These days the term Orwellian is overused and almost without meaning. So much so that conspiracy-minded thinkers could develop a theory that the term has acquired mainstream usage and thus dissuades further investigation into authoritarian political action. Nevertheless, the term Orwellian was not born with the publication of 1984. Nor should the radical politics and writings of George Orwell be solely subject to the contemporary news cycle. So, in an effort to better understand the man and etymology behind the term Orwellian, Living with Literature is looking at Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days.
Burmese Days examines British imperialism in the Burmese town of Kyauktada. The story centers around the lonely English expat John Flory and the nasty domestic politics which ensnare him. While power is predominately designated to the ruling British, a corrupt local Burman named U Po Kyin seeks to aggrandize his personal authority within the country’s existing bureaucratic structure.. His method? Pit the virulently racist British in Burma against Flory and the growing Nationalist movement that he (unassumingly) represents. Ironic and paradoxical? Yes, but so is the world of Burma under British rule.
The most obvious characteristic in Burmese Days is the transparency in Orwell’s motives of criticism and themes. Empire. Imperialism. Power structure. The characters in the novel are important, yes, but in the same way chess pieces are important to the player. Orwell, who spent five years as a police officer in Burma, translates this reality without regard for nationality or personal association:
“Since then, each year had been lonelier and more bitter than the last. What was at the centre of all his thoughts now, and what poisoned everything, was the ever bitterer hatred of the atmosphere of imperialism in which he lived. For as his brain developed — you cannot stop your brain from developing, and it is one of the late tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life — he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as the final object. And as to the English of the East, the ‘sahiblog’, Flory had come so to hate them from living in their society, that he was quite incapable of being fair to them.
In one of the (highly recommended) Arena episodes chronicling Orwell’s life, a friend mentions that while the writer despised imperialism, he saw it as a necessary evil to educate primitive cultures. An argument can be made to substantiate that such sentiments were had. However, such a thesis is still too elementary to detail Orwell’s understanding and vicarious connection with native Burman life. While the friend continues to detail the writer’s problem with ‘ridicule from Buddhist monks’, passages in Burmese Days illustrate such conflicts were unavoidable as a result of imperialism — and that the culture can be appreciated despite of them:
“‘I knew this would interest you; that’s why I brought you here. You’ve read books and been in civilized places, you’re not like the rest of us miserable savages here. Don’t you just think this is worth watching, in its queer way? Just look at that girl’s movements — look at that strange, bent-forward pose like a marionette and the way her arms twist from the elbow like a cobra rising to strike. It’s grotesque, it’s even ugly with a sort of willful ugliness. And theres something sinister in it too. Theres a touch of the diabolical in all Mongols. And yet when you look closely, what art, what centuries of culture you can see behind it! Every movement that girl makes has been studied and handed down through innumerable generations. Whenever you look closely at the art of these Eastern peoples you can see that – a civilization stretching back and back, practically the same, into times when we were dressed in a woad. In some way that I can’t define to you, the whole life and spirit of Burma is summed up in the way that girl twists her arms. When you see her you can see the rice fields, the villages under the teak trees, the pagodas, the priests in their yellow robes, the buffaloes swimming the rivers in the early morning, Thibaw’s palace.'”
What Orwell obviously understands is power. Whether it be from his English home or as a Burmese transplant, how to achieve and keep control over others is his grand thesis in Burmese Days and (from what I’ve read) his other literature. As many have read in 1984 and Animal Farm, it is not through kind motives that such control is implemented. Rather, in Orwell’s view, it is through fear and manipulation:
“U Po Kyin had even sent one of his anonymous letters to Mrs. Lackersteen, for he knew the power of European women. Dr. Veraswami, the letter said, was inciting the natives to abduct and rape the European women – no details were given, nor were they needed. U Po Kyin had touched Mrs. Lackersteen’s weak spot. To her mind the words ‘sedition’, ‘Nationalism’, ‘rebellion’, ‘Home Rule’, conveyed one thing and one only, and that was a picture of herself being raped by a procession of jet-black coolies with rolling white eyeballs. It was a thought that kept her awake at night sometimes. Whatever good regard the European might once have had for the doctor was crumbling rapidly.”
Labeling an act as Orwellian is, of course, citing an example of arbitrary power. However, contemporary usage forgets the depth of the man behind the label. Orwell did not simply see and describe dystopian socialist worlds as a malignant display of power. Rather an accurate use of Orwellian would encompass the entire scope of social injustice, from individual to institution, the bad as well as the good. Anything else is a rewriting of biography.