Afterlife of an Atheist

Ian Williams

Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster wrote that death hath ten thousand several ways for men to make their exits. But he was silent about the number of ways they re-enter. John Rodden has filled the gap with Scenes from an Afterlife, his account of the near ten thousand several ways that Orwell has been revived to make a re-entrance. Despite his not being a member of any dogmatic sect, religious or secular, George Orwell has been perilously exposed to numerous and varied posthumous canonizations, or indeed equally to anathematizations.

Apart from the ancient, and mostly anonymous, writers of the Bible, Orwell is probably unique in being claimed by such wildly disparate ideologues. At least in the Bible, “Thou shalt not kill,” can be counterbalanced with a wide selection of comprehensively vindictive injunctions to smiting, although most Christians have historically tended to overlook the final word on turning the other cheek.

Orwell, whose final word was that he was a democratic socialist and supporter of the Labor Party, at least had the merit of relative consistency in his outlook, even if he changed its application in the light of changing events. If he were to have an afterlife, he would surely have been wryly amused at some of the posthumous claims made upon his works and his person. In other times, one suspects that his body would have been dismembered for relics, although it was equally likely that some parts would have been ceremonially burnt at the stake.

His actual resting place in an Anglican churchyard was an aesthetic choice rather than a spiritual one, and appropriate in as much as the Church of England, like the Labor Party that Orwell supported in his latter years, was the original broad church, imposing no particular tests for membership

Overall, John Rodden has a fact-based rather than faith-based approach to Orwell’s legacy in Scenes from an Afterlife, preferring to let him speak for himself rather than have canonizers and devil’s advocates, secular and spiritual, have their way with him.

Rodden’s comprehensive examination of these has added interest in that, as well as the more usual political claims to and for the writer’s heritage, he also deals with the religious claims to Orwell’s soul, even as he admits that his subject showed no signs of believing he had one.

The support that religious writers have had for Orwell is at first glance surprising, since it should be even more difficult to for them get beyond his inveterate opposition to the “Stinking RC” than it is to make him a closet conservative or posthumous Trotskyist as others have done regardless of his own forcefully expressed philosophy.

Orwell was not alone in his anti-Catholic bias. Britain had a strong tradition of it, based very much on the Church’s anti-socialism, manifested at election times with calls from the pulpit to vote against the Labor Party. Indeed, it is part of an old radical and popular tradition in Britain, and indeed in old New England, which saw “Popery” as an enemy of democracy and the liberties of citizens. In addition to this cultural background of antipathy, the Roman Catholic Church was totally against the Republicans and supported Franco in Britain and elsewhere, which was no more calculated to endear it to Orwell than Soviet behavior had been.

Usually quite objective and dispassionate, John Rodden shows how even he can be influenced by his own background of Liberal Catholicism. He complains of Orwell “how schematized and blinkered by politics his religious thought could be,” and says that some observers have “fairly noted” that Orwell had a “blind spot,” when it came to religion.
However he may have slipped a little here. From the viewpoint of the irreligious, what Orwell had was not a blind spot, but clarity of vision. In fact, to an agnostic or atheist, the question is rather how confused other people’s politics often are by their religious affiliation!

At least Rodden does not ascribe a spurious religiosity to his subject as others have done. He cites Auden, without lending credence to him when, apart from audaciously calling Orwell “a true Christian” obligingly revealed himself in 1970 to be agnostic about what Orwell would actually say about trade unions, birth control, nationalization and student demonstrations: “What he would have said I have no idea. I am only certain he would be worth listening to.”

There is a history to such urbanity of course. Auden had forgiven Orwell his attacks on him during his communist period, although many others not attacked by Orwell never forgave him for being a premature pre-Twentieth Congress exposer of the Soviet regime.

There is no need to ascribe the faintest support for the Athanasian Creed and transubstantiation in Orwell’s sympathy for the likes of G K Chesterton. Each had, from different premises, come to similar conclusions about the desirability of common decency as against the ideologues. When the far left talk about Orwell and decency, they usually intone both words with a scornful sneer since they see the concept as inherently unscientific and unsocialist.

Orwell was indeed Chestertonian in his prejudices and in his faith in the common man against the ideologues – even down to his occasionally unreal pastoral vision of an ideal society. There is as much of a socialist dimension to Chesterton and Waugh as there is a spiritual dimension to Orwell – alone suspects, not a lot in either case

Equally, the accidental concatenation of Orwell’s opposition to the “birth control” people and that of the Church that Rodden mentions were derived from entirely different premises. Orwell’s opposition to the birth control people seems more ad homines than it was to the concept itself. In the context of the thirties, it is worth remembering that many prominent birth control advocates were part of a social-engineering ideology of the type that Orwell despised. Birth control pioneers were often tied into the eugenics movement, explicitly racist and certainly class-biased, seeing the poor as inferior breeding stock to be neutered for their own good and that of society. His opposition had nothing to do with Pauline antipathy to sex itself, which, on the contrary, he seems to have warmly appreciated as a pastime in and out of matrimony.

