Saturday, April 28, 2007
Why Orwell Kicks It
Orwell really kicks it. To be fair, I'm not an Orwell expert, and I'll admit that his idealistic Socialist opinions never seemed to reach any fruition (but to be fair, he died at 46 from TB) -- but his writings about poverty and the various humiliations that are tied up in poverty are, well, touching. I've never been as poor as Orwell, and Orwell was never as poor as some of the friends whose lives he narrates, but he does a damn good job of talking about poverty in a way middle-class folk can understand.
Does that sound strange? It shouldn't. The middle class as we know it today is a fairly new phenomenon, and middle-class living condition have changed drastically in the past 200 years. In the mid-19th century, firmly middle-class folk didn't necessarily own their homes, but they did employ servants. They spent money on school for their children and very little on vacations. They likely had tabs at local grocers and launderers, but they probably had little debt otherwise.
When Orwell writes about being poor, he writes about it as a member of a particular generation of middle-class folk, but his writing is relevant to current ideas about poverty and class today.
Have you ever thought, either about yourself or others, that if money is low the solution is to just not go out? Not do anything fun? Not spend money on non-essentials? Easier said than done, because, as Orwell points out, poverty is boring. It's complicated -- like the rent pay-day shuffle so many students these days have to deal with -- but life gets pretty monotonous when you don't have the money to do anything fun. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell writes about living on the fringes of poverty:
You have thought so much about poverty--it is the thing you have feared all yourAnd about the strange relief of finding yourself at rock-bottom:
life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it, is
all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite
simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be
terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar LOWNESS of
poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the
complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.
And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I
believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling
of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down
and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs--and well, here
are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off
a lot of anxiety
I've never hit rock bottom, but a few times I've felt close. Luckily there are a lot of social safety nets out there, but the day I started looking up how to apply for welfare I realized how a lack of money can make you feel ashamed. Like you're somehow a bad person, even though your only real problem is cash flow. These days, few people in countries like ours starve, but we hide poverty. This really isn't anything new, at least according to Orwell. To keep up appearances, Orwell would spend his last francs on a drink while out with friends; these days, we patch up missing income with credit cards. We don't run tabs at stores, but we live on money borrowed from the bank. We lie about how much money we make, spend and save. So not much has changed in almost a hundred years: "all day you are telling lies, and expensive lies."
I don't know what it's like to be homeless, and besides the occasional day or two without money while travelling I don't know what it's like to go hungry. But it's naive to think that the things we do to keep up the appearance of prosperity and fill our days would suddenly change if we really did hit rock bottom. Orwell knew this, and part of his message about class was the need for empathy.
And a good glass of wine every once in a while.