July 01, 2016

George Orwell on Ireland, Ctd

In a previous post I looked at George Orwell and his views on Ireland. Orwell viewed Ireland negatively - Catholic and authoritarian. George Orwell wrote in ‘Why Socialists Don’t Believe In Fun’, 1943:
"At this moment, for instance, the world is at war and wants peace. Yet the world has no experience of peace, and never has had, unless the Noble Savage once existed."

ATQ Stewart echoed this:
"Violence would appear to be endemic in Irish society… as far back as history is recorded."
George Orwell wrote in ‘England your England’:
"It is very rare to meet a foreigner, other than an American, who can distinguish between English and Scots or even English and Irish."
And he also wrote:
"I have spoken all the while of ‘the nation’, ‘England’, ‘Britain’, as though forty-five million souls could somehow be treated as a unit… A Scotsman does not thank you if you call him an Englishman. You can see the hesitation we feel on this point by the fact that we call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. Even the differences between north and south England loom large in our own eyes. But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European." 
Orwell wrote in 'Pacifism and the War':
"It is quite true that I served five years in the Indian Police. It is also true that I gave up that job, partly because it didn’t suit me but mainly because I would not any longer be a servant of imperialism. I am against imperialism because I know something about it from the inside. The whole history of this is to be found in my writings, including a novel (Burmese Days) which I think I can claim was a kind of prophecy of what happened this year in Burma."
And in ‘Shooting An Elephant', Orwell wrote:
"I did not even know [as a young man in Burma] that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it."
In October 1945 Orwell wrote in The Observer a savage review of Drums Under the Window, the fourth volume of Sean O’Casey’s autobiography. O’Casey, who had lived in England since 1926, later wrote of Orwell that he was "to my thinking, was just a bitter raging disappointed man, riddled with disease, and one who, instead of fighting his ailment, wasted his life railing at those healthier than himself." Read Orwell's review of O’Casey’s autobiography in full here:
"W.B. Yeats said once that a dog does not praise its fleas, but this is somewhat contradicted by the special status enjoyed in this country by Irish nationalist writers. Considering what the history of Anglo-Irish relations has been, it is not surprising that there should be Irishmen whose life-work is abusing England: what does call for remark is that they should be able to look to the English public for support and in some cases should even, like Mr O'Casey himself, prefer to live in the country which is the object of their hatred.
This is the third volume of Mr O'Casey’s autobiography, and it seems to cover roughly the period 1910 to 1916. In so far as one can dig it out from masses of pretentious writing, the subject-matter is valuable and interesting. Mr O'Casey, younger son of a poverty stricken Protestant family, worked for years as a navvy, and was at the same time deeply involved in the nationalist movement and the various cultural movements that were mixed up with it. Several of his brothers and sisters died in circumstances of gaunt poverty which would excuse a good deal of bitterness against the English occupation. 
He was the associate of Larkin, Connolly, the Countess Markievicz, and other leading political figures, and he had a frontseat view of the Easter Rebellion in 1916. But the cloudy manner in which the book is written makes it difficult to pin down facts or chronology. It is all in the third person (“Sean did this” and “Sean did that”), which gives an unbearable effect of narcissism, and large portions of it are written in a simplified imitation of the style of Finnegans Wake, a sort of Basic Joyce, which is sometimes effective in a humorous aside, but is hopeless for narrative purposes. 
However, Mr O'Casey’s outstanding characteristic is the romantic nationalism which he manages to combine with Communism. This book contains literally no reference to England which is not hostile or contemptuous. On the other hand, there is hardly a page which does not contain some such passage as this: 
Cathleen ni Houlihan, in her bare feet, is singing, for her pride that had almost gone is come back again. In tattered gown, and hair uncombed, she sings, shaking the ashes from her hair, and smoothing out the bigger creases in her dress; she is Singing of men that in battle array, Ready in heart and ready in hand, March with banner and bugle and fife To the death, for their native land. 
Or again: 
Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan, walks firm now, a flush on her haughty cheek. She hears the murmur in the people’s hearts. Her lovers are gathering round her, for things are changed, changed utterly: “A terrible beauty is born”. 
If one substitutes “Britannia” for “Cathleen ni Houlihan” in these and similar passages (Cathleen ni Houlihan, incidentally, makes her appearance several times in every chapter), they can be seen at a glance for the bombast that they are. But why is it that the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman? Why is a statement like “My country right or wrong” reprehensible if applied to England and worthy of respect if applied to Ireland (or for that matter to India)? For there is no doubt that some such convention exists and that “enlightened" opinion in England can swallow even the most blatant nationalism so long as it is not British nationalism. Poems like "Rule, Britannia!” or "Ye Mariners of England" would be taken seriously if one inserted at the right places the name of some foreign country, as one can see by the respect accorded to various French and Russian war poets today. 
So far as Ireland goes, the basic reason is probably England’s bad conscience. It is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation. In particular, the incident with which Mr O'Casey’s book ends, the summary execution of some twenty or thirty rebels who ought to have been treated as prisoners of war, was a crime and a mistake. Therefore anything that is said about it has to pass unchallenged, and Yeats’s poem on the subject, which makes a sort of theme song for Mr O'Casey’s book, has to be accepted uncriticised as a great poem. Actually it is not one of Yeats’s better poems. But how can an Englishman, conscious that his country was in the wrong on that and many other occasions, say anything of the kind? So literary judgement is perverted by political sympathy, and Mr O'Casey and others like him are able to remain almost immune from criticism. It seems time to revise our attitude, for there is no real reason why Cromwell's massacres should cause us to mistake a bad or indifferent book for a good one."
Writing in 1949 Orwell paid tribute to Irish writers Joyce and Yeats with helping to broaden the appeal of English literature, writing:
"Joseph Conrad was one of those writers who in the present century civilised English literature and brought it back into contact with Europe, from which it had been almost severed for a hundred years. Most of the writers who did this were foreigners, or at any rate not quite English—Eliot and James (Americans), Joyce and Yeats (Irish), and Conrad himself, a transplanted Pole."
Orwell wrote:
"In left-wing circles it is always always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box." 
In ‘Looking back on the Spanish War’, Orwell wrote:
"Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question."
He also wrote elsewhere:
"What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person."

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