Rich People Should Be Good Not Rich People Shouldn’t Be
December 19, 2017 12:02 PM   Subscribe

 
All of Orwell's book reviews are an absolute treasure.
posted by Coventry at 12:24 PM on December 19, 2017 [6 favorites]


I love that essay and re-read it periodically just to marvel at Orwell's penetration and common sense. Orwell has an unusual ability to both clearly analyze what's problematic with an author and find what is attractive or salvageable about him (see also his essay on Kipling).

I wonder if Dickens realized that he had no positive program except “be better people”. Probably not. But at least he could tell that something was wrong in society, which is the necessary first step.
posted by zompist at 12:26 PM on December 19, 2017 [15 favorites]


The two twentieth-century essayists who most repay reading at this particular critical juncture are Orwell and James Baldwin.

"People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it" tells you so much about Trump.
posted by praemunire at 12:32 PM on December 19, 2017 [41 favorites]


"There could not be fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing like five thousand demons... They danced to the popular Revolution song, keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison... They advanced, retreated, struck at one another's hands, clutched at one another's heads, spun round alone, caught one another, and spun around in pairs, until many of them dropped... Suddenly they stopped again, paused, struck out the time afresh, forming into lines the width of the public way, and, with their heads low down and their hands high up, swooped screaming off. No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance. It was so emphatically a fallen sport — a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry."
Dickens wrote this after watching a line dance at a Garth Brooks concert.

[/fake]
posted by clawsoon at 1:58 PM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]




I can't help thinking of this interview/talk, Chamath Palihapitiya, Founder and CEO Social Capital, on Money as an Instrument of Change. Fascinating guy, very much worth the time, but he similarly lacks structural vision.
(via: snuffleupagus)
posted by Chuckles at 2:03 PM on December 19, 2017


Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? [...] The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another.
Indeed.
posted by Chuckles at 2:07 PM on December 19, 2017 [5 favorites]


Man, a domain name "orwell.ru" isn't even ironic any more.
posted by ardgedee at 2:35 PM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


I think most of his work is still under copyright in the West.
posted by Coventry at 2:39 PM on December 19, 2017


. They felt at home in the world they lived in, whereas a writer nowadays is so hopelessly isolated that the typical modern novel is a novel about a novelist.

This own of American literary fiction 50 years early is stupendous.
posted by Space Coyote at 2:45 PM on December 19, 2017 [28 favorites]


This line from the Orwell essay on Kipling certainly feel relevant to today:

"Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists."

posted by tavella at 3:28 PM on December 19, 2017 [33 favorites]


This. This articulates why I can't stand Dickens.

Or wealthy retirees volunteering and not understanding a damn thing about life on the ground. Slowly realizing that they were very lucky and most of them can't deal with the burst of cognitive dissonance cause all their life they had peeled grapes. They drop out or don't show up because to do so would now mess up their self-conception and that is a tough thing to reassess after a certain age which I might peg as 60? 40? 20? Throw the beanbag at the holes. Buy lottery tickets.

Towards the end of every year I see the Dickensians drop service from the list of things they committed to do. But they don't drop us from their party lists and we get the invitations and go so they can introduce us to other rich people who also don't get it and then we are so charming that we get invited to other things, benefits, balls, all tomorrow's parties. Sounds like fun but we are whoring, capitalizing on any personality traits or knowledge or just plainly manipulating their guilt.

Some of them think that we are a very interesting couple and they can have us both for a large donation. She doesn't like penises and I am a monk and that is why we are close enough to pull this off. We have a subtle "Eeew!" look for that but we delay and demur, we only have our sitter for another hour but we'd love to come back sometime. Get the money and get out and we've just fed another 300 families for two weeks.

We get reimbursed for mileage, later, much later, but we laugh almost all the way home cause it is funny. Neither of us have been criminals but we have the crimistry to do this.

I guess that's how you push from within. Eat their food, drink their wine, take their money.

I would much rather have President Orwell. Not the same thing as having an Orwellian President.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:18 PM on December 19, 2017 [21 favorites]


Orwell is in the public domain in Canada. If you want to help me collect his works for the world, you can see Bilbio.wiki (formerly Wikilivres).
posted by koavf at 4:31 PM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


(See also Univ. of Adelaide, Australia ebook archive)
posted by runcifex at 5:58 PM on December 19, 2017 [4 favorites]


I just finished reading that, and it was a splendid essay. Orwell says:

"Why do I care about Dickens?......In Dickens's case the complicating factor is his familiarity. He happens to be one of those ‘great authors’ who are ladled down everyone's throat in childhood. At the time this causes rebellion and vomiting, but it may have different after-effects in later life. "

The complicating factor is that we are best able to read this essay if we are all somewhat familiar with the works of Dickens. The essay is spectacular because it's not really about Dickens at all, it's using him as a way to talk about our obligations as activists- do we just criticize the current order? Do we have to come up with a prescription ourselves, or can we just point out that something is wrong and needs to be fixed? Can we criticize society if we are hazy on the details of education, agriculture or law?

