I say, damn it, where are the beds?


David Trotter in The LRB:

Alex Woloch’s purpose is to remedy the relative neglect visited on an ‘iconic political writer’ by ‘literary theory and criticism’ – despite, or perhaps because of, their increasing preoccupation with politics. Whereas Sutherland prefers to stay out of disputes about the kind of socialist Orwell was, Woloch attributes to him an explicit and more or less unwavering political intention. The horizon of his argument is established by Orwell’s remark, in ‘Why I Write’ (1946), that ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly and indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.’ Some, at least, of literary theory and criticism’s long-standing antipathy to intention will have to be revoked. Still, it was not so much the ‘for’ and ‘against’ that needed explaining as the medium of their expression. ‘Why I Write’ insists that, however polemical its intention, a book or magazine article must constitute an ‘aesthetic experience’ if it is to have any effect. ‘What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.’ The art of political writing lay in the effacement of personality: ‘Good prose is like a windowpane.’

Woloch is by no means the first critic to take Orwell’s political writing seriously as art, or to doubt that it ever resembled a windowpane. He has, however, raised the debate to a new level by the originality and scope of his analysis of the books and essays Orwell published in the ten years up to 1946, and by his attention to detail. His argument rests on two propositions. First, ‘experience’ and ‘reflection’ confront each other dialectically in Orwell’s political writing, to the extent that its subject is as much the ‘dynamic and mercurial process’ of thought provoked by a particular topic as the topic itself: a bold claim, given our settled conviction that he sought out reality as a matter of pride (Seeing Things as They Are is the title of the Penguin ‘Selected Journalism’). Second, continual thought about thought, far from disabling the political will, is the best way to put it into practice: any politics worth having – any democratic socialism – is a struggle, an aspiration. In Woloch’s view, the art of Orwell’s writing about politics lies in its scepticism concerning ‘any final, stable or permanent expression of political belief’.

More here.