Tuesday, June 8, 2010
George Orwell - Traveling Sad Salesman
Few would argue that Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, was a gloomy writer. His two best known works, Animal Farm and 1984, are both depressing tales of sinister governments that crush idealism into a pulp. This is probably an oversimplification, but it’s fair to say that if you are in the mood to feel cynical about humanity, go ahead and pick up an Orwell novel. Open up either of the previous titles, and you can watch Orwell suck out all your happiness with his detailed portrayals of entirely possible dystopias. What a downer.
In fact, Orwell was such a downer that he refused to contain his gloom to his ‘native’ United Kingdom. Yes, Orwell was a cynical globetrotter, hence this post. As you will see, Orwell was like one of those storm chasers who follow around tornadoes as they rip apart houses and mobile homes. He hated fascism and unregulated capitalism, but he also liked to watch them tear s*** up.
Orwell started his overseas adventures when he was born in Motihari, Bengal, India in 1903. Apparently his father worked for the Opium Department of the British Civil Service at the time, a job that I am pretty sure involved selling opium and handing out money in order to grow it, instead of trying to stop its spread. Unfortunately for Orwell, his mother dragged him away from his drug dealing father in India when he was 1 and forced him to live in gloomy, wet and pasty England. This dramatic change in climate must have forever sealed him into a life of cynicism.
At age 19, Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. That’s right, Orwell went to a country that is today one of the most depressing on earth. At the time, British India was a gargantuan monster that included modern day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma, and not many British people enjoyed living there since it was hot, humid and completely lacking in bland British foods. Unfortunately for Orwell, all of his family connections and facebook friends lived in Burma. He had no choice but to sail back to South Asia.
If India was an unpopular posting, then Burma was even more so. In fact, Burma was such an unpopular destination for British bureaucrats that by the time Orwell was 21 he was already responsible for an area that was home to 200,000 people. If the song “Under Pressure” had existed at the time, I’m sure Orwell would have had it on repeat on his iPod. As it turned out, Orwell didn’t like Burma very much and left for London after a few years. There he wrote such rosy essays as “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging”. He also wrote a depressing, anti-imperial book called Burmese Days. To give you an idea of how the book ended, SPOILER, the protagonist shoots his beloved dog in the head. Orwell was such a charmer.
Burma was not depressing enough for Orwell though. Shortly after his return to England, he decided that he wanted to dress like a bum and slum around London and Paris for awhile. In his semi-memoir Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell regales readers with tales of near starvation, drunkenness and the soul-crushing monotony of poverty. This was perhaps Orwell’s first attempt to reveal the ordeals of the less fortunate, and in the process, to bring sadness to thousands of innocent upper and middle class people. In addition to this, Orwell, who worked as a multi-purpose dishwasher in a fancy hotel in Paris, selfishly revealed the extremely unsanitary conditions of French kitchens. This forever destroyed any preconceptions that French food is in any way good. I’m sure at this point many people were begging Orwell to stop his rampage, but he wasn’t done.
In 1936, the Spanish Civil war broke out. A microcosm of the later World War II, the Spanish conflict was raging between the fragmented democratic Republicans and the fascist Nationalists led by Francisco Franco. Almost immediately after the war started, Orwell joined the Republican side as a member of a democratic-socialist (“Not communist!” he would cry) militia. Always the know-it-all, Orwell was convinced that democracy was worth fighting for, unlike most other Europeans at the time. He fought as an infantryman until a sniper shot him in the throat, nearly killing him. Apparently he was too tall and Anglo-Saxon to adequately hide behind a parapet. That is only a little funny.
After recuperating in a sanitarium, Orwell wrote Homage to Catelonia, where he guilt-tripped hundreds of thousands of Europeans and Americans for betraying democratic principles in Spain by either fighting for the wrong side, not fighting at all, or fighting in the wrong way. I guess it’s understandable that being shot in the throat by some dumb fascist would make a gloomy person slightly gloomier.
After the Spanish civil war Orwell ended his globetrotting and mostly stayed in England for the rest of his life. There, among other things, he wrote the scathing Animal Farm where he ruthlessly bullied Russia for being too authoritarian and 1984, that magna culpa that basically made everyone scared of government. Being a corrupt government official has never been harder.
I think most people would agree with me that George Orwell was a traveling sad salesman. A strident believer in democracy, he refused to let anyone be happy and content with their lives when others were suffering. Thanks a lot Orwell.
-Ted Gault, former hostel intern