Sunday, April 12, 2009

Public-spirited pigs

George Orwell, in his essay on Dickens:
Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole 'message' is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.
He elaborates on this later, in one of his more enduring insights:
A 'change of heart' is in fact THE alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug [...] two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. [...] The central problem--how to prevent power from being abused--remains unsolved.
Of course, phrasing the question like that exposes you as a system-fixer; for the moralist, the question is how to make people not want to abuse power. Or something like that -- I'm a system-fixer, and it's surprisingly difficult to talk about this matter in a non-question-begging way. Julian Barnes says,
Dickens was a change-of-heart man, Orwell a systems-and-structures man, not least because—as these essays confirm—he thought human beings recidivist, and beyond mere self-help. "The central problem—how to prevent power from being abused—remains unsolved."
This is largely right but subtly off in the opposite direction. The claim isn't that people are generally recidivist, which is too strong; but rather, as Orwell says in "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool," that
Shakespeare starts by assuming that to make yourself powerless is to invite an attack. This does not mean that EVERYONE will turn against you (Kent and the Fool stand by Lear from first to last), but in all probability SOMEONE will. If you throw away your weapons, some less scrupulous person will pick them up.
T.S. Eliot -- in his monarchist, top-hatted period -- was a change-of-heart guy, and this comes up rather unexpectedly in his letter (as editor of Faber) rejecting Animal Farm:
After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm -- in fact, there couldn't have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.
Seeing that Orwell wrote extensively on this topic and Eliot read him, this is evidence of how dense Eliot got in middle age, or how hard it is for moralists and revolutionaries to understand each other, or both.

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