Writing as catharsis

A stream of consciousness piece on writing, politics, self-delusion and George Orwell’s essays

Posted in Uncategorized by Lachlan R. Dale on April 12, 2014

I can’t help but feel a little dulled. Of late I have been entertaining no philosophic contemplation – not that I can notice in any case. Perhaps my mind is dutifully working away at a sub-conscious level to lash together different aspects of my experience and learning; or perhaps I am simply not engaging in existential musing – what I consider to be the highest form of reflection possible.

So why the silence? Well, let’s start with the question: what ideas have I been filling myself with?

Twice this year I have read John Gray’s The Silence of Animals. It was a somewhat strange book, oozing negativity and cynicism. It’s basic premise is this: “remember, fool, that we are but animals.” Of course this seems like a completely natural and valid perspective to reinforce; mankind as a species tends to delude itself into thinking it something more than an animal; more than organic matter; more than a product of this universe. The only true reason we have to think otherwise is sheer egoism, a rejection and fear of being ‘merely’ another lifeform on earth.

For me this is clearly an absurd idea, and one that starts to stir within me a feeling of contempt. I see so much evil in egoism – in a failure to identify with other human beings, other animals, and other forms of life. We would all dearly love the believe we have been given divine stewardship over the earth – and that if we destroy it, scorch it’s face, or poison it, that a) we have permission to do so, for it is there for us to use, and b) somehow that isn’t the end of the game of life on earth. Such ignorance is pathetic.

You can sense a similar undertone in all human affairs – politics in particular. Politics is a messy affair; it’s never easy to reconcile idealism or morality with politics. Perhaps one problem is there are simply too many minds, ego and universes that have to sync up for appropriate political change. Still, it is worth noting that our current political system places little to no stress on the rights of animals, on environment concerns, on the exploitation of third world labour, on the finite resource of fossil fuels – and certainly no one is entertaining any sort of revolution that would see our economy less obsessed with economic growth, and more focused on providing meaning and fulfilment in life within a sustainable society.

The above leaves me no doubt; I have been thinking of politics lately. It’s a sickening business, and I have no heart for it. I’ve seen politicians engage in the most brazen abuses – and yet they pay nothing for it. It is true all over the world; most politicians dare not call judgement upon another country, lest their own dirty secrets be made known. If all politicians were to be held to account by all others (rather than exploited or manipulated for political purposes), well, where that leave our vested interests? 

If anything, I wish I could isolate myself further from politics. The issues are petty. The events uninspiring. Unfortunately I experience a tension with this thought; that of the duty of civic engagement; cynicism and withdrawal from politics is a luxury, and one that is entirely self serving. It is in this begrudging manner that I attempt to engage, as if it were a rock that I must roll up again forever.

I’ve also begun reading some George Orwell. I recently finished his Down and Out in Paris and London, which, while interesting in short bursts, ultimately gave me little to ponder. I have moved now to a collection of his essays, and already I have been floored by the progression in his writing style. These essays are supremely powerful and affecting; his portraits of small events like a hanging in Burma tend to reveal so much about the psychology of mankind, and of the injustice we wreak. At this early stage, I find his form inspiring; and I hope that it might encourage me to write more words of my own.

I have faced a long standing problem; that while I enjoy writing occasionally, that I do not have a more meaningful outlet for my words. Philosophic musings likely entertain only myself. My distaste for politics poisons any enthusiasm I would have commentating on recent events – the space itself is one of polarisation, pettiness and open hostility; hardly the sort of high-minded discussion that I seek.

I would love to write and publish more regular entries. Book reviews have engaged my mind, but I still have further work to do to develop my style and concept. Perhaps this collection of Orwell’s essays holds the key.

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Review of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London

Posted in Book review by Lachlan R. Dale on April 1, 2014

George Orwell

Down and Out in Paris and London is George Orwell’s first published book, which saw a print run in 1933.

It is a sort of memoir of the period in which Orwell returned disillusioned from his time as a police officer in Burma, and intended to make his living as a writer. He spent two years struggling with poverty across the two cities.

