Thursday, August 01, 2013

Orwell, Kipling, and the Passing of a Caricature

Forget about 1984.  Here's the quintessential George Orwel.  He's talking about Rudyard Kipling
[B]ecause he identifies himself with the official class [Kipling] does possess one thing which 'enlightened' people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility.  The middle-class Left hate him for this quite as much as for his cruelty and vulgarity.  All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries re at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have international aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all want to live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our 'enlightenment', demands that the robbery shall continue.  A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling's understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases.  It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase 'making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep'.  ... He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.
I hope I will be forgiven for saying I think this is wonderful stuff. But that's not my point right now. What I really want to get out of this passage is to identify it as an index of how much our life has changed. Specifically: I suspect this would have been a pretty much incontrovertible statement prior to—well, perhaps March 10, 2000, the day the NASDAQ peaked at 5,048.62 (I see that right now it is 3,675.64). Others will say earlier, perhaps all the way back to 1973. I think that's a stretch, but it's a detail. Things is there was some point before which the Nice People—meaning ones that Orwell and, yes, I, had plenty of opportunity observe, were able to insulate themselves from the travail in the world an cluck about its evils without every worrying that they themselves would have to pay any real cost.

After—whenever—this seems not to be true any more. It's our kid, or at least our neighbors', or the kid of somebody our neighbor just told us about, who isn't getting onto the escalator, who is beginning to wonder whether it will ever happen at all.

I wouldn't say we are quite like Spain, where there seems to be an invisible fault line through the middle of society, and where the oldsters keep the family functional by sharing out their welfare checks. Or Greece, where the hurt seems so widely distributed. But I'm betting there are a lot of people who might once have found a place in Orwell's detested target audience, and are busy now just trying to figure out how to hold on.  For this crowd, Orwell's commentary reads less like speaking truth to power and more like a nostalgia trip.

Bonus extra: not quite the same point, but one of Orwell's most attractive qualities was his compassion for the working stiffs—specifically the old colonial mercenary army. That is:
[F]rom the body of Kipling's early work there does seem to emerge a vivid and not seriously misleading picture of the old pre-machine-gun army--the sweltering barracks in Gibraltar or Lucknow, the red coasts, the pipeclayed belts and the pillbox hats, the beer, the fights, the floggings, hangings and crucifixions, the bugle-calls, the smell of oats and horse-piss, the bellowing sergeants with foot-long moustaches, the bloody skirmishes, invariably mismanaged, the crowded troopships, the cholera-stricken camps, the 'native' concubines, the ultimate death in the workhouse.  It is a crude, vulgar picture, in which a patriotic music-hall turn seems to have got mixed up with one of Zola's gorier passages, but from it future generations will be able to other some idea of what a long-term volunteer army was like.
I wonder what some later writer will say about "the pre-drone army"?  And what the hell is a pipeclayed belt?  Meanwhile, we are off on another of those lush, cosseted vacations we are always going on about.  I'll check in after a couple of days from Stockholm.

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