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Opinions : Essays : George Orwell's influences / part II
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Opinions : Essays : George Orwell's influences / part II

by Darran Oisin Anderson (

Perhaps not the most obvious influence on Orwell’s work, it is relevant as Orwell questions (in his essay “The Art of Donald Mc Gill”) “If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza? Almost certainly you are both. One part of you is the hero or saint, the other is a little fat man, the voice of the belly against the soul.” The mentality of the proles in 1984 resembles Sancho Panza following the lifestyle of women, wine and song and emitting a charm and energy unique to their class. Yet there is also a tragedy to their collective character that for all their Dionysian hedonism they are also being unwittingly manipulated and oppressed. The greatest injustice is the fact that they are taught there is no injustice towards them.

One of the pillars of Western literature, Milton’s epic poem inspired Orwell both morally and aesthetically. This classic work tells the story of Satan’s Fall, his rebellion against God and his resulting banishment. It is the beauty of the poetry that influenced Orwell as he acknowledged when he stated that “all at once” it had enabled him to discover “the joy of mere words”.

As a social critic of scathing wit and a campaigner for social justice it seems Swift would be a forerunner to Orwell. Indeed the cynicism and simplicity of “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal” sit comfortably alongside “Animal Farm” for example. Yet characteristically Orwell attacked yet another of his idols. In “Politics vs Literature” he ridicules the libertarian Utopia of the Houyhnhnms; “In a society where there is no law the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity, is less tolerant than any system of law.” Whilst it is clear that Orwell inherited much of his satirical excellence and his straight- forward unadorned prose from Swift he seeks fervently to cut his predecessor down to size. Orwell claims that Swift has a distaste in humanity which culminates in his inability to “see anything in human life except dirt, folly and wickedness” whilst it is Orwell’s faith in the lowest denominator in society that spurs on his greatest works.

Unlike Swift, Dickens is a writer whom Orwell saw (or admitted to seeing) as a guiding light. As Woodcock asserts “Dickens gave expression to virtues of decency and fairness and peacefulness which Orwell saw in himself”. Orwell praises Dickens for rejecting “vulgar nationalism ”a trait which Orwell found hard to shake off particularly concerning British colonies. Orwell admits that Dickens extreme caricatures often lapse into self -parody and his work can be dense with imagery yet he defends him as an advocate of essential social change. He rejects any claims that Dicken’s work is trite or “unspeakably bourgeois” as Lenin accused, instead he counted him as an “undeniably good” writer.

A libertarian Utopian writer whose future paradise lied in a reversion to the middle-age “non state” with the only vestige of modernity being the sanitary system. Much of 1984 seems an indictment of Morris’ idealism though Orwell retains some affection towards the quaint English conservative leanings of the work.

Henry Miller
Orwell greatly admired Miller, as revealed in “Inside the whale”, for creating life and meaning of the deepest profoundity from the most everyday objects and scenarios (the true socialist realism). Furthermore his attraction was very much concerned with the fact that Miller’s work despite being concerned with failure and frustration has a fundamentally positive outlook upon life. He did voice objections about Miller’s indecency and “preoccupation with the dirty hanker-chief side of the world” but recognizes to “accept civilization as it is means accepting decay”. To Orwell, Miller embodies the real observations of the proletariat beyond party doctrine and repression.

Tolstoy, the pacifist quasi-anarchist, would appear to be an obvious ideological ally to Orwell but yet again Orwell acknowledges his debt and then attacks his idol simultaneously. He recognizes as the futurist manifesto states “all critics are useless and dangerous” concerning Tolstoy’s attacks on Shakespeare’s King Lear “like all the guns of a battleship roaring”. Orwell observes that Shakespeare years later remains unaffected whilst Tolstoy would have been forgotten had he not written “War and Peace”. Thus despite his patriotic defence of Shakespeare Tolstoy’s influence casts a shadow over Orwell who at many times in his writing and life adopted Tolstoy’s non violent civil disobedience ethic (very close to anarchism which Orwell had sympathies for since Spain) and skepticism of war.

Orwell was aware of Joyce’s work particularly “Dubliners” and was attracted to not just the “socialistic” opposition to Church and Empire alike but his ability to give life and meaning to the most everyday. Joyce’s critiques of the middle classes are often a lot sharper than Orwell’s initial clumsy efforts but both of the writers are able to infuse the most meticulous realism with pathos and satire. Their differences lie in Joyce’s desire to experiment with the structure of literature in Ulysees and Finnegann’s Wake as opposed to Orwell’s omnipotent journalism which keeps his feet firmly on the ground.

Orwell produced an essay entitled “In defence of Woodhouse”, protesting against his treatment for being a pawn to Hitler’s propaganda machine. Orwell defended him as a naïve man who had blundered into disaster as opposed to a collaborationist with previous Fascist sympathies. Woodhouse, who made several pro Nazi radio broadcasts whilst captive in Germany, had been guilty of “nothing other than stupidity”. Orwell was less forgiving when analyzing the writer’s work noting the snobbery, the anachronisms before finally concluding that he is a “good bad writer” in that he evoked all the good and bad aspects of conservatism.

With his tendency to at once attack colonial injustice and romanticize about the Raj, Orwell allies himself with Kipling. Though Kipling is an arch-conservative and Orwell the libertarian, Orwell shows his empathy with the writer admiring Empire builders and warning radicals “not to mock the uniforms that guard you when you sleep”. He also quite naively holds the similar view to Kipling that the Empire is a means of “spreading civilization” rather than making money (though admittedly he does not come anywhere near the ideas of racial superiority that Kipling housed).

Though influence is doubtful Orwell’s obsession with the vitality of life and nature culminating in sex (as witnessed in the countryside scenes of 1984) are very similar to Lawrence’s works (though lacking the more explicit accounts).

Orwell was deeply skeptical of Yeats quasi-Fascist leanings and believed that his desires to return to hierarchical feudal times were not just ridiculous but dangerous. He warned Yeats, prophetically, that “he fails to see that the new authoritarian civilization will not be aristocratic. It will not be populated with noblemen but by anonymous gangsters, shiny-bottomed bureaucrats and murdering gangsters”.

These two writers share a great deal, both relate politics to the everyday (Silone operating in the Italian countryside) and most importantly both refuse the shackles of any party or doctrine and assert their conscience as individuals. They also share concerns about the decay and manipulation of language: Silone noting “to speak and deceive have become almost synonymous”.

It is doubtful that Orwell ever read Camus, though Camus notes in his journals that he is a reader of not just 1984 but Burmese Days and Down and Out. There is a striking parallel nature to both the writer’s lives and works. Both actively fought against Fascism, Orwell in Spain and Camus in the French Resistance, both suffered from Tuberculosis and both died aged 47 in the first January of a decade. Most importantly the two stand as the most vocal humanists of our age, attacking totalitarianism in all forms and for it suffering isolation and derision from the intelligentsia. Camus’ “The Rebel” is a remarkable political essay which seems to encapsulate a lot of Orwell’s views and positions. The only difference tends to be that Camus writes with an abstract philosophical slant whilst Orwell is always journalistic. Dostoyevsky
Orwell inherited his belief that radical movements paradoxically end in slave societies though he rejected his Christian leanings.

Zamyatin’s “WE” was possibly the deepest influence on 1984 and the works share many similarities including the isolation of individuals from nature and natural behaviour, the turning of man into machine, the production of synthetic happiness instead of real impulses, the restriction of sex, the lack of privacy (all walls are made of glass), the composing of music and literature by machines, the use of science for control and torture and each novel ends with the protagonist being mentally and spiritually crushed by the state.

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