Orwell, Tolstoy and the Fool

From 1921 to 1991, the iconic British magazine, The Listener provided a platform for journalists, writers, artists and intellectuals to fling articles and essays into the national consciousness. Orwell wrote hundreds of them, perhaps more than anyone else. He treated The Listener as bloggers treat the web. The Collected Essays contain all of these short journalistic pieces.

In one, he deals with two questions, Tolstoy’s view of Shakespeare and art as propaganda. This short piece is in fact a precursor to one of Orwell’s major essays, Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, on the same topics. In the essay, Orwell deftly defends Shakespeare from Tolstoy, not on the grounds of being a great thinker but on the grounds of being a great poet. Orwell ends by pointing out that in relation to Shakespeare’s work, Tolstoy’s essay would have been entirely forgotten had he himself not been the author of War and Peace and of Anna Karenina. It is fascinating to be able to follow Orwell’s concerns over periods of say, a few weeks. The articles in The Listener are published regularly so it is possible for example to look at the previous weeks’ article to discover an entire piece on art and propaganda.

Tolstoy was born with a mouth filled by silver spoons. He spent much of his life as a formidable member of the Russian nobility whilst at the same time developing ascetic ideals. One trip to Paris saw him witness to a public execution. This had a profound effect on him and he swore afterwards never to serve another government. His marriage, to Sonya Tolstoya was passionate, although she became increasingly frustrated when later in life he relinquished his title, lands and copyrights. He died only a few days after finally achieving his aim of turning himself into a peasant. Thousands of his newly joined class lined his funeral procession.

In 1903 Tolstoy wrote his vicious attack on Shakespeare. This essay allowed Orwell, some thirty years later to consider why Shakespeare was completely untouched by Tolstoy’s vitriol, despite the great Russian’s fame and literary influence. Tolstoy and Orwell shared many characteristics. They were both capable of plunging themselves into a poverty they could each easily have avoided. Tolstoy threw the silver spoons away. Orwell found himself down and out in Paris and London. Their views of the state were similarly wary, both being deeply affected by first hand experience of violence. Both writers too, had a Christian base to much of their work, at least in terms of their conviction in the existences of Good and Evil. Tolstoy took this to new heights of religious extremism, being regarded as a Christian Anarchist by the end of his life. He placed the words of Jesus above the propaganda of the State. Orwell, whilst hardly a practicing Christian asked to be buried by the Rights of the Church of England. The most powerful shared aspect of the two great writers was, however it is derived in their life and work, a searing honesty.

Tolstoy turned this on himself. He could not live with his wealth and construct a meaningful philosophy at the same time. Orwell, faced with hypocrisy and fascist aggression, used his integrity as a spider uses a web – it is instinctive, beautifully spun and deadly.

Where the two writers differ most acutely is on the relative worth or otherwise of William Shakespeare. The poet’s life, what we know of it, and his hastily produced plays were anathema to Tolstoy. He considers Shakespeare to be a poor writer because he was not a great thinker. Poetry has nothing to do with it. Orwell takes precisely the opposite view. For Orwell, who by creating the nightmares of ‘Room 101’ fully understood the dreadful authority of dreams, Prospero’s island and Puck’s forest are the creations he most admired. Orwell also could not help but notice that Tolstoy chose to attack Shakespeare through King Lear, an ageing aristocrat, casting away his wealth and descending into despair. Tolstoy was throwing stones at his mirror.

Tolstoy regards Shakespeare as unimpressive because he does not, in his opinion write anything ‘important to the life of mankind.’ That Tolstoy’s personal ambition was to die shivering in a shack whilst waiting for Jesus, it is hardly surprising that the sheer life-force bursting from Shakespeare’s plays offended him.

Orwell respects Tolstoy, even admitting that Shakespeare may not be considered the great philosopher others have claimed. He draws a line though at dismissing him. Tolstoy turns his not inconsiderable fire onto the English poet but it is as though Shakespeare himself is a dream. The shots go through him as they might a ghost.

