Literary Artist Is An Irresponsible Propagandist Essay

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All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays
By George Orwell
Hardcover, 416 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $25.00

"Can Socialists Be Happy?"
From the Tribune 1943

The thought of Christmas raises almost automatically the thought of Charles Dickens, and for two very good reasons. To begin with, Dickens is one of the few English writers who have actually written about Christmas. Christmas is the most popular of English festivals, and yet it has produced astonishingly little literature.

There are the carols, mostly medieval in origin; there is a tiny handful of poems by Robert Bridges, T. S. Eliot, and some others, and there is Dickens; but there is very little else. Secondly, Dickens is remarkable, indeed almost unique, among modern writers in being able to give a convincing picture of happiness.

Dickens dealt successfully with Christmas twice — in a well-known chapter of The Pickwick Papers and in The Christmas Carol. The latter story was read to Lenin on his deathbed and, according to his wife, he found its "bourgeois sentimentality" completely intolerable. Now in a sense Lenin was right; but if he had been in better health he would perhaps have noticed that the story has some interesting sociological implications. To begin with, however thick Dickens may lay on the paint, however disgusting the "pathos" of Tiny Tim may be, the Cratchit family do give the impression of enjoying themselves. They sound happy as, for instance, the citizens of William Morris's News From Nowhere don't sound happy. Moreover — and Dickens's understanding of this is one of the secrets of his power — their happiness derives mainly from contrast. They are in high spirits because for once in a way they have enough to eat. The wolf is at the door, but he is wagging his tail. The steam of the Christmas pudding drifts across a background of pawnshops and sweated labour, and in a double sense the ghost of Scrooge stands beside the dinner table. Bob Cratchit even wants to drink Scrooge's health, which Mrs. Cratchit rightly refuses. The Cratchits are able to enjoy their Christmas precisely because Christmas only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.

All efforts to describe permanent happiness, on the other hand, have been failures, from earliest history onwards. Utopias (incidentally the coined word Utopia doesn't mean "a good place," it means merely "a non- existent place") have been common in the literature of the past three or four hundred years, but the "favourable" ones are invariably unappetising, and usually lacking in vitality as well.

By far the best known modern Utopias are those of H. G. Wells. Wells's vision of the future, implicit all through his early work and partly set forth in Anticipations and A Modern Utopia, is most fully expressed in two books written in the early 'twenties, The Dream and Men Like Gods. Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it — or thinks he would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries that we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition — all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things that Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygienic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive. A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create. A Catholic writer said recently that Utopias are now technically feasible and that in consequence how to avoid Utopia had become a serious problem. With the Fascist movement in front of our eyes we cannot write this off as a merely silly remark. For one of the sources of the Fascist movement is the desire to avoid a too- rational and too- comfortable world.

All "favourable" Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness. News From Nowhere is a sort of goody-goody version of the Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty's, but the impression left behind is of a sort of watery melancholy. Lord Samuel's recent effort in the same direction, An Unknown Country, is even more dismal. The inhabitants of Bensalem (the word is borrowed from Francis Bacon) give the impression of looking on life as simply an evil to be got through with as little fuss as possible. All that their wisdom has brought them is permanent low spirits. But it is more impressive that Jonathan Swift, one of the greatest imaginative writers who have ever lived, is no more successful in constructing a "favourable" Utopia than the others.

The earlier parts of Gulliver's Travels are probably the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written. Every word of them is relevant today; in places they contain quite detailed prophecies of the political horrors of our own time. Where Swift fails, however, is in trying to describe a race of beings whom he does admire. In the last part, in contrast with the disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the inhabitants of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, "reasonable" lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from "passion," including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic principles, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the earlier parts of the book Swift has shown where man's folly and scoundrelism lead him: but take away the folly and the scoundrelism, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

Attempts at describing a definitely other- worldly happiness have been no more successful. Heaven is as great a flop as Utopia — though Hell, it is worth noting, occupies a respectable place in literature, and has often been described most minutely and convincingly. It is a commonplace that the Christian Heaven, as usually portrayed, would attract nobody. Almost all Christian writers dealing with Heaven either say frankly that it is indescribable or conjure up a vague picture of gold, precious stones, and the endless singing of hymns. This has, it is true, inspired some of the best poems in the world:

Thy walls are of chalcedony,
Thy bulwarks diamonds square,
Thy gates are of right orient pearl
Exceeding rich and rare!


