George Orwell — A Model for a Modern Anthropology?

Vanity fair has extracted an essay on Orwell from Christopher Hitchen's introduction to Orwell's Diaries. The lead for the Arts & Letters Daily link that led me to this essay reads,

Being an amateur anthropologist, understanding things – poverty and squalor, politics, himself – at the level of basic experience...

The concluding paragraph reads,

It seems to be an open question whether that very weight—the strain and tedium and approximation of everyday existence—was a hindrance to Orwell or an assistance. He himself seems to have thought that the exigencies of poverty, ill health, and overwork were degrading him from being the serious writer he might have been and had reduced him to the status of a drudge and pamphleteer. Reading through these meticulous and occasionally laborious jottings, however, one cannot help but be struck by the degree to which he became, in Henry James’s words, one of those upon whom nothing was lost. By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage. And, permanently tempted though he was by cynicism and despair, Orwell also believed in the latent possession of these faculties by those we sometimes have the nerve to call “ordinary people.” Here, then, is some of the unpromising bedrock—hardscrabble soil in Scotland, gritty coal mines in Yorkshire, desert landscapes in Africa, soul-less slums and bureaucratic offices—combined with the richer soil and loam of ever renewing nature, and that tiny, irreducible core of the human personality that somehow manages to put up a resistance to deceit and coercion. Out of the endless attrition between them can come such hope as we may reasonably claim to possess.

There are, of course, claims made here that may seem a bit old-fashioned. "That tiny, irreducible core of the human personality" may invite the question whether any such thing exists or, if it does, what forms that core. But remaining intellectually honest and morally courageous while being permanently tempted by cynicism and despair? That's an anthropologist I would like to be.

And you?

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Comment by Inês Neto Galvão on July 17, 2012 at 3:32pm

Thanks for sharing, John!


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