1984, artistic integrity, Authorial Integrity, Ayatollah Khomeini, Christopher Hitchens, Essais, Essay, fatwah, fear, Fear of Laughter, George Orwell, imperialism, Individual Will, Laughter, letters to a young contrarian, Literature, Michel de Montaigne, Not Dead Yet, Salman Rushdie, Shooting an Elephant, The Satanic Verses, Totalitarianism
Orwell begins his essay Shooting an Elephant with the lines, “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” I must confess reading these lines I feel a twinge of envy, for no one has ever really despised me, to my knowledge. I fear sometimes, despite the tone of these essays I am actually quite a socialite and unfailingly kind, damn obnoxious really, that I am not doing enough to be truly despised. The hatred mankind may inflict upon others is truly marvelous inspiration for it can achieve, dare I say it, miraculous wonders. The hatred felt towards Orwell eventually led to him shoot the elephant, I believe the phrase spoiler alert is often cited in instances like this, which in turn inspired the essay that is as well remembered as many of his other essays. That last sentence was an attempt at humor (another character trait that rarely emerges in these essays of mine).
I seriously doubt many people outside of a few English majors, and honestly you’d be surprised by how few of them know it either, know that Orwell wrote an essay entitled Shooting an Elephant, or that he wrote several others such as Such, Such Were the Joys… chronicling his childhood years in a boarding school, Inside the Whale discussing the idea of creating reality in fiction, or Why I Write which is an amusing anecdote about tap dancing star fish. The essays of Orwell are a discovered treat to many scholars of literature, though perhaps I am being unfair for there may be one or two excellent professors and teachers who bother with Orwell and give their students a few snippets of his work. Along with my regular readings of Orwell I have spent most of my summer freedom reading the works of Christopher Hitchens, both his biographies (though they’re really only that in name because the Dewy Decimal System has yet to spawn a section entitled Justifiable Character Assassination, I particularly enjoyed the Clinton book and now find it difficult to enjoy the Family Guy jingle “This is one fine day to be nude”) as well as his collections of essays. I recently managed to finish his essay Not Dead Yet which works as both an assault upon religious bigotry and incompetence, it is Hitchens after all, as well as a retelling of the, grief is a rather sour phrase to say it best, barbarism inflicted upon Salman Rushdie and his publishers following the release of his misunderstood novel The Satanic Verses.
For those unfamiliar with the history behind the text, the former head of the Iranian sect of Islam, the now gratefully dead Ayatollah Khomeini, announced a fatwah against Salman Rushdie because of the belief that Rushdie was attempting to mock the prophet (Muhammad at one point is supposed to have received one his regular, sometimes conveniently placed, visions in which he supported polytheism but later recanted and speculated that he was under the influence of Satan rather than angels, thus the Satanic Verses of Islam came into consciousness). A fatwah, for clarification, is a public assassination contract that transcends national borders; many publishers of Rushdie’s novels suffered all manner of hellish grief including, but not limited to, death threats, physical assault, assault with firearms, and death in the instance of his Japanese publisher. Hitchens’ essay is spot on to attack the ignorance usually employed in these vicious attempts at censorship by those who have not even bothered to pick up the book which has inspired so much of their rage, but to my mind Hitchens’s seemed to make the mistake, yes I said it and I hope old Hitch would have appreciated the chance to have his work critiqued, of placing all the blame upon religious individuals. He hit only half the target. He says of many writers following the announcement of the fatwah, “Most bizarre of all, though, was the noise emitted by a number of eminent writers and authors, John Le Carre, John Berger, Roald Dahl Hugh Trevor-Roper, and others began a sort of auction of defamation in which they accused Rushdie variously of insulting Islam, practicing western style cultural colonialism and condescension and damaging race relations. (They also accused him, most amazingly of all, of writing for money. What next?)” This is all of Hitchens’ critique of his fellow writers when there is an entire essay in this travesty itself. I will not invoke a pathetic tribal sentiment of “We’re writers, it’s us against them,” for that would reveal me as something I am not, an idiot (though my wife may disagree with me when I bring home the wrong type of olive oil from the super market). What is most heinous about the Rushdie criticism received from his fellow writers is that it is an instance of hypocrisy. Those interested in the craft of writing should understand that the artist must be free to pursue their impulses regardless of concern for the sensibilities of the audience. That is not to say vulgarity and barbarism should be employed for their own sake, for sensationalism is a cheap and temporary aesthetic result, but should an artist require “controversial” material for the work they embark upon, there should be no worry either of their own personal safety or for the safety of others. The reaction of his fellow artists and writers is appalling for it demonstrates they are willing to submit their creative impulses for the sake of the continuance of subtle totalitarian influence. The fatwah did not succeed. Rushdie’s work continues to be studied and read. And Hitchens, my great influence, missed a tremendous opportunity.
