Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

This book I had only heard about, never read:

It's worth reading, and it is worth reading in the end. It's largely predictable, but then I think it's meant to be. Gordon Comstock can only ever be a failure, even, especially, on his own terms. He runs from the comfortable, satisfactory, though sometimes difficult and dull life of the hard-working family man, and takes refuge in a romantic image of himself which which probably can't exist, and which he, certainly, is quite incapable of living up to. He completely fails to realize that what he is running from is not imposed on anyone. It is what the people who have it want. Not all of them succeed, but those who do are happy. He has chosen not to have it, even though it is the route to everything he wants, including money, which he is far more obsessed with even than the people he pretends to despise, and he cannot have the girl he wants until he becomes like them.

He, not them, is the victim of the money-god. He is the one who measures everyone and everything in terms of money. He is a silly, infantile creature who expects the world to take him seriously because he has chosen to ignore it, to look down on it. He knows he is not what he claims to be but expects other people to believe it and to value it in a way that he himself cannot.

It is not surprising that he ends up a normal working man, nor the mechanism chosen by Orwell to achieve it. He begins to dimly understand that people choose to live the life he tried to renounce, and they so choose for perfectly good reasons, the same reasons that make him choose that life in the end. He wishes to live a symbolic life, as Ravelston does, but Ravelston can afford to live such a life and Gordon can't.
I was surprised he threw away the great poem, some of which wasn't bad, rather than keeping it locked in some desk as a memory of another time. And putting an aspidistra in his window shows a sense of humour and self-awareness that he has never appeared to have before.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Down and Out in Paris and London

I had never really read this book, only sections of it quoted at length in other works. These are the notes I made during and after reading, slightly edited (the purpose of this series of posts is to give someone who only know 1984 and Animal Farm a reason to read his other works, which are, despite their deficiencies, much more human in the sense that you learn much about Orwell the man, more than he realized, I imagine, and also a sense of what they might find):

It is much better than The Road to Wigan Pier, much livelier, more characterful, more a collection of good stories than a tedious political tract as that is. I shall read it to the end, it is certainly worth it, but it suffers from the same problems as his other autobiographical works- a lack of self-awareness and of genuine insight.

He is not working class and he never could be. He works hard at the restaurants in Paris, very hard indeed when he can get a job, and he suffers hardship when he can't. But it's all a game to Orwell. It's a bit of fun to placate his existential boredom and his bourgeois guilt. At the very most it's a kind of research. When he decides he can take no more he writes to England and asks someone to find him a comfortable job as a private secretary to someone or other. And that's it. He's bored with the game and goes back to his real life. Just like in Spain when after a few months he's had enough of the war and just goes back to England and gets on with his life.

He deals almost entirely with people like himself, broken-down foreign bourgoisie. He never chooses the company of the French working class, who he is so despetately trying to pretend he is like and understands better than anyone else. He either sneers at them- the landlords trying to make ends meet, the cooks and waiters at the restaurant making a living, taking pride in doing their job well, are enemies in the parochial little world he doesn't realize he's retreated into- or he charicatures them through the people and behaviours he describes seeing in the bars.

I was reminded by a scene he describes in a bar on a Saturday, where a brief moment of timeless joy and power gives way to the inevitable maudlin drunkenness and hangover. He says it was probably worth it. It reminded me of a black character in Faulkner's 'The Rievers', who says, 'If you could only be a nigger one Saturday night, you wouldn't want to be a white man again as long as you live.'

He is particularly blind when wondering what the life of a plongeur is for. He compares it disfavourably with the work of a miner, whose product is needed by other people. He doesn't seem to realize that if restaurants weren't wanted they wouldn't exist (unlike coal which was mined for political reasons at public expense for decades after it had ceased to be wanted in any quantity. I wonder if Orwell would have agreed with that business, or if he would acknowledged it was happening). 

People like to eat well without having to cook or clean, when they can afford to do so. Working men need to earn a living. Competent businessmen, restaurateurs- and anyone who wants to take a chance can be one, after all- satisfy both of those needs at once, while benefitting themselves at the same time. It is silly to ask for what purpose a plongeur works 15 hours a day. The purpose is the same for which any man works, to fill his belly. It is even sillier to claim, as he does, that there is some kind of conspiracy of the wealthy to keep the poor toiling senselessly, for fear they might otherwise want to share in their wealth.

It's a good read, illuminating on many aspects of poverty that most of us have probably never known or even thought about.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Homage to Catalonia

I recently re-read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, inspired by exhanges with Brett Hetherington in comments at his place and mine. These are the quick notes I made when about halfway through:

 He freely admits that when he went to Spain he had no idea what he was fighting for, and was quite ignorant of the politics. He seems to have gone to the Republican side because the British press suggested they were in the right. He was just sucked in by baseless propaganda, peer pressure and the thrill of war.
He says that journalists did nothing but scream hatred from the comfort of their offices, and he hoped one day to see a 'jingo' with a bullet hole in him. He says the Communists tried to destroy the incipient 'workers' revolution', which he thinks was taking place, rather than just a reaction against the uprising. He clearly says that the Communists hated the Anarchists more than they did the Nationalists and were responsible for a lot of repression and death on the Republican side. It was pure People's Front of Judaea out there and I don't really understand why he stayed. He seems to have had, despite his professed ignorance and the treacherous, almost comically ridiculous circumstances in which the Republican position was being defended, an unshakeable conviction that he was on the right side, and that it was worth his while to fight with them. It seem to be based on nothing more than the belief that the far left is always the right side to be on.

