George Orwell Meets with the Social Harmony Committee
Come in, come in, Mr Orwell. Do please take a seat. The one over there, if you would. The light’s a little bright, I’m afraid, but we’ll have that fixed, I hope, in time for your next visit. No, actually the chair can’t be moved. Some of our other visitors have been so restless, you know, and we thought it best not to have needless distractions during our little conversations. You haven’t brought a counsel with you, I notice. Well, lawyers can be so adversarial, can’t they?
This Committee really does welcome the chance to get acquainted with you, Mr. Orwell. We’ve been hearing quite a lot about you recently, quite a lot. But forgive me—shouldn’t I perhaps be saying Mr. Blair? Mr. Eric Blair? That is your real name isn’t it, Mr. Blair? No? Orwell it is, then. It’s entirely as you wish. This committee respects your right to hide behind a pseudonym if you feel you need to.
Just to confirm something, though. You are the George Orwell, are you not, whose publishers withdrew an article from a book because of obscenity? Something about a clergyman and a mannequin called Dolly in a taxicab? With snails. Oh, Dali, you were talking about Salvador Dali? The artist? How silly of me. And the article was called “Benefit of Clergy”? But what were the clergy doing there? Oh well, our investigators can find out, I’m sure. It’s strange what some people like to read about, isn’t?
We’ve also heard of incidents in a book of yours about Paris and London lowlife. Ah, Down and Out in Paris and London? Thank you. Isn’t that the book in which a sex-slave is raped in a Paris brothel? And a kidnapped heiress is beaten with a rubber hose? Oh, that was in another book of yours? Not a book, an article? “Raffles and Miss Blandish”? She’s raffled off as some kind of sex toy? No?
Mr. Orwell, please, you must be patient with me. It’s so hard to keep all these details clear, and we do get to hear so many things these days about a certain class of works. Well, I expect you can clarify matters for us in our subsequent get-togethers.
And that’s more than enough from me, since we’re here to find out about you. So, let’s get down to business. That light really does seem to be bothering you, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, I don’t think we’ll need to take all that much of your time today.
Let me turn the floor over to our counsel.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Mr. Orwell, first of all, a few basic questions, if I may. You’re not in favour of prejudice and discrimination against oppressed minorities, are you? Good, good. I didn’t think so. And you do agree, I’m sure. that it’s desirable to try and diminish such prejudice? Of course, of course.
So you can understand, I’m sure, why someone would be upset by finding that a group to which they belonged was being exposed to contempt. I mean, if you yourself were a member of an innocent minority rather than what you are, you wouldn’t want to feel you were being mocked and demeaned, would you? Of course you wouldn’t.
So all of us have to do what we can, don’t we, to prevent such things from happening? And you’ll agree, I’m sure, having been a police officer yourself, that penalties in such cases will have a salutary effect? Not that we’d have to go so far as flogging and hanging, though. [Chuckle.]
You yourself did flog and hang people, I believe? Not exactly? Well, let’s not get bogged down in red herrings. I’m probably putting things too crudely, but then, I’m not a clever intellectual myself, and we’re all just simple citizens here, doing our little bit to protect those who can’t protect themselves.
So, back to our muttons, as the French say. By the way, you yourself are half French, are you not? Oh, a quarter. Well, I’m not surprised. About your being French, I mean. I wonder, do you think you can throw some light on something that’s been puzzling me?
Why is it, do you suppose, that the French are so fascinated by cruelty? I mean, the Marquis de Sade, and torture, and the guillotine, and all that? Your hungry rats in Nineteen Eighty-Four were certainly one of the worst things in the world for me, I can assure you. And how about that dreadful third-degreeing by the fascist American cops (are there any other kinds?) in your Miss Blandish article? Strong stuff, Mr. Orwell, strong stuff indeed.
Mr. Orwell, I don’t suppose you yourself occasionally used a little, um—what shall I say?—persuasion [smile] while questioning a prisoner?
Mr. Orwell, I was joking.
Madam Chair, would you please remind the witness that our proceedings will go more smoothly if only one person speaks at a time?
Mr. Orwell, do we have your permission to proceed? You’re sure?
Thank you. I imagine it’s hard to break oneself of the habit of dominance.
Mr. Orwell, you are the author, are you not, of an article called “Shooting An Elephant”? An elephant. Shooting an elephant. Not, perhaps, the most appealing of titles, is it? I mean, murdering one of those lovely intelligent animals who live so peaceably in matriarchal groups in their native habitats? But anyway …
Mr. Orwell, we have received a complaint about the article from a couple of fine young high-school students who were horrified by the violence in it and the hatred and contempt that are displayed for the Burmese people. They were sure, after it was “done” in class, that their classmates must be laughing at them behind their backs. And they found themselves feeling nauseated by the colour yellow. Yellow, Mr. Orwell, yellow. For several days after speaking with the Committee, they were nauseated by butter.
