As He Pleased
I’ve been reading a little Orwell lately – prompted partly by my offhand comment in an email to Norm that Orwell was good but Hitchens is better – which itself was prompted by Philip Dodd’s introduction of Hitchens on ‘Night Waves’ in which he quoted someone (someone unnamed, I think) as writing in a review that Hitchens is as good as Orwell, or almost as good as Orwell, or some such. That annoyed me. It is my considered opinion – despite the offhandedness of the comment alluded to above – that Orwell is over-rated as a writer. Really quite seriously over-rated. That his language is very often decidedly tired and uninspired, even banal, and that there is a lot of commonplace thought in it. Phrases like ‘dirty little scoundrel’ come to mind.
But when Harry at Crooked Timber did a post about Fascinating Hitchens in which he quoted Norm quoting me there was a lot of disagreement (along with some agreement) with my relative estimation of the two – which is why I got Orwell off the shelf to check my impression again. And – I still agree with myself. He’s good, he’s interesting, he’s definitely worth reading, but he is not a great writer or stylist or thinker. He’s not as good as Dwight Macdonald, for instance.
That’s just a flat assertion, obviously. It would take extensive quotation to make my case – because he is good, so I can’t just quote a terrible sentence and leave it at that. But if you read a good chunk of him, the flatness and uninspiredness become increasingly noticeable.
But! As I say – he is good. I’m just saying he’s not the best; but he is good. On religion, for example…
It also appears from my correspondent’s letter that even the most central doctrines of the Christian religion don’t have to be accepted in a literal sense. It doesn’t matter, for instance, whether Jesus Christ ever existed…So we arrive at this position: Tribune must not poke fun at the Christian religion, but the existence of Christ, which innumberable people have been burnt for denying, is a matter of indifference.
Now, is this orthodox Catholic doctrine? My impression is that it is not. I can think of passages in the writings of popular Catholic apologists such as Father Woodlock and Father Ronald Knox in which it is stated in the clearest terms that Christian doctrine means what it appears to mean, and is not to be accepted in some wishy-washy metaphorical sense.
There. So yaboosucks. Exactly what I’m always saying – when people start with that ‘Oh but religion doesn’t mean, you know, literally believing in [trailing off vaguely] – it just means a way of feeling, a way of looking at the world, a framework.’ No it doesn’t! A feeling, a way of looking at the world, a framework, is not a religion, it’s something else. Christian doctrine means what it appears to mean, it doesn’t just mean a fondness for daffodils and clouds. Religions do make truth claims about the real world, so don’t tell me they don’t. It ain’t honest.
If you talk to a thoughtful Christian, Catholic or Anglican, you often find yourself laughed at for being so ignorant as to suppose that anyone ever took the doctrines of the Church literally. These doctrines have, you are told, a quite other meaning which you are too crude to understand…Thus the Catholic intellectual is able, for controversial purposes, to play a sort of handy-pandy game, repeating the articles of the Creed in exactly the same terms as his forefathers, while defending himself from the charge of superstition by explaining that he is speaking in parables.
Bingo. Exactly. A handy-pandy game for controversial purposes. Parable, nothing. If it’s all just a parable, then what is all the fuss about? If it’s all a parable, atheists and theists are the same thing and can stop arguing – and all those people rioting at theatres, and threatening MPs and writers and BBC producers, and sticking knives in people – they’re all just confused, they’re taking literally what everyone else means metaphorically. Yeah right.
So – I still say Orwell is way down the list of best essayists I know of, but he’s nowhere near the bottom.
That by the way was an As I Please, from 3 March 1944.