Today is the start of my two week summer-break, a hiatus from paid work during which I intend to get some serious reading done. Not that I'll be spending all of my time with a book - an Alexandrian posse will be putting in an appearance at a Tori Amos concert this Thursday, before retiring to York until the Wednesday following for a gathering replete with good food and good conversation, plus two Wimbledon finals, a box of chilled beers and some fine wine. But I do intend some serious bookishness.
My plan is as follows: to make some serious headway with my current fat tomes - Pinkerton's Sister, which is quite wonderfully dense and impossible to read for long stretches, and Don Quixote, with which I am developing a love-hate relationship - while simultaneously ploughing through some of the shorter novels sitting on my TBR pile. To that end I picked down a couple of possible candidates after lunch today and retreated to the bedroom to mull over my options.
There is nothing I like better than surrounding myself - quite literally - in books. I like to ensconce myself in the middle of the bed, cross-legged, and then spread my preliminary selections out around me on the quilt. Once I'm settled, I browse for a little while, picking up one thing and then another, reading the blurb, then the accolades and acknowledgements (for some reason I like studying these especially), and then the first page. Eventually, I plump for something.
Today I tried out A Study In Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery (a long standing feature on the TBR pile), The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs and an outsider purchased on a whim yesterday, Boris Akunin's Pelagia and the White Bulldog (which sports one of the most eccentric opening pages I've ever read) before settling for George Orwell's classic fable, Animal Farm. It's strange, really, that I should never have read it before. It is a perennial favourite of the GCSE syllabus (the exams that British kids take at 16), so much so that it has something of a reputation as a school-age novel - an allegory clear and simple enough that even an apathetic 15 year olds can connect with it. But I attended a school where novels were total anathema; a state comprehensive that taught literature wherever it could with the aid of an anthology, a specially prepared selection of mostly non-classic texts (prose and poetry) that teased out certain skills but lacked much literary merit. (There were some exceptions to this rule in my year: a few Seamus Heaney poems and two of William Blakes' Songs of Innocence and Experience. I don't think it any coincidence that these are the only poems I remember from GCSE.) The only other work we studied in edition to this was Macbeth.
Anyway, I digress. Animal Farm had been on my radar for a long while and I was further encouraged by Esther, who read it a few weeks ago. I bunched up some cushions, curled up with a cup of tea and steamed through its 95 pages in an hour and a half. I think the story should be familiar to most people: roused by the dying words of an old pig, the animals of Manor Farm decide to rebel against their human 'slaver', Mr Jones the farmer, and found a democratic Republic based on 7 key principles, the most important of which is that all animals - from rats and hens to bulls and horses - are equal. At first their community thrives as all the animals throw themselves into the hard but rewarding work of running the farm for themselves:
'How they toiled and sweated to get the hay in! But their efforts were rewarded, for the harvest was an even bigger success than they had hoped.... All through that summer the work of the farm went like clockwork. The animals were happy as they had never conceived it possible to be. Every mouthful of food was an acute positive pleasure, now that it was truly their own food, produced by themselves and for themselves, not doled out to them by a grudging master.'
Very quickly, however, a hierarchy begins to emerge. The pigs, universally considered the most intelligent of the mammals and led by the diametrically named Snowball and Napoleon, start to take charge: they learn to read and write, to give orders and directives and to siphon off the best food for themselves. Soon enough they start to disagree. A rivalry develops between Snowball and Napoleon as to the course the commune should take and, in due course, the latter stages a coup in order to take full control of the farm. From then on, Napoleon and his pig-cronies descend further and further into a mire of lies and corruption, taking advantage of the hard-working animals of the farm and repaying their labour with suspiscion and scorn. A few years after the first Rebellion it becomes clear that the animals have simply swapped one set of tyrannical masters for another.
At its most fabulistic and basic Animal Farm serves to re-enact the patent weaknesses of the Russian revolution and its subsequent failure of ideology, chiefly by allegorising the emergence of Soviety communism and its most dreaded protagonist, Stalin. Napoleon, acting out of a power-hungry ruthlessness, defeats his more idealistic opponent (Snowball = Trotsky, anyone?), before implementing a violent, self-mythologising regime. His easy perversion of the 7 commandments and of the founding principle of equality is only too familiar; as are the elaborate state rituals, purges and show trials that follow. None of this comes as a surprise to even the most reticent student of 20th century history (like, for example, myself). But what Animal Farm does so well is isolate the role that language, and writing in particular, plays in the process of corruption.