Similarly, it is no surprise that Jews in Britain and the US, who stood for the same human decencies as Orwell, should have resonated in sympathy with him. Most of those involved would have denied any theological basis for their social and political opinions, even if they may have admitted a sociological inspiration from the position of the community they grew up in. In those days, the majority of Jews supported similar liberal and leftist causes as Orwell, so their good opinion was not a product of his ethnic attitudes. They did not ask whether he was good for the Jews, but whether he espoused the same wide, universalist causes as they did.

We should also beware of seeing positions sixty years ago through the prism of the present. The conflation of Jewish identity with the existence of Israel is a relatively recent phenomenon among Jews and it is even more recently that it has been foisted on the larger society.

Orwell did not let his friendship with Jews and his indignation with anti-Semitism and its effects blind him with sentiment when it came to Palestine. In those far off days, Zionism was a minority tendency even among Jews, and it was perfectly possible to disagree with it without being accused of anti-Semitism.

Indeed, he anticipated some of the modern Left by seeing Zionism as a European colonial venture imposed upon the Arabs rather than as a “Jewish Liberation” movement. On this issue he managed to disagree with many of his Jewish comrades on the Left, and the many in the Labor Party influenced by them, and yet to remain friendly with them all.

Indeed, Fyveld, as Rodden points out, after disagreeing in a comradely way with Orwell over Zionism later credited him with foresight for his prediction of how militarized such a settler state would become. Such latitude, on both parts, is a refreshing contrast with the Leninist left which would have purged anyone who differed on any such significant point of doctrine.

As Orwell would have been the first to recognize, people can arrive at similar positions from different starting points. He certainly distinguished himself from the democratic-centralist school of literary critique by accepting that even reactionaries could produce great art.

People of decency, of profound humanitarian impulses, may be fortified in their work by religious feeling, but they rarely derive those impulses exclusively from their religious beliefs. We usually feel that they would be good whether they were Christians, Jews, Muslims or Atheists. The parable of the Good Samaritan holds and we mistrust those Pharisees who have to look up clauses in the holy rulebooks before deciding whether to do good or not.

“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it”

If Orwell had a serious afterlife, his reaction to the outright commercial exploitation that Rodden covers in his section on Orwellmania, would surely echo Mephistopheles’ answer to Faust’s question.

Rodden's examples show how the advertising industry, whose copywriters surely represent one of the most shamelessly Ingsoc professions, lying for money, can devalue some of the key concepts of Orwell’s work. Rodden cites the Apple computers’ Super Bowl advert aimed at the implied Big Brother, IBM. For such referential adverts to work demands a general pervasiveness of the concepts throughout the population which in its own perverse Mammonistic way is a tribute to Orwell.

However, Scenes from an Afterlife was written before one of the more bizarre recent manifestations of Orwellmania that surely deserves the Rodden treatment in any future edition. The writing machines that Orwell had producing formulaic novels for the Proles could not match the TV reality show “Big Brother.” In the original Dutch concept, Big Brother referred to the round-the-clock surveillance of the competitors.

Now, I am prepared to bet that most viewers of the cloned shows around the world are completely unaware of any Orwellian reference, and if anything see the title as vague reference to the prowess of the winning survivor of the shows.

The snowball effect of repeated dumbed-down references is operating like a sort of linguistic Gresham’s law, with the bad and inappropriate usage driving out the sound original Orwellian coinage.

Across the world, television has now reduced one of the most chilling metaphors of the Twentieth Century, the archetypal image of absolute pervasive totalitarian power, to the voyeuristic fascination of greedy people humiliating each other in front of millions of viewers in the expectation of large rewards. One can only hope that other indispensably Orwellian concepts, such as thought-crime, doublethink and newspeak are not similarly killed with trivialization as metaphors.

Of course, this is only the culmination of a well-established process; Rodden cites such bizarre sources as Shooting Industry magazine predicting that the handgun business should recover at least as fast as the general economy unless “Big Brother” disarmed the citizenry.

Where the metaphors are still fresh and scarring is of course in the field of politics. As long as there are relics of totalitarian regimes such as Central Asia and North Korea, it would seem from Rodden’s account that there will be readers who see a direct personal account in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.