Orwell understands why. There is something, if we are to be scrupulously fair with Tolstoy that may have been lost in translation. The Russian fails to recognise the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and in so doing misses his target. An inability to be moved by a foreign language does not provide enough evidence though, for the sustained assassination attempt on Shakespeare by Tolstoy. The root of Tolstoy’s anger is fear.

Orwell refers to Tolstoy’s relationship to Shakespeare as akin to a tired father being pestered by a noisy child. Shakespeare’s exuberance, both in his work and in what can be suggested by the chaos of London at the turn of the Seventeenth Century, is too much for Tolstoy. As an old man, his personal objective to narrow his consciousness as far as possible towards Calvary meant that Tolstoy was no longer capable of enjoyment. He could not suffer fools.

This is the business in which Shakespeare excelled, and is at the centre of Orwell’s case for his defence. In King Lear, the Fool, who, while telling jokes also speaks the truth, follows the King into his madness. His voice is playful but direct. This is the voice of Shakespeare and it must have intimidated and irritated Tolstoy almost to destruction that he could not destroy this voice, this poet who taunted him with success and art.

Orwell knew the Fool. He created it himself in Animal Farm. The tragic-comic character of the great Shire horse, Boxer, who is eventually murdered is a voice of honesty cut short by the growing power of the pigs. And in Nineteen eighty-four Winston Smith, although not cast as a Shakespearean fool is made foolish by the state and the rats. Winston spends most of the novel clinging on to his own honesty, his own sense of self. At the end he accepts the Truth of Big Brother. Winston is a fool twice, engineered by Orwell’s invention of doublespeak. It is a masterstroke from a writer who understood Shakespeare deeply. It is an echo in English literature and one that is directed at Russia.

Tolstoy had his own reasons, which were far less altruistic that he tried to portray for assaulting Shakespeare. Orwell had his reason too for defending him. It was not a coincidence that Tolstoy chose King Lear and no more a coincidence that Orwell selected Tolstoy in order to defend freedom.

Tolstoy emerges from the debate that he began as a great writer. Shakespeare remains entirely untouched by his attack and Orwell stands as the finest modern story-teller. He at least, could never be accused as not having written works ‘important to the life of mankind.’

Borges, in his miniature story staring Shakespeare called Everything and Nothing, describes how when Shakespeare meets God the poet says; ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’ In Borges’ last story, Shakespeare’s Memory, a man is given the entire mind of the poet. As it gradually overwhelms him he passes it on. Borges believed that the words of one man are the words of all men. We are all Shakespeare.

Orwell and Borges both discovered that art, even in the shape of a Fool is a powerful force. Both writers believed that books contain truth. That is why Tolstoy attacks these plays. It is why Orwell sought to defend them. It is why books were being burned in Nazi Germany. It is why Borges believed the library to be a labyrinth. It is why libraries remain linked to dreams, to memory, to political freedom, to educational opportunity and to truth.

If Shakespeare was a Fool then I am content in his company.

The British Library and UK Higher Education

Changing landscapes

The British Library operates many services that support the Higher Education sector. It now works in a financial climate that is likely to alter fundamentally within the next three to five years as teaching funding for the arts and humanities begins to affect students’ decisions to progress with postgraduate degrees.

The student population is traditionally split into undergraduate, taught postgraduate and research postgraduate communities. Beneath this there are trends in both discipline numbers and concentration of students. In the most recent (January 2010) HEPI\BL report it is observed for instance, that the highest proportion of taught postgraduates are in 1994 Group institutions and are studying business and education courses. Also, that the highest percentage of research postgraduates are in the Russell Group, studying STEM, (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects.

The BL highlights its role in HE as one focused on arts and humanities fields, particularly as a named ‘Research Organisation’ status with the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council). It should be welcomed that this is seen to be important to the British Library, but qualified that this is a small area in terms of emerging researchers, and one that is likely to be under increasing pressure. The BL role in supporting tenured academic research is perhaps obvious, but could be more clearly promoted.