You began this work with hatred I believe?
Yes I did, however hatred is not the central concern as of this writing. What is the central core of this effort is to understand the essay and how Orwell succeeds in his effort.
Before I return to Orwell I’ll discuss briefly the history of essays themselves. The origin of the essay is as conflicted as the supposed origin of the musical genre Heavy Metal. In that I mean it can create heated conversations most often ending in drinking contests following a vicious physical brawl. While speaking to a fellow student of literature the topic of the essay came up and I shared some information that I had learned most recently in my Reformation Europe class. In this course I learned about a figure known as Michel de Montaigne, a French public official who acted as a sort of mediator between the Huguenots and Catholics during the Wars of Religion that dominated the country of France during the late 16th century. Montaigne, following the concluding of his judicial career, retired to his estate known as the Tower of Chateau in Dordogne which included a personal library of over 1500 hundred books and it is in this space, much to my personal and intense envy, Montaigne was able to spend his days reading, writing and meditating, all the while crafting his collection which were eventually called Essais. Perhaps the title sounds familiar. The contemporary word “essay” is partially derived from this word, which roughly translated means “trial” or “attempt.” Immediately the standard reveals itself and a perception of what the essay should stand for emerges, but before I continue allows me to finish the story. My creative Writing Instructor, whose name I will withhold for I can never effectively judge his humors, began an assault in which he argued Montaigne in no way, as I suggested to my friend, created the modern essay. In this respect he is correct. The essay has existed as far back as the ancient times for the writings of men such as Plutarch, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Cicero are, despite their length, essays; works of prose that “attempt” to impress some idea upon the reader. The essays of Montaigne however remain in many eyes the first “modern” attempts at the essay, for Montaigne employed himself and his various “humors” as the delivery mechanism.
It seems lackluster by today’s standards of the post gonzo news paradigm, but Montaigne’s work of over 150 essays remains the first “modern” attempt at such a feat. Tackling history, religion, marriage, imperialism, etc, he effectively established the medium of the individual experience and how to “attempt” to communicate said experience.
In Shooting an Elephant Orwell “attempts” to address his suspicions of imperialism, demonstrating it to be nothing but a farce, while at the same time revealing a truth about peer pressure and revealing the travesties that may arise from it. The standard interpretation, or at least the one your professor or high school English instructor will inflict upon you is the latter. The impulse to cave into the majority will is the essence of totalitarianism. Orwell demonstrated this best with his novel 1984 with the inevitable breaking of Winston Smith with the threat of Room 101. In the case of Winston Smith, there is the threat of physical violence coupled with intense psychological trauma. In the case of Orwell himself, and in this sense I feel that Hunter S. Thompson’s credit of inventing gonzo journalism seems a little suspect, it is something far worse: laughter. Hitchens in letters to a young contrarian, and may I interrupt to comment that my continued insistence in quoting this book comes not out of sycophancy but instead because the man just seemed to capture everything right, relates his experience with laughter:
“Laughter can be the most unpleasant sound; it’s an essential element in mob conduct and is part of the background noise of taunting and jeering at lynching’s and executions. Very often crowds or audiences will laugh complicity or slavishly, just to show they “see” the joke and are all together.”
Orwell notes in Shooting an Elephant the power derived from this auditory stimulate:
“And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at. But I did not want to shoot the elephant. […] The Sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian on the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do. There was only one alternative.”
