Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why Orwell Chose To Be Poor

Part something-or-other in an ongoing series wherein I read things about great authors whose late-20's were not exactly financially successful — largely to comfort myself with delusions of being in good company.

From a recent New Yorker review of Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" by some guy:

That’s a long time to be poor and living as hard as Orwell did. It suggests more seriousness of purpose and staying power than some comments would grant him. It’s true that he came from some rung of the English middle class (“lower upper middle” he once called it, subcategory military), but it wasn’t a social world that leant itself to sponging off your parents. His decision to become poor was just that, but it wasn’t a joyride that he could easily have gotten off once under way, and it carried psychological as well as financial dangers. So why did he do it?

Orwell’s explanation, given a few years later in “The Road to Wigan Pier” (which is a far more sociological and political book, about the unemployed poor in northern England), connects the experience to his years as an imperial cop in Burma:

I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same…I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed; to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to “succeed” in life to the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying.
[Via The New Yorker]

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