Holy, holy, holy, all the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns about the glassy sea,
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
That wast, and art, and evermore shalt be!

Excerpted from All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays by George Orwell. Copyright © George Orwell. Compilation copyright © 2008 by The Estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

It can be said that every piece of literature is propaganda of a kind. The lyric poet, merely for assuming the importance of his theme, can be charged with suggesting that other themes are of less importance or of no importance at all; the sonneteer who continues to address his mistress’s eyebrow can be and is accused of defending the status quo. It can also be said that every piece of propaganda is literature of a kind. The librarian, the collector of pamphlets, and whoever else is interested in all that is being thought and said—these ask, What is Literature? and do not wait for an answer. It is a good question, and so is another one: What is propaganda? There is even a third: What is the difference between them, and is this difference absolute?

An age that distinguishes between them, and sharpens the distinction, is perhaps unfortunate. Ours has done so, with at least one deplorable result. Our “literature” tends to be insignificant and our “propaganda” tends to be incredible— or to be credible only among those who already believe. We have novels without heroes, plays without irony, and poetry without voice. And on the other hand we have tongues which utter the first words that come, we have hands that reach for whatever instruments of persuasion happen to lie about. Literature would seem to be the art of saying nothing, and propaganda would seem to be the art of saying something without art, or—proudly—without enough.

Both literature and propaganda would benefit by a study of the role of rhetoric in human affairs, and in the conduct of that great art whose name is literature without quotation marks. Rhetoric is the art of telling the truth. Other arts feel the truth, know it, and act it; rhetoric tells the truth as best it can, in the spoken or written language of symbols. Rhetoric, however, can degenerate. It can become the art of telling truths, of making the part appear the whole. Or it can cease to recommend itself and fall into disuse. It has done the latter thing in an age whose poets, observing that many things are believed by many people, but that no ladder of belief leads up to one thing which all may take for granted as being the topmost reality, have chosen to forget that poetry is a telling art. Rather than admit that poetry is a branch of rhetoric, they have insisted that rhetoric is a tool, and a dispensable tool, of poetry. And rhetoric is only a tool if it is nothing more than a series of devices for saying things—things which exist apart from their being said and which could perhaps be better said with other things than words, say guns or blows. Our poets, at any rate, have ceased to desire that we be affected by what they write. The characteristic poetry of our time is voiceless, or concerned with uttering itself and itself alone.

The tool of rhetoric (with quotation marks) has been picked up by propaganda, with which in many minds it is in fact identified. But it cannot be put to any great use—the use, for instance, of telling the truth. It may only tell truths, and it is doing that at a fabulous rate, filling the air with imperfect and discordant noises. The imperfect rhetorician does not stop to inquire whether the consequences of his utterance should be that we shall know something, or that we shall be something, or that we shall do something. It is his hope that we shall do something, and he even tells us that in view of the great hurry we are in we had better do the thing before we know what it is, or what we shall be as a result of doing it. His desire is certainly that we shall be affected by what he writes, but his aim is limited; he is not after us body and soul; and if it is our bodies he is after, it is chiefly the legs and arms. By contagion it is only a piece of the truth—a truth—that reaches us.

Suppose, for example—and the first example had better not be timely—he wants to tell us something about the simple life, the pastoral sentiment. A truth about the pastoral sentiment is that it is silly and baseless. Another truth about it is that it is very charming, and that it stands in a key relation to other sentiments of high value. Still another is that God made the country; and another, that man does not like to live alone. Statements of these truths, in prose or in verse, in exposition or in narrative, would be imperfect rhetoric. The perfect rhetoric is “As You Like It”—not in “As You Like It,” but the play itself, considered as a literary object. Shakespeare with one set of words has both destroyed and created the pastoral sentiment. Touchstone’s wit has cut it to shreds, and the smooth tongue of Jaques has tainted it with insincerity; yet the Forest of Arden is the standard image of the simple life after more than three hundred years, and its trees do not look as if they would ever fall. Rosalind loves the sweet place whither she has been banished at identically the same moment that she laughs it off the earth. And there is the preposterous fact that of all persons in the play it is Charles the wrestler who speaks the following words: “They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.” The fact that an unscrupulous bruiser says this in itself says something—the truth, shall we guess, that Shakespeare had in his mind, namely that simplicity is both impossible and necessary, both silly and sooth.