It's possible to write this essay minus the Dickens, but by utilizing an author we all know, Orwell can take shortcuts that a non-literary essay couldn't. It *is* rather striking, now that Orwell has pointed it out, that Dickens doesn't stoop to nationalistic caricatures. "He does not exploit the comic Irishman and the comic Welshman, for instance, and not because he objects to stock characters and ready-made jokes, which obviously he does not." The discussion of class and sex in the essay is also sadly relevant to today.

But how many people read Dickens? I won't defend the "Western Canon", but to have essays like this, we need to have a common starting point, and I don't think we do any more. I try to engage people at work in discussions of "The Wire", but no one at work has seen it. People at work try to engage me in discussions of Beyoncé, but I've never heard any of her music. None of us have seen the latest superhero movie. There's no common starting point. There's no common ground. If only all of us in this country knew some amount of Dickens, perhaps we could talk about this Uriah Heep running the country.
posted by acrasis at 6:43 PM on December 19, 2017 [7 favorites]


one of the things Orwell criticizes Dickens for is a very correct way of thinking: the idea that you work mainly or only because you must, in order to live, or to improve your character enough that you are worthy and unspoiled when the surprise reward arrives: that the ideal condition is that "radiant idleness" only achievable by the independently wealthy who were not born that way and who never expected to achieve it. Working, as you do have to do until a strange old man leaves you a fortune, is mostly dull when not awful or immoral or artistic.

this is a little too realistic an outlook for Orwell. the absolute rejection of the work-loving work ethic is one of the nicest things about Dickens, and one of the things Orwell not only rejects but absolutely does not understand. he says Dickens doesn't write about work, but then qualifies "work" to mean only a passionate vocation: writing e.g. an architect doesn't count, because a Dickens architect isn't following his fucking bliss or chasing his passion, he's just doing a goddamn job, the way you do.

Dickens could write perfectly well about spending one's days messing around with spreadsheets; if you told him there were such things as spreadsheets and personal computers he could probably work up something pretty good without ever needing to know exactly what they were. but he couldn't write about someone whose whole soul was bent towards making better and better spreadsheets, who gladly gave their life to it, unless he was working up a really vicious and not very good caricature.

so I mean, it's true what Orwell says about all that but it's a virtue, not a failing. I think it is clear that people who have to work in order to sustain an interest in life and an attachment to the world are the ones with a fatal lack of imagination, not Dickens. and the idea that people have to work in order to keep on eating and having a place to sleep, he understood perfectly well.

I wonder if Dickens realized that he had no positive program except “be better people”. Probably not.


oh sure he did. he knew what his conscious religious convictions were. but like Orwell says, it's such a monumentally ambitious program that it almost demands to be ignored.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:47 PM on December 19, 2017 [17 favorites]


iirc, Orwell was pleased enough with the long-form Dickens essay that he wrote two more long pieces of criticism: "Inside The Whale", about Henry Miller, and "Boy's Weeklies", which we discussed here pretty recently. That piece was kind of ahead of its time, in that it took "low" culture (popular school adventure stories for children) as a subject worthy of serious discussion.
posted by thelonius at 6:55 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


The complicating factor is that we are best able to read this essay if we are all somewhat familiar with the works of Dickens.

FWIW, I've never read any Dickens (tried a few times), but I still love this essay.
posted by Coventry at 7:03 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


But how many people read Dickens?

a lot! moreover, I would bet my left arm that there have been thousands of people who took up reading Dickens as a direct consequence of reading this essay. they can come back after they've done it and read the essay again, but it will only be a different experience, not a superior one. it's no different from what Orwell says somewhere in there about reading Great Expectations as a child with a child's perspective and coming back as an adult with adult experience. you see differently, but it is better to have both perspectives than only one.

nobody in history ever read all the books and essays that discuss other books and essays in strict chronological order, making sure to get all the proper context first, and if they did they are monsters or robots. when I think back to my youth and all the time I wasted reading lit crit instead of actual literature, long meandering essays about books I hadn't read and in some cases never did read, I really wish I'd spent twice as much time doing that.

literary criticism is art, and in the case of Orwell it is good art. and it is no more true that you must have read the work a critic discusses in order to understand and profit from the criticism than that you must have seen the interior of a 17th century Dutch house with your own eyes in order to really appreciate a Vermeer.

it so happens I hate Dickens as a personality and I am bothered by Orwell's several mischaracterizations of Dickens-haters, as none of them are about me. but I forgive him
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:25 PM on December 19, 2017 [7 favorites]


