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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Orwell and Shakespeare. Hamlet and 1984.

This is of necessity a draft. I want to talk about the artistic process and the way we misinterpret the art of past ages by imposing on the work of former eras the values and standards of our times. I haven't yet figured out all I want to say on the matter, so I will revisit this theme at some future time.

In his Ab Urbe condita (Literally “From the founding of the city”, but usually rendered as Early History of Rome) Titus Livius had historical or semi mythical people from the early days of Rome speaking and acting like Romans of the late republic, his era.

Most English speaking people today, and for at least the last century, regard William Shakespeare as a genius in writing plays. To the modern ear his language has dated and his political world view and concerned are that of a bygone age. If you ask a modern person what was so great about Shakespeare they will usually say that it is the originality of his plots.

In this they couldn't be more wrong. Shakespeare's plays usually retold well known stories and the Elizabethan audience expected to be presented with familiar plots and scenes. Romeo and Juliet was from earlier Italian tales ultimately named Giulietta e Romeo and presenting much the same plot, according to the Wikipedia article on Romeo and Juliet “The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Romeo and Juliet are all from Italian novelle.” Shakespeare's greatest play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is based on earlier stories, including the Roman legend of Brutus, Scandinavian legends and an earlier “Ur-Hamlet” possibly by Thomas Kyd (See Sources of Hamlet on Wikipedia ) . To the Elizabethan mind, Shakespeare's greatness wasn't the originality of his tales, but how well he told them; by the standards of the day he was a great playwright. Normally we never get to hear this, today we demand novelty, especially originality in plots, and Shakespeare was great, so we must think of him as conforming to today's standards of greatness which requires original plots so Shakespeare must have had original plots. so the antecedents of Shakespeare's plays are conveniently forgotten.

A similar thing has happened with George Orwell, one of my favourite authors. Today Orwell is primarily remembered for his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four and occasionally for Animal Farm, his Satire of the Russian revolution and the early USSR, most of the rest of his writings are conveniently forgotten. A fan of Jack London, he wrote a small number of Novels from a vaguely left wing perspective telling the story of a small man in British society and then served on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War where he was severely wounded and because he was associated with the wrong socialist party eventually had to flee the country. On his return to the UK his attitude and outlook had matured, he now understood the process by which the Communists sold out the working classes and the left wing and his later published works reflected this. After Spain and during the second world war his writings were left-wing, anti-capitalist, and anti-communist. To him the British Labour party was a mouthpiece of the unions and nearly as dedicated to the status quo as the Tories.

His last novel Nineteen Eighty Four is regarded as his greatest work. It tells the story of a small man in an extreme totalitarian state in the near future. At the time he was writing it, it was a reasonable belief that the United States would return to isolationism and withdraw from Europe allowing the USSR to quickly conquer Western Europe. We now know this didn't happen, but it explains the division of the world in the story. Other predictions did happen to an extent, Britain lost its empire with many parts of it becoming US dominated and, much as it denies it, China emerged as the third superpower.

Other parts of the story were presaged by Orwell's earlier writing.

Using the mass media to misinform the people about the true state of affairs was covered in a few of his writings, with the first I could find being “If the British public had been given a truthful account of the Spanish war they would have had an opportunity of learning what Fascism is and how it can be combated. As it is, the News Chronicle version of Fascism as a kind of homicidal mania peculiar to Colonel Blimps bombinating in the economic void has been established more firmly than ever. And thus we are one step nearer to the great war ‘against Fascism’ (cf. 1914, ‘against militarism’) which will allow Fascism, British variety, to be slipped over our necks during the first week.” Spilling the Spanish Beans 1937

He returned to the subject of a British totalitarianism and the way that language is perverted for political means in many later essays. His 1945 essay Politics and the English Language presaged Newspeak and included an early version of one of the key scenes from the novel. “When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.” The light catching the spectacles was apparently based on a real experience he had watching a party hack delivering a speech and quite like the scene in 1984 where the enemy switches from Eurasia to Eastasia “The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried on to the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker's hand. He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia!”

He'd already said “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits "atrocities" but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future.” Historical Truth 1944 and as for the political form of Oceania, Orwell had read and written about the “Managerial Revolution” political theory of James Burnham whose central thesis was that the collapse of capitalism in Russia, Germany and other places did not lead to socialism or a Marxist paradise but to a new form of society where the new rulers were the old educated working class of technocrats, teachers, engineers and so forth. The totalitarian rulers of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s were these managers. The inner party of Ingsoc were exactly these people. “The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government.” Nineteen Eighty Four

In 2009, Nazism and Fascism are no longer political theories with any currency. Sixty four years after the regimes that followed them were defeated on the battle field they are just insults with no current meanings; Russian communism has collapsed, the Chinese Communist Party still rules, but over a capitalist economy, only small isolated regimes like Cuba and North Korea attempt to maintain communism. Yet Nineteen Eighty Four is still regarded as a masterpiece, the possibility of a return to totalitarianism still exists, so it must be denied. Orwell can only be studied by the modern person if it is removed from its historical context and so Orwell's politics, beliefs and background must be minimised. Where it is placed in some kind of context it is regarded as anti-stalinist or anti-nazi and the warning about the possibility of a collapse into tyranny of a managerial society is conveniently forgotten.