Wednesday, August 19, 2009

As He Pleased

As I wrote in my February 25 post, from 3 December 1943 until 4 April 1947, George Orwell contributed a weekly column called As I Please to the Tribune newspaper. He was allowed ample space to comment on, as you can guess, whatever he wished. His column appeared in eight editions of the paper and shortly before his abrupt departure from the post - to enter a hospital in Glasgow - he wrote a summation of his relationship with Tribune, which had gone through a few changes since the end of the war and the election of a Labour government in England, in a column he called "As I Pleased." On a cheerily optimistic note, he wrote: "I hope that in 1957 I shall be writing another anniversary article." He was writing, of course, as much about his own survival as the paper's.

The following is from his 20th column, dated 14 April 1944.

Attacking Mr. C.A. Smith and myself in the Malvern Torch for various remarks about the Christian religion, Mr. Sidney Dark grows very angry because I have suggested that the belief in personal immortality is decaying. "I would wager," he says, "that if a Gallup poll were taken seventy-five per cent [of the British population] would confess to a vague belief in survival." Writing elsewhere during the same week, Mr. Dark puts it at eighty-five per cent.

Now, I find it very rare to meet anyone, of whatever background, who admits to believing in personal immortality. Still, I think it quite likely that if you asked everyone the question and put pencil and paper in his hands, a fairly large number (I am not so free with my percentages as Mr. Dark) would admit the possibility that after death there might be "something." The point Mr. Dark has missed is that the belief, such as it is, hasn't the actuality it had for our forefathers. Never, literally never in recent years, have I met anyone who gave me the impression of believing in the next world as firmly as he believed in the existence of, for instance, Australia. Belief in the next world does not influence conduct as it would if it were genuine. With that endless existence beyond death to look forward to, how trivial our lives here would seem! Most Christians profess to believe in Hell. Yet have you ever met a Christian who seemed as afraid of Hell as he was of cancer? Ever very devout Christians will make jokes about Hell. They wouldn't make jokes about leprosy, or R.A.F. pilots with their faces burnt away: the subject is too painful. Here there springs into my mind a little triolet by the late G.K. Chesterton:

It's a pity that Poppa has sold his soul,
It makes him sizzle at breakfast so.
The money was useful, but still on the whole
It's a pity that Poppa has sold his soul
When he might have held on like the Baron de Coal,
And not cleared out when the price was low.
It's a pity that Poppa has sold his soul,
It makes him sizzle at breakfast so.

Chesterton, a Catholic, would presumably have said that he believed in Hell. If his next-door neighbour had been burnt to death he would not have written a comic poem about it, yet he can make jokes about somebody being fried for millions of years. I say that such belief has no reality. It is a sham currency, like the money in Samuel Butler's Musical Banks.

No comments: