Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.

BURMESE DAYS by George Orwell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/07/2014]

BURMESE DAYS by George Orwell (ISBN 978-0-156-14850-2) is a sort of "reverse-Jane-Austen" novel. Like Austen's novels, in this the characters are concerned with marriage and station in life; unlike Austen's novels, in this things do not end well for everyone. John Flory is an Englishman stationed in a small town in Burma (then part of British India, now Myanmar), where his social circle consists of his club (which allows only whites) and one Indian doctor. The club's members are both racist and petty, and everyone is scheming. When Elizabeth Lackersteen comes to Kyauktada from England, it is clear that this is her last chance to find a husband and avoid spinsterhood and penury. She has some interest in Flory, but only until Verrall, a high-society British officer, shows up. Then she throws herself at Verrall, but he is even more a cad than Austen's Willoughby.

In all this, one sees glimpses of Orwell's work to come:

"It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. ... Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator,; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs' code."

"The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honorable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied and exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you."

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COMING UP FOR AIR by George Orwell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/16/2011]

I saw a recommendation for COMING UP FOR AIR by George Orwell (ISBN 978-0-15-619625-3) somewhere recently, but I cannot remember where. Orwell is known best for his bleak picture of the future in 1984. COMING UP FOR AIR shows that it is not just the future that Orwell is negative about, but also the present, and indeed the past. It was published in 1950, and apparently written shortly before that, with the main action taking place in 1938, but with many flashbacks and memories going back to the 1890s. The basic thrust of the book is that life was fairly bleak back before World War I, but it got progressively worse, and will continue to do so. Orwell describes the life of lower middle class people in England as tedious, grinding, deadening, and thoroughly dispiriting. It may be a great book--it certainly has great power--but it is also very depressing.

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/24/2003]

In connection with various older mysteries (see review here), I'll mention George Orwell's DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON. (Bear with me; there is a connection.) DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON purports to be an autobiographical work about Orwell's (Eric Blair's) young bohemian life. However, research has revealed it to be full of (at best) exaggerations as to his level of poverty and inaccurate in other details as well. What stuck me was its casual and completely un-self-conscious anti-Semitism--and here is the connection. Orwell, and Chesterton, and Agatha Christie as well, seem to have put in their writing all sorts of off-hand anti-Semitic remarks and characterizations that would seem to indicate just how pervasive that attitude was in Britain in the earlier part of the 20th century. This is ironic, because Orwell was also an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism. (I would also add T. S. Eliot to this list, but he seemed even more stridently anti-Semitic and did not have the counter-balancing attitudes of the others. Yes, he was American by birth, but English by choice.) One could write a book on anti-Semitism in early 20th century English writing, and I'm sure several have. The one book I've seen close to that subject is Montagu Frank Modder's THE JEW IN THE LITERATURE OF ENGLAND, and it goes only through the end of the 19th century.

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1984 by George Orwell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/04/2012]

Someone on a mailing list recently claimed that the use of language such as Newspeak in 1984 by George Orwell (ISBN 978-0-451-52493-5) could actually change reality--for example, making it impossible to hate Big Brother. I agree that there are limited cases in which language can change reality, using performative utterances such as "I promise", "I apologize", "I congratulate you", and (if properly empowered) "I now pronounce you married" (or less felicitously, "I declare war on Eastasia"). But no language will ever make two plus two equal five, or the sun revolve around the earth. I am more inclined to view reality (and in particular history) with Omar Khayyam:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

This person's claim seems at least partially based on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which was popular for a while, but now seems to have been somewhat discredited, or at least weakened. In any case, the claim made on the mailing list seemed to be more that language can control thought, not change reality.

Orwell has Winston think, "It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a 'real' world where 'real' things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? What happens in all minds, truly happens." I simply do not agree with this. First of all, we know that our minds can be deceived--by optical illusions, for example. If we recognize that optical illusions are deceiving our mind, then we must think there is some reality outside our mind that is different from what is inside our mind.

In any case, I do believe in an external reality, not dependent on some sort of "consensual reality". If all minds think the sun revolves around the earth, that does not make it so. And if all minds thinking that something is true makes it true, what if all but one mind thinks it? What if it is a fifty-fifty split?

And with Winston's definition of reality, if everyone believes in an external reality, does that make it so? And isn't that a contradiction?

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/09/2018]

THE PENGUIN ESSAYS OF GEORGE ORWELL (ISBN 978-0-140-18235-4) is not a collection of Orwell's essays about bird-watching in Antarctica. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) Most of these essays are from the 1930s and 1940s, and it is often useful to check the publication date at the end of an essay before reading it, particularly those having to do with European politics. In those, by the way, one sees some of the ideas he later used in 1984, such as the re-writing of history. His essays on literature are also often tied up with politics. For example, he has some comments on how Charles Dickens used class distinctions in his novels, and how Wells's view of the World State seems to be detached from reality. I did skip a few of the essays when I was unfamiliar with the subject matter (e.g., essays about British turn-of-the-century children's books, or about people who were well-known in England when he wrote the essay, but are unknown, at least in the United States now), but the great majority of thes essays are thought-provoking and worth reading.

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