December 18, 2010
The local Great Books group recently read an Orwell essay, “Marrakech.” It’s a short essay describing the poverty of the people in Marrakech — Arabs, Jews, blacks. It was written in 1939, when colonial empires were in disrepute, when people had forgotten how bad things were before the European powers came, and hadn’t yet learned that things would get a lot worse when the European powers left. It describes sights and experiences, it’s a kind of journalism; it doesn’t offer deep ideas or flights of imagination.
I was never an Orwell fan, and I don’t mention him in my Realms of Gold; I don’t regard him as a great thinker or a great artist. His most famous works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, are neither pure fiction nor pure philosophy, they’re fables, designed to make political points. One might compare them to Gulliver’s Travels, of which Orwell was a big fan.
But if Orwell has weaknesses, he has strengths, too. He’s a good stylist and a penetrating observer, and his work is leavened with wit. I don’t regret reading “Marrakech,” and I’d probably enjoy his other writings.
I knew that Orwell had written about poor people in books like Down and Out in Paris and London, so I assumed that he was poor himself. I was surprised to learn that his family was quite well-to-do, and that poverty was a role that he played in order to learn about the poor, and write about them. He was inspired by Jack London, who had studied the London poor by pretending to be one of them.
Since Orwell was a mediocre student at Eton, he despaired of winning a scholarship to college, and joined the civil service. His first posting was to Burma, and this experience was the basis of his first novel, Burmese Days.
Orwell was born in 1903 in India, where his father was a civil servant (Orwell’s mother brought him to England when he was one year old). Orwell’s grandmother lived in Burma, hence he chose to go to Burma rather than India. His real name was Eric Arthur Blair — “George Orwell” was a pen name.
After about four years in Burma, he returned to England, hoping to make his way as a writer. He lived among the poor, and got himself arrested, hoping to learn about prison life (Jack London had been imprisoned, and had written about prison life). Later, Orwell worked as a teacher, while continuing to write essays and novels.
In 1936, he travelled to northern England, and observed the life of working people; this experience was the basis for a non-fiction work, The Road to Wigan Pier. Like many of his writings, Wigan Pier was published by a firm that specialized in socialist literature. Orwell was critical of both capitalism and totalitarianism; he subscribed to “democratic socialism.”
Late in 1936, Orwell set out for Spain, to fight the Fascists, and to write about the situation there. He spent about six months in Spain; he was in combat, was wounded, and witnessed the internecine conflicts of leftist groups. This experience was the basis for his book Homage to Catalonia. When Orwell had health problems, he and his wife went to Morocco, where it was hoped the climate would be good for him (this trip was the basis for the essay that I read, “Marrakech”).
During World War II, Orwell made radio broadcasts for the British government, and wrote numerous book reviews and essays. He also wrote a short fable, Animal Farm, that satirized Stalin’s regime; it includes the famous line, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Animal Farm was published in 1945, and made Orwell internationally famous. After the war, he began writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949.
Orwell criticized English intellectuals, especially those on the Left, for denigrating England. He also criticized intellectuals who denigrated the U.S.:
Orwell died of tuberculosis in 1950, at the age of 46.
I’m now reading The World’s Religions, by Huston Smith. Smith’s book has sold millions of copies; it’s the standard text on the subject, and it’s popular in colleges. (Smith also made an abridged version that has examples of religious art; it’s called The Illustrated World’s Religions.) In the Foreword, Smith tells us that he wrote the book because PBS asked him to make a TV series about the world’s religions. So his book doesn’t feel like a textbook; it tries to keep you from changing the channel, tries to connect to the reader’s own experience, and it’s liberally sprinkled with anecdotes and quotations. But Smith insists that he isn’t aiming for cheap popularity via spicy anecdotes; his book is serious as well as accessible. So far, I’m impressed, I’m learning a lot, I recommend The World’s Religions.
The chapter on Hinduism has some interesting remarks on karma. In an earlier issue, I discussed James Allen, a pioneer in the field of inspirational literature, self-help literature. Allen argues that positive thoughts will lead to positive circumstances; inspirational literature emphasizes the power of positive thinking, positive intentions. The opposite is also true: negative thinking leads to negative circumstances. Hamlet’s negative thinking, for example, results in a pile of corpses. One could argue that the power of thought is an occult phenomenon, like the ability to communicate a thought telepathically, like the ability to affect external objects by mental processes.
The power of thought has long been a theme of this e-zine, but I never realized how closely this theme resembles the Indian doctrine of karma. Smith’s description of karma is the best that I’ve found. Smith doesn’t, however, connect karma to self-help literature, perhaps because he shares the widespread prejudice against this literature, and he doesn’t want to sully the ancient doctrine by contact with “supermarket books.”