A second example, though it comes from the same antique source, is timely in that it is suggested by a current production of “Julius Cassar” and in that this production has had a political press. According to some commentators, the play makes a statement about Fascism; according to others it explores the plight of the Liberal whose tragedy is that he has undertaken to meet force with force, and degenerates or at any rate dies in the attempt. But if “Julius Caesar” says anything political it is that in such situations the formula is complicated by the characters involved—in this case Brutus and Caesar, with Antony between them. The play is about what happened to these men because they were these men; and also because Shakespeare saw them as personal no less than as political opposites. Brutus is one of Plutarch’s statue men: noble, symmetrical, impenetrable, and by no means brilliant. Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s men: quick, unaccountable, and eccentric; superstitious, changeable, deaf in one ear, epileptic, histrionic. It would be a wonder if two such men survived in a single world; and neither of them does. The play “says” this and more. But it takes all of the play to say it, and we see it as well as hear it. We know something when we are through, and it is important. It is not, however, something that has been proved. It is a series of significant particulars, none of which it has been possible to doubt.

If the objection is raised that the distinction between art and propaganda is after all a useful one, not to say an urgent one, and that to obliterate it would be to increase the current confusion, an answer might be that what we have is worse than confusion. It is a dilemma. We are being bullied into saying which we like better, night or day, when we want to live all the time; or which of our hands we are willing to sacrifice when we cannot walk without swinging both. We are commanded to choose between ghosts while the solid body lies unburied. A piece of literature that signs itself as propaganda leaves something of course to be desired. So, and equally, does a piece of literature that signs itself as art. For neither of them has the least chance of success with the human race—a species noted for its longevity, and fearsome in its contempt for the transient and the trivial; a species, furthermore, which does not like to have statements made about it, and which rudely disowns imitations of itself whose contrivers ask us to admire them rather than their original. There is a ground, in other words, where literature and propaganda can meet and conspire. It is not too late, it is never too late, for both of them to become interested in telling the truth; for literature on its side to remember that the truth cannot be known until it is told, and for propaganda on its side to remember that the truth cannot be told until it is known.

By the truth, naturally, nothing sudden and hitherto secret is meant. The truth means the world—the only world there is. It does not change except as great books change it; and they do not so much change it as remind us of what we knew it was. Its extent cannot be apprehended without irony, and its nearness cannot be rendered without love. A great book, being both literature and propaganda, both poetry and rhetoric, will not move us to go somewhere and do something. It will simply move us—our minds, our hearts, our nerves, our souls, our persons. When it delivers a truth it will deliver it wrapped in that spacious envelope wherein all truths lie warm together. When it delivers an individual it will deliver him first as a man—as a member of that class which has been the subject of our clearest thoughts, even if in the nature of things we are still prevented from thinking to the end—and only after that as the unique fellow he is; tending in his uniqueness to become a monster, and yet, by every intelligible word he speaks, recalled to the lit regions of recognition. And when it delivers an image it will supply at the same moment a perspective—the one perspective, if its author has mastered his vision, in which particulars may continue to be visible, sound interesting, and look true.

The trouble with mere propaganda is that it is merely didactic; and from the merely didactic, as a witty scholar of Oxford has said, nothing can be learned. The trouble with mere literature is that it is merely beautiful; and from the merely beautiful there is no living pleasure to be had. So let us broaden our definition of rhetoric lest we be slaves of mereness; or let us listen to Socrates, for he has done it already:

Socrates: The case, I imagine, is the same with the art of rhetoric as it is with the art of medicine. Phaedrus: In what way?

Socrates: In both it is necessary to investigate nature; the nature of the body in the one, and of the soul in the other. . . . But this knowledge can never possibly be acquired without great labor; labor which the wise man ought to bestow, not with a view to speaking and acting before the world, but for the sake of making himself able, both by word and by deed, to please the gods as best he can.

Mark Van Doren

Mark Van Doren (1894 –1972) was an influential literary critic, poet, and scholar who taught at Columbia University for almost four decades. He was literary editor of The Nation, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for Collected Poems 1922–1938.


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