George Orwell’s Burmese Days

Considering his stature in 20th century letters, George Orwell is kind of a strange writer. He’s kind of free of distinctive quirkiness. His style and his content aren’t very heavily branded on his forehead the way they are for most writers. I guess the closest thing to a trademark for George Orwell would be his commitment to “socialism”. But Orwell is not even very specific in his politics. His socialism is about 20% vague commitment to redistribution of wealth, and 80% visceral horror of the evils he sees around him.

Orwell, seems (to me) to have three really great talents as a writer: i) the ability to make very confident assertions about the way categories of people (particularly English people) live and think; ii) a talent for aphorism (short, pithy sayings); and iii) a Dickensian ability to write archetypal characters that contain significant psychological complexity, but are vivid and broadly drawn enough to feel like they’re more representative of types than they are specific people.

These three abilities (and probably others which my categorizing impulse has missed) make Orwell one of the most intensely pleasurable writers of the 20th century. I’ve just finished reading Burmese Days, his first novel. I read it through in two sittings, over less than twelve hours. And it was real good.

You know, I am a huge fan of social protest novels. I like Zola. I like Sinclair Lewis. I like Willa Cather. But Orwell is somehow unlike them. His heroes are just not good enough. They’re too ineffectual and confused.

For instance, Burmese Days is about a military policeman (named Flory) in the British colony of Burma who has slowly (over the course of fifteen years) cultivated a kind of love for the colony and a kind of hatred of imperialism, and who finds himself in the grip of an inchoate resentment against the other Europeans in his tiny little outpost.

Now, in the hands of most authors, this character would pretty much be Atticus Finch. He’d be intelligent, determined, and brave. I mean, there are a lot of different kinds of Atticus Finches in literature, and I love them all. There are naïve ones, like Carol Kennicott in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. There are grimly furious ones like in Jim Nolan in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle. There are even conservative ones like Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

But what they all share is a kind of self-awareness. They are not just characters. They are a visible working-out of the novel’s attempt to figure out some idea or explain some process. They’re as smart and good as one can imagine a person being in that situation. They need to be that way because these novels are thinking about how things can change, and what the process of change will entail: the agent of potential change cannot just be some ordinary sap because we know that if an ordinary sap was capable of doing anything then there would be no need for change.

But I do not think Burmese Days really cares about these kinds of practicalities. Its main character, Flory, is not just ineffectual, he’s also kind of stupid. When he gets tired of the native-bashing at the English club, he goes to visit his friend Dr. Veraswami and engages in an equally repetitive, and tedious conversation on how awful the empire is. And his friend, the honest, noncorrupt, Indian Doctor who represents the best of the subjugated peoples, is not only a huge bumbler as well, he actually takes the British Raj’s side and argues with Flory that his people need to be subjugated

The two of them are a great pair. But they are not a heroic one. They are not Atticus Finch and Boo Radley. They’re not even Scout and Dill. There’s nothing free about them. They do not strive for any illumination. They’re already hemmed in.

In the end of the book, all that Flory has to do to prevent ruin from befalling Dr. Veraswami (the plot of the book is about another Burmese official waging a smear campaign against the Doctor) is speak up. Literally, all he has to do is want to do something. He does not need to persuade a hostile jury: he just needs to use the amazing power that being a white man gives him…but that is too much for him.


Conversely, the second plotline concerns a young woman, Elizabeth, whom Flory attempts to court. For awhile she is interested in him, but for reasons of her own she hates his highmindedness and his political opinions. She falls in with a handsome young officer who only cares about horses and clothes.

They’re two of the villains of the book, probably, but they also don’t fit the template. Usually the villains in books like this are somewhat torpid and blank. They don’t have active desires. They don’t have any beauty or vitality. The life has been sucked out of them a long time ago, and it is only their lifelessness that forms a barrier to change.

But these two don’t seem that way. They almost seem good together. Sometimes it seems like their lifestyle is a gracious, beautiful thing, and that they are more suited to this Empire than people like Flory. Take for instance the beautiful sympathy between them conveyed by the following passage:

Belinda was an Arab mare. Verrall had owned her two years, and till this moment he had never once allowed anyone else to mount her. It was the greatest favor that he could imagine. And so perfectly did Elizabeth appreciate Verrall’s point of view that she understood the greatness of the favor, and was thankful.