The role of libraries and information services confirm reports on student numbers and academic activity. For example, the largest research collections and richest scientific information environments are also in the Russell Group whilst the most comprehensive e-learning infrastructures can be found in universities, such as London and the Open University that are delivering the highest numbers of distance-learning courses. Senate House Libraries is delivering both large e-learning content and research collections.

It’s helpful to split the HE sector into areas of engagement where the BL might continue or improve on its partnership with universities and their libraries.

Areas of engagement


· The physical access to the British Library by undergraduate students is welcomed, although it should be better regulated by collection need rather than additional reading space.

· The Hathi Trust in the US is digitising millions of books. Combined with Google this will transform access to standard texts. The BL needs to lead on a UKRR (United Kingdom Research Reserve) for monographs, or similar projects.

· Thematic guides to historic collections at undergraduate level are key to engaging students in considering further study.

· BL curators should seek to present collections and services directly in lecture theatres. Whilst this may seem daunting, it could at least be achieved in the major cities and online.

Taught postgraduates

· Further work should be considered on targeting support for business and corporate engagement, where large numbers of students need advice. The current Business and IP Centre is very valuable.

· The BL should be a presence within course materials where appropriate. A feasibility study could be performed with the OU.

· Technology should enable the Library to be perceived as accessible outside London. One method would be to market BL services inside university libraries and on their VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments).

· Social networking tools are often the ‘peer review’ at this level and the BL could provide greater support to libraries in targeting discipline areas, such as English Studies to create ‘groups’ on known sites such as Facebook.

· Integrating BL services into universities is weak. BL Direct, where journal articles can be ordered needs far more promotion.

· Training days in nations and regions, as well as London would be welcomed.

Research postgraduates

· The EThos service needs further investment, both financially and in purpose. A link could be made to other PhD projects, such as DART-Europe and additionally to social networking to create a community around content.

· UKRR is one of the BL’s recent achievements in collaboration with universities. The opportunity to prove the value of HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England), investment here should not be lost – these are efficiencies despite high funding.

· The National Deposit Act, which allows published materials to be acquired by Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin and the National Libraries should be reviewed. This is needed to fully understand its cost, not least in terms of storage and to establish its relationship to mass digitisation projects now and in the future.

· The research landscape has always included cross-sectoral work. This could be made much clearer, even in London. An agreed strategy for research collections in libraries, archives, museums and galleries is urgently required in the capital to respond to diminishing funding.

· The research provision roles of the BL, Cambridge, Oxford, LSE, UCL, KCL and Senate House, as the seven largest ‘Golden Triangle’ libraries should be clearly and innovatively restated.

Academic researchers

· BL could be more vocal on the Affordable Subscriptions to Periodicals (ASPI) initiative through RLUK (Research Libraries UK). The UK HE sector spends 10% of QR (research) funding on journal subscriptions, but this is an international problem and would benefit from National Library support.

· A process whereby the major research libraries could bring BL curators in early on research proposals at their universities would be timely.

· The School of Advanced Study, Senate House Libraries and the five current nationally funded libraries (Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, SOAS and Manchester) have roles beyond their institutions. A seminar towards greater coordination would be welcomed.

· Digitisation of materials is critical. There is little coordination on this.

· JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) is changing to a member subscription service. There is an opportunity for the BL to play a greater role in web developments.

Essential role

The British Library is already essential to the UK HE sector. Much of its work is recognised as innovative and transformative. However, despite the long history of partnerships between the BL and both libraries and researchers there is an equally long issue concerning the Library’s ability to move flexibly with the sector. The most recent example of this is the real difficulties in making EThos efficient and effective throughout the UK.

The most critical strategic question concerns the Library’s ability to adapt to a sector that will undergo a considerable period of change in 2012-2014. The undergraduate base will be more demanding, the postgraduate base will focus even more intensively on science in fewer institutions and the research postgraduate base will expect far richer content to be digital. Each major library will need to address all of these in a context of more commercial interest in the provision of information direct to readers, not least from Google.

