Brandon Keim on Thu, 13 Jun 2002 15:36:01 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Common Toad During Wartime

Brandon Keim


As Americans contemplate a future of government surveillance in every 
area of their personal and public lives -- surveillance as a matter 
of routine policy, without any prior suspicion, without permission or 
oversight, in concert with behavioral profiles compiled on every 
citizen from once-private information -- popular references to George 
Orwell have become ever more frequent. 

Orwell, perhaps more than any other writer, was aware the trend 
towards totalitarianism in contemporary thought and practice; he 
feared our abasement before the Gods of security, and distrusted the 
collective hypnosis of mass entertainment.  His novel Nineteen 
Eighty-Four, upon which the term "Orwellian" is based, is a chilling 
tale of personal degradation in a society where the surveillance 
state is all-powerful, possessing absolute control over the 
production of truth.  Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four right now is 
profoundly painful, though it should be read all the more for that -- 
along with, perhaps, John Hersey's Hiroshima. 

While Nineteen Eighty-Four is obviously relevant to America's present 
condition, so is another work, Homage to Catalonia.  The product of 
Orwell's experiences as an expatriate soldier during the Spanish 
Civil War, Homage is comprised of two parts.  The first describes 
everyday life at the front.  The second delves into the bitter 
infighting between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary elements of 
the Republican anti-Fascist opposition.  As a study of separation 
between actual and official truth in a heavily covered conflict, it 
is probably the finest work of political media analysis produced 
during the twentieth century. 

It was in Homage that Orwell's defining characteristics fully 
emerged: a remarkable ability to steer objectively between waves of 
competing propaganda, an abhorrence of orthodoxy, and a belief that 
establishing a capital-t Truth is less important than its pursuit. 
His example of responsibility and independence is one that all of us, 
especially certain members of the journalistic community who 
surrendered their critical faculties at precisely the moment they 
were most needed, would do well to follow. 

However, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published just before Orwell's 
death, and Homage sold a feeble nine hundred copies during his life. 
While alive, Orwell was known primarily for his literary, social, and 
political criticism -- and understandably so.  Even a few minutes 
spent reading his essays leaves one feeling somehow cleansed, as 
after a cool shower.  Still, another picture of Orwell emerges, bit 
by bit, from the pages of these lesser-known efforts.  Though V.S. 
Pritchett called him "the wintry conscience of his generation," 
Orwell was a man of simple, everyday pleasures; his greatest delight 
was reserved not for affairs of state, but of people, and for the 
wonders of the natural world.  His political writings were products 
of social necessity, the duty of an intellectual who would have 
rather spent his time in friendly conversation, or planting sixpenny 

Nowhere is this more evident than in "Some Thoughts on the Common 
Toad," which can be found in the fourth volume of The Collected 
Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, a marvelous series 
republished two years ago and still widely available.  It begins with 
an eloquent, unusually tender description of the common toad's 
springtime awakening from winter slumber, and the exquisiteness of 
Orwell's phrases are all the more striking for the seeming mundanity 
of their topic.

"At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual 
look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent," Orwell 
writes.  "His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is 
shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large.  This 
allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad 
has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature.  It is like 
gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious 
stone which one sometimes sees in signet-rings, and which I think is 
sometimes called Chrysoberyl."

It is this side of Orwell that has been overshadowed by the immediacy 
of Nineteen Eighty-Four, yet in the end may be just as valuable as 
his analysis of modern totalitarianism.  It is very easy right now, 
especially for those who do not share our leaders' faith in the 
efficacy and rightness of their vision, to be consumed by political 
and social concerns.  This is understandable; ours is a profoundly 
unstable time, and beneath every moment lurks the awareness of a 
possible nuclear holocaust, of terrorist threat, of a 
catastrophically changing climate, of vast global inequalities, of 
vanishing freedoms and the rise of a militant Empire.  Yet it is 
precisely because of the enormity of all this that we must find ways 
to ignore it, however briefly -- to lose ourselves in the laughter of 
friends, the smell of fresh grass, the first fire hydrant block party 
of summer, the grace of drifting dandelion seeds lit by a setting 

To concentrate completely on the political both corrodes the soul and 
represents a victory for those who, whether their rhetoric is that of 
global free markets or fundamental Islamic law, who would deny the 
existence of any world beyond the one they make.  As "Some Thoughts 
on the Common Toad" concludes: 

"The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are 
prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the 
loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither 
the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the 
process, are able to prevent it."

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