Sunday, February 14, 2016

`It Would Almost Be Worth Being Dead'

A quality not often recognized in Orwell is nimbleness, a gift for gracefully changing directions, switching tone and subject matter without forcing the issue or causing the reader undue vertigo. I speak here of his essays and newspaper columns, not his ham-handed fiction. Orwell’s “As I Please” column published in the Tribune on this date, Feb. 12, in 1947, opens with a letter sent to him by a rather overheated Scottish Nationalist, hardly a promising subject for an American reader in 2016. But Orwell preserves its relevance to our time by generalizing the subject, noting that attention is best paid to separatist movements and other bothersome or potentially violent cliques: 

“At any rate, I think we should pay more attention to the small but violent separatist movements which exist within our own island. They may look very unimportant now, but, after all, the Communist Manifesto was once a very obscure document, and the Nazi Party only had six members when Hitler joined it.” 

A nice takedown, but safe and predictable fare for a columnist. Next, a break, followed by another Scot-related bit about whiskey-brewing and barley. Orwell’s tone politely dismissive and, typically, he quotes a remark overheard at the greengrocer’s (uttered, remember, during the U.K.’s postwar austerity): “Government! They couldn’t govern a sausage-shop, this lot couldn’t!” People love hearing from The Man in the Street, and Orwell was happy to oblige. 

Another break, and then Orwell comes to what’s really on his mind. He recalls lines from a macaronic elegy by John Skelton (c. 1463-1529), and doubts whether such sentiments could be written or carved on gravestones in 1947: “Today there is literally no one who could write of death in that light-hearted manner. Since the decay of the belief in personal immortality, death has never seemed funny, and it will be a long time before it does so again. Hence the disappearance of the facetious epitaph, once a common feature of country churchyards.” Some might find his point counterintuitive, but Orwell (no believer) understood that only those with faith understand the comic potential in death. Atheists are not a notably humorous bunch. In cemeteries I’ve seen stones carved with motorcycles, whiskey bottles and shotguns, expressing a vulgarity that out-sentimentalizes the Victorians. Orwell recalls the perfect poem for the occasion, Landor’s epigrammatic epitaph "Dirce." He comments: “It is not exactly comic, but it is essentially profane.” A nice distinction. Then he tops himself (it helps to remember he would be dead in three years): 

“It would almost be worth being dead to have that written about you.”

No comments: