Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, and New Directions


When I started the blog I originally intened to review and discuss sci fi and fantasy novels, because those were what I devoured at the time. I still read them, with immense pleasure, but other concerns have sent me to books and areas of interest. Mostly political science, social science, and economics.

Which in a weird way is a kind of homecoming.

Let me explain.

When I was younger, in my in between college days(that is, when I was in between colleges after having dropped out for a few years), I read a lot of George Orwell. A book I read and reread over and over was The Road to Wigan Pier.

Now as I've stated on the blog before, I grew up and currently live in a former coal mining town in Pennsylvania, which for you Non American Readers is about 250 miles from New York City. I can get to NYC in about 2.5 hours by car.

I mention this because the subject of Orwell's book is a mining community and the lives of the people he finds there, and what forces have come together to make such a brutal existence.

I remember being entranced by the book, captivated by the lives of the people and descriptions of the ugly coal hills and dirty conditions that to me seemed as though I were reading an accurate description of my hometown. One line in particular moved me deeply, when he described a young woman in winter with threadbare clothes trying to unstuck a drainage pipe in the freezing cold and looking into her eyes he saw she knew how miserable she was. Not ashamed of her poverty, but aware of just what a situation her life had been forced into. But in the same book Orwell focused on the Mine owners and operators, the exploitation, and the possibility of change. He broke down the system by which a few prosper and the many starve.

I learned a great deal from that book, and learned to question my previously held belief that the mines were just another step along the way of American Progress and the inhabitants were either too lazy to change their existence or just unfortunate.

Orwell, by his arguments, descriptions, and analysis, opened my eyes to the very real truth that what may appear to be the misfortune of others is often the culmination of calculated effort designed to maximize a profit.

I ended up back in college not long after, determined to "make something of myself." I pursued my English degree and studied Shakespeare, Chaucer, Eliot(George and T.S.)and others, and from them also learned a great deal. Many were masters of prose, and insightful into the human condition. But Orwell was never really mentioned on any of the lists. He was often sneeringly referred to as a 'political writer," as if having a political agenda were an inhumane method by which to approach the making of art.

What has drawn me back to Orwell, and to the political writers, social scientists, economists, and other like minded thinkers is the same absolute clarity, the same awareness that something is indeed very, very wrong. That our system is not just going through a series of ups and down with this being one brutal down cycle, but that the system itself is flawed, and unless we learn, educate ourselves, it will only get worse.

I am going to read as much Orwell as I can find. He is, in a sense, my Virgil on this journey. Though I am not sure I will agree with all of his political views, I do think I can learn much. Nor do I think I will hold him in overly high esteem. I do not intend to found a cult of Saint George. He will show I’m sure his failings as a writer and thinker as any other human who tries to write and communicate.

But more than read Orwell I intend to open the blog up some. Write essays about the times, things I see, people I meet, situations that for lack of a better term, are as miserable and squalid as those I read about in Road to Wigan Pier, or its companion piece, Down and Out in Paris and London. Strip away the cant, and the corporate coded version of reality, see the ugliness as well as the hopefulness underneath.

Lionel Trilling once wrote of Orwell that he "had a kind of genius to look at things in a simple, undecieved way." He was not a master stylist(or so Trilling complains. I think his style is effective). He could not create characters with such life and power as a Dickens, a Bronte. Yet I cannot help but think that in our own times, when what we see and hear and read and watch is so controlled by a group of media giants who want to force fear and consumerism down our throats, that this ability, this looking at things in a his own simple, undecieved way, is something we sorely need.

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