Review: Orwell’s Essays

Review: Orwell’s Essays

A Collection of EssaysA Collection of Essays by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

George Orwell is one of the inescapable writers of the last century. Far from becoming irrelevant, his works seem to become more significant with each passing year (as most recently evidenced by the present administration’s strained relationship with the truth). Orwell himself said that the “final test of any work of art is survival,” and his works seem on track to pass this final test. His dystopian novel recently became a surprise best-seller, almost seventy years after its initial publication. That is more than mere survival.

And yet it isn’t for his political insights that I opened this collection of essays. It was rather—and I feel somewhat silly saying this—for his writing style. Orwell’s writing is, for me, a model of modern prose. His style can accommodate both the abstract and the concrete, the homely and the refined, the pretentious and the vulgar; his prose can satisfy both the academic and the artist, the intellectual and the layperson, the Panurge and the parish priest. It is unmistakably modern, even sleek, while obviously informed by the tastes and standards of the past. It is fiery, angry, and political, while remaining intimate, human, and honest.

Something that repeatedly struck me while reading this collection was an inner conflict in Orwell’s worldview. There are two sides of the man, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes at odds: the writer and the activist. Orwell the writer is captivated by the rhythms of words, the sounds of sentences; he loves ruminating on a strange personality or a memorable story; he is enchanted by the details of daily life. Orwell the activist is outraged at injustice and uncompromising in his moral sense; he sees people as a collection of allies and enemies, taking part in a grand struggle to bring about a better society.

Orwell himself discusses this tension in his little essay, “Why I Write.” In a more peaceful age, he thinks, he could have been an entirely aesthetic writer, perhaps a poet, not paying much attention to politics. It was his firsthand experience of imperialism, poverty, and fascism that activated his political conscience. Specifically, it was the Spanish Civil War that “tipped the scale” for him: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

Be that as it may, Orwell seems to have repeatedly struggled to reconcile this aim with his more humanistic side. In his brilliant essay on Dickens, for example, he spends page after page trying to analyze Dickens as a kind of social philosopher, examining Dickens’s views on work, on the state, on education, and so on. Since Dickens was anything but a philosopher—as Orwell himself admits—this repeatedly leads to frustrating dead ends, and fails completely to do justice to Dickens’s work. It is only in the last section, where Orwell drops this pretense and treats Dickens as a novelist, that the essay becomes deeply insightful. Indeed, it soon becomes clear—it seems clear to me, at least—that Orwell likes Dickens for his writing, and not his activism, however much he may wish to think otherwise.

Other essays exhibit this same tension. In his essay on vulgar postcard art, for example, he notes how backward is the social worldview expressed in the cards; but he is obviously quite fond of them and even ventures to defend them by likening their humor to Sancho Panza’s. His essay on boy’s magazines follows an identical pattern, exposing their conservative ideology while betraying a keen interest, even a warm fondness, for the stories. In his appreciative essay on Rudyard Kipling’s poems, he even goes so far as to defend Kipling’s political views, at least from accusations of fascism.

It is largely due to Orwell’s influence, I think, that nowadays it is uncontroversial to see the political implications in a movie cast or a Halloween costume. In all of these essays, Orwell worked to undermine the naïve distinction between politics and everyday life, showing how we absorb messages about standards, values, and ideologies from every direction. He did not merely state that “All art is propaganda,” but he tried to show it, both in his analyses and his own works. At least half the time, he is utterly convincing in this. (And indeed, Orwell was such a brilliant man that, even when I think he’s involved in a pointless exercise, he makes so many penetrating observations along the way— incidentally, parenthetically—that his writing fully absorbs me. )

We owe a tremendous debt to Orwell for this insight. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that there is something terribly limiting about this perspective. All art may be propaganda, but it is not only propaganda; it is not even primarily so. There needs to be room in criticism, as in life, for the non-political. We need to be able to enjoy a novelist because of his characters and not his views on the state, a poet for his lines rather than his opinions, a dirty joke or a trashy magazine just because we want a laugh and a break. Orwell would agree with me up to a point, I think, but would also say that every decision to be “non-political” implicitly accepts the status quo, and is therefore conservative. This may be true; but it is also true that such “non-political” things are necessary to live a full life.

Where I most disagree with Orwell is his conviction that the media we consume—magazines, post cards, popular novels, television—nefariously and decisively shape our worldview. For my part, I suspect that people absorb their opinions more from their community, face-to-face, and then seek out media that corresponds with their pre-existing views: not the reverse. Media may reinforce these views and give them shape and drive, but I don’t think it generates them.

All this is besides the point. I admire Orwell, for his fierce independence, for his sense of outrage and injustice, for his facility with words, for his attempt to blend art and truth. In sum, I admire both the writer and the activist, and I think his work should be read until judgment day.

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Review: Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness

Review: Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness

Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and HappinessDo What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness by Miya Tokumitsu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe anybody can do what he or she loves, but only the wealthy can avoid going into debt to pay for it.

I first heard of Tokumitsu when an essay of hers was being circulating among some friends on Facebook. I was struck by how well she articulated some half-formed thoughts that had lately been kicking around my head, so I immediately got her book. Then, I immediately put off reading it, until now.

