Orwell, Masculinity, and Feminist Criticism
||5 / 1986
THE ORWELL MYSTIQUE
A Study in Male Ideology
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press
I once showed an essay of mine on George Orwell's political ideas to an Orwellian scholar who responded, "Yes, fine--but now let's talk about the real man." There followed a long dialogue not about socialism in the 1930s and 1940s, but on loneliness, community and family, autonomy, intimacy and despair, sexuality and sadomasochism. This remains the single most illuminating conversation on Orwell I have ever had.
George Orwell's political attitudes had their origins in an eccentric, complicated, and conflict-idden personality. It is all the more important to realize this because Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) was not by any means a systematic thinker. Rather, he generally wrote in hot emotional reaction to his immediate perceptions of events--and these fierce emotional reactions (which are, after all, one source of his writing's enormous power) came out of his difficult personality. One simply cannot write about Orwell's politics, then, without at lest attempting to come to grips with that personality. Yet the evolution of Orwell's political attitudes is often presented as if it had taken place in a calm, Platonic vacuum, one idea firmly linked to its predecessor. Perhaps this is because most of us who write about Orwell are academics, for whom the coherent evolution of ideas is very important. But Orwell was not an academic (he hated most academics); I suppose he would have called himself a political journalist. The recent "authorized" biography by Bernard Crick does not really deal deeply with Orwell's emotional life: a great book remains to be written describing the whole man.
This could have been that book. Daphne Patai teaches languages at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; more importantly, she is a radical feminist. Her radical feminism has led her to an insight about Orwell which is of the greatest value: his obsession with masculinity of the most traditional, Hemingwayesque type. This comes out clearly, for instance, in Orwell's personal cult of "toughness" (itself related to his actual physical frailty)--from vagabonding around with hoboes, to fighting in the cold trenches before Huesca, to retirement to the primitive conditions of Jura, the island off the coast of Scotland where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed though Patai does not discuss this, it may be that Orwell's cult of toughness helped kill him, pushing him to complete the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four and to type and stubbornly retype it on a decrepit old machine while he was dreadfully ill with TB: he met the challenge, but never recovered. Patai shows how this concern with masculinity finds consistent expression in Orwell's writing, via a most direct sort of "tough talk": "few people have the guts to say outright that art and propaganda are the same thing"; "our civilisation produces in increasing numbers two types, the gangster and the pansy"; "I have never met a genuine working man who accepted Marxism." The implication of such dicta is that Orwell has guts, tough-mindedness, and experience with real life--and so, the reader ought to accept him as a moral authority. In this, of course, Orwell has been fantastically successful. But as Patai says, it is a highly manipulative, even domineering, writing style. One might have expected something different from a man who proclaimed himself a democratic
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