The Russell Group libraries, the major libraries of the 1994 Group, the great heritage institutions and the NHS information services will all be asked to do more with less. The British Library is key to much of this new environment, not least as JISC and the European Commission shift both their business models and emphases to coordinated delivery of research content and away from investigative pilot projects.

I believe that although the BL needs to increase its presence across the UK, that the existing concentration of students, researchers and libraries in London offers a real opportunity to build new partnerships. Shared digital services and coordinated physical access policies will enable the BL to engage with HE and HE will help the BL remain essential to research in the ever-changing information age.

The Armed and The Unarmed

‘The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact…Underneath this lies the hard fact, so difficult for many people to face, that individual salvation is not possible, that the choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands.’

George Orwell wrote this in his anti-pacifist essay (although there were many others), ‘No, Not One.’ This seems to me a clear and realistic position to take on the matter of aggression and a viable response to it. I have struggled with an innate pacifism for many years, formed on the streets of late 20th Century Belfast. When you live amongst violence you quickly grow to hate it. Yet, I was aware that others, older and braver than myself stood between the bombers and me. Now these people are younger and braver, but they still stand between my life and those who, despite how distant this might seem to many in Britain, want to kill us.

Orwell authored hundreds of essays. These are often published alongside reviews of other people’s books, as it was often his habit to use a book review to deftly discuss his own views of the novelist’s concerns. ‘No, Not One,’ is a famous dismissal of pacifism but it is in fact a book review, this time of Alex Comfort’s ‘No Such Liberty,’ which was published in 1941. Orwell thought most reviewers were idiots, forced by the need to be paid to say that all books were good, as the publishers were advertising in the Sunday papers.

Much has changed since Orwell was in journalism, and much hasn’t. He used reviews to pay the rent, but also as regular platforms from which to proclaim. That these miniature tracts are beautifully written, and also true means that his appropriation of a form that is meant to converse about someone else’s work can be forgiven. Orwell used book reviews as other novelists have used poetry, short compressions of the grander thinking behind the major books. The politics of Orwell’s essays led directly to Animal Farm and Nineteen eighty-four.

The thrust behind ‘No, Not One,’ is that society is imperfect. It is faced with brutal decisions as a permanent state of being, and that any attempt to say otherwise is precious, unrealistic and dangerous. When Orwell writes as Nazism becomes dominant in Europe, it is too easy to reduce the authority of his voice to a particular time. He writes of his own desperate present, but also of ours and of the future. There will always be war. There will always be violence. There will always be conflict. There will forever be a need for some to stand between the armed and the unarmed.

Orwell believed that society depended ultimately on coercion. He adds a subtlety that the police officer does not hold this society together, but the common goodwill, which does sustain it, is powerless without the police to support it.

As one of the most important observers of English culture, (although it is hardly different from any other), Orwell makes two fairly blunt statements in this ‘book review.’ Firstly, that the working classes are never pacifists because they live so close to violence, or as Orwell puts it, ‘their life teaches them something different.’ Second, that those who are pacifist hold a fake moral superiority based only on the real sacrifices made by others. They conveniently forget about those who stand, between what Orwell calls ‘their research-lives,’ and the gun. The police are ignored or criticised by people who at that moment have no need of them.

Pacifism is a sign of luxury and a perceived safety. This is not to say that war is good. It isn’t. The question is how do we respond to violence? I am not claiming that all war is justified; indeed very recently in this country we have undertaken military conflict on very flimsy grounds. Iraq is still chaos and Afghanistan remains an utterly pointless exercise. Libya is interesting, as the entire Arab region needed attention years ago. Now we look like we are firing blanks, too little too late.

Orwell at least had the defence of western civilisation to call for, and he knew his enemy. The United Kingdom in 2011 is now at war in three countries and counting, and is also engaged in covert warfare in many others and online. The security services within the UK are working to halt an ever-present threat in our cities. The police are forced to waste time controlling radical elements in otherwise valid marches.