No, I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything more about them. They are understandably afraid of reprisals by the school authorities, with their racist hatred of the Other. The Committee applauds their courage in coming forward, and has done everything that it could to help them arrive at a correct interpretation of the situation.
One of them actually wondered at first whether the article mightn’t, after all, be really “just a story.” Talk about false consciousness! A story! Just a story! As if they had never been permitted to learn about subtexts. The Committee soon cured him of that particular stumbling block, I can assure you. It will also be dropping a few words into the ear of the Joys of Learning Committee.
They are two fine public-spirited young men, and our Committee will not expose them to further harassment.
Mr. Orwell, let me read out the passage which they and we found especially disturbing. By your own admission, this is how you felt when you were an agent of English racist imperialism in Burma, with the power to flog and hang what I expect you considered “trouble-makers.”
No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress [An assault on a white woman in a white dress. A symbolic sexual assault obviously.] When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces [Yellow, Mr. Orwell? You mean like the Yellow Peril? Like Doctor Fu-Manchu with his plans to take over the world?]—the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousand of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners. All I knew was my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. [Not young men, not equal members of the human race with yourself, but animals, Mr. Orwell—beasts.] I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.
Into his guts. Into a priest’s guts. That’s pretty horrible, isn’t it, Mr. Orwell? A kind of symbolic rape, almost?
Well, at least you’re honest about your racism, Mr. Orwell. No doubt you felt you were carrying the White Man’s Burden. [Chuckle.] Out there, surrounded by that “sea of yellow faces above garish clothes.” How beastly! How vulgar! Not like the decorous white clothing of the imperial occupiers imposing their Western “civilization” on a prostrate people. Not like the clothes of white women in the bazaars defiled by the ejaculations of garish yellow men.
Mr. Orwell, is there anything, anything at all, in your account to remind us that the Burmese were a proud people with a long history of civilization and a hunger for responsible self-government? Do you include a single admirable Burmese individual anywhere?
Wouldn’t it be true to say, Mr. Orwell, that we are being asked to sympathize more with the elephant—a male elephant that has killed a man (even if just a black one)—than with the Burmese people whom you and your fellow agents of imperialism at the club are lording it over?
You even have the dead man looking “devilish.” Isn’t there a saying about not speaking ill of the dead, Mr. Orwell? Some Latin tag that you learned during your privileged years at Eton? Couldn’t you at least have allowed that dead man, even if just a dead black man, to rest in the dignity of death?
Evidently your gun, Mr. Orwell, the gun you used for your murder of the elephant, “a beautiful German thing, with cross-hair sights,” was more appealing to you than that dead Burmese man. Ah, that so potent cross, borne aloft on the banners of the Crusaders! I’m surprised that you didn’t describe that sea of yellow faces, devilish yellow faces, as forming a crescent in front of you. [Chuckle] After all, those Oriental religions are all the same primitive superstitions in “civilized” Western eyes, aren’t they?
Mr. Orwell, you mention your orderly, that nameless Burmese orderly of yours, whom you sent for the German gun. Why did you have to be so perfunctory about him?
Could you not have brought yourself to say something approving about him, such as, oh, that he was an intelligent young man studying, in such free time as you allowed him, to earn a degree by a correspondence course? Only a few extra words would have been needed, just a few words, but what a difference they could have made.
Particularly if you permitted him the dignity of his own name.
As it is, you went out of your way to suggest that the Burmese people were incapable of thinking clearly and hence were obviously unfitted for democratic self-government.
We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events, the vaguer it becomes. Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant.
What’s that? The orderly was lazy and incompetent, you say?
Mr. Orwell, Mr. Orwell, are you quite sure that you knew him as well as you felt you did when looking down on that nameless yellow man from the cold white peaks of Western so-called civilization? May he not have been quietly resisting the unfair imperialist demands that you were making on him? Deliberately not putting a perfect shine on those jackboots in which you trampled on a prostrate people?
Mr. Orwell, I think you should think back very seriously to that relationship.
But then, as you tell us in another article, you even felt “a sort of aesthetic distaste” for that heroic advocate of passive resistance to the British Raj, Mahatma Gandhi himself. He too wasn’t as beautiful as a German rifle, was he, Mr. Orwell. He didn’t kill people.
Yes, yes, Mr. Orwell, we know that you say in the article that you hated imperialism. But nothing that you tell your readers helps them to sympathize with these people bleeding under the yoke of imperialist exploitation, from which, mercifully, they were later able to escape.
The two admirable young students made some suggestions that I think you should take to heart.
Could you not, they asked, have mentioned at the outset that there was a wise old Burmese gentleman—like Professor Goodbowl in E.M. Forrester’s movie Passage to India, say—with whom you talked at times about this obsessive hatred of yours for his people?
They also suggested an alternative ending for the story that really impressed the Committee.