Tokumitsu’s thesis is that the cultural ideal of doing what you love (DYWL) is, in practice, often exploitative and nefarious. She gives many reasons for this. First, DWYL glorifies certain types of work—almost all white collar—and ignores others. Only certain jobs are believably lovable; other types of work are unglamorous, and thus ignored. Steve Jobs gave a famous commencement speech in which he encouraged the young graduates to follow their dreams; but Apple would be impossible without the thousands of people toiling in factories, cafeterias, and warehouses supporting the visionaries.

Another way that DWYL can be exploitative is when it is used to underpay workers. Any musician can tell you that they are often expected to play for free, because they’re doing it out of love and not for money. Unpaid internships have grown in popularity; and academics nowadays often find themselves in underpaid adjunct work, because they’re supposed to be passionate about their subject. These purgatory periods are characterized as paying your dues; and yet studies have shown that, more often than not, unpaid internships and adjunct work don’t lead to full-time positions.

I find the situation in academia especially ironic. As a group, academics are some of the most politically conscious, leftist people out there. And yet in academia the pressure to do underpaid work, to personally identify with your job, and to work long hours can be intense. All this is justified with the notion that academic work is more noble than the grubby capitalism of the non-academic world. In the process, however, academics become ideal capitalist workers, doing enormous amounts of work for little compensation. This is “hope labor” at its purest: badly paid work performed in the hope of breaking through to the next tier.

In many ways, the DWYL ethic is not so different from the Protestant Work Ethic identified by Weber over 100 years ago. The major shift is that the Protestant Ethic viewed work as a duty, while DWYL sees work as love. Duty isn’t trendy anymore, but self expression is, which is what DWYL is all about. In any case, although the virtues we choose to emphasize have changed, the basic logic of an individualistic, competitive system remain. When you’re living in a supposed meritocracy, the poor can be dismissed as deserving their poverty, and the rich congratulated for deserving their wealth. DWYL just puts a different spin on this. One hundred years ago we might have chosen to emphasize Steve Job’s force of will, penuriousness, or his abstemiousness; but now we talk about his passion, vision, and his courage.

Another consequence of DWYL, in Tokumitsu’s opinion, is the culture of overwork. Employers want their employees to be passionate; and the easiest way to demonstrate dedication is to work long hours. This mentality is certainly common in both New York and Madrid; and it is rather strange when you consider that people become generally worse employees when they work longer hours. When you don’t sleep enough, it takes a toll on your health, not to mention makes you sluggish and slow-witted.

One of Tokumitsu’s most valuable observations, in my opinion, is that the DWYL mindset seems to devalue sources of pleasure, pride, and love that are not work-related. Under DWYL, finding love in a non-work activity, like a hobby, a relationship, or just relaxing, is frivolous. If you were serious and passionate, you would be paying your dues and working as an intern. Tokumitsu illustrates this with her discussion of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, in which the interviewees express astonishment and mild disapproval that Maier, who worked her whole life as a nanny, could have been such a dedicated, talented photographer and have not sought recognition.

The book ends with a call to make free time legitimate. In order to enjoy free time, we need to be paid decently and to work reasonable hours. We shouldn’t be seen as lazy or insufficiently passionate if we want to be fairly compensated for artistic, academic, or even menial work; and we should have the leisure to pursue interests outside work, since for most of us having a wonderful job isn’t realistic. To accomplish this, Tokumitsu envisions labor movements.

These are some of the Tokumitsu’s observations I have found most valuable. For that reason, I think the book is worth reading. But I must admit that, even when I was in agreement, I often found this book exasperating. Without looking at her biography, I could tell Tokumitsu was a recovering academic. The formal writing style, the many quotations and citations, the Marxist bent, and especially the topic of the book—everything belied a recently minted PhD who had felt the pain of the academic job market.

There’s nothing wrong with having a PhD, of course. But there is something wrong with writing a book like this in an academic style. The book’s subject is accessible and relevant, and Tokumitsu’s aim is to spur labor movements. Yet its orientation and tone severely restrict its audience. Her first chapter, for example, is an analysis of two television shows and the way that they portray the DWYL mentality. The analysis was well done, but why on earth would you lead with that?

The prose was also a problem for me. I admit I’m especially sensitive to this sort of thing, since I spent a bad year in a PhD program. And I also admit that Tokumitsu is certainly a better writer than the vast majority of her peers in academe. (I’m talking about the humanities, specifically.) I also think that Tokumitsu has great potential.

Even so, there are many sentences like this one: “Attending the theatrical performance of one’s child faces long odds against the obligations of capitalist production.”

The sentence is irritating in many ways. It is about something intimate, but uses formal language. It is about something concrete, and yet uses abstractions. It turns something personal into something coldly impersonal. Here’s an example of a rewrite: “Making time for your daughter’s school play is hard when your boss can email you at any hour of the day.” I’m not saying my sentence is perfect, but it’s at least an improvement.

The Marxist perspective was also unfortunate, in my opinion, because it will further limit her audience. The DWYL mentality afflicts people of all political persuasions; and I think you can see serious flaws in the mentality without being opposed to capitalism itself. Wanting shorter hours and higher pay is pretty uncontroversial, after all.

I could go on with this complaining, but I’d better stop. Really, the book is a worthy read. Certainly it will be hard for me to forget Tokumitsu’s insights. And even if the style isn’t terribly accessible, the book compensates by being short. So stop doing what you love, and read this book.

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