The similarity between karma and inspirational literature raises the question, Was there direct influence? Were the pioneers of inspirational literature directly influenced by Indian thought? Or is this a case of two civilizations reaching similar conclusions independently?
Smith explains karma thus:
In Hindu thought, the doctrine of karma is interwoven with the doctrine of reincarnation. Our thoughts and intentions influence not only our present life, but future lives, too.
In my book of aphorisms, I discussed detachment, and said that spiritual growth leads to detachment. I showed how detachment figures in the work of Proust, Shakespeare, Jung, etc. I mentioned that “alchemists used the image of a ‘diamond body’ to represent one who is detached, one who is unaffected by emotional entanglements and violent shocks.’”
Smith’s remarks on detachment in Hinduism are strikingly similar to Western views on the subject. The highest stage of spiritual growth, Smith says, “is the state of the sannyasin, defined by the Bhagavad-Gita as ‘one who neither hates nor loves anything.’”4 By identifying with the universal, we’re liberated from the disappointments that affect the individual. “Detachment from the finite self or attachment to the whole of things — we can state the phenomenon either positively or negatively. When it occurs, life is lifted above the possibility of frustration.”5
Smith discusses many other aspects of Hinduism, such as caste. While he acknowledges the pitfalls of the caste system, he insists that it has some positive aspects, too. “Within each caste there was equality, opportunity, and social insurance.”6 Some people, Smith says, are suited to be servants or unskilled laborers: “Such people are better off, and actually happier, working for others than being on their own.”7 As for the high-caste person, he has greater responsibilities as well as greater privileges, just as the business owner has greater responsibilities than the employee. “The seer must be protected from over-involvement in the day-to-day exigencies that clutter and cloud the mind, as a navigator must be free from serving in the galley or stoking in the hold in order to track the stars to keep the ship on course.”8 So Smith views caste not as a way to oppress the proletariat, but as a way to perform the various functions that society requires, and allow the different natures of different individuals to find satisfaction. He realizes, though, that caste has often been corrupted, as all institutions are corrupted.
Smith mentions the Hindu practice of japam, repeating God’s name. He quotes a Hindu saying: “Keep the name of the Lord spinning in the midst of all your activities.”9 He compares this Hindu practice to a Western practice, described in a Russian book, The Way of a Pilgrim. “The pilgrim’s teacher trains him until he can repeat the name of Jesus more than 12,000 times a day without strain.... The prayer becomes a constant, warming presence within him that brings a bubbling joy.”10 Smith says that The Way of a Pilgrim is “one of the classics of Russian spirituality.” J. D. Salinger drew on it when writing the story “Franny”, which is in the volume Franny and Zooey.
Christianity’s motto seems to be “one size fits all,” but Hinduism offers different roads to spiritual growth for different types of people. For intellectual types, it offers jnana yoga; for more emotional, people-oriented types, it offers bhakti yoga. And then there’s karma yoga, which seeks to approach God through work, and raja yoga, which emphasizes meditation and introversion. The word yoga, Smith tells us, means to connect, it’s related to the word “yoke.” The aim of the various kinds of yoga is to connect our everyday self to the deeper self, the universal being, who dwells within us. To achieve this aim, the pilgrim can separate his surface ego from his deeper self, try to identify with his deeper self, and view his surface ego from a distance:
Which of the four types of yoga is most familiar to Westerners? Smith says that Christianity resembles bhakti yoga, the emotional, loving, people-oriented, extroverted yoga. This is in keeping with the extroverted tenor of Western civilization. The Christian, like the bhakti yogi, doesn’t seek God within, but rather views God as distinct from himself.
The karma yogi, who seeks God through work, focuses on work itself, and doesn’t concern himself with results, with the fruits of his labor.
In one of the famous passages of the Gita, Krishna urges Arjuna, who is hesitating before a battle, to do his duty, regardless of the consequences. “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive.”13 James Allen’s doctrine is similar to the Hindu doctrine:
The Hindu worldview resembles the occult worldview insofar as it sees the deeper self, the Atman, as akin to the whole universe, as infinite. The mystic and the occult are akin. The Atman is more than our conscious mind; it resembles what psychology would call the unconscious. Occult phenomena show the mind transcending the boundaries of space and time — anticipating future events, recalling events from the distant past, communicating with people who are far away, affecting people and things by purely psychic means, etc. This boundless mind resembles the Hindu Atman. “Hinduism sees the mind’s hidden continents as stretching to infinity. Infinite in being, infinite in awareness, there is nothing beyond them that remains unknown.”14
I finished a book by Niall Ferguson called The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. I recommend it. It discusses recent events, like the 2008 subprime-mortgage crisis, and also provides historical background. It can teach one about economics, and also about history.