If people look at the world and think there are bigger issues to shout about than war and street violence, they are misled by either a gentle form of ignorance or by a life of comparative luxury. A public galvanised by an immediate threat read Orwell. The achievement of Al-Qaeda is that most people are not frightened, immediately making them vulnerable. That thugs can infiltrate legal protests is the opportunity presented by naivety. We should not spend our lives in fear, but equally we should not forget or criticise those who protect us, whether we realise it or not. Our guard is currently down.

I did not think anything of seeing, on the walk to school in Belfast, a Landover with its rear doors open and soldiers with machine-guns hanging out of the back. I thought nothing of going to bed with the constant sound of helicopters, and the frequent, mostly distant sound of bombs or gunfire. I only experienced a bomb physically once, which was enough to shake me out of any real passion for pacifism that I may have otherwise tended towards.

This is not to say that violence is ever justified as an end to itself. Defence is one thing but peace is a greater aim. The problem is that many people do not want peace.

The choice between submitting to Nazism and fighting it was no choice at all, and Orwell knew it. He knew that it mattered who won, even as he was honest in criticising Britain’s own imperial aggression. The choice between simply praying for peace and supporting the police in Northern Ireland was also no choice at all. There were people trying to kill us when we were shopping. There was evil on both sides because both sides were violent, but a choice had to be made between which was lesser and which greater.

Orwell makes us face this choice just as he did his own readers during the Blitz. Pacifism is not possible for anyone who is in contact with the real world. Orwell balances this overt support for the state of course with vicious attacks on it. In his major essay, ‘Why I Write,’ he says, ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ This is not contradictory. It is reality. To stand against violence means to stand in the line of fire.

Orwell’s Clocks

George Orwell was inspired to use the library at Senate House, where I am Director, as the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen eighty-four. His wife at the time was working in Senate House during WWII, as it had been commissioned by the government to provide accommodation for the Ministry of Information. On the roof of the library, there are still the disconnected phone lines direct to the Cabinet War Rooms. Senate House was the tallest building in London during the War, (apart from the crucifix atop St. Paul’s Cathedral), and the library acted as a viewing tower to watch for the Luftwaffe coming up the line of the Thames to bomb central London. The library played an important part in the defence of London. Orwell still plays an essential role in the defence of freedom.

One of the most formative periods in Orwell’s life was triggered because his parents could not afford to send him to university. Instead, he became a police officer in the Indian Imperial force in Burma. As a young man, when most of his contemporaries were dining in Cambridge, Orwell was discovering, observing and perhaps most importantly, writing.

There can be few authors whose career and publication chronology so clearly move towards a final masterpiece, as was the case with Orwell and Nineteen eighty-four. This is a writer who constantly flexed his technical and intellectual muscles by writing vast quantities of journalistic pieces and essays. I believe him to be the greatest essayist in the English language. These small pieces are never far from the creation of longer, more sustained works of art. Earlier novels, such as Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air and A Clergyman’s Daughter are almost Forsterian in their camera-like capture of the English. They are strong novels, but not those for which he will forever be remembered. Orwell was proud of some aspects of these four books, but viscerally dismissive of other parts, describing A Clergyman’s Daughter as ‘tripe.’ However, on the whole, each book was critically well received. In reviews of the time, it is possible to find phrases such as ‘efficient indignation’ and ‘irony tempered with vitriol,’ being used to describe the books. Both characteristics were well practiced by the time Orwell used them in his later masterpieces.

In his one of his collections of essays and journalism, Decline of the English Murder, Orwell’s brilliantly controlled anger is unleashed on many topics. The keen political sense, which is at the heart of his genius, is shot through every essay. Orwell was a literary sniper who never missed his target. I do not believe there is a single weak sentence in the entire output of essays. He was and is, lethal.