Laughter, the auditory push that forces Orwell’s hand into a viscous action he ultimately regrets, is so great a factor for the man’s consciousness that he is willing to alter his own will for fear of being mocked. How tender is the ego indeed. I would not be so crass however to attack Orwell, for that impulse to change one’s will is a trial every human being has at some point lost. We should not mourn these losses, instead we should learn from them. Orwell is frank enough to reveal the end result of his attempt to stave off laughter:
“It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open—I could see far dawn into the caverns of his pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart should be. The thick blood welled out him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not ever jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly, and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even able to finish him. […] In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die.”
It is at this point that the teacher attempts to laud the suffering of the beast as the result (and that dreaded yet briefly necessary word “symbol”) of peer pressure. In that I will not contest. What I will challenge is the end of the analysis at this moment. The death of the elephant is tragic due to the suffering it experiences from Orwell’s hand, and because there is something that strikes many human beings about the animal as distinctly human, whether it be their tendency to mourn their dead (a practice that is seen as exclusively human) or their habit of developing personality (elephant paintings have quickly become psychologically fascinating as well as a quick way for zoos to profit from veiled incarceration). It would be a mistake to suggest that I should not concern myself over the animal’s physical suffering, but it would be a tremendous blunder to ignore the greater issue of peer pressure and majority will. In this one instance the totalitarian impulse has resulted in an unnecessary violent act that has robbed a beast of its life, Orwell does note that the animal had gone mad, however he does leave this purposefully vague to establish his overall point. What of the future? The great agony derived from the passage of the elephant’s death is that it is a direct result of the mob that crowded Orwell and inspired fear of damage to his ego. In this instance this fear has resulted in unnecessary suffering, and Orwell allows us to see the bigger picture, that this fear of laughter translated as a fear of being outside the majority will has allowed him to part with his integrity and act in a way that now causes himself emotional pain.
Therein moves us to the more important point of analysis which Orwell is gracious enough to give us:
“Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.”
The power structure of imperialism is dissected to reveal the troublesome condition of the entire enterprise. Those in power no longer possess any kind of actual freedom, because the rhetoric they have employed to assert their own power leaves them incapacitated to act freely. This observation reveals the peer pressure as nothing but a self perpetuating loop in which those who desire power must constantly prove their title as the superior race while those below then reinforce that position by reminding those in power that they need their help. The elephant is not simply an elephant. Do not fear. The words “it is a symbol” will not follow that statement. Instead I will say the elephant is a testament to the travesty of imperial desire, and the pitfalls of totalitarian will.
There will never be a true end to majority will, and instances like the topic of this essay will continue as long as the individual finds his or herself outside the “know” of society. What is important to note is how effective Orwell’s essay or “attempt” comes across. Orwell from this point on would begin to focus more and more of his attention upon social inequity and write numerous essays over the course of his career, each of them a demonstration of his real ability as a writer, and I dare anyone who bothers to pick up his collections to test me on this ground. They will fail. Not because every essay is scintillating, I could never make that argument (I have tried reading, for the record, his essay Boy’s Weeklies numerous times and found it difficult to progress past a page or so), but because each essay is a careful treatment of the form that is the essay. Orwell’s work is a careful and well executed “attempt” to convey both his experience as well as his idea.
It is this standard that I have tried to bring to these essays. Michel de Montaigne brought the essay inward to express his own humanity in an attempt to inspire human thought and imagination. I believe in this idea of the essay. Our writings do not, and should not always be grand intellectual masterpieces (though it would not be a travesty should we attempt to make them so), but they should continually challenge us to push ourselves as writers and thinkers into a new stage of intellectual development. Whether it be the rise of the Police state in Ferguson, the continual open slaughter of young black men free of repercussion, the continual abuse of power by the bully figure of Vladimir Putin, the pathetically veiled genocide in Israel, or the continued pardoned social imperialism of religion, the tyranny of majority must be understood and combated. For my part I have attempted only ever to challenge what I feel to be the basis of dictatorship, and I will continue to do so.
And hopefully, one day soon I can imagine, somebody will despise me for attempting to do so.