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George Orwell

In the last chapter of Culture and Society (1958), devoted to the work of the celebrated English novelist and essayist George Orwell, Raymond Williams wrote:

The total effect of Orwell’s work is an effect of a paradox. He was a humane man who communicated an extreme of inhuman terror; a man committed to decency who actualized a distinctive squalor. These, perhaps, are elements of the general paradox. But there are other, more particular, paradoxes. He was a socialist, who popularized a severe and damaging criticism of the idea of socialism and of its adherents. He was a believer in equality, and a critic of class who founded his later work on a deep assumption of inherent inequality, inescapable class difference (p. 286).

Considering his relatively short, hectic life and the rapidly shifting, if also profoundly disheartening political and militarily realities of his time, these paradoxes in Orwell might in the end become justifiable, imputed perhaps to an enduring sense of scepticism of any sustained political attitude. After all, his was a generation of warring ideologies: Socialism, Capitalism, Nazism, Fascism, and various forms of linguistic, ethnic and religious nationalisms. However, the one conspicuous paradox that Williams fails to identify here involves Orwell’s ambivalent position vis-à-vis the colonial subject whether in the Far East or Africa. Certainly, Orwell’s outspoken criticism of the British colonial establishment in Burmese Days (1934) or in essays like “Shooting an Elephant”, or a “Hanging” is, at any rate, an act of intellectual courage and reflects a progressive political vision. “I write”, he says in his much-quoted essays, “Why I Write”, “because  there is some lie that  I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention” (p. 28). He had, let us remember, resigned his job as a police officer serving in Burma, thus announcing his rejection of the very notion of docility on which he was brought up in Eton. Nor was mere escape into the domestic life of the metropolis likely to conceal from him the existence of a glaring, widespread poverty or console his growing concern for the bitter injustices suffered by this underprivileged part of the English society. Indeed, inasmuch as exposing the brutal effects of capitalism on the working class in England or France, or condemning totalitarian and fascist regimes, Orwell’s work is extremely compelling.

But while this admirable display of humanistic sentiments has won him a universal acclaim and contributed to an orthodox view of his books as the testimonies of a committed and, in a significant way, prophetic mind, Orwell’s writing, particularly that which relates to his experience in Burma an Marrakech, evokes too complex a reaction to dismiss as a mere denunciation of imperialism or reduce to an expression of sympathy for the colonial subject. There is, I think, much more in Orwell than abstract statements made in good faith in favour of an oppressed class, a colonised society or a suppressed history. What we have, in fact, is another illustration of failure to reconcile one’s socialist thoughts of fraternity and tolerance with the grim, engulfing reality of the native world. Earlier British writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad whose lives were deeply affected by colonial experiences in the South Seas, Africa, India, and Latin America fell short too of their claims of popularising an evangelical and philanthropic discourse of the Other otherwise professed in their non-fictional writings.

For Orwell the configurations of the colonial scene rendered in his essays have often the paradoxical effect of subverting the critical overtones of his anti-imperialistic statements. Consider, for instance, his description of the body of an Indian native who, it is reported, died under the ponderous weight of a raging elephant:

I rounded the hut and saw a man’s dead body sprawling in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes[…] This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.) The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. (pp. 267-68)

Through a meticulous, almost appreciative gaze, the body of the deceased Indian native is supervised. Being only the corpse of “a black Dravidian coolie”, its nakedness seems no surprising matter. Poverty and unimportance, we are to understand, are the perpetual lot of the living Indian native. Even in his death, the native is denied a sense of awe. Buried in the mud, his body is made to typify the conditions of degradation, baseness and impurity which as a living subject he had to assume too as markers of his identity. Now in his fixed posture, facing the muddy ground with horrified eyes and gnashing teeth, the corpse of Indian comes to embody a stereotypical order of helplessness and vulnerability. From the vantage point of the narrator whose task consists in hunting the elephant and restoring order among the excited Indian villagers, the death of the Indian is of course only an episode in the narrative of little or no moral significance. If it has any at all, it is to heighten the reader’s curiosity as to how the narrative ends and supply the needed justification for the ultimate shooting of the elephant.

As the story of the raging elephant comes to an end, one is left with several nagging questions. Is it not striking that Orwell’s opening statement in the essay in which he disowns his early service in Burma and condemns the ravages of British imperialism in the Indian subcontinent eventually subscribe to a desire to produce an appealing, if also politically correct narrative? Does he not in the process, brush aside his anti-imperialistic pronouncements and succumb to an anecdotal representation of the natives? Is not the haughty subjective quality in his writing far more important to him than grandiose ideals so bitterly castigated in his later fiction? Curious questions as these cannot be addressed simply as a matter of paradox. They reflect the possibility, indeed the urgency to read Orwell’s production of the colonial space and construction of the Otherness more as discursive practices, to use Foucauldian terms, than mere objective descriptions or personal views.

