Wednesday, January 21, 2009

George Orwell's Ready Reckoner

It must have come to your attention, dear reader, that I have frequently quoted George Orwell in my posts. I am, in fact, often looking for an excuse to quote him. Even when I am not actually doing so, I find myself quoting him in my head. He sometimes resembles the Shakespeare he describes in his 1947 essay "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool":

"If one has once read Shakespeare with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic but illuminating way."

Thirty years ago a dear old college professor (everyone can remember the type) recommended a book to me called Bernard Shaw's Ready-Reckoner edited by N.H. Leigh-Taylor. Long out of print, this rather slim book featured quotes from Shaw's voluminous writings on many subjects, like Love, Marriage, Religion and Money. Most of what Shaw wrote was sensible and often funny. Shaw lived long enough to become what Robert Graves called an "archetypal wise old man," and I often found myself agreeing with his opinions before I even realized what he was trying to say.

I lost the book long ago and I cannot say that I have missed it. How much more rewarding it would be, I think, to compile a selection of quotes from the writings of George Orwell than from a celibate vegetarian with a strong sado-masochistic streak. At the very least, they would represent Orwell speaking his own mind, in his own voice rather than that of an Shotover or an Undershaft.

Here, in no order whatever, is my first selection. All the following quotes are taken from the Everyman edition of Orwell's essays, with the name of the essay after each quote.

It is the dream of a just society which seems to haunt the human imagination ineradicably and in all ages, whether it is called the Kingdom of Heaven or the classless society, or whether it is thought of as a Golden Age which once existed in the past and from which we have degenerated. ("Arthur Koestler")

War is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, war brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual. It is only because they are aware of this that men will die on the field of battle. ("The Lion and the Unicorn")

Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself merely an index to majority opinion. ("Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool")

It is quite possible that man's major problems will never be solved. But it is also unthinkable! ("Arthur Koestler")

In so far as a writer is a propagandist, the most one can ask of him is that he shall genuinely believe in what he is saying, and that it shall not be something blazingly silly. ("Politics vs Literature")

If one says - and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week - that "King Lear" is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word "good"? ("Confessions of a Book Reviewer")

Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness. ("Arthur Koestler")

One must choose between God and Man, and all "radicals" and "progressives," from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man. ("Reflections on Gandhi")

The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. ("Why I Write")

All art is propaganda. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art. ("Charles Dickens")

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ("Politics and the English Language")

Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and to oppose. ("The Prevention of Literature")

There seems to be good reason for thinking that an exaggerated love of animals generally goes with a rather brutal attitude towards human beings. ("Introduction to Love of Life and Other Stories by Jack London")

The whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also. ("Revenge is Sour")

Poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday. ("Poetry and the Microphone")

Leaders who offer blood, toil and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. ("The Art of Donald McGill")

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. ("Rudyard Kipling")

Revolutionary activity is the result of personal maladjustment. Those who struggle against society are, on the whole, those who have reason to dislike it, and normal healthy people are no more attracted by violence and illegality than they are by war. ("Arthur Koestler")

A hundred years ago, Charles Kingsley described Science as 'making nasty smells in a laboratory.' A year or two ago a young industrial chemist informed me, smugly, that he 'could not see what was the use of poetry.' So the pendulum swings to and fro, but it does not seem to me that one attitude is any better than the other. ("What is Science?")

There can be no such thing as good novel-criticism so long as it is assumed that every novel is worth reviewing. To apply a decent standard to the ordinary run of novels is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants. ("In Defense of the Novel")

There are families in which the father will say to his child, 'You'll get a thick ear if you do that again,' while the mother, her eyes brimming over with tears, will take the child in her arms and murmur lovingly, 'Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?' And who would maintain that the second method is less tyrannous than the first? ("Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool")

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. ("Reflections on Gandhi")

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