination. In Orwell’s interpretation, the experience of being swallowed up like Jonah is not a catastrophe but in fact a lucky break, a means to escape time, a fulfillment of the fantasy to return to the womb:

The whale’s belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens. A storm that would sink all the battleships in the world would hardly reach you as an echo [. . .] Stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is comfortable with this idea, and Orwell’s characterization of Miller as cut off from political purpose has been strenuously questioned—rather persuasively, in my estimation, by Kate Millett’s 1969 book Sexual Politics. A less convincing but still noteworthy response would be Salman Rushdie’s 1984 essay “Outside the Whale,” in which he dismisses Miller as a “happy pornographer” and accuses Orwell, as E. P. Thompson had a generation earlier, of political quietism. As the play on words suggests, Rushdie argues that it is in the heavy weather outside the whale that the artist belongs. This surely oversimplifies Orwell’s position. Orwell was speaking about the necessity of creating art that was not “emotionally spurious” in the face of coming totalitarianism; moreover, unlike Miller, Orwell was an energetic partisan of action on other fronts not confined to the literary. Although he was initially against what he saw as an imperialist war (as shown most markedly in his letters to Herbert Read and in his July 1939 review “Not Counting Niggers”), by August of that year, at the same time that he was collecting anti-Hitler jokes from the official organ of the Scientific Poultry Breeders’ Association, a publication called Eggs, he broke with his Independent Labour Party antimilitarist stance and afterward did his best to join the war effort, despite his age and dodgy health. Rushdie, for his part, later conceded in his 1991 Introduction to Imaginary Homelands that perhaps he’d been unfair to Orwell, and though he doesn’t explain this change of opinion, it’s easy to speculate that the 1989 fatwa decree might have had some effect on his thinking. Since 1989, Rushdie has been intimately confronted with a threatening, shrinking world a lot more like the one that Orwell had described. Writing from inside the whale does not really represent a withdrawal by the artist from history, but rather a humbling recognition of the artist’s limitations. And finally, for today’s readers who actually bother to return to Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, Orwell’s characterization of the author as politically detached will come as a surprise when they encounter Miller’s anti-Semitic diatribes which, even if one makes dubious allowances for Miller’s stylistic penchant for rodomontade, serve as a reminder of the pervasive poisonousness of the political atmosphere of the 1930s.

As for the unnecessary detail that keeps writing alive and uncontainable, it survives because of its modesty, which is also, curiously, the source of its power. Of course a person’s understanding of what constitutes the “necessary” or the “unnecessary” remains a complicated affair. Terry Eagleton and others have a valid point when they question Orwell’s sometimes exaggerated or selectively convenient empiricism, which can lead to “a dubious epistemology.” Moreover, “unnecessary,” in the manner Orwell defends this notion, is not synonymous with “dispensable”; its presence in the work cannot be reduced to a reader-response recipe or to a game of cute paradoxes. If the extra or unnecessary detail in any way resembles a deconstructionist aporia (an idea that Orwell would very likely find repulsive), it is because Orwell construes it as undermining dominant systems in a positive way—“positive,” of course, according to his values. There is nothing nihilistic about his taste for elements that exceed a comprehensive pattern. The critic James Wood has an interesting formulation about how fiction manages the problem of temporal distance with a “margin of surplus,” and in fact he illustrates the point with an example from Orwell’s “A Hanging,” the literal truth of which can be questioned. In this powerful brief sketch, there is a famous description of how a condemned prisoner steps around a puddle on his way to the gallows: it is important for him to keep his shoes clean. Wood claims that the literary interest of this detail involves more than its success as a nice bit of verisimilitude; it goes beyond the encoding of what Roland Barthes described as the “reality effect.” In Wood’s estimation:

Fictional reality is indeed made up of such ‘effects,’ but realism can be an effect and still be true. It is Barthes’s sensitive, murderous hostility to realism that insists on this false division [. . .] Fictional effects are not merely conventionally irrelevant, or formally arbitrary, but have something to tell us about the irrelevance of reality itself. [. . .] Life, then, will always contain an inevitable surplus, a margin of the gratuitous, a realm in which there is always more than we need [. . .] The margin of surplus itself feels like life, feels in some curious way like being alive.

In sum, what has no purpose serves, it seems, a very necessary purpose. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith prizes his glass paperweight, which he finds “doubly attractive because of its apparent uselessness.” In writing, a “more perfect” consistency of purpose is what distinguishes a pamphlet from literature; both have their uses, but a thinking individual should be able to distinguish between the two. The writer perceived as a hippopotamus matters for embodying precisely those qualities that make it possible to compare the writer to a hippopotamus.

* * *

The last decade of Orwell’s life was spent refining and acting on the ideas and imperatives that clashed so strongly for him in 1939. After he had concentrated for much of the war on journalism and his BBC work, Animal Farm (1945) brought fiction back into the fray, and, in “Why I Write” (1946), he described an ongoing project since the Spanish war in which he strove “to fuse political and artistic purpose into one whole.” Although times had changed since 1939, in this essay he still speaks of his affection for “useless information”—which sounds very much like a species of “unnecessary detail.” He alludes to the germination of his next novel, surely Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he suspects is “bound to be a failure.” By this he probably means that the fusion of political and artistic purpose he is seeking will remain incomplete.

Arguably, though, failure of this kind is not only inevitable but desirable, too. Liberal culture was not, as Orwell feared in 1939, destroyed completely—but it remains fragile, and in 2011 its survival is in no way assured. It contains much of what is “unnecessary,” even inimical to itself. For the moment it has escaped purposeful solutions on the order of Animal Farm, where, one might recall, the militant chickens quickly came to a bad end. And as for chickens, almost until his dying day Orwell remained preoccupied with eggs—his last diary entries on the Isle of Jura record the production of his crossbred pullets; reflecting on the various ways writers might be fed and caged, he also observed, in “The Prevention of Literature” (1946): “At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”


** “Marrakech,” published at the end of 1939, expresses a cold appraisal of the current state of imperialism: regarding Senegalese soldiers of the French empire, Orwell asks, “How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?”