22 January 2013

Chesterton and Orwell: Reflections on 1984

“But among critics whose interest in Chesterton is extra-literary,” wrote Ian Boyd in John Sullivan’s 1974 work G.K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal, “those who perhaps have done the most damage to his artistic reputation are a group who might be called the professional Catholics. For them, Chesterton is an institution to be defended rather than an author to be discussed.”

It’s an important point, and one I was reminded of yesterday when reading David Allen Green’s speculations that Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty-Four in response to Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill. I was tempted towards kneejerk reactions. They're rarely of use to anybody.

“Why did George Orwell call his last novel Nineteen Eighty-Four?” asks Green, “The usual explanation for the choice of title of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it was a play on the last two digits of 1948, the year the manuscript was finished. This has never convinced me. I think there may be a better explanation, which comes from George Orwell’s intellectual hostility to the Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton.”

Afraid to come upon a blood red cup and the beating of the wings of an eagle...
Before observing that the action in Napoleon begins in 1984, Green concedes that the coincidence upon which his theory is based has been previously noticed, but says that he is unaware of any other attempt to assess the alternative explanation that he offers.

Green describes Napoleon as he understands it, and assembles an impressive litany of quotations from Orwell scornfully dismissing a host of Catholic writers for what he regarded as their intellectual dishonesty. Focusing on the preface to Napoleon, Green casts the book as a diatribe against progress and observes that:

“Taking the stories as a whole it is not too much of a strain to see Nineteen Eighty-Four as a riposte to The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There are many points of comparison. Both books show that a belief in revolution that appears to have gone wrong, and both focus on the frustrations of a sympathetic central character as he attempts to challenge the prevailing system. Both are utopian/dystopian visions, containing prophecies extrapolated from current trends.”

It’s an interesting thesis, but the more I look at it, the less I think it plausible, not least because it seems to me that although it's a commonplace among Chesterton fans that Orwell may have intended his title as a reference to Chesterton’s work, I think this unlikely; still less do I think Orwell's book a riposte to Chesterton's.

Wherever I see a red pillar-box and a yellow sunset, there my heart beats...
Even if we can dismiss as ahistorical the popular notion that Nineteen Eighty-Four was so named as a playful reference to 1948, the year in which Orwell finished writing it, we should at least recognise that there are other theories beyond the two Green cites.

“Orwell’s title remains a mystery,” wrote Robert McCrum in the Observer in 2009. “Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984) or perhaps to one of his favourite writer GK Chesterton’s stories, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is set in 1984.”

Well, only the opening sequence of Napoleon is set in 1984, the bulk of the book being set a decade later and the finale being set a further twenty years after that, and it’s rather stretching things to call Chesterton Orwell’s favourite writer, but still, McCrum’s general approach is sound; he doesn’t think the supposedly popular 1948-Nineteen Eighty-Four theory worth even a mention, and notes that there are several theories as why Orwell bestowed that now notorious date on the book. He could also have mentioned, for instance, the possibility that Orwell had been influenced by his late wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy’s poem ‘End of the Century, 1984’.

It seems at least as likely that the quest for what lay behind Orwell’s setting of his story in 1984 is a fool’s errand. Peter Davison’s note on the text of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of the novel notes that Orwell “first set his story in 1980, but, as the time taken to write the book dragged on (partly because of his illness) that was changed to 1982, and, later, to 1984.”

There may, in short, be no special significance to the date.

That which is large enough for the rich to covet is large enough for the poor to defend...
That said, there’s much of value in the piece, not least the litany of quotations from Orwell’s writings which go some way to substantiating Randal Marlin’s observation in Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion that,
“Orwell had his baggage of prejudices, against Roman Catholics (Irish in particular) and gays, for example. G.K. Chesterton, who was not Irish, excited his great antipathy, perhaps because Chesterton was so adept at using words in defence of causes Orwell opposed and in ways that Orwell objected to, as explained in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’”.

Green's collection of quotations suggest that Orwell was less bothered by religious dishonesty than by Catholics. One thing that’s clear from them is that Orwell never really understood Chesterton, a failing which Greene seems to share. Green argues that the possibility that the title of Nineteen Eighty-Four was drawn from Napoleon “allows us to explore an often overlooked part of Orwell’s political outlook: the deep hostility of a decent and progressive liberal to the intellectual and moral dishonesty of religious conservatives.”

We’re into ‘begging the question’ territory there, but still…

A madness which goes beyond martyrdom, the madness of an utterly idle man...
One of Orwell’s earliest published writings appeared in Chesterton’s G.K.’s Weekly. Entitled ‘A Farthing Newspaper’, it dealt with corporate influence on public opinion through the news media, a concern which Chesterton shared and which has, of course, hardly become less relevant with the passing decades. John Rodden observes in George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation that – far from harbouring a deep hostility to a man who’d helped launch his career – Orwell generally admired Chesterton, who he resembled in many ways, notably in his patriotism and his love for the commonplace and the common man.

If Orwell developed an antipathy towards Chesterton, it was because he felt that in his later work he had sacrificed his talent and his intellectual honesty to propagandising for the Catholic Church; regardless of the merits or otherwise or Orwell’s analysis, it’s important to recognise that Orwell believed that the dishonesty he perceived was a hallmark only of “the last twenty years or so” of Chesterton’s life.