The pigs, and Napoleon in particular, are possessed of a superior native intelligence to the other animals - they alone learn to read and write proficiently and they alone come to understand the power of rhetoric. The other animals make a concerted effort at literacy but, despite hours of practise, make little progress. The dogs, Muriel the goat and Benjamin the grumpy donkey can read a little but are incapable of constructing written sentences of their own; the other animals, the horses and cows and sheep and hens, struggle to learn the alphabet at all. Yet one of the founding acts of Animal Farm is the writing of the 7 Commandments on the barn wall, so that the very notions of equality and solidarity are encoded in a way that actively excludes 90% of the farm's inhabitants. The continued ignorance of those inhabitants subsequently allows the pigs to constantly change and adapt the Republic's charter to its own ends. The other animals allow this to happen because they privilege what they are told and what they hear above what they themselves experience - this is the alchemy of rhetoric and the awe-ful power of words. So that when they are at their most hungry and overworked, they nevertheless believe Napoleon's repeated assertions that they work less hours and eat more than they ever have before. It is seems extraodinary that such blatant propaganda works, or at least works superficially, but it does - examples from our own experience abound.
The animals are, on the whole, loyal and hardworking, if guillible and ignorant. They are not, let's face it, all that bright. Still, they understand that the ideology of the Rebellion was shaped by their interests and continue to work towards its fulfillment, even after the pig's have moved the goal posts on them. In this sense it read very much like a prelude to Orwell's seminal novel, 1984, being a meditation on the collusion of the exploited in their own exploitation. The saddest case in Animal Farm is that of Boxer, a great strong carthouse who believes implicitly in the cause of the Rebellion. In the end he works himself to the point of death in the name of the Farm - his loyalty and tirelessness can't help but do him credit and Napoleon's final betrayal of him provides the novel's emotional core. And yet, Boxer is undoubtedly his own worst enemy. He questions the state of the Republic repeatedly throughout the narrative; indeed, each act of violence and the successive cover-up makes him flinch. But, doing nothing, he chooses to blame the Republic's deterioration on himself and his comrades; he assumes they just aren't working hard enough. He cannot bear to loose faith in what he has worked so hard to realise - it is the hardest thing to abandon a chosen course - and decides to 'believe' in the lies Napoleon spins. In so doing he shackles himself permanently to a corrupt system.
I don't pretend to grasp all of Orwell's meanings in one afternoon but surely this is the most important amongst them: that we must always question our ideologies, not just during their formation and initial vigour but constantly. Further, that we must educate ourselves to the best of our abilities in the machinery of politics and rhetoric in order that we understand our own motives and the motives of others in seeking change. Also, that although we maintain our belief in the notion of 'humanity', we also cultivate a healthy cynicism about its tendency to corruption and perversion; that we understand the innate tendency of power to produce hierarchies, and of hierarchies to produce inequalities, and of inequalities to produce poverty and hardship.
Another striking lesson of Animal Farm, I think, is about language - that we must be careful of how we use it, and that we must be aware of how it uses us. This is true not only of non-fiction but of fiction too. For example, Orwell is a novelist with an agenda and a sturdy point of view, and I'm conscious of how quick I am agree with his portrayal of a post-revolutionary society. This is despite the fact that certain aspects of his narrative leave me uneasy. What, I wonder, does he mean by correlating native intelligence and corruptability in the pigs? Or by making Boxer's inability to learn or understand the key to his exploitation? Are we to understand that class difference - the difference between pigs and non-pigs seems to be synonymous with class difference - is initially based on IQ, that the cream rises to the top? Are we to understand that Orwell believes the lower classes cannot help themselves because they cannot be educated or changed? That their simplicity, married to their guillibility, dooms their rebellion from the start? All of this deserves more thought and I'd be glad of your input.