Episode 1: Alex Woloch and Kenny Ligda discussing George Orwell
“If you really pause on that, ‘too sane to understand the modern world,’ it’s a very haunting phrase. Think about 1984 and Winston Smith’s struggle to remain sane. Think about Orwell’s proposition that if you remain sane that might prevent you from understanding.”
Our first show, an ad hoc recording in mid-November 2016, was a discussion of George Orwell in the context of the 2016 US election results.
Transcript: Reading After Trump, Episode 1
All the passages we discuss in this episode, except the very last quotation from Auden, are by George Orwell. All the citations of Orwell, except the very first one from Homage to Catalonia, are drawn from Peter Davison’s George Orwell: The Complete Works (London: Secker, 1998). Citations are in the format (volume.page). Bold text is quoted in the podcast; non-bold is provided to give context for the quotations
This was in late December, 1936. Less than seven months ago as write, and yet, it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance. Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have obliterated 1935, or 1905 for that matter.
—Homage to Catalonia (New York: Harcourt, 1980), p. 4. Originally published 1938
…because he belonged to the nineteenth century and to a non-military nation and class, he could not grasp the tremendous strength of the old world which was symbolised in his mind by fox-hunting Tories. He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them. The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a Fascist streak in themselves. A crude book like The Iron Heel, written nearly thirty years ago, is a truer prophecy of the future than either Brave New World or The Shape of Things to Come. If one had to choose among Wells’s own contemporaries a writer who could stand towards him as a corrective, one might choose Kipling, who was not deaf to the evil voices of power and military ‘glory.’ Kipling would have understood the appeal of Hitler, or for that matter Stalin, whatever his attitude towards them might be. Wells is too sane to understand the modern world. (12.540)
—“Wells, Hitler and the World State.” August 1941
Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another [Nineteen Eighty-Four] fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write. (18.320)
—“Why I Write.” 1946
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. (18.163)
—“In Front of Your Nose.” 22 March 1946
This business of making people conscious of what is happening outside their own small circle is one of the major problems of our time, and a new literary technique will have to be evolved to meet it….Tales of starvation, ruined cities, concentration camps, mass deportations, homeless refugees, persecuted Jews—all this is received with a sort of incurious surprise, as though such things had never been heard of before but at the same time were not particularly interesting. The now-familiar photographs of skeleton-like children make very little impression. As time goes on and the horrors pile up, the mind seems to secrete a sort of self-protecting ignorance which needs a harder and harder shock to pierce it, just as the body will become immunised to a drug and require bigger and bigger doses. (19.19)
—“As I Please” 69. 17 Jan 1947
Every joke is a tiny revolution. (16.483)
—“Funny, But Not Vulgar.” 1 December 1944
A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. (12.54)
—“Charles Dickens.” 11 March 1940
In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is successful, is very much more marked. It is, indeed, ultimately this attitude that has made it possible for crime to flourish upon so huge a scale. Books have been written about Al Capone that are hardly different in tone from the books written about Henry Ford, Stalin, Lord Northcliffe and all the rest of the ‘log cabin to White House’ brigade. And switching back eighty years, one finds Mark Twain adopting much the same attitude towards the disgusting bandit Slade, hero of twenty-eight murders, and towards the western desperadoes generally. They were successful, they ‘made good,’ therefore he admired him….
People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it. A twelve-year-old boy worships Jack Dempsey. An adolescent in a Glasgow slum worships Al Capone. An aspiring pupil at a business college worships Lord Nuffield. A New Statesman reader worships Stalin. (16.352-53, 355)
—“Raffles and Miss Blandish.” October 1944
It is not possible for any thinking person to live in such a society as our own without wanting to change it. (11.168)
—“Why I Join the I.L.P.” 24 June 1938
There is one way of avoiding thoughts, and that is to think too deeply. (11.104)
—“The Lure of Profundity.”30 December 1937
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
—W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” from Another Time (London: Faber, 1940), p. 108