Friday, February 26, 2010

George Orwell

It always cracks me up when the Right Wing quotes George Orwell (pontifically), assuming he would have been at their tea-bagging parties or voting Republican along with them. None of them seem to have actually read Road to Wigan Pier, or to have noticed he was a socialist.

I guess I should not be surprised. If they could read, they'd be Leftists.

Anyway, I was reading this, prepping the deep background for one of my 1213 classes, and came across this passage. Orwell is writing about his days at boarding school.

There was a boy named Johnny Hale who for some months oppressed me horribly. He was a big, powerful, coarsely handsome boy with a very red face and curly black hair, who was forever twisting somebody's arm, wringing somebody's ear, flogging somebody with a riding-crop (he was a member of the Sixth Form), or performing prodigies of activity on the football field. Flip loved him (hence the fact he was habitually called by his Christian name) and Sambo commended him as a boy who ‘had character’ and ‘could keep order’. He was followed about by a group of toadies who nicknamed him Strong Man.
One day, when we were taking off our overcoats in the changing-room, Hale picked on me for some reason. I ‘answered him back’. Whereupon he gripped my wrist, twisted it round and bent my forearm back upon itself in a hideously painful way. I remember his handsome, jeering red face bearing down upon mine. He was, I think, older than I, besides being enormously stronger.

As he let go of me a terrible, wicked resolve formed itself in my heart. I would get back on him by hitting him when he did not expect it. It was a strategic moment, for the master who had been ‘taking’ the walk would be coming back almost immediately, and then there could be no fight. I let perhaps a minute go by, walked up to Hale with the most harmless air I could assume, and then, getting the weight of my body behind it, smashed my fist into his face. He was flung backwards by the blow, and some blood ran out of his mouth. His always sanguine face turned almost black with rage. Then he turned away to rinse his mouth at the wash-basins.

‘All right!’ he said to me between his teeth as the master led us away.

For days after this he followed me about, challenging me to fight. Although terrified out of my wits, I steadily refused to fight. I said that the blow in the face had served him right, and there was an end of it. Curiously enough he did not simply fall upon me there and then, which public opinion would probably have supported him in doing. So gradually the matter tailed off, and there was no fight.

Now, I had behaved wrongly, by my own code no less than his. To hit him unawares was wrong. But to refuse afterwards to fight knowing that if we fought we would beat me — that was far worse: it was cowardly. If I had refused because I disapproved of fighting, or because I genuinely felt the matter to be closed, it would have been all right; but I had refused merely because I was afraid. Even my revenge was made empty by that fact. I had struck the blow in a moment of mindless violence, deliberately not looking far ahead and merely determined to get my own back for once and damn the consequences. I had had time to realize that what I did was wrong, but it was the kind of crime from which you could get some satisfaction. Now all was nullified. There had been a sort of courage in the first act, but my subsequent cowardice had wiped it out.

The fact I hardly noticed was that though Hale formally challenged me to fight, he did not actually attack me. Indeed, after receiving that one blow he never oppressed me again. It was perhaps twenty years before I saw the significance of this. At the time I could not see beyond the moral dilemma that is presented to the weak in a world governed by the strong: Break the rules, or perish. I did not see that in that case the weak have the right to make a different set of rules for themselves; because, even if such an idea had occurred to me, there was no one in my environment who could have confirmed me in it.

(Emphasis added.)


Vance Maverick said...

Of course, from the winger-bagger point of view, the sentiment you've bolded does apply, though naturally to a limited set of circumstances: the American Revolution; the Civil War as seen from the South, and "states' rights"; and the self-reliantly gun-toting breadwinner facing the oppressive taxman.

delagar said...

Yeah, I did think about that. It's also key to the Civil Rights and Revolutionary movement in general, though, so I went ahead and posted it.

Vance Maverick said...

Incidentally I like how he exposes the way adult politics and ideology colonize the experiences of one's own youth -- just lays it out, without claiming objectivity or obsessing over it.

Chris said...

Holy shit! I hear in the rhythms of this prose the IDENTICAL moral reasoning and syntax of Shooting and Elephant. The big bully was the elephant, and "I had got to shoot him. The crowd expected it of me..." etc.

And Burmese who didn't realize afterward that he had done it only to avoid looking the fool.

Sometimes, there's actually an advantage to have nearly memorized Shooting an Elephant.

BTW, Dr. Delagar, did you ever come across the Christopher Hitchens book on Orwell? Crap, I have it around here somewhere. Probably written before he was the completely right-wing insane drunk he is now, but even so, it's an analysis of how Orwell is appropriated equally and with equal fervor by both the right and the left (despite the fact he was such a rabid socialist and fought in Spain etc.)