Orwell’s Struggle with the False Self

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 sitting at a BBC microphone

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.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

7 thoughts on “Orwell’s Struggle with the False Self”

  1. Orwell was one of yours, Lucinda, a great leftist. I don’t care for his ideas, but I must admit that he comes across in Crick’s biography as an extremely likable and respectable man. In fact, of all the people whose biographies I have read (well over a hundred), Orwell was the most appealing. (God, it was hard to say that!)

  2. I’m afraid you tuned me out pretty early with a false equivalency. If that’s the right term. The persona of an intellectual is not equivalent to “intellect.” Intellect refers to the use of the mind and doesn’t in any way have to result in a false persona. Intellect isn’t the opposite of emotion, nor does it necessarily interfere with the development of an authentic personhood. I would never claim to be an intellectual, even if that class of beings didn’t so often set themselves above the masses. But my intellect is who I am, and I didn’t fully become my own authentic self until I recognized and acknowledged it.

    Just to be clear, I didn’t read past the first couple of paragraphs, so what I wrote above isn’t intended to be a commentary on the rest of the post.

  3. Catana, perhaps it would help if I were to expand on those first two paragraphs. Connolly’s thinking about intelligence was common in its time. As you probably know, in those days, reason was king and emotion frowned upon, especially in polite English society. The thinking was that if you had the brains, you could override your natural responses to a situation (character driven behavior) and replace them with a more intelligent reasoned response. The idea is not unlike the political correctness of our time, but with much more emphasis on the intellect. Just as now, the goal was a superior morality. Connolly saw Orwell as someone who was able to perform this substitution.

    The problem with this is obvious. An intellectual response that foils your natural impulses is inauthentic. Making a conscious habit of doing this, as Orwell certainly did, constitutes the formation of a false persona. This is not to say that the use of the mind always results in a false persona. Most intellectual activity has nothing to do with such things. Nonetheless, in this *particular situation*, where intellect is routinely deployed for the express purpose of falsifying behavior, the intellectual use of the mind is indeed forging a false self. In contrast, most people create idealized false personas by simple one-time decision-making as they arbitrarily choose from a menu of socially desirable traits, values and so on.

    Orwell was able to assemble a formidable set of values, the “preachments” mentioned further along in the post. Because he could actually manifest these values (well, most of the time!), they earned him a great deal of respect. Hence, Connolly’s praise. Not surprisingly, he preferred his extremely moral idealized self to the real George. As with so many intellectuals, he had fallen onto the trap of presenting himself as a paragon of moral virtue. He just got there in a different – and difficult – way. Being a splendid human being cost him dearly.

    You are quite right to say that intellect and persona are two different things. For intellect to be included in a persona, the person must consider himself or herself to be a person of intellect. I see myself this way, for example. However, unlike you, I openly present myself as an intellectual. The fact that other intellectuals like to play superiority games does not bother me.

    You are also correct when you say that intellect does not interfere with the development of authenticity. In fact, I would go so far as to say that intellect could enhance one’s progress towards authenticity. Furthermore, our interests come from the emotionally important ideas that make up the self. People with intellectual inclinations are therefore being authentic when they follow them. Behaviour generally (oh, oh) reveals all.

  4. I appreciate your going to the trouble of expanding your thoughts, even though I didn’t take the trouble to read the whole post. I admit to somewhat of an antipathy to biographies that try to evaluate rather than describe. It’s possible to read two or more bios of the same person and come away with an entirely different picture from each. Maybe that’s why, even when a new biography of someone I’m interested in comes out, I no longer spring to put it on my must-read list. In the long run, the only valid interpretation (for me) is the one I gain from the person’s own words and actions. This may be partly a function of old age, or of having read too many books by “public intellectuals,” that set up their own standards and views as guides for the rest of us. I have the same problem with interpretations of literature.

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