- Reviewed by
As George Woodcock and others have observed, Orwell's audience is not only enormous but also remarkably varied. Michael Carter considers that its variety is due to the fact that inside the political and social writer there was an existentialist. Why conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and anarchists alike should be fetched by existentialism is a question about which Carter does not bother his head. The purpose of his book is to demonstrate the presence of "existential authenticity" in Orwell's works.
Carter knows the existentialists from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Sartre. Other thinkers have concerned themselves with "the concept of authentic existence, but only in Heidegger and Sartre do we see this concept systematized [End Page 810] and incorporated into a comprehensive description of man's being-in-the world." Carter discovers that the existentiality of A Clergyman's Daughter is Heideggerian, whereas that of Burmese Days is Sartrean, and he examines three imporant essays ("Such, Such Were the Joys," "Shooting an Elephant," and "A Hanging") by the light of "the Sartrean analyst R. D. Laing." He also enlists two literary critics: Anthony West, who claims that the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is hardly more than an enlargement of the world of "Such, Such Were the Joys," Orwell's essay about his preparatory school; and Frederick Karl, who claims that the nightmare world in each case is Kafkaesque.
Orwell had no admiration for Sartre. Of Portrait of an Anti-Semite he wrote, "I doubt whether it would be possible to pack more nonsense into so short a space. I have maintained from the start that Sartre is a bag of wind, though possibly when it comes to Existentialism, it may not be so." Of course, Orwell could have been an existentialist unaware, and Carter offers, with various degrees of plausibility, existentialist elements in Orwell's novels and essays. Perhaps Sartre's "bad faith" is the practice of Orwell's "double-think." But surely Sartre's and Orwell's "fundamental assumptions concerning the structure of the human mind" are not identical.
All the same, Carter is much better when he trusts himself than when he trusts the literary critics. Anthony West's essay is a trick cyclist act, and Frederick Karl's comparison of Orwell and Kafka is more fashionable than accurate (though Orwell found himself in some "Kafkaesque" situations, especially during the Spanish Civil War). In any event, Richard Rees is right in saying that Orwell was "in real life a better existentialist, more 'authentic' and 'engaged' than many philosophers whose existentialism exists mainly between the covers of a book."
There can be no doubt that Daphne Patai did a vast deal of preparation for The Orwell Mystique. She read all of Orwell and many of his commentators, researched Orwell collections in the right libraries, and probably examined more antiutopian novels than any other critic of Orwell has. She even explored the territories of psychologists and sociologists. In The Orwell Mystique are fifty pages of footnotes, some of them running to several hundred words.
And what is the purpose of this wonderful industry? To reject the evidence in thirty years of Orwell criticism and scholarship and to destroy Orwell's reputation. If the format of Modern Fiction Studies included titles for reviews, I should call this one "The Critic as Hanging Judge." The consensus is that Orwell was honest, decent, and compassionate, but Miss Patai asserts that he got credit for being honest by being only outspoken, that he was so far from being decent that he libeled "many individuals and groups," and that he was not compassionate but condescending. When Orwell admits to faults about which most men would be silent, she puts quotations marks around his "confessions" to imply that there is something bogus about them.
One of Miss Patai's chief grievances against Orwell is that he contributed to "the war myth": he wrote that war...