And there’s a kind of beauty and honesty to Verrall that is missing from any other character in the book, as the book makes clear:

If you were the right kind of man-that is, if you were a cavalry officer and a polo player-Verrall took you for granted and even treated you with a surly respect; if you were any other type of man whatever, he despised you so utterly that he could not have hidden it even if he would. It did not even make any difference whether you were rich or poor, for in the social sense he was not more than normally a snob. Of course, like all sons of rich families, he thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits. But he despised soft living. Spending, or rather owing, fabulous sums on clothes, he yet lived almost as ascetically as a monk. He exercised himself ceaselessly and brutally, rationed his drink and his cigarettes, slept on a camp bed (in silk pyjamas) and bathed in cold water in the bitterest winter. Horsemanship and physical fitness were the only gods he knew. The stamp of hoofs on the maidan, the strong, poised feeling of his body, wedded centaur-like to the saddle, the polo-stick springy in his hand-these were his religion, the breath of his life. The Europeans in Burma-boozing, womanizing, yellow-faced loafers-made him physically sick when he thought of their habits.

When the book peers into the heads of these characters, one realizes that things are the way they are not because people want to be ugly and lifeless…but because people want things to be in a certain way. People sit around in the club talking about hunting and fishing and old stories because people like hunting and fishing and old stories…not just because they’re afraid to express all their resentment against the vast imperialist apparatus that has forced them into the wilderness. One realizes that, in other hands, this story could be a beautiful romance, and there’d be nothing sickening about it. It’s part of the genius of Orwell that this indictment of imperialism also contains the hints of that romance.

Political Fictions, i.e. I am reading The Grapes of Wrath and it is really, really good.

It seems like whenever I read a good book – well, not a good book, a world-altering book – I have so many things to say about it that I throw up my hands, give up, and just say that it was a good book. So this time I am going to try something different and write down those things as they come to mind.

The Nature of Good Books

We forget our strongest emotions. That’s a good thing, otherwise we’d feel strongly just once in our lives and then nothing would ever match up. All the pains in our life would be nothing compared to when we broke our legs. All the loves would be nothing compared to the first love. And all the books would be nothing compared to when I first cracked open The Foundation at age twelve.

But we also forget that there is such a thing as strong emotion, and that’s a little sad. Every time I read a good book, I nod contentedly and think, “Hmm, that was something. I guess I can say good things about this book.” And I forget that there is something more.

And then I read a book and say, “Oh my god, this is what it feels like. My eyes are going dry. My temples are buzzing. My thoughts are racing. My god, how could I ever have settled for that something, when I have this thing.”

Political Fiction

I’m not sure how people can say that fiction shouldn’t be political. How can you avoid it? Politics is what governs the sorts of things people are able to do. Whenever you write a story where people are doing something, you are asserting that there is a political framework which makes those actions comprehensible.

If you write a story about rootless expatriates drinking wine by the carafe-load on Paris boulevards, you’re writing about institutions that allow the transfer of wealth across national borders. You’re writing about political realities at home that allow expatriates to live like that. You’re writing about economic realities in their host nations that make their presence both desirable and resented. What story is not political?

Every romantic comedy is political. Romantic comedies frequently assert that the gaps in economic and social station between two people do not preclude love. They frequently assert that the gaps in lifestyle between two people do not preclude love. If you’re telling people that a millionaire can fall in love with a maid, how is that not political? If you’re telling someone that a divorced single mother can fall in love with her boss, how is that not political?

My life is profoundly influenced by politics, both at the policy-level and at the broader level of institutions and morals. If my parents were ten years older, America’s immigration laws would have kept them in India. If America’s society hadn’t altered and begun treating a certain level of wealth in a certain way regardless of race, then I would still be living in some kind of ethnic enclave (like a Jewish American in the 1920s).

Creating The World

In the realm of human relations, there is no reality. We look back on history and think that things like “The Dust Bowl” and “Okies” are indisputable facts. But they don’t exist until someone codifies them. For instance, for the last twenty years there’s been a migration into the South. That’s a demographic reality. But what kinds of people are entering? Why? What do they look like? What do they do? How do their lives change?

