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1984 vs. Animal Farm: C. S. Lewis on George Orwell

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SDG   

Spun off from Moonrise Kingdom.

Excerpts from C. S. Lewis's essay "George Orwell" from the collection On Stories.

Here we have two books by the same author which deal, at bottom, with the same subject. Both are very bitter, honest and honourable recantations...

What puzzles me is the marked preference for the public of 1984. For it seems to me (apart from its magnificent, and fortunately detachable, Appendix on 'Newspeak') to be merely a flawed, interesting book: but the Farm is a work of genius which make well outlive the particular and (let us hope) temporary conditions that provoked it.

...In this instance the shorter book seems to do all that the longer one does; and more. The longer book does not justify its greater length. There is dead wood in it. And I think we can all see where the dead wood comes.

In the nightmare State of 1984 the rulers devote a great deal of time--which meas that the authors and readers also have to devote a great deal of time--to a curious kind of anti-sexual propaganda...Now it is, no doubt, possible that the masters of a totalitarian State might have a bee in their bonnets about sex as about anything else; and, if so, that bee, like all their bees, would sting. But we are shown nothing in the particular tyranny Orwell has depicted which would make this particular bee at all probable...its buzzing presence in the book raises question in all our minds which have really no very close connection with the main theme and are all the more distracting for being, in themselves, of interest.

The truth is, I take it, that the bee has drifted in from an earlier (and much less valuable) period of the author's thought. He grew up in a time of what was called (very inaccurately) 'anti-Puritanism'; when people who wanted--in Lawrence's characteristic phrase--'to do dirt on sex' were among the stock enemies. And wishing to blacken the villains as much as possible, he decided to fling this charge against them as well as all the relevant charges.

But the principle that any stick is good enough to be your villain with is fatal in fiction. Many a promising 'bad character' (for example, Becky Sharp) has been spoiled by the addition of an inappropriate vice. All the passages devoted to this theme in 1984 ring false to me...

But this is only the clearest instance of the defect which, throughout, makes 1984 inferior to the Farm. There is too much in it of the author's own psychology: too much indulgence of what he feels as a man, not pruned or mastered by what he intends to make as an artist. The Farm is work of a wholly different order. Here the whole thing is projected and distanced. It becomes a myth and is allowed to speak for itself. The author shows us hateful things; he doesn't stammer or speak thick under the surge of his own hatred. The emotion no longer disables him because it has all been used, and used to make something.

One result is that the satire becomes more effective. Wit and humour (absent from the longer work) are employed with devastating effect. The great sentence 'All animals are equal but some are more equal than others' bites deeper than the whole of 1984.

Thus the shorter book does all that the longer does. But it also does more. Paradoxically, when Orwell turns all his characters into animals he makes them more fully human. In 1984 the cruelty of the tyrants is odious, but it is not tragic...

Tragedy demands a certain minimal stature in the victim; and the hero and heroine of 1984 do not reach that minimum. They become interesting at all only in so far as they suffer. That is claim enough (Heaven knows) on our sympathies in real life, but not in fiction. A central character who escapes nullity only by being tortured is a failure. And the hero and heroine of this story are surely such dull, mean little creatures that one might be introduced to them once a week for six months without even remembering them.

In Animal Farm all this is changed. The greed and cunning of the pigs is tragic (not merely odious) because we are made to care about all the honest, well-meaning, or even heroic beasts whom they exploit. The death of Boxer the horse moves us more than all the more elaborate cruelties of the other book. And not only moves, but convinces. Here, despite the animal disguise, we feel we are in a real world. This--this congeries of guzzling pigs, snapping dogs, and heroic horses--this is what humanity is like; very good, very bad, very pitiable, very honourable. If men were only like the people in 1984 it would hardly be worth while writing stories about them. It is as if Orwell could not see them until he put them in a beast fable.

Finally, Animal Farm is formally almost perfect; light, strong, balanced. There is not a sentence that does not contribute to the whole. The myth says all the author wants to say and (equally important) it doesn't say anything else. Here is an objet d'art as durably satisfying as a Horatian ode or a Chippendale chair.

Edited by SDG

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Anders   

While I'm not so harsh on 1984 as Lewis, I agree with him that ANIMAL FARM is the superior work for all the reasons that he mentions.

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Lewis' critique--as one would expect from Lewis--is articulate and sharp. And he's not really wrong. ANIMAL FARM is ideologically much more coherent than 1984.

