May 8, 2011


me: Simon Leys on George Orwell


   A second useful definition of totalitarianism is George Orwell's (in his postface to Homage to Catalonia). According to his description, the totalitarian system is one in which there is no such thing as "objective truth" or "objective science." There is only, for instance, "German science" as opposed to "Jewish science," or "proletarian truth" as opposed to "bourgeois lies": "The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future, but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event 'It never happened' - well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five, well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs."
   -- Simon Leys:
Human Rights in China

One of the nice things about the internet - as long as it remains free and uncensored, and one has fast access to it, allowing one to search it easily and inexpensively - is that one may find all manner of associations that were much more difficult or most improbable to find in the days before internet.

My title indicates such an association that I was not aware of, though Simon Leys (<- Wikipedia) and George Orwell (<- Wikipedia), incidentally both aliases, are two of my favourite writers. I explained some of my admiration for Orwell, in Dutch, several times in Nederlog, e.g. here

Simon Leys, a Belgian sinologist, I first read in 1970ies, when most academic Dutchmen were or pretended to be leftists, and many of those also were admirers or fellow-travellers of Mao:

  • Les habits neufs du président Mao (The Chairman's new clothes: Mao and the cultural revolution, 1971)

  • Ombres chinoises (Chinese Shadows, 1976)

Having myself a communist family background, that I left in 1970, I have a very strong dislike of totalitarianism in all forms and disguises, indeed to the extent of almost being kicked from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany under Ulbricht) in 1964, when I was 14, for insisting that what I got served there, on a holiday, and notably the forced public reading of propagandistic paeans for Leonid Brehznev from 7 year olds, struck me as revolting "fascist bullshit" and my refusing to shut up, then and there.

Then again, most folks I knew looked differently at it, and in the seventies, as I said, many academic leftist Dutchmen and others - such as professor Wertheim (<- Dutch Maoistic fellow-traveller on Jung Chang's "Wild Swans"), Joris Ivens (fellow-traveller of Stalin and Mao), Eric van Ree (<- series in Dutch from 2008 in Nederlog) and Jan Marijnissen (<-Wikipedia, hagiographic) - were great admirers of Mao and of Mao's Cultural Revolution, which had struck me as sickening totalitarian insanity, and I found Leys excellent on China and Mao, in so far as I could judge, not knowing Chinese myself, and living in the country of Wertheim, Ivens and Marijnissen, where admiring Mao was very fashionable in the 1970ies, in leftist circles, and indeed also outside it, especially after Nixon had met Mao.

Well... Leys definitely was influenced by and admires Orwell, and here are two links to two fine articles by him:

I may write on the second item later, since Leys makes a lot of sense, as does the Morning Sun site, that I just found, that looks very interesting, and certainly is well done, but today will restrict myself to Leys on Orwell.

Leys article - The intimate Orwell - starts with this paragraph:

The intimate Orwell? For an article dealing with a volume of his diaries and a selection of his letters, at first such a title seemed appropriate; yet it could also be misleading inasmuch as it might suggest an artificial distinction—or even an opposition—between Eric Blair, the private man, and George Orwell, the published writer. The former, it is true, was a naturally reserved, reticent, even awkward person, whereas Orwell, with pen (or gun) in hand, was a bold fighter. In fact—and this becomes even more evident after reading these two volumes—Blair’s personal life and Orwell’s public activity both reflected one powerfully single-minded personality. Blair-Orwell was made of one piece: a recurrent theme in the testimonies of all those who knew him at close range was his “terrible simplicity.” He had the “innocence of a savage.”

That "terrible simplicity", in case you missed it, is related to his succeeding in living without a split conscience, and seems quite rare, and also is related to something else that Orwell wrote that Leys quotes:

from his 1946 essay “Why I Write”:

I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue…to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

It is also related to this, in Leys's words:

(..) Orwell, unlike many other letter writers, is always himself and speaks with only one voice: reserved even with old friends; generous with complete strangers; and treating all with equal sincerity.

Nominally, Leys' article is a review of

by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison                                                  
London: Harvill Secker, 520 pp., £20.00

but it packs a lot of interesting information about Orwell in the review, including this:

Orwell once defined himself half in jest—but only half—as a “Tory Anarchist.”

Indeed - and another Englishman, though earlier, who was also a very interesting man and a great writer, and an individual of a somewhat similar outlook, was William Cobbett (<-Wikipedia) - and see e.g. "Advice to Young Men And (Incidentally) Young Women" on Project Gutenberg's Works by William Cobbett (and incidentally: this is another good thing about internet: Free classics in good editions - see my Some Favourite Books & Authors for the intended sense of "classics").

Back to Orwell, and something else he and I probably share, in his words, with Leys's emphasis,

What I saw in Spain, and what I have seen since of the inner workings of left-wing political parties, have given me a horror of politics…. I am definitely “left,” but I believe that a writer can only remain honest if he keeps free of party labels.

This also covers this, that I also share:

Orwell’s revulsion toward all “the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls” also explains his distrust and contempt of intellectuals (..)

Anyway... a fine review, of what is very probably a very interesting book. If you are interested in Orwell, and can't afford the 20 volume Complete Works edition, here are two excellent collections, one in paper, one on the internet

  • Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (Secker and Warburg, 1969), edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, also once available in Penguin, both editions in four volumes.

  • Orwell-site by O. Dag in Moscow which has much of his works and much information and pictures (and can exist there because copyright does not apply in Russia, and the site is maintained by a Russian, both in English and Russian).

Have fun - and in case you missed one of the points of the opening quote, see my Scientific Realism versus Postmodernism for the postmodern version of totalitarianism: Postmodernism itself.

P.S. Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.

And here is a bit on Simon Leys by someone else: How evil triumphs.

As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):

1. Anthony Komaroff

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)

3. Hillary Johnson

The Why

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

6. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7. Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)

Short descriptions:

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:
   "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence".
7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.

    "Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!

No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.
I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?
I ask yon Heaven, the all-beholding Sun,
Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm,
Heaven's ever-changing Shadow, spread below,
Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!
     - (Shelley, "Prometheus Unbound") 

    "It was from this time that I developed my way of judging the Chinese by dividing them into two kinds: one humane and one not. "
     - (Jung Chang)


See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources

Maarten Maartensz (M.A. psy, B.A. phi)

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