Most critics of Chesterton's work perceive a difference between his writing before December 1914 and his writing after his recovery from a rarely-broken coma that lasted for several months – Dudley Barker, surveying Chesterton’s oeuvre in Sullivan’s G.K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal, observes that “not much needs to be said, indeed, about most of what Chesterton wrote after 1914”, and it’s this latter writing that Orwell so disparaged.

Napoleon, it should be pointed out, was not one of Chesterton’s later books; indeed, it was one of his earliest, published in 1904. Far from being “written from the point of view of a Catholic populist,” as Green says, Napoleon was written when Chesterton was an Anglican; indeed, Chesterton wouldn’t be accepted into the Catholic Church until 1922, eighteen years after Napoleon’s publication. Indeed, Napoleon is curious, as Christopher Hollis comments in his 1970 book The Mind of Chesterton, for being “alone among Chesterton's books,” almost devoid of references to religion.

Every man is dangerous ...  who cares only for one thing. I was once dangerous myself.
In truth, I’m not convinced that Green really understands Napoleon at all, not compared to, say, Terry Pratchett, who showed a sure understanding of the book’s engine when he said of Chesterton that:
“It’s worth pointing out that in The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill he gave us two of the most emotionally charged plots in the twentieth century: one being that both sides are actually the same side; it doesn’t matter which side we’re talking about, both sides are the same. This has been the motor of half the spy novels of the century. The other plot can’t be summarised so succinctly, but the basic plot of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is that someone takes seriously an idea that wasn’t intended to be taken seriously and gives it some kind of nobility by so doing.”

Consider Green's claim that the hero of the book is “Auberon Quin, an eccentric who suddenly becomes king.” Is this really accurate? I would have thought that insofar as Napoleon has a hero at all, it’s the ‘Napoleon’ of the title, the Adam Wayne who becomes Provost of Notting Hill and conqueror of London.

Does the book really focus on the frustrations of a sympathetic central character as he attempts to challenge the prevailing system? Hardly: Quin changes the system with ease, for a joke, and Wayne embraces the new system with a violent passion.

Can Napoleon really be described as either a utopian or a dystopian vision, containing prophecies extrapolated from current trends? Not really – Chesterton opens with a spread of the sort of predictions so common in his only day only to discard them and say that none of these prophecies or trends mean anything. People, he believes, don’t really change.

The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. ..
I’m not even convinced by the idea that Napoleon is best known nowadays for “its preface, entitled Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy,” and supposedly a few hundred words long. The opening chapter bears that title, and it clocks in at 1,700 or so words, but I’m far from sold on the idea that this is why the book’s best known now, and I’m certain this isn’t “Chesterton’s clearest and best known statement against ‘progress’”, not least because it's not about progress so much as it is about prophecy, about whether the future can be predicted.

Chesterton isn't really interested in the prophecies of his contemporaries, after all; he needs his book to be set in places that he knows and loves, but cannot set it in his own day so casts his tale into the future, and needs to justify why it's not that different from the present.

What's more, if you take a look at the selected Chesterton quotations of ‘progress’ at the American Chesterton Society, you’ll see that not one is from Napoleon.

In any case, contrary to Orwell’s claim, Chesterton didn’t fear progress; what he was sceptical of was the cult of progress that was rife throughout the Edwardian era, before it was laid low in the trenches of the Western Front. And if Chesterton ever penned a definitive statement on that, it was in the second chapter of Heretics, published the year after Napoleon, and addressing themes he would return to again in 1908’s Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday.

I should stop, as I feel I’ve fallen into the trap of treating Chesterton as an institution to be defended rather than an author to be discussed. Boyd is probably right when he says that Orwell’s take on the later Chesterton as a violent propagandist is merely a hostile version of the caricatured portrait of Chesterton as Catholic champion so held forth by his Catholic supporters.

If you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time...
And there is something to be said for considering the idea that at some level Orwell might have written his work in response to Chesterton. That's what Christopher Hollis thought, at any rate:

“Chesterton wrote The Napoleon of Notting Hill in 1904, proclaiming that he was narrating events that were to happen in eighty years time -- that is to say, in 1984. There is no exact evidence that Orwell had this coincidence in mind when he chose the title of his own book.

But, whether intentional or not, Orwell’s book, in which the death of freedom brought with it the death of every decency even down to the proverbial honour among thieves, was certainly a protest against the irresponsibility of Chesterton's forgetfulness of the great lesson: he who draws the sword will perish by the sword, and violence, when once employed, cannot easily be quenched. It is hard, as one looks at the tale of current violence, not to sympathise with Orwell's impatience.”

Chesterton, of course, wrote before the Great War in which his brother died, and the Spanish Civil War where Orwell witnessed the horrors of violence begetting violence.

Anyway, I may think utter bunkum the idea that Orwell intended Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984 as a riposte to an intellectually dishonest Chesterton, but I’m glad I’ve been given food for thought. That original post is well worth the pondering, not least because it shows how a "decent and progressive liberal" can have an almost obsessive -- even bigoted -- antipathy towards Catholics.

1 comment:

hibernicus said...

There is at least one pretty obvious Chesterton reference in 1984 - the character called Syme who praises Newspeak, and whom Winston Smith realises is doomed because the Party only wants unthinking obedience. Syme is of course the name of the hero of THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, and I suspect NEwspeak "War is Peace" Freeom is Slavery" etc reflects a jaundiced view of Chestertonian paradox.