Down and Out, Then Paranoid With George Orwell

While many of his contemporaries are no longer read except by specialists, it seems that references to the paranoid fantasies of George Orwell are more common than ever.

When I encounter one of these references (to Big Brother, Thought Crimes, The Ministry of Truth, etc.) I often think it would be good to re-read “Animal Farm and “1984” and be reminded of exactly what Orwell said. Did his books anticipate NSA vs. Edward Snowden and GPS tracking devices in our iPhones — or were his messages more subtle than a passing glance might suggest?

But as I happened upon yet another Orwell reference last week, my thoughts — as thoughts often do — took an unexpected turn. I began to wonder about his earlier, formative writing —books that I had never read. 

Orwell, who was also a journalist, wrote essays, poetry, non-fiction and a few other novels before he published his most famous works. Writing was a lifelong ambition, and in an essay published in 1946, Orwell says that he knew he would be a writer by the time he was five or six years old.

“I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts...” he wrote. 

Not ability to face unpleasant facts. Not habit of facing unpleasant facts. Power of facing unpleasant facts. This is interesting choice of words, very unusual in this context, and it seems that the theme of power and who has it, who doesn’t have it, and what happens when it is unevenly distributed, stayed with Orwell his entire life.

Though Orwell was essentially middle class (he famously called his family lower-upper-middle class), he found himself unemployed and penniless in Paris and London, and this ordeal was the subject of his first book, “Down and Out in Paris and London”, published in 1933.

Though it makes no mention of it in my edition, according to other sources this book is not exactly a novel, nor is it straightforward reportage. His experiences didn’t happen within the timeline he outlined, and some cases were only “representative”. But Orwell does not seem interested in this distinction. 

Instead he is motivated to explore questions, ideas, or, in this case, widely held stereotypes or assumptions. Here he asks: Are the poor really the vermin of society, universally contemptible, deserving of their fate?

Orwell opens with a description of a Parisian landlady at a “hotel” — much like the rooming house where Orwell slept across the street — who is loudly chastising one of her lodgers for squashing bugs on the wallpaper instead of throwing them out the window “like everybody else”.

It is an evocative but brief account, completed in four short paragraphs. 

Then he goes on to say: “I sketch this scene, just to convey something of the spirit of the rue du Coq d’Or. Not that quarrels were the only thing that happened there — but still, we seldom got through the morning without at least one outburst of this description.”

In other words, Orwell begins his book with a lively but representative scene. Nothing unusual there. 

What is unusual, though, is how scrupulously he points this out.

What follows is a merciless depiction of disgusting, sad and wretched stories of his descent into poverty. Orwell recounts how he often walked the length of Paris looking for work, how he starved, pawned clothes, found ingenious ways to pretend he was less poor than he was, hung out with other down-and-out friends, and eventually found a menial job in the infernal bowels of a “smart” hotel, and then a slightly better menial job in a restaurant.

Then, after writing to a friend who sends him money, he leaves to take another job in London, this time looking after a “tame imbecile”. But that doesn’t pan out as expected, either. So Orwell once again finds himself penniless, tramping and starving this time in London, thereby giving a comparison of poverty and abasement in either city.

This book does indeed introduce us to Orwell’s “power” to face unpleasant facts. We discover that before he set out to create entire dystopian worlds, he spent a long apprenticeship taking a hard, careful look at what was right in front of him — especially at what inspired others to look away.

It is difficult to find a trace of the imagination that Orwell would later display — ”Animal Farm” and “1984” were his last books, published after WW II and before he died in 1950. Though he may have taken modest creative liberties, “Down and Out” it is essentially a work of brutal, unflinching realism. 

But there are also some original touches, especially in the two summary sections where he discusses his thoughts and theories about his experiences. 

“The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit,” writes Orwell. 

“Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the problem is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor.”

A strong, but perhaps unoriginal, conclusion.

But then he later adds: “These are only my own ideas...and no doubt largely platitudes. I present them as a sample of the thoughts that are put into one’s head by working in a hotel.”

This doesn’t read like modesty, or even false modesty. Instead you sense Orwell’s reluctance, not necessarily in presenting forceful or unpopular opinions, but in maintaining them without constant and rigorous review. 

This tendency is repeated in the last pages of the book when he concludes: “Some days I want to explore that world more thoroughly.”

“At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty,” he adds.

He felt compelled to finish his first book on this note after FIVE YEARS of on-and-off sorties into the world of the impoverished — living among them, as one of them, in two different countries!

So while Orwell allowed himself certain artistic freedoms when evoking a scene, he seems to display nothing of the same casualness when he’s arguing a point of principle. Long before Big Brother or the Ministry of Truth, Orwell seemed to demonstrate an extreme wariness of the seductive power of ideas.

And that included all ideas, without exception — including his own.