Nevertheless, 1984 is undeniably fascinating in ways that ANIMAL FARM is not. ANIMAL FARM is perhaps too beholden to the historical circumstances that inspired it, and as the specter of Communism has faded, so has its power. 1984, which is not quite as constrained by its ties to history, is one of the great literary nightmares that, like Kafka's THE TRIAL, succeeds in lingering in the subconsious long after the book has been put down. Like all nightmares, 1984's power lies less in the clarity of its ideas than in its inability to be forgotten. 1984 frightens even when it fails to make sense.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Anders   

Let's be clear, I think both 1984 and ANIMAL FARM are both wonderful works of literature. I just prefer ANIMAL FARM. But you're right in highlighting 1984's nightmarish qualities that make it so gruelling a literary experience.

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M. Leary   

1984 frightens even when it fails to make sense.

Which is why I think though writers like Lewis served an important role in their time, I wager that Lewis would have a hard time responding to much modern European cinema.

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I disagree completely. As Ryan said back in the Moonrise thread, it's 1984 that chills my blood much more than Animal Farm (though I love both). As far as Lewis' chief accusation against 1984 - the sexual preoccupation, I think that he's completely missing the way that this is a part of the bigger picture of the State suppressing the humanity of it's population by suppressing the development of relationships between its members. When I taught this book, one of the chief similarities my class noticed between its society and the one we live in today is a felt superficiality in relationships.

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Joel C   

Actually, I would say that this...

this is what humanity is like; very good, very bad, very pitiable, very honourable. If men were only like the people in 1984 it would hardly be worth while writing stories about them.

...seems to be Lewis' chief accusation of 1984, even if he didn't say so explicitly in the essay. This is also the reason I've never personally liked 1984. I just can't bring myself to care much for the characters in it.

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SDG   
Actually, I would say that this...

this is what humanity is like; very good, very bad, very pitiable, very honourable. If men were only like the people in 1984 it would hardly be worth while writing stories about them.

...seems to be Lewis' chief accusation of 1984, even if he didn't say so explicitly in the essay. This is also the reason I've never personally liked 1984. I just can't bring myself to care much for the characters in it.

This. It seems to me that the praise for 1984 seen above from Ryan and others is mainly praise for the evocative power of Orwell's world-building in that novel, more than for the story he told within that world, or the characters inhabiting that world and that story. Animal Farm is above all a triumph of storytelling and a master-work of pathos; like the most vivid parables of Jesus it has an indelible power of pure situation and plot progression, but combined with an appeal to empathy all but unapproached in the parables (the closest thing to an exception would be the prodigal son), to an inevitable but devastating finale that, pace Ryan, I find transcends the occasioning historical circumstances.

I disagree completely. As Ryan said back in the Moonrise thread, it's 1984 that chills my blood much more than Animal Farm (though I love both). As far as Lewis' chief accusation against 1984 - the sexual preoccupation, I think that he's completely missing the way that this is a part of the bigger picture of the State suppressing the humanity of it's population by suppressing the development of relationships between its members. When I taught this book, one of the chief similarities my class noticed between its society and the one we live in today is a felt superficiality in relationships.

But is it a point of state-sponsored oppression that we suffer from this felt superficiality in relationships? How does Big Brother's preoccupation with sex illuminate the kind of nightmare world Orwell created in that novel?

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Doug C   

Lewis is either forgetting or ignorant of the fact that the theme of sexual control is also integral to the book that inspired 1984, a book I think is superior to it in a number of ways, Yevgeney Zamyatin's We (1921). It's also a theme that has remained in many fictional dystopias that have followed, from The Handmaid's Tale to THX-1138 and much more, so I wouldn't simply chalk it up merely as Orwell's anti-puritan indulgence.

I can't say that I feel strongly one way or the other regarding Orwell's novels, both books are definitely worth reading, but I highly recommend his wide-ranging essays (sometimes focusing on film subjects such as Charlie Chaplin) that prove he was a much broader thinker (Orwell was an anti-authoritarian socialist) than the mere reputation or specific focus of 1984 or Animal Farm might suggest.

Also, I would highly encourage anyone interested in these books to check out Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's classic The Space Merchants (1952), a thrilling novel equally concerned with thought control and totalitarianism, but through a different lens--the rise of unregulated multinational corporations, a fear that seems even more pertinent to our lives today than any Stalinist horrors. It's an amazing, prescient book. I noticed Audible.com released an audiobook last year.

Edited by Doug C

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SDG   

That's fascinating, Doug. Thanks for that insight.

