Sunday, September 26, 2004

Trilling on Orwell on the Liberal Intelligentsia

In preparation for a trip next year to Spain, I am boning up on things Spanish. Hence my recent references to Unamuno, Zubiri, and the Spanish Civil War. An essential text anent the latter is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. The 1952 American edition I am holding in my hands contains a superb introduction by Lionel Trilling which is missing in later editions. Here are some quotations from it:

We may say that it was on his affirmation of the middle-class virtues that Orwell based his criticism of the liberal intelligentsia. The characteristic error of the middle-class intellectual of modern times is his tendency to abstractness and absoluteness, his reluctance to connect idea with fact, especially with personal fact. (pp. xv-xvi)

...The gist of Orwell’s criticism of the liberal intelligentsia was that they refused to understand the conditioned nature of life. (p. xvi)

...These men [H.G. Wells, et al.] had trained the political intelligence of the intelligentsia, who now, in their love of abstractions, in their wish to repudiate the anachronisms of their own emotions, could not conceive of directing upon Russia anything like the same stringency of criticism they used upon their own nation. Orwell had the simple courage to point out that the pacifists preached their doctrine under condition of the protection of the British navy, and that, against Germany and Russia, Ghandi’s passive resistance would have been of no avail. (p. xvii)

Trilling now quotes Orwell:

The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power.

During the past twenty years the negative faineant outlook which has been fashionable among the English left-wingers, the sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage, the persistent effort to chip away at English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm. (p. xvii)

Back to Trilling:

...Toward the end of his life Orwell discovered another reason for his admiration of the middle-class virtues and his criticism of the intelligentsia. Walter Bagehot used to speak of the political advantages of stupidity, meaning by the word a concern for one’s own private material interests as a political motive which was preferable to an intellectual, theoretical interest. Orwell, it may be said, came to respect the old bourgeois virtues because they were stupid – that is, because they resisted the power of abstract ideas. . . . he began to fear that the commitment to abstract ideas could be far more maleficent than the commitment to the gross materiality of property had ever been. The very stupidity of things has something human about it, something meliorative, something even liberating. Together with the stupidity of the old unthinking virtues it stands against the ultimate and absolute power which the unconditioned idea can develop. The essential point of Nineteen Eighty-Four is just this, the danger of the ultimate and absolute power which mind can develop when it frees itself from conditions, from the bondage of things and history.

But this, as I say, is a late aspect of Orwell’s criticism of intellectuality. Through the greater part of his literary career his criticism was simpler and less extreme. It was as simple as this: that intellectuals did not think and that they did not really love the truth. (pp. xvii-xix.)