Down and Out is a fairly slight read at 228 pages. Orwell’s style is clean, clear and crisp, following a sort of detached, journalistic style whereby conversations and events are reported with little of Orwell’s own character or judgement bleeding into the page. We can also see at this early stage of Orwell’s career his trademark dedication to the integrity of his written work.

George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and LondonThe bulk of the book tracks Orwell’s struggle to find work, budget his meager finances, his experience with starvation, his work in a Parisian hotel kitchen, his time tramping in London, and a retelling of the conversations, attitudes and interactions along the way.

At one point he goes without food for three days. On the experience he writes:

Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger…

His character-portrait of his boisterous, larger-than-life Russian friend Boris was particularly fascinating. At one point, when there were trying to find work together, Boris provides this sage advice:

It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you.

The man is a walking contradiction; starving, though of enormous appetite – bursting with enthusiasm one minute, and crushed by utter despair the next. His mind is something to behold.

As we might expect, the book closes with some thoughtful reflections on the nature of poverty; on the systems which keeps people trapped in the cycle of poverty, and on preliminary ways in which the cycle might be addressed.

Orwell meditates in particular on the absurd uselessness of a tramp’s life – the system in London effectively forces him to stay idle, waste time and continue tramping from shelter to shelter:

The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and sexually… the problem is how to turn the tramp from a bored, half-alive vagrant into a self-respecting human being.

His solution is beautifully simple – rather than have tramps spend their time either locked into soul-destroyed, stimuli-deprived shelters for hours each day, or tramping to another shelter (for they cannot stay in the same shelter twice in the same month), he proposes tramps spend their time contributing to communal shelter gardens or farms. Not only would this solve the crippling boredom and inertia, but help tramps take steps towards being productive members of society once more, and gaining crucial confidence. Of course, the food they grow can ultimately help feed them, too – and far better than the stale bread and cheese provided at such shelters.

Orwell’s final analysis of poverty is almost an afterthought to the bulk of the book; he does not spend a huge amount of time analyzing all he has experienced, which is a shame, but it keeps this book a simple, easy read that can help provide an insight into the nature of poverty. It also provides a clear indication of the great man Orwell is to become; a champion of free society, and justice.

Grasping for foundations once more

Posted in Philosophy, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on July 20, 2012

It’s been almost two years since I sat down in a picturesque park in Oxford with a laptop and a small ball of hash to begin mapping out my philosophical and religious beliefs. The project was not a small one. It ended up engulfing many late nights over a period of nine months.

Looking back, I consider the result as quite messy and incoherent – but then I remind myself what the point of the exercise was.

Self-reflective writing is one of the most valuable habits I have. Putting words to paper (or arranging pixels on an illuminated screen in my case) in an honest fashion forces you to expose yourself to yourself. It is clear within the space of a few sentences whether you’re entertaining a delusive and unjustifiable perspective – and you just can’t hide from that fact. You’re made to actually articulate many of the assumptions that run un-checked in the back of your mind, assumptions that you take for granted.

Questioning those assumptions on a regular basis has been one of the most fruitful exercises I have undertaken. It’s made me more humble and certainly far more open to new or different ideas. The arrogant venom at which I gleefully expressed every half-baked opinion that came to mind as a teenager seems laughable (though by no means is that scorching cynicism and flippant egoism extinguished – I just take it less seriously). In the space of the last 10 years, my perspective on just about every issue of importance has changed drastically.

Recently I’ve been failing in my habit to write regularly. I think my brain needed the chance to have more experience and absorb more data before I had anything new or interesting to say.

Well, now I feel like progress is being made. The wheels are turning once more.

Soon I will begin to grasp for the foundations of my philosophical, ethical, political and religious thought once more, and make a systematic attempt at expanding my mental horizons.

Though humans are not stupid, they usually have been obstinately attached to their old ideas, not just from fear of the unfamiliar, but because an old idea is part of a system of thought, which is like a cobweb: every part sustains every other, and once you are in your cannot escape.

(…) Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of our existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable.

– Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a ‘case’ with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.

– George Orwell