Some of the most interesting insights that Rodden has derive from his experience in the last days of the German Democratic Republic, where the Teutonic thoroughness of the Communists went deep. It reinforces what Orwell tried to show in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that totalitarianism has a push-me-pull-you effect. A mere authoritarian power, such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick used to describe with some degree of approval, can rely on death squads, punitive raids and torture chambers, to maintain power. But it does not care what people think, as long as they obey. Totalitarian regimes have to believe their own lies; they have to believe they are speaking for the people, for the workers: and that means that the people and the workers had better show no signs of skepticism either.

Rodden’s researches during the morphosis of East Germany reminds us that in Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell in fact invented, or rather described, brainwashing: how to get people to behave and believe in ways that denied reality. Big Brother’s world was not kept going by the threat of brute force alone, but also because so many people accepted and in some measure supported the system. The scene of Winston Smith with tears in his eyes in the Willow Tree Café at the great victory was uncannily prophetic of the death of Stalin, when even denizens of the Gulag wept. Indeed recent polls show that even now just over half of Russians now harbor nostalgic warmth for the original of Big Brother, J. V. Stalin.

As Rodden records, there is something authentically Orwellian about being arrested and imprisoned for possessing a book by Orwell, and he interviewed such victims of the East German regime. “Like Winston Smith, they were falsifying history even as they discussed a book about the falsification of history,” he sharply comments on Klaus Hopke, the Deputy Culture Minster of the GDR who in the early eighties declared that Nineteen Eighty-Four was about “the characteristic features of capitalist reality… the multinational firms and their bloodhounds.”

The book was of course banned, and presumably only Inner Party people like Hopke could gain enough access to the novel to make any assessment of it at all. Others who got their hands on the texts were arrested. Consequently, the Inner Party assessment ruled, in a classic triumph of Doublethink.

Rosa Luxemburg, in Voltairean mode had argued against Lenin that “Freedom is freedom only if it also applies for the one who thinks differently.” Ironically, Scenes from An Afterlife records that this potent truth from the founding indigenous icon of the GDR had itself also become an “Unquote,” not to be repeated, so it was hardly surprising that a foreigner and a Westerner such as Orwell became a Goldstein figure, only mentioned to be reviled.

As Rodden records, Andrei Sakharov became just the latest in a series of Warsaw Pact intellectuals who wondered how someone who had not lived in the system understood it so well. The answer is of course that Orwell had lived in it, mentally at least. He had withstood the seductions of Marxist certainty himself, when many around had succumbed. It was not the threat of torture chambers that kept many of his contemporary Western intellectuals hewing to the Party line.

Orwell saw those outside direct Soviet control practicing Doublethink—in spite of all the evidence, they chose deny that the torture chambers and the Gulags existed. When the order came in 1939, they embraced the Nazi Hyenas as blood brothers in the struggle against British Imperialism. And when Hitler attacked the USSR, they turned on a sixpence to demand the internment of all who continued to say that.

So, in Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, Winston and his colleagues had an investment in the system: they believed. The totalitarian society, as typified by IngSoc, North Korea, or East Germany, does indeed have its torture chambers and Gulags, but it has Thought Police. It not only wanted its citizens to obey – it wanted them to believe. And it worked. As Parsons told Winston Smith in the Thought Police holding cell, “Of course I’m guilty…You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man do you? Thoughtcrime is a dreadful thing, old man.”

We have yet to get a full version of how Big Brother operates in North Korea, but defectors already suggest that much of the population is steeped in doublethink, somehow imbued with the propaganda about the success of the Party and its Dear Leader, while on another level aware of how sordid life is. Indeed the disparity is much greater than for Winston Smith who had to contend only with clogged drains and a pervasive smell of boiled cabbage. Untold thousands of Koreans have died without a whiff even of cabbage, and yet many of them and their surviving neighbors still seemed to think they have a stake in the system.

What Rodden describes in East Germany is a more IngSocish version, a culture of deprivation but not starvation, where making do, as Orwell and the British did during the wartime years of rationing, is debilitating and time-consuming rather than fatal. The search for coffee and razor blades takes time and energy that may otherwise have been wasted on thinking. But as he shows, right up to the end, a significant proportion of the intelligentsia had an intellectual investment in the society.

Rodden invites some degree of empathy, if not exactly sympathy, for individuals caught in a system that put such a premium on low-tech mutual surveillance. Similarly, he is perhaps too indulgent to the Orwellian overtones in our own societies, although he wrote before the serious post 9-11 excesses of the Bush and Blair administrations. “Winston’s work is (from our society’s viewpoint) illegal and base, consisting as it does of the falsification, bowdlerization, and “rectification” of history,” he says.

