On Orwell’s Politics Vs Literature

SWIFT HAS SOMETIMES BEEN seen as a champion of liberty. In his essay ‘Politics vs Literature’, however, George Orwell took a different view. ‘Swift,’ he wrote, ‘was one of those people who are driven into a sort of perverse Toryism by the follies of the progressive party of the moment. ’ At best Swift was ‘a Tory Anarchist, despising authority while disbelieving in liberty. ’ At worst he was a reactionary, opposed not simply to sham science, but to all science, and even to intellectual curiosity itself. Orwell also portrays Swift as a hater of the human body and an authoritarian.

‘In a political and moral sense,’ writes Orwell, ‘I am against him, so far as I understand him. ’ Yet no sooner has he written these words than he goes on to declare that Swift ‘is one of the writers I admire with least reserve’. [1] Orwell presents his riven view of Swift as an example of his own sound judgment. His assessment of Swift’s political outlook is, I believe, in some respects just. Yet if we consider Orwell’s essay sceptically it begins to seem as though he is in a great muddle about Swift. He writes that he is against Swift ‘so far as I understand him’. But does he understand him?

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that he does not, and that his difficulty in understanding Swift has been shared by a large number of modern critics. At one point in his essay Orwell writes that ‘Swift shows no sign of having any religious beliefs. ’[2] This view was put forward by a number of commentators from the time of Thackeray, who said of Swift ‘He puts his apostasy out to hire . . . and his sermons have scarce a Christian characteristic’, to the time of Leavis, who once attributed to Swift ‘a complete incapacity even to guess what religious feeling might be’.

[3] Such judgments were repeated so frequently that the view eventually hardened into something approaching an orthodoxy and, as Basil Hall noted almost thirty years ago in his essay ‘“An Inverted Hypocrite”: Swift the Churchman’, little account of Swift’s religious views is usually taken in judgments of him either as a man or a writer: On the contrary it is more usual to think that Swift was fundamentally irreligious; that he was using a career in the Church for personal ambition, since he lacked a political post; that he showed no respect for traditional Christian beliefs;

That his religious writings are political tracts with pious titles; and that his handful of sermons are the chilled product of a rationalism without insight or conviction. [4] “Politics vs Literature” (on /Gulliver’s Travels/) is one of several essays–others including on on Kippling and another on Tolstoy’s attack on Shakespeare–where Orwell states two beliefs about literature: one, almost all literature is political, two, literature can be judged apart from politics.

Thus, Orwell condemns Swift’s politics while respecting his book as a novel. We get a similar attitude towards Kippling in that essay. Once again, we get reminded of Orwell’s era, when everyone, even a poor journalist styling himself as a champion of the little guy, had an agreed-upon cannon of great literature based on what withstood the test of time.

Ironically, some what Orwell naturally respected does not seem to be aging so well, as though the Modern Library’s 1998 list mostly re-canonized the canon, putting Joyce at the top, my sense is that Joyce is on the way out, increasingly recongized as unreadable garbage. I’m also not sure how his official ideas about what withstands the test of time links up with his idea of the “good bad book”–the books without much literary merit which is still a good read. (Though the phrase “good bad book,” and the essay of that name, are still wonderful).