I don’t think there is an answer to that. Or, rather, there are many answers. There are hundreds of answers. Each one would be true for a subset of people. But in twenty years, when this migration is over, if we remember it at all, we will only remember a few of those answers. We will have a myth of what happened. And that myth will influence our beliefs about what kinds of things are possible. That myth will have a political function.

Now, if you believe that “realistic” (I’ve heard it called “mimetic”) fiction only reflects reality, then it is understandable if you believe fiction should not be political. But I believe that realistic fiction replaces reality. Or, not even that, it creates reality. Not in some kind of magical way. It’s just that when we think about what is real (at least in terms of human relationships), then we are usually not thinking about something we’ve seen or experienced, we’re usually thinking about a story.

For instance, you’ve probably seen way more living rooms on TV than you’ve seen in real life. In real life (at least if you’re around my age), you’ve seen probably fifty? Maybe a hundred? Most likely less than that. Thanks to sit-coms, pornography, and (especially) police procedurals, you’ve probably seen more than a thousand on TV.

Your view of what a living room looks like is largely generated by television.

Now, this will really only matter to you if you think that there is some systemic difference between a television living room and a real-life living room. It’s legitimate to think that there’s probably not. After all, the décor of television living rooms largely comes from what real life living rooms look like, and the décor of real-life living rooms is largely generated from what television living rooms look like. Between all the feedback, it’d be reasonable to assume that they look pretty similar.

But that ignores that there are many millions of times more real-life living rooms than there are ones on TV. There are definitely some strange and outlandish living rooms that you will never see on television, that you can’t see on television, because television is unable to reproduce the diversity of life – not because it’s evil, but because it is limited. Probably any given living room contains a few of these outlandish features which will never make it to television, and, from there, into our minds.

But in a hundred years, when people try to imagine what an American living room looks like, they’ll be picturing what is currently shown on TV (or actually, they’ll be picturing whatever their version of Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire for the early 21st century depicts as a living room).

The diversity of our life will have solidified for them into a few concrete images, just as the diversity of the sixties, or the twenties, has solidified for us.

Fiction – whether it’s textual or audiovisual – is what creates those images.

Do I think that’s wrong? No. Without television, we’d probably think that every living room looked like the living rooms of ourselves and people in our socioeconomic class. I am glad that television is able to convey some of the diversity that we are pretty much unable to acquire for ourselves.

For living rooms, you can substitute anything: family relationships, jobs, sunsets, romantic entanglements, corpses, etc…

The Costs of Absence

Clearly, this is where I’d talk about how television and novels systemically leave things out. I’d talk about how we are not given stories about poor people, or about nonwhite people. But, first, I am not sure that’s true. All those stories exist, we just don’t read them. Second, I am not sure it’s bad. I feel like it’s bad not to read stories about poor people, but I cannot say that it imposes any particular cost on us. The human mind is too strange and too circuitous. We cannot even say what is good or bad, how can we say that reading a story about migrant workers will make you a better person than reading a story about a college professor who sleeps with his student?

It seems like many of the most elite, whitest, most detached people in America are passionately concerned about the plight of people in Egypt who they know basically nothing about. Maybe if they knew more about Egypt, then they would care less. That is not an unknown phenomenon. Once upon a time, I wrote a little bit about how I thought that reading The Handmaid’s Tale might make me a worse person.

That’s why the political aspect of writing is so murky. When we write, we traffic in symbols whose effect we cannot understand. I think that’s why we try to reduce the business of writing to aesthetics. Because we can understand aesthetics, at least on a personal level. If something seems beautiful to us, then it worth writing about. A primary concern for aesthetics washes out the political aspects of writing (it does not make them disappear, it just makes them seem unimportant). We don’t need to think about why we’re showing this living room instead of another living room. All that matters is that this living room is beautiful. Our subconscious is doing all the hard work of judgment for us. Perhaps that subconscious incorporates something of political considerations, perhaps not. We abrogate ourselves of that duty.

And sometimes that seems like the right decision. But for me, it seems like the most powerful works are those which did attempt to consciously manipulate those political symbols, and create a fiction that is not just beautiful, but also useful.