When reading literary biographies, one is wise to examine the worldview of the biographer as well as that of the subject. In his superb George Orwell: A Life, biographer Bernard Crick says a lot of perceptive things about Orwell, and while doing so, inadvertently illuminates humankind’s chronic problems with the discrepancy between the false persona we create to impress the world and the authentic self that we truly are.
George Orwell was driven hard by what one biographer has called his “Puritan daemon.” (Image: BBC)
English literary critic Cyril Connolly lays out the ground of the conflict. He saw George Orwell as standing for independence and offering intelligence as an alternative to character. This view draws a sharp distinction between authenticity (character) and the intellect (ego and its attendant false persona). The idea that one can dispense with character or submerge it beneath intelligence is dubious to say the least, but such thinking reveals the way ego prefers the false persona, identifies with it, and hopes to shield genuine behaviour from view. The intellectual often presents himself as a paragon of moral virtue.
Crick adopts Connolly’s view of Orwell and writes, “Mild disparities between personal conduct and public preachment are sometimes revealed, but not of a kind that should discredit a man … It is always easy simply to drop the preachments and to lead a life of full and empty acquisitive zeal and material comfort.”
Orwell’s “preachments” are his outspoken views on social injustice and democratic socialism as well as his moral positions on a variety of other issues. Much of the personal material is clearly part of Orwell’s false persona, while the rest is consciously adopted ideology and idealism. What Crick is writing about here is the discrepancy between false persona and the true self as revealed by actual behaviour, Orwell’s “personal conduct.” Plain old character has slipped past the shining intellect.
However, note Crick’s disparagement of the authentic self, shown by his unfounded belief that dropping the false persona leads inevitably to “a life of full and empty acquisitive zeal and material comfort.” Since the self is the source of will and therefore the driving force behind self-actualization (that is to say, authentic self-actualization), Crick’s derogations are groundless. The instinctual drives would make a better target for his criticisms. Lacking the concepts of self and will, Crick sees only reason, the origin of “preachments” (high ideals, perfectionism, and so on) and instinct, the source of “acquisitive zeal” and the taste for material comforts. Crick does not see the middle way. The self does not clobber the intellect since one’s interests (intellectual or otherwise) arise from the emotionally important ideas that make up the self. However, after a long and painful struggle, it does batter the false persona replacing it with a less glorious but more authentic persona.
Orwell suffered greatly for his loyalty to his preachments, just as anyone suffers for being more loyal to their false persona than their true self. What Crick describes as Orwell’s “Puritan daemon,” which “drove him hard,” was nothing more than the guilt inspired by his perfectionism and his failed attempts to meet his own excessively high expectations. Crick reveals a terrible bias towards maintaining a false persona when he describes the inner life in fearsomely negative terms: “Every life viewed from the inside would be a series of defeats too humiliating and disgraceful to contemplate.” The statement is a shocking revelation of the agonizing self-loathing and persistent self-rejection of the chronically self-alienated person.
According to Crick, Orwell was “… not fully integrated as a person … until late in his life.” Reading Orwell’s life, one can see the growth in his mind of what one might call the creative emotional cognitive structure. The more he wrote, the more he cared about his writing. The more he cared, the more dedicated to it he became. Writing evolved into the centrepiece of his life. “At times he almost literally cared for his writing more than his life, certainly more than his comfort and well-being. … He drove himself hard, for the sake, first, of ‘writing’ and then more and more for an integrated sense of what he had to write.”
Orwell is a classic example of the creative person creating his own life. When I say that, I do not mean his manufactured idealized false self. I am referring to the growing importance of writing in his life. Ultimately, his art and craft fused with his moral and political thinking to integrate him as a person.