I would not, however, call it an impressive book. One might ask, is it literature, or is it journalism? One characteristic of literature is that it endures, it outlives its author. It’s doubtful that The Ascent of Money will endure. Another characteristic of literature (related to the first) is that the author is writing for posterity as much as for his contemporaries. Ferguson, however, seems to write for his contemporaries.
In his Acknowledgements, Ferguson mentions his literary agent and his editor. Agents and editors view literature as a business; their goal is a bestseller, not an immortal work; posterity means nothing to them. Ferguson seems to have been influenced by his agent and his editor; his book is a bit too readable, a bit too enjoyable, a bit too “bestseller.” He moves rapidly through financial history, and too often he uses technical terms (such as “futures” or “notional value”) without explaining them, as if his editor was afraid that explanations would depress sales. Ferguson should learn to ignore his agent and his editor; he should pay more attention to posterity, and less attention to the “bottom line.”
Ferguson’s prose is both clear and colorful, but also somewhat careless, hasty, and superficial — like journalism. Good prose, as Schopenhauer said, is like an inscription in stone, but Ferguson doesn’t move the reader to reach for his hammer and chisel.15 Will we ever have another historian like Gibbon, who was filled with admiration for the great historians of the past, who emulated these great historians, who was satisfied with nothing less than they had achieved, who intended his work to be admired by future generations just as he himself admired the works of past generations?
Despite its flaws, I recommend The Ascent of Money. If you don’t know much about economics, I think you’ll find it readable, enjoyable, and educational. Perhaps it isn’t possible for a book on economics to endure; perhaps economics is inherently “timely” rather than eternal.
A. Science-fiction writers are often inspired by the question, What will happen to mankind when the sun burns out, and the earth becomes uninhabitable, or at least inhospitable? Will mankind try to colonize some distant celestial body? If there’s life after death, then perhaps mankind will continue to exist in another form of being, continue to exist as “pure spirit.”
B. I wrote another Wikipedia article, my third, on the author Steven Sage, whose Hitler-Ibsen theory I discussed in previous issues. While talking to Steven about his career, I discovered the curious origin of his fascinating theory: he was teaching at a Tennessee university, and was at odds with a department chairman, who seemed to have some admiration for the Nazis. Steven had doubts about the quality of the chairman’s scholarship, so he read the chairman’s essay about Fritz Todt, Hitler’s architect. Steven found that the only German biography of Todt was subtitled “Master Builder of the Third Reich.” Steven began looking for links between Todt and Ibsen’s Master Builder, and then he began wondering if there were links between Ibsen and Hitler, if Ibsen had influenced Hitler. So the most important theory about one of history’s most important figures can be traced to a quarrel between two scholars at a Tennessee university!
C. Instead of using Google as my home page, I use iGoogle, which can be customized with various “gadgets.” My favorite gadget is called Art of the Day; it features paintings of Bible scenes, and can teach one about the Bible, and about art history.
I started writing a third book — or perhaps I should say “putting together” a third book, since the book consists of essays from this e-zine and from my website. I seem to have enough material for a long book, or for two books. I may call my next book The Best of Phlit: Excerpts from a Newsletter on Philosophy and Literature.
As for my first two books, they’re selling slowly on Amazon, and not selling at all in bookstores, but the Kindle versions are selling better. I’m trying to make my books available on iTunes, but iTunes isn’t as publisher-friendly as AmazonKindle, so I need to work through a third party, instead of working directly with iTunes. I’m using Smashwords, who distributes e-books to iTunes and numerous other outlets.
|1.|| Quoted in Norman Podhoretz, The Bloody Crossroads, “If Orwell Were Alive Today” back|
|2.|| Ch. 2, p. 64 back|
|3.|| p. 65 back|
|4.|| p. 53. It appears that Hinduism uses the metaphor of a “diamond being,” as the alchemists spoke of a diamond body.(see p. 41) back|
|5.|| p. 24 back|
|6.|| p. 57 back|
|7.|| p. 56 back|
|8.|| p. 58 back|
|9.|| p. 35 back|
|10.|| p. 35 back|
|11.|| p. 31 back|
|12.|| p. 40 back|
|13.|| Quoted in Wikipedia, and in Smith, p. 40 back|
|14.|| p. 25 back|
|15.||“An author follows a false aim,” Schopenhauer said, “if he tries to write exactly as he speaks. There is no style of writing but should have a certain trace of kinship with the epigraphic or monumental style, which is, indeed, the ancestor of all styles.”(The Art of Literature, “On Style”) back|