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.