Posted Thursday, March 27th, 2008 at 11:30 am under books.

Finishing Orwell’s Essays, Journalism and Letters

George OrwellI’ve just finished the final volume of George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (that link is to volume 1).

I don’t have anything much to say, but thought I’d include a few fragments while I still have this volume (which belongs to Russell).

We’re lucky to have 1984 at all. Orwell was quickly running out of strength when finishing it, and was reduced to working about an hour a day. He then had to type the whole thing up himself, in bed and on the sofa. Towards the end he was barely capable of any physical activity at all – even getting out of bed to walk around. It’s amazing to look back at his struggles to bring the book into existence. He couldn’t even get a stenographer to Jura to type it for him. What a trivial amount of logistical help and money it would have been to get someone up there to help him, if only anyone had known what he was preparing and how desperate his condition was becoming. He thought 1984 might sell 10,000 copies. Until just before it was done he was still trying to decide between the name 1984 and “The Last Man in Europe”.

There’s some controversy over the influence of Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s novel We on 1984. I don’t think there’s any skulking around the literary woods, in least in the case of Orwell. He reviewed the French translation. He also mentions We in several letters, and had arranged to review the English translation in the Times Literary Supplement (but the translation didn’t happen or wasn’t published). He also wrote suggesting Zamyatin’s widow be contacted to see if there were more manuscripts that could be published. In another late letter he talks about We having an important place in the “chain of utopia” novels. So it seems very clear that Orwell had nothing to hide on that front. I also find it interesting that Wikipedia quotes Orwell as saying Brave New World “must be partly derived from” We. In fact, Orwell’s letter to Fred Warburg of March 30 1949 says “I think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be plagiarized from it to some extent”. That’s a rather stronger word. Maybe Huxley’s apologists are keeping close watch on Wikipedia.

One late essay I really enjoyed was Writers and Leviathan. From which:

And most of us still have a lingering belief that every choice, even every political choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic.

I guess I’ve been in something like this position just once, and the best that can be said is that I ended up with a couple less enemies than I had expected.

From a letter to Michael Meyer in Sweden:

I always thought Sweden a dull country, much more so than Norway or Finland. I should think there would probably be very good fishing, if you can whack up any interest in that. But I have never been able to like these model countries with everything up to date and hygienic and an enormous suicide rate.

From extracts from a manuscript note-book:

It is now (1949) 16 years since my first book was published, & abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, & in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying because the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear that there never will be a next one—that my impulse is exhausted for good & all. If I look back & count up the actual amount that I have written, then I see that my output has been respectable: but this does not reassure me, because it simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness & a fertility which I have now lost.

This resonates strongly with me too.

From a letter to Richard Rees (3 March 1949) after trying to follow one of Bertrand Russell’s logical arguments regarding the antithesis of the statement “some men are tailless”, and suggesting “all men are tailless”, he concludes:

But I never can follow that kind of thing. It is the sort of thing that makes me feel that philosophy should be forbidden by law.

Which is similar to my feelings about the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence.

That’s enough for now. There’s so much more. You’ll have to go read it for yourself though, I guess.

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