"Boy's Weeklies",

I really love that essay with the thread on how you can propagate ideology in seemingly inconsequential kid's adventure stories without intending to
posted by The Whelk at 7:39 PM on December 19, 2017 [4 favorites]


really love that essay with the thread on how you can propagate ideology in seemingly inconsequential kid's adventure stories without intending to

You absolutely should read "How to Read Donald Duck" if you haven't. And now I'm off to read the Orwell essay!
posted by wires at 9:00 PM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


Trying to read the link on my computer at work in a (US) state university and the site is blocked by our IT department. Censorship!
posted by mareli at 5:42 AM on December 20, 2017


"Boy's Weeklies"

That was engrossing, thank you, thelonius.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 7:52 AM on December 20, 2017


If the wicked nobleman could somehow have turned over a new leaf, like Scrooge, there would have been no Revolution, no jacquerie, no guillotine — and so much the better. This is the opposite of the ‘revolutionary’ attitude.
This stood out to me because, honestly, I think Dickens is right on that count.

People, mostly, are not revolutionary by nature and must be goaded into revolution by conditions far worse than you'd imagine are needed.

One of the things that worries me about the future is the fear that some of the billionaires will have the tiny degree of self awareness and self preservation to realize that they can forestall a revolution indefinitely by giving the masses the tiniest of scraps.

There will always be malcontents, people who see that the system is evil and is holding back the many for the benefit of the few. But unless the average person is doing **VERY** badly they won't join the revolution and the malcontents will be unable to do more than post bitterly on internet message boards.

And, again, it takes very little to keep the proletariat in such a state that they're unwilling to revolt. I'm not sure the billionaire class is smart enough, or aware enough, or whatever enough, to realize that they can have most of the money as long as they leave a few cents for the poor to (barely) survive on. But if they do, then there will never be a revolution.
posted by sotonohito at 8:10 AM on December 20, 2017 [11 favorites]


Trying to read the link on my computer at work in a (US) state university and the site is blocked by our IT department. Censorship!

To be fair, blocking the entirety of .ru is not an uncommon IT policy, mainly because it's the origin point for a lot of malware, phishing and DDoS attacks. (Long after I shut down my personal blog, which was never that big to begin with, I was still getting hundreds of bogus login attempts per day, all from .ru addresses.)
posted by tobascodagama at 9:17 AM on December 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


There will always be malcontents, people who see that the system is evil and is holding back the many for the benefit of the few. But unless the average person is doing **VERY** badly they won't join the revolution and the malcontents will be unable to do more than post bitterly on internet message boards.

And, again, it takes very little to keep the proletariat in such a state that they're unwilling to revolt. I'm not sure the billionaire class is smart enough, or aware enough, or whatever enough, to realize that they can have most of the money as long as they leave a few cents for the poor to (barely) survive on. But if they do, then there will never be a revolution.

sotonohito

Your worry is both justified and too late: it's not a coincidence that talk of Universal Basic Income is bubbling up into the mainstream just as we approach the beginning of a new age of AI-driven automation that will likely render large swathes of the population jobless and "obsolete". It's also not a coincidence that even hardcore free-marketeers/libertarians who normally spit on talk of social welfare embrace UBI.

They see the writing on the wall, and they see the little bit they have to do to shore up their position forever.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:23 AM on December 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


For those worried that the super-rich will fob off everyone else with UBI or some other tidbits, I invite you to check out what they are actually doing: looting $1.5 trillion from the public treasury from themselves, crippling healthcare, lowering benefits for the middle class and the poor.

No, Scrooge isn't reforming. Sometimes he chats to trusted underlings that he's thinking of reforming. The underling cherishes this as an insight to his secret benevolence, but the underling is getting played.

It wouldn't be true to Orwell to stop there. Things are difficult, but not hopeless. For one reason, as he points out, the plutocrats are surprisingly incompetent.
posted by zompist at 12:18 PM on December 20, 2017 [7 favorites]


No, Scrooge isn't reforming. Sometimes he chats to trusted underlings that he's thinking of reforming. The underling cherishes this as an insight to his secret benevolence, but the underling is getting played.
"I'm reforming more than anyone in the history of reforming. Everyone is talking about how much I'm reforming. Believe me."

("Also, I talked to 300 ghosts last night. Good ghosts, the best ghosts...")
posted by Horkus at 4:46 PM on December 20, 2017 [2 favorites]


"One of the things that worries me about the future is the fear that some of the billionaires will have the tiny degree of self awareness and self preservation to realize that they can forestall a revolution indefinitely by giving the masses the tiniest of scraps."

They've been doing it since empires existed. This is basically the status quo in society. Revolution happens only when they fuck it up.
posted by trif at 2:37 AM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


That's what the New Deal was about, right?
posted by Coventry at 8:17 AM on December 21, 2017


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