I'm not sure the theme's pedigree necessarily invalidates Lewis's critique, on more than one level, since we still need to inquire into a) the role of the theme as it appears in Zamyatin; b.] how and why Orwell chose the elements that he did, whatever their provenance, and shaped and presented them the way that he did, and c.] how, in the context of Orwell's own work, this particular theme, whatever its origin and intent, contributes to the particular dystopia. Still, it's definitely a connection worth pursuing.

FWIW, although it's obviously a completely different dystopian vision, I find the banal sexual libertinism of Brave New World far more disturbing—and, as it happens, far more prophetic—than Orwell's repressive vision.

It's worth noting that Lewis's approach here is further illuminated by a passage from The Four Loves discussing the relationship between romantic love and sexuality, or Eros and Venus in Lewis's jargon:

To the evolutionist Eros (the human variation) will be something that grows out of Venus, a late complication and development of the immemorial biological impulse. We must not assume, however, that this is necessarily what happens within the consciousness of the individual. There may be those who have first felt mere sexual appetite for a woman and then gone on at a later stage to “fall in love with her.” But I doubt if this is at all common. Very often what comes first is simply a delighted pre-occupation with the Beloved — a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn’t leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself. He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, “To go on thinking of her.” He is love’s contemplative. And when at a later stage the explicitly sexual element awakes, he will not feel (unless scientific theories are influencing him) that this had all along been the root of the whole matter. He is more likely to feel that the incoming tide of Eros, having demolished many sand-castles and made islands of many rocks, has now at last with a triumphant seventh wave flooded this part of his nature also - the little pool of ordinary sexuality which was there on his beach before the tide came in. Eros enters him like an invader, taking over and reorganising, one by one, the institutions of a conquered country. It may have taken over many others before it reaches the sex in him; and it will reorganise that too.

No one has indicated the nature of that reorganisation more briefly and accurately than George Orwell, who disliked it and preferred sexuality in its native condition, uncontaminated by Eros. In Nineteen Eighty-Four his dreadful hero (how much less human than the four-footed heroes of his excellent Animal Farm!), before towsing the heroine, demands a reassurance, “You like doing this?” he asks, “I don’t mean simply me; I mean the thing in itself.” He is not satisfied till he gets the answer, “I adore it.” This little dialogue defines the reorganisation. Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved.

Why is it important to Orwell that his rebellious couple celebrate the thing in itself—not a human connection, not a personal attachment subversively transcending the reach of the State, but copulation for its own sake? By the same token, what is of course the flip side of the question, why is it important to Orwell's Big Brother to squelch and suppress the thing in itself? How does this enhance or contribute to Orwell's total world? Sincere questions. I have no axe to grind on the answers.

This passage also, incidentally, adds weight to Joel C's perception that for Lewis it is the impoverished depiction of humanity in 1984, and the contrasting "humanism" of the characterizations in Animal Farm, that most elevates the latter over the former.

Edited by SDG

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This is, by the way, one of this month's best and more thoughtful threads.

Lewis is either forgetting or ignorant of the fact that the theme of sexual control is also integral to the book that inspired 1984, a book I think is superior to it in a number of ways, Yevgeney Zamyatin's We (1921). It's also a theme that has remained in many fictional dystopias that have followed, from The Handmaid's Tale to THX-1138 and much more, so I wouldn't simply chalk it up merely as Orwell's anti-puritan indulgence.

Don't forget The Managerial Revolution by James Burnham.

I can't say that I feel strongly one way or the other regarding Orwell's novels, both books are definitely worth reading, but I highly recommend his wide-ranging essays (sometimes focusing on film subjects such as Charlie Chaplin) that prove he was a much broader thinker (Orwell was an anti-authoritarian socialist) than the mere reputation or specific focus of 1984 or Animal Farm might suggest.

Yes! George Orwell's essays make for tremendously good reading. In fact, I'd argue he's one of the greatest essayists of the twentieth century.

Lewis' critique--as one would expect from Lewis--is articulate and sharp. And he's not really wrong. ANIMAL FARM is ideologically much more coherent than 1984.

Nevertheless, 1984 is undeniably fascinating in ways that ANIMAL FARM is not. ANIMAL FARM is perhaps too beholden to the historical circumstances that inspired it, and as the specter of Communism has faded, so has its power.

FWIW, although it's obviously a completely different dystopian vision, I find the banal sexual libertinism of Brave New World far more disturbing—and, as it happens, far more prophetic—than Orwell's repressive vision.