Mr. Orwell, couldn’t you have consulted with the village elders and collectively reached a humane decision not to kill the elephant at all? No shooting. No killing. None.
Wouldn’t that have been far better, and sent a much healthier message about interracial cooperation, than your callous murder of that elephant with its “grandmotherly air” just because you didn’t want to be laughed at.
Didn’t want to be laughed at. For that you killed off the feminine principle in yourself, your fear of gentleness? With your beautiful German thing?
Did you laugh at classmates who were being bullied at Eton, Mr. Orwell? Boys with the wrong skin colour, perhaps, or clothes that were too garish? Is that when you decided that you yourself were always going to be one of the oppressors, not the oppressed? Is that why you went out to Burma as a police officer rather than going to Oxford or Cambridge like your fellows at Eton?
I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Well, never mind.
There could then, those delightful youths suggested, have been a really moving ending to the story. There could have been a huge joyous procession with the elephant garlanded with flowers as he returns home with his happy keeper, celebrating the triumph of democratic life over imperialist death.
And you, hitherto the all-powerful white sahib, could have quietly walked along beside him, after throwing that beautiful gun of yours into the river, with everyone applauding. A lovely young girl could have ridden up there on the elephant, affirming the feminine principle in the life of the East.
Wouldn’t that have been so much better than having the people rush to cut up the elephant after you’d poured shot after shot into him in your blood lust? As it is, you make them seem callous and greedy. And not vegetarian.
If you revised the article along those lines, it could be called “Sparing an Elephant” or “Saving an Elephant.” So much better, don’t you agree?
And at the very end of the story, if I might put in my own two cents worth, instead of guzzling gin and tonics at the club with the other pukka sahibs, you could sit on a verandah with your wise old Burmese mentor, drinking tea and quietly watching the sun of empire setting behind the Himalayas.
Well, that concludes my presentation, Madam Chair.
Thank you. What a lot of food for thought you’ve given us.
As you can see, Mr. Orwell, one doesn’t need to be French to write well. Ordinary decent people, unblinded by prejudice, can see things that clever intellectuals miss. We’ve noticed this on a number of other occasions here. Such as with Mr. Arthur Koestler.
No, no, Mr. Orwell, there’s no need to prolong these proceedings further today. I think we all feel that we’ve heard more than enough about these matters for the time being. Probably you yourself won’t be sorry to get away from that light, either. [Smile.]
In case you’re wondering, I can assure you that we here are all thoroughly in agreement with what I know you’d want to say about the importance of free speech, if there were more time.
Of course speech, decent speech, caring speech, socially responsible speech must be free. Believe me, we want that with all our hearts. We want this to be a world in which schoolchildren, of whatever colour, and in whatever clothing of their choice, can feel free to express their opinions without fear of reprisals. A world in which the Other, even a nameless Oriental orderly, is permitted a name, a voice, and a vote.
What will we be discussing next time? Well, you probably have some idea already of what is disturbing about those other works of yours. And I’m sorry to say that there have been complaints, complaints which this Committee takes extremely seriously, about your novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a work which made you a wealthy man, we’ve heard. Sex and violence really do seem to pay, don’t they?
There are women readers, Mr. Orwell who are not happy, not happy at all, with a “hero” who, as you put it, “disliked nearly all women.”
What kind of hero is that for our society? And you’ve named him after that horrible old Cold War enemy of the free peoples, with his brandy and his disgusting cigars. Was Sir Winston Churchill a particular hero of yours, Mr. Orwell? Were you thrilled by his bragging about the British Em-pah? Had you dreamed, perhaps, of becoming a Sir yourself some day if you did enough of the Em-pah’s dirty work?
Winston Smith—Mister Everyman. A man who has vicious fantasies about a pure young woman. A man of whom you say, “Anything that hinted at corruption always filled him with a wild hope.” And when we learn at the end that this “hero’s” sexual partner was horribly tortured, your male readers can indulge their own sick fantasies, their own foul …., their diseased …. their …
That’s enough, I said.
Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t really a very nice book, is it, Mr. Orwell?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If I may offer a word of advice, though, you might find it desirable to consult with a lawyer in the meantime. Lawyers are dreadfully expensive these days, I know, and of course complainants don’t have to pay for theirs. But there’s that old English saying, with which I’m sure you’re familiar, about being penny wise and pound foolish. A properly phrased apology can work wonders sometimes.
I must also request that you treat this conversation of ours as confidential. There have been some vicious attacks on the Committee recently by antisocial elements like your Smith. We wouldn’t want to feel that you yourself are opposed to the State’s doing everything in its power to eradicate prejudice.
You will be receiving our verdict about the racism in “Shooting an Elephant” in due course. Meanwhile—just a formality, a mere formality—the committee would appreciate it if you would turn in your passport to the officer who will be calling on you tomorrow, and not attempt to leave the city.
Do I hear a motion to adjourn?
© John Fraser