Following Edward Said, I assume that British representations of colonial spaces and cultures are defined by a rhetoric of power, both physical and moral. Just as it is an act of assertion of one’s personal and cultural existence (I write therefore I am), writing is an act of denial of the Other, of erasure of the multiple possibilities of existence in favour of one unified and monolithic discourse. What is often projected as an objective, disinterested, and truthful account of one’s experience in foreign colonial territory conceals signs of bias and prejudice, of unquestioned assumptions and unjustified conclusions. These are acts of inscription marked by the mediation of the authorial gaze and the projection of its particular cultural order onto the colonial scene. Although it pretends to be accurate and transparent, such a gaze is inherently transgressive, continually supplementing its objects with nuances too subtle to discern without a fair amount of critical attention. One compelling illustration of this inscriptive operation confronts us in Orwell’s essay “Marrakech”. In this short essay, written in the spring of 1939, Orwell again makes proof of his remarkable ability to turn every aspect of native life into a spectacle of disorder and futility. Having contracted a case of tuberculosis in England, he made his journey south to Marrakech in the winter of 1938, where he started his novel Coming Up for Air. “Marrakech” which sums up his own thoughts about his experience in the city consists of a series of disjointed passages, each mapping out a particular scene of the poverty and dreariness so pervasive in the city. In its fragmentary structure, the essay reflects the lack of homogeneity in the colonial space. It is a space populated by a Muslim majority, a Jewish minority and even a smaller European community whose colonial authority is served by yet a body of well disciplined Senegalese soldiers. In this heterogeneous community, racial and ethnic differences become not so much signs of diversity as those of conflict and clash. To Orwell’s panoptic eye, this divided, hierarchic society typifies a deplorable order generated by the mediocrity and passiveness of the natives.

Indeed, throughout the essay Orwell remains systematically vague as to the role of European colonialism in reducing the natives to a condition of subalternity. The natives’ massive number, their own privation and misery, and above all, their skin colour, he wants us to realise, contribute to rendering their very humanness a dubious fact and transforming their physical presence into a peculiar case of invisibility. As if it were a complex puzzle or an astounding revelation, Orwell observes that in Marrakech

The people have brown faces — besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone. And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil. (p. 427)

It is not difficult in this caricature-like portrait of the natives offered here with no little cynicism to recognise the brutality of Orwell’s rhetoric; a brutality that, at a symbolic level at least, denies the native the right to be human and equates him with insects. Perhaps it was the exceptional fate of the natives of  Marrakech and not that of the whole human race that they should “sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard”. Or may be it was their punishing lot alone to be forgotten once their life cycle had been completed.

In another passage, Orwell tells about a diverting incident. Feeding a gazelle in a public garden in Marrakech, he is approached by a hungry worker asking for a slice of bread, which is immediately granted. The worker, we are told in the concluding sentence, turns out to be “an employee of the municipality” (p. 428). While lighting a cigarette in a Jewish quarter, Orwell is swarmed by elderely Jewish inhabitants all begging for a cigarette. In spite of being hard workers, these Jews seem to him to hold “a cigarette as a more or less impossible luxury” (Ibid). In the same spirit of the benefactor, he gives a coin to an old woman he meets on the road carrying “a load of wood”. What strikes him about the woman’s reaction is that she should let out

a shrill wail, almost a scream, which was partly gratitude but mainly surprise. I suppose that from her point of view, by taking any notice of her, I seemed almost to be violating a law of nature. She accepted her status as an old woman, that is to say as a beast of burden (pp.430-31).

Standing out as the benevolent outsider in what seems a desolate landscape, Orwell seeks to demonstrate that for their plight the natives of Marrakech have only themselves to blame. Patriarchal despotism, corrupt administration and primitive farming methods, among other things, are held to be the inevitable signs of a backward and impoverished society where the living continues to struggle for a mean livelihood and the dead falls swiftly into oblivion. The plight of Marrakech is attributed to the absence of a creative and revolutionary spirit in the native to liberate himself from the constraining beliefs and practices of his own culture otherwise premised on superstition and idleness. In sharp contrast with this tide of criticisms of native mediocrity, misery and wretchedness, Orwell remains conspicuously silent and at best evasive as to the role of French colonial establishment in maintaining the status quo.

At a theoretical level, the difficulty with Orwell’s political vision of the colonial phenomenon is that it fails to resist the impinging force of his own identity as a subject of a colonising culture. Just as colonial authority is a self-legitimising and self-explanatory process, so too is Orwell’s voice posited as the expression of a transcendental and universal truth. Because their lifestyles, physical makeup and cultural values happen to be different, the natives are judged to be beyond redemption, condemned to remain quasi-human. Nowhere does Orwell’s anti-imperialistic position become problematic as when he usurps the right of the natives to be the making of their own cultural and geographical space. Nowhere does he become inimical to the very notion of socialism as when he defines the native as inferior subjects bereft of human sensibility, which, one should imagine, he possesses.

Yet more provocative than his prejudices is the liberty he takes in imposing his own interpretation of the natives’ real intentions. He speaks for them, makes sense of their inarticulate utterances and gestures and ultimately decides how short of common sense and of sound reasoning the natives are. Like characters in a novel, the natives become objects of his own omniscient power entirely at the mercy of his creative mood and temperament. Whether working in the field, carrying loads of wood or simply passing by, their presence is often concealed. “What is strange about these people”, Orwell declares “is their invisibility” (p. 431). For this unhappy condition, they are held responsible. As he bluntly puts it, “people with brown skins are next door to invisible” (Ibid). Only when he chooses to confer on them a certain meaningful presence do the natives become accessible. Only he, the freedom fighter, the anti-imperialist activist, the champion of the proletariat can guarantee the natives a degree of visibility which otherwise the heavens have denied them. Ironically enough, it is Orwell’s own gaze that, in the end strikes us by its own blindness to the particularity of the natives’ cultural identity, and its inability to realise the relativity, not to say the ethnocentrism of its own conclusions.

Works Cited:

George Orwell, “Why I write” The Penguin Essay of George Orwell (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), pp23-30

—– “Shooting an Elephant,” The Penguin Essay of George Orwell pp. 265-72.

—– “Marrakech”, The Penguin Essay of George Orwell, pp. 426-32.

Raymond Williams, Culture and Society (1958) (London: The Hogarth Press, 1990).

Edward Said, Orientalism (1978) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991).

—– Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).