Actually, I've always thought 1984 was more historically dated than Brave New World or Animal Farm. Various multiple versions of the authoritarian state in 1984 have been tried and have failed miserably. Communism is discredited now, but doesn't that apply more to 1984. Animal Farm still has a resonance because of the universality of its characters. Snowball, Napoleon, Boxer, Clover, Mollie, Benjamin, the sheep, the hens, the Cat are all personalities and modes of thought you still find on any child's playground, elementary school, university, workplace or government. These are characters we find over and over again in real life. Their dynamics are familiar to us because we've experienced them ourselves.

The characters in 1984 are, purposefully, bland. There's not much to remember them by or like them for. I find it much easier to identitfy with the characters in Brave New World than I do with 1984. I think modern society would find Winston Smith to be a repressed civil rights victim. But, modern society would still likely find John Savage to be, well, an incomprehensible savage.

I disagree completely. As Ryan said back in the Moonrise thread, it's 1984 that chills my blood much more than Animal Farm (though I love both). As far as Lewis' chief accusation against 1984 - the sexual preoccupation, I think that he's completely missing the way that this is a part of the bigger picture of the State suppressing the humanity of it's population by suppressing the development of relationships between its members. When I taught this book, one of the chief similarities my class noticed between its society and the one we live in today is a felt superficiality in relationships.

Again, the superficiality of relationships in 1984 are those of broken and weak-souled spirits. But the superficiality of relationships in Brave New World are those of people mindlessly enraptured with ultra-sensory entertainment and social media. In 1984, the protagonist rebels against Big Brother by starting a love affair. In Brave New World, there's no authoritarian state to rebel against really. Even the idea of rebellion is incomprehensible to everyone except to the guy who reads Shakespeare. Animal Farm, on the other hand, arguably accurately portrays the abuse of relationships between us that happens over and over again.

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Various multiple versions of the authoritarian state in 1984 have been tried and have failed miserably.

I find this somewhat irrelevant. 1984 terrifies because it embodies a horrifying idea, and that idea would still be horrifying even if a thousand authoritarian states had tried and failed to achieve it in real-world terms.

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I find this somewhat irrelevant. 1984 terrifies because it embodies a horrifying idea, and that idea would still be horrifying even if a thousand authoritarian states had tried and failed to achieve it in real-world terms.

I can grant you that. It is terrifying and something worth keeping in our imaginations as an evil to guard against. I just wonder if it's a bad sign that we might now view Brave New World as not quite so terrifying. That John Savage guy was wierd and antiquated anyway. Neil Postman essentially said that the idea of oppression in 1984 has proved unsuccessful for practical purposes, but the idea of oppression in Brave New World just might prove to be successful.

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A couple days ago, I happened to run across this discussion (about Orwell's boot stamping forever on the human face passage in 1984) in Russell Kirk's 1969 Enemies of the Permanent Things (pgs 139-140) -

... This terrifying passage raises a question; and Orwell did not answer that question. Such a triumph of pleonexia is more than conceivable: we see it dominating China's "Cultural Revolution," in which the whole heritage of civilization is denounced and destroyed, and in which the only gratification remaining even to the masters of society is tamping upon a human face. But here is the question: what force or appetite, immensely stronger than human wishes, inspires the ambition to trample forever upon an enemy who is helpless?

Just such a culmination of sin is described in Christian orthodoxy. It is called the reign of the Anti-Christ. And it is produced by the intervention of a supernatural hatred, working upon human depravity. It is the overthrow of the normal by the abnormal. It is the apotheosis of Satan.

Orwell saw the Church in disrepute and disorder, intellectually and morally impoverished; and he had no faith. He could not say how the total corruption of man and society would be produced; he could not even refer to the intrusion of the diabolical; but he could describe a coming reign of misrule wonderfully like the visions of St. John the Divine. He saw beyond ideology to the approaching inversion of humanitarian dogmas. All the norms for mankind would be defied and defiled. Yet because he could not bring himself to believe in enduring principles of order, or in an Authority transcending private rationality, he was left desperate at the end. A "desperado," literally, is a man who has despaired of grace.

The politics and the poverty of the future would be indescribably worse than the shabby politics and the grimy poverty of the present age. A few years after Orwell's death, the leader of the vestigial Liberal party announced that he and his colleagues were drawing up a program founded upon "the forward-looking ideas of George Orwell." This was said without a smile or a grimace. It would not be easy to find a more interesting example of the impoverishment of political imagination ...

Edited by Persiflage

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