One of Orwell’s lesser feats of prognostication was his apparent belief that religion was not only headed for the dustbin of history, but was already being carried out to the landfill even as he was writing. As you might have gathered from the last post, Orwell didn’t regret its passing, but he did have some concerns about what was going to take its place. In a musing on Malcolm Muggeridge’s The Thirties, he writes that after the old order was brought down, “The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.”
Yet Orwell hasn’t completely lost hope:
The Kingdom of Heaven, old style, has definitely failed, but on the other hand ‘Marxist realism’ has also failed, whatever it may achieve materially. Seemingly there is no alternative except the thing that Mr Muggeridge and Mr F.A. Voigt, and the others who think like them, so earnestly warn us against: the much-derided ‘Kingdom of Earth’, the concept of a society in which men know that they are mortal and are nevertheless willing to act as brothers.
Brotherhood implies a common father. Therefore it is often argued that men can never develop the sense of a community unless they believe in God. The answer is that in a half-conscious way most of them have developed it already. Man is not an individual, he is only a cell in an everlasting body, and he is dimly aware of it. There is no other way of explaining why it is that men will die in battle. It is nonsense to say that they do it only because they are driven. If whole armies had to be coerced, no war could ever be fought. Men die in battle — not gladly, of course, but at any rate voluntarily — because of abstractions called ‘honour’, ‘duty’, ‘patriotism’ and so forth.
All that this really means is that they are aware of some organism greater than themselves, stretching into the future and the past, within which they feel themselves to be immortal. ‘Who dies if England live?’ sounds like a piece of bombast, but if you alter ‘England’ to whatever you prefer, you can see that it expresses one of the main motives of human conduct. People sacrifice themselves for the sake of fragmentary communities — nation, race, creed, class — and only become aware that they are not individuals in the very moment when they are facing bullets. A very slight increase of consciousness and their sense of loyalty could be transferred to humanity itself, which is not an abstraction.
Patriotism seems to have been for Orwell what God is for a lot of us — something that can’t really be proven or justified but that seems to be in the bloodstream anyway. In a different piece about The Thirties, he remarks that Muggeridge, despite his general nihilism, went ahead and volunteered for service in World War II, which Orwell takes as confirmation that this is a common feeling.
Yet the problem is apparent right in the quote I put here. People become aware of their collective nature “when they are facing bullets” — i.e. when they are under attack. How much of this patriotism is simply the rallying effect brought on by a common enemy? If that is so, it would not take a “slight increase of consciousness” to be transferred to humanity as a whole, but a change in its very nature. If your country all of humanity, then who is the enemy?
If you follow the thinking of Orwell disciples such as Christopher Hitchens, the answer comes to Heaven itself, or at least the idea of it. Orwell’s writings point in this direction, since in his essays on Gandhi and Tolstoy he singles out “saints” as a type especially repugnant to him, and somehow not even human, always rejecting earth in favor of heaven. “One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.”
But at the same time, Orwell surely realized that siding with Man didn’t necessarily mean willingness to die for others. In a long essay about Henry Miller, Orwell describes what he accurately assumed was an emerging type — the deracinated, hedonistic slacker who assumes the world is going to hell and so lives for today. Orwell met Miller on his way to Spain to fight in the civil war, and Miller thought his self-sacrifice was insane. Yet Orwell has a soft spot for Miller because he’s basically an Earth guy, with his affection for what Orwell calls “the process of life.”
The solution to this may be that heaven and earth, in the minds of most people, aren’t really as opposed as Orwell makes them out to be. A lot of people, including me, are uncomfortable with the way many soldiers go forth for “God and country” as if they were the same thing, but it does show how people bundle together the things they most value in life. And in fact, even a fairly simple concept like “patriotism” can bundle together some contradictory things. I remember spending the Fourth of July in 2008 with my father in South Carolina, and noticing the general outbreak of Confederate flags alongside American ones. On July 5, by local tradition, people laid flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers, as a sort of complement to the national holiday. And this, I thought to myself, is the place that politicians and pundits keep holding up to us blue-staters as the “real America,” the home of true patriots. It may be different in England, but I suspect everywhere, patriotism is complicated.
But anyway, maybe for most people there really isn’t a contradiction to be reconciled in this case. In popular piety, it seems to me, the existence of the afterlife may be no more or less than an affirmation that what we do in this life is actually important and consequential — and that however badly things go, somehow things will be set right in the end. It may not follow any rigorous systematic theology, but I wonder how much of this inchoate patriotism that Orwell relied on owes to it.
Another feature of Orwell’s thought this essay emphasizes is the idea that people are attracted to suffering. In a review of Mein Kampf, he asserts that Hitler became popular because of his understanding that “human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.” Orwell seems to feel the same way himself, and is rather suspicious of what he calls “hedonism”; in fact, in a bit of turnabout logic, he argues that “saints” are the real hedonists, because they want to live in Heaven rather than Earth. That all may be so, but if you look at it that way, the Kingdom of Earth is really a solution in search of a problem. If people can’t be happy with being happy, so to speak, and need a heroic struggle now and again, that necessitates horrendous evils to struggle against. So bring on the Nazis! OK, I’m being flippant, but it’s a serious point. Did Orwell really want to win, or just to fight endlessly?
Meanwhile Muggeridge, who was born the same year as Orwell but lived much longer, eventually converted to Christianity. I don’t know enough about that story to comment, but it makes a curious epilogue to Orwell’s remarks.