Wednesday

Jun. 25, 2008

Self-knowledge

by C. K. Williams

Because he was always the good-hearted one, the ingenuous one, the one
      who knew no cunning,
who, if "innocent" didn't quite apply, still merited some similar connota-
     tion of naïveté, simplicity,
the sense that an essential awareness of the coarseness of other people's
      motives was lacking
so that he was constantly blundering upon situations in which he would
      take on good faith
what the other rapaciously, ruthlessly, duplicitously and nearly always
     successfully offered as truth. . .
All of that he understood about himself but he was also aware that he
     couldn't alter at all
his basic affable faith in the benevolence of everyone's intentions and that
     because of this the world
would not as in romance annihilate him but would toy unmercifully with
     him until he was mad.

"Self-knowledge" by C.K. Williams, from Flesh and Blood. © Farrar/Straus/Giroux, New York, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), George Orwell, (books by this author) born Eric Blair in a small village in Bengal, India (1903). His father was a customs officer in the British opium trade, and at an early age Orwell was sent back to England to attend boarding school. He said, "It was an expensive and snobbish school which was in the process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive. ... In a world where the prime necessities were money, titled relatives, athleticism, tailor-made clothes, neatly brushed hair, a charming smile, I was no good."

He didn't do well in school, and after graduation he didn't go to college. On a whim he traveled to the British colony of Burma, where he served for five years as a colonial policeman. He eventually grew so disgusted by the imperialism he was a part of that he quit his job as a policeman and moved back to Europe to become a writer. He spent a few years living in poverty in London and Paris, working as a dishwasher and hanging around with hobos and prostitutes, and he wrote his first book about the experience, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Worried about what his parents would think of the book, he published it under the pseudonym George Orwell, the name he wrote under for the rest of his life.

Though he published a few novels in the 1930s, he was mainly known as a journalist and essayist. In order to make a living off writing, he wrote about four newspaper articles a week, averaging about 200 a year. It wasn't until he took a job with the BBC that he made as much money as he had been making as a policeman in Burma.

In 1937, he traveled to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War. When he arrived in Barcelona, communists and anarchists were running the city. At first, he saw it as a kind of utopia, where everyone was equal and no one was poor, and he signed up to fight against the Fascists. He later witnessed the Communists suppressing democracy as fervently as the Fascists had done, and he decided that revolutionaries on the left wing were every bit as dangerous as those on the right. He wrote about his experience in the book Homage to Catalonia (1938).

Orwell once said, "Every line of serious work that I have written [since the Spanish Civil War] has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism." At a time when most British intellectuals still supported Communism, Orwell became one of the first leftist writers to speak out against Stalin. He began to work on a political allegory about the Communist revolution, and that work became the novel Animal Farm (1945). Because England and Russia were still allies at the end of World War II, he had trouble publishing the book, but when Animal Farm finally came out after the war, it made Orwell famous.

By then, he was already dying of tuberculosis. He spent the last years of his life writing 1984 (1949), about a future in which England has become a totalitarian state run by an anonymous presence known only as Big Brother. He knew he didn't have much time left to write the book, so he wrote constantly, even when his doctors forbade him to work. They took away his typewriter, and when he switched to a ballpoint pen, they put his arm in plaster.

When he finished it, he told his publisher that 1984 was too dark a novel to make much money, but it became an immediate best seller. He died a few months after it was first published, but it has since been translated into 62 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies. With all of his work still in print in so many different languages, critics have estimated that every year 1 million people read George Orwell for the first time.

Orwell said, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns ... instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

And he said, "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

It was on this day in 1950 that North Korea invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War. At the end of World War II, Korea had been divided along the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union controlled the North and the United States controlled the South. When North Korea tried to invade and take over South Korea on this day in 1950, President Harry Truman ordered a military police action to stop the invasion.

Douglas MacArthur led the United States Army, and he almost won the war in what he called his "home by Christmas" offensive. But near the end of November 1950, Chinese forces entered the war and drove MacArthur back to the 38th parallel. MacArthur asked for permission to attack China with nuclear weapons, but Truman refused. MacArthur took his case to the American public, and Truman fired him.

The war dragged on for months. Truce negotiations began the next year, and they were the longest truce negotiations in the history of warfare: They lasted two years and 17 days, with 575 meetings between the opposing sides. Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 on the platform that he would end the war, and when he was elected that's what he did.

The Korean War was the first war the United States had concluded without success. There were no celebrations when it ended. About 37,000 Americans and more than a million Koreans lost their lives.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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