The longer essays, which today might even be considered as travel-writing, (albeit of an extraordinarily intense kind), such as The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London are both uncomfortable, awkward, impassioned works about people who would be unlikely to ever read them. The poor and disposed of Wigan, London and Paris stood and fell for Orwell as examples of failed societies. His desperate care for those he saw at the hopeless underside of our culture has huge resonance in today’s world. Everyone who has enough money to buy books and enough time to read them should own and read these two astonishingly cruel and wise pieces.

Orwell, however great a journalist and essayist, of course achieved his notoriety and fame through fiction. Alongside Jonathan Swift, the great Dublin-born writer, Orwell is literature’s other great satirist. Animal Farm has as its subtitle, A Fairy Story. Orwell deliberately uses perhaps the most innocent literary form to warn of mankind’s most devious and destructive capabilities. Told in a way that can still be read to children it chronicles the corruption which Orwell believed almost inevitably follows the attainment of power. The pigs throw the humans off the farm, and then become more and more like their erstwhile oppressors until, at the end, it is impossible to tell the difference between man and pig. Animal Farm is a very short piece of writing, but all the techniques of a journalist are brought together with great storytelling into perhaps a story of the most beguiling brutality in English literature.

Animal Farm remains as one of the greatest depictions of totalitarianism in any art form. Only one person could create something even more powerful, and that person was Orwell himself in Nineteen eighty-four. The famous first line, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,’ immediately sets the scene of a world following catastrophe. This world is made up of three superstates, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, each in perpetual battles and alliances with one another in the wake of a global atomic conflict. Britain is named in the novel as ‘Airstrip One,’ and the principal character, Winston Smith lives in the ruins of London.

Nineteen eighty-four is a novel, like many others, about love, war, resistance and the human spirit. It is a novel, like no other, that succeeds in creating a world so terrifyingly close, in cruelty and corruption to any period in human history, that it will never date. The greatest irony of the book is that its title is a date. That the clocks strike thirteen ensures that the story is an analogy, and so, forever 1984 will be associated with this book, and with its warnings.

Winston is caught. He betrays Julia, his lover to Big Brother. He is tortured in the Ministry of Love (the others are Peace, Plenty and Truth). Eventually, after being handed a death sentence he accepts the teachings of the Party and learns to love Big Brother – the system which every day holds required periods for the entire population called ‘Two Minutes of Hate,’ where images of enemies are streamed on the telescreens to allow the population to release all the hatred against something other than the Party that controls them.

When Orwell was fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, he was shot through the throat. His adventures in Spain produced Homage to Catalonia, a remarkable account of his time fighting Communists. Orwell observed many horrors at war, but one aspect that struck him like a clock striking thirteen, was how in war, propaganda is portrayed as Truth.

This is not merely a writer of fictions and fairy stories. Orwell was a man who lived what he believed. His experiences in Wigan, Paris and London were not viewed from hotel bedrooms. In London he became a tramp on the streets. In Paris he took a number of menial jobs and lived in the poorest arrondissements.

I have been in many libraries and held countless treasures. Those in Senate House are amongst some of the most memorable. As Orwell’s wife worked alongside the books that chronicle England’s history, could she have conceived that her husband would add to their number so many important works of art, and that one of them, his greatest, would derive at least part of its inspiration from the building in which she worked? Orwell routinely destroyed his manuscripts. The only remaining one is Nineteen eighty-four. This is held in the archive of University College London and I once held it. The power of seeing the famed first sentence form almost before you is almost impossible to relate.

Nineteen eighty-four – manuscript

Orwell’s neologisms have already altered the English language, indeed many languages. Big Brother, Room 101, Thought Police, even the term ‘Orwellian’ to describe totalitarian states. But it is the life and personality behind these words, the writer that Orwell became through living passionately and dangerously, which are his continuing gift. No dictator can exist without the mirror of Orwell’s writing showing him for what he is. The innocence of revolution will also echo what Orwell saw and what he wrote. Many writers attain a place in the canon of literature, few grow in importance eternally.

Orwell wrote of Dickens (but surely this is also autobiography):

‘He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.