He is of course right about it being base, but one can hardly call it illegal. The huge intellectual apparatus surrounding Washington’s K Street, the lobbyists, the governmental spin masters, the political campaigners, the cable TV and radio shows, the PR companies and consultants are every bit as pervasive in their effects as the work as MiniTru. They do not have the excuse of the Thought Police and Big Brother for their labors, but while they do not have the state monopoly of the latter, they are in some ways more effective since we maintain the appearances of equal access.

In the dangerous game of what would Orwell say, I cannot help feeling that he would rephrase Victor Hugo about the rights of the rich to sleep under the Seine bridges and remark upon the right of every poor person to own major print, electronic and broadcast conglomerates.

It is an unpleasant fact, not often mentioned, that even now, those on the Left in the West who revile Orwell usually have political origins in parties that sympathized with the Soviet Union and “actually existing” Socialism. Rodden is sometimes too kind in his discussion of so-called cultural studies professors who indulge in Orwell bashing. Their hate for Orwell for being a premature anti-communist has survived the disappearance of the Soviet system they loved, admired or apologized for.

Raymond Williams, Rodden reminds us, described Orwell as an “ex socialist” in 1970, and added that Orwell’s influence on the Left was “diminishing” and would continue to do so. In fact Williams’ Left of the 1970’s has diminished to a shadow of its former self outside the ivory towers of academia. Rather, history is validating the arch statement of the admittedly conservative Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Raymond Williams, that he “will be read when George Orwell is forgotten—but not until then.”

The New Left, the communists and Trotskyists, have in their various ways morphed.
The former Euro Communists were among the inspirations for Blair’s New Labor project, while insofar as Trotsky has real political influence in the US, it is through his former followers among the Neoconservatives in the Bush administration. More than ever before, the gold standard for socialism is Orwell’s social-democracy, the Golden Mean between capitalist excesses and Leninist despotisms. As he put it, “Socialists don’t claim to be able to make the world perfect: they claim to be able to make it better.” (II 265)

It may be that Rodden’s readings of too many hard left academics in his field, which is after all one of their few redoubts, may have left him excessively gloomy about Orwell’s future in the education field. He points out that Wilhelm Liebknecht, Luxembourg’s comrade in arms, saw education as the key to building a society, and so appropriately, he considers the position of the “set” books for examinations in Britain and the USA.

He cites Scott Lucas, an intemperate and unrepresentative hard left Orwell-hater, to substantiate a claim that most Left academics doing cultural studies today look at continental, Marxist oriented thinkers as their exemplars, not to Orwell.

In reality, I suspect that compared with the general society of the U.S., where socialists tend to be ghettoized in the liberal arts faculties, most British academics across the spectrum would be considered left, but not Marxist. In the Literature departments and the teacher-training institutions, Orwell’s much more indigenous strain of Anglo-American empiricism is, and is likely to remain, much more acceptable than the forgotten fossils of the New Left.

As Rodden quotes about Dickens, “Severe artistic limitations, a sense of decency, impassioned sympathy for the underdog,—most readers of Orwell find his work characterized by these very same shortcomings and strengths.” But Orwell, not only has the brevity needed to conquer the syllabus for an attention-deficited generation of school readers, he has relevance beyond Dickens. Orwell’s warnings against the totalitarian mindset are every bit as pertinent today as when they were written. Animal Farm works even if the reader does not have a clue about the progress of the October Revolution, although of course it adds deeply to the appreciation to know about it, just as it works in ex-Soviet Russia where people have no concept of a mixed family farm.

In his epilogue Rodden brings it all together. Despite these ghosts and doppelgangers of his subject conjured up by fevered ideologues, he suggests the almost novel approach of letting Orwell speak for himself. Orwell was a self-confessed Democratic Socialist, and, as Rodden sketches around his complex subject, “a moral radical with a bracing contempt for radical chic,” “radical by conviction, conservative by sentiment,” with “socialist politics and a conservative ethos.”

The tentative nature of Rodden’s descriptions is what gives Scenes from an Afterlife its verisimilitude, not least since they share with Orwell an ancient radical injunction from Oliver Cromwell: “Consider that ye may be mistaken.” Such a dubious thought never crosses the minds of the ideologues that Rodden parades through this informative, if occasionally inadvertently depressing work. It is never far from the thoughts of the author, nor was it from those of his subject.


John Rodden, Scenes from an Afterlife, ISI Books Wilmington 2003