Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Politics and anti-politics: Orwell and Henry Miller


Too bad that George Orwell and Albert Camus never met---they would have had a lot to talk about---but Orwell and Henry Miller did meet, and the meeting resulted in an interesting exchange. Orwell wrote about the encounter in Inside the Whale:

...I first met Miller at the end of 1936, when I was passing through Paris on my way to Spain. What most intrigued me about him was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot. He could understand anyone going there from purely selfish motives, out of curiosity, for instance, but to mix oneself up in such things from a sense of obligation was sheer stupidity. In any case my Ideas about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all baloney. Our civilization was destined to be swept away and replaced by something so different that we should scarcely regard it as human — a prospect that did not bother him, he said. And some such outlook is implicit throughout his work. Everywhere there is the sense of the approaching cataclysm, and almost everywhere the implied belief that it doesn't matter.

Miller was wrong about what replaced the world of the 1930s, since the world is still recognizable compared to what it was then. Fascism was defeated internationally, though not in Spain, which had to wait until Franco died. Orwell wrote an important book about his experience in the Spanish civil war, Homage to Catalonia.  

Orwell continues:

But, after all, the war of 1914-18 was only a heightened moment in an almost continuous crisis. At this date it hardly even needs a war to bring home to us the disintegration of our society and the increasing helplessness of all decent people. It is for this reason that I think that the passive, non-co-operative attitude implied in Henry Miller's work is justified. Whether or not it is an expression of what people ought to feel, it probably comes somewhere near to expressing what they do feel. Once again it is the human voice among the bomb-explosions, a friendly American voice, ‘innocent of public-spiritedness’. No sermons, merely the subjective truth.

Orwell was a lot more generous about Miller's view than Miller was about his. From Miller's Paris Review interview:

INTERVIEWER: You knew Orwell in those days too?

MILLER: Orwell I met maybe two or three times on his visits to Paris. I wouldn’t call him a friend, just a passing acquaintance. But I was crazy about his book Down and Out in Paris and London; I think it’s a classic. For me it’s still his best book. Though he was a wonderful chap in his way, Orwell, in the end I thought him stupid. He was like so many English people, an idealist, and, it seemed to me, a foolish idealist. A man of principle, as we say. Men of principle bore me.

INTERVIEWER: You don’t have much use for politics?

MILLER: None whatever. I regard politics as a thoroughly foul, rotten world. We get nowhere through politics. It debases everything.

INTERVIEWER: Even political idealism of Orwell’s sort?

MILLER: Especially that! The idealists in politics lack a sense of reality. And a politician must be a realist above all. These people with ideals and principles, they’re all at sea, in my opinion. One has to be a lowbrow, a bit of a murderer, to be a politician, ready and willing to see people sacrificed, slaughtered, for the sake of an idea, whether a good one or a bad one. I mean, those are the ones who flourish.

Pretty stupid stuff, but Miller wasn't an intellectual on Orwell's level. He was essentially an artist with a completely different mindset.

More on Orwell and Miller here. Why Orwell writes here.

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