And these are more considered and structured remarks written when I had finished reading:

Orwell's tale of his experiences in the trenches and in Barcelona in the first year of the Civil War are very instructive, about him and about the war. He clearly wanted the glamour of being killed or badly wounded. He was there as a kind of war tourist, satisfying his ego and justifying his beliefs by jumping into something he didn't understand and didn't care to.
He speaks of his fellow English and American mercenaries as though they were the most important people there, whereas they were just having their fun and would go home when they were tired of it. He speaks of the bourgeois hiding among the workers, pretending to be one of them, which is exactly what he was doing himself.
The fighting between the factions of the left is quite farcical. When it breaks out, however, Orwell stays with his group of anarchists and is fighting against the government. This reveals as false the original justification of fighting for the legitimate government against the uprisen. He is fighting fo his own, rather confused, political philosophy, which seems to involve control of everything by the working class. Whether this means anything at all in a practical sense is not clear. And the question of whether it could possibly work is another matter. He does at least have a fairly clear and consistent aim, revolution followed by rule by the working class. He contrasts this with capitalism, by which he appears to mean private ownership of the means of production (and implicitly, although the point is usually ignored, private organization of work and distribution).
He predicts that whoever wins there will be a dictatorship, but prefers a Communist dictatorship to Franco. He says that the Communist dictatorship would abolish serfdom, distribute the land among the peasants, and would create good communications, public health services and update the infrastructures that the country needed. If he had lived to see Franco do all of that (except steal other people's property, of course), he would have been astonished. If the Communists had won, I think we can be sure that they would have done hardly a fraction of it.I reread

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Beauty of the Human Body

The Sphenoid Bone as Drawn by Henry Carter
1.      I don't think it counts as found art, because it is clearly art created by a great artist. But it is art whose purpose was not to impress a patron, nor gull some poor alleged philistine, nor to take the mickey, and it wasn't created purely from a desire to demonstrate a technical skill or to give expressive vent to some observation or idea that had taken shape in the artist's mind. It is art that is primarily communication. It was meant to be understood, at least at one particular level. The artist has done his job singularly well, and he had also shown that he is genuinely an artist, not merely a draughtsman. Anyone who has not browsed the engravings from Gray's Anatomy (just about everyone, I imagine) has missed something worth seeing. It may not be true to say that the sphenoid is the most beautiful bone in the human body, but the artist apparently considered it to be, and it shows in his treatment of it.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Eye and God

The eye is a magnificent thing. In form and function it could scarcely have been better designed. It is almost perfect in it'sbeauty,  elegance, simplicity of style, and extraordinary usefulness. Only God could have designed the eye, one is tempted to say. The orbit, however, is quite another matter. The orbit was put together from apparently random bits of seven different bones which were strectched, obtruded, pinched, rounded, flattened and squeezed together to form a recipient that will, very roughly, allow the eye to sit in it. The orbit, like most of the skull, in fact, is a complete bloody mess.   

I offer this reflection for what it's worth.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Found Art

     A stylized horse walks on a road that I cycled along this morning.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Things to do Before I Die

I seem to have stumbled on several of these lists recently, and it has made me think. There are things I intend to do one day, things I should like to do, things that I imagine would be worth doing, and things which, thinking about it carefully, I believe I will be glad I have done when I reflect on my life as it ends. The items on this list make up a collection of aspirations old and new that may be fitted haphazardly into these or other categories.

Some people seem to copy each other, rather than thinking how they themselves would respond to the experience in later life. And some of the things that regularly crop up are surprisingly mundane. Why does everybody want to swim with dolphins? Or eat at the world’s best restaurant, or stay at the world’s best hotel? Or appear as an extra in a film, or just appear once on the television? I expect all of those things are fun if you get the chance, but I don’t see them as justifying existence in the mind of the moribund. But on the whole they show how different we all are, how individual are our dreams and aspirations and fears, and that fact alone makes life a fascinating adventure. So here are my ideas:

Buy a microlight plane (and fly it, because I find the idea of moving around the country by air and seeing it from above very compelling)

Learn to ski jump (because it looks like tremendous fun and I want to feel it)

Cross Siberia by train (the journey must be very beautiful, and the sense of being lost in a place that is far more interesting than you yourself could ever be must be wonderful)

Travel in northern India (because I think there are things there worth seeing, things to learn about what people have been and can be)

Understand Sanskrit literature as well as I sometimes pretend to (a genuinely satisfying intellectual achievement)

Understand the origins of humanity and human consciousness (I rely on other people to provide the information that I will then try to understand, and at the moment they still have a lot of work to do)

Own a shark (not that I need great pick-up lines anymore, but that one takes some beating. And I like sharks)

Open the bowling for England (overtaken by events many years ago)

Have a passionate affair with Goldie Hawn (also overtaken by events many years ago)

Discover whether there is such a thing as spiritual enlightenment

If there is, achieve it (contingent on previous)

Win a Nobel Prize for (preferably) Literature (this is more something to work towards than to achieve. A kind of distant reference point for my little scribblings)

Learn to accept death (useful in itself)

Learn to play a mean game of chess (I used to be a mathematician, I’m supposed to be good at chess, but I have never got beyond not-quite-embarrassing)

Express something worthwhile by drawing (I would discover something about the world that I had not imagined)

Likewise through music/the guitar, for the same reason

Make a parachute jump (because it is the single most terrifying thing I can think off, and to overcome the irrational fear would be very satisfying and beneficial)

Walk around the world (if that is rather impractical, I would settle for walking across Africa from Port Said to Cape Town, or the Americas from The Magellan Strait to Alaska)

Nº 1 on any such list: Live. Many people forget to do this. They are too busy not dying, or doing other things of minor importance.

Comments, additions, ideas, other people’s lists, are very welcome.