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.

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Schiller’s Idea of the Heroic

German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright Friedrich Schiller had some strange notions about the nature of the heroic. He singled out Medea, in Greek mythology the princess of Colchis who aided Jason in taking the Golden Fleece from her father. However, rather than the daring deed of fleecing Papa, it is boiling her own children alive that earns Schiller’s accolade of heroism. She is heroic because she “defies nature, defies her maternal instinct, defies her own affection for her children, she rises above nature and acts freely.” (Berlin, 1999) The argument is, because she is able to set aside her genetically inherited emotions and maternal instincts, she has transcended the natural limitations of being human and somehow heroically liberated herself. Observe the assumption that the natural limitations of being human are somehow undesirable.

Portrait of Friedrich Schiller

Schiller thought Medea’s boiling of her children alive was an act of heroism! (Image: Wikipedia)

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