Art, Poverty, and George Orwell


orwell1Little Rock       In the New York Times, A.O. Smith, one of their critics who writes frequently about movies, wondered at length in the paper where our artists were when we needed them now to weigh in on the issues of class, race, and galloping inequality in the United States.  Where was a new John Steinbeck writing Of Mice and Men?  Or an Arthur Miller and The Death of a Salesman?   Or Mike Nichols and Silkwood or the more recent Debra Granik film, Winter’s Bone, on the silver screen?  In a surprising rarity, he admitted being obsessed with the economic crises of our time and desperate for voices that spoke to the issue in convincing and moving ways.

            All of which recalled the vivid images of the precariousness of work revealed so starkly in George Orwell’s often neglected classic, Down and Out in Paris and London, which I found myself re-reading recently.  Orwell known best to many readers for his dystrophic 1984 or Animal Farm, wrote of his own experience working as a casual laborer in the back of the house in hotels in London and bistros in Paris.   It is shocking to read because so much of it seems unchanged from what might be reported in numerous cities now, even though Orwell published his book in 1933 in the heart of the worldwide Great Depression.

            Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed:  On (Not) Getting by in America updated some pages from Orwell, but her experience still wasn’t the deep dive, emersion and desperation of Orwell, where reading of his time, I felt he might starve to death any minute when he had no clothes left to pawn.

            Orwell describes hunger in a very personal way, “You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.”  In another passage, he writes that “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything….”  And again, “Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger….” Yet, on the full side of the Thanksgiving feasting tables, we read more Republican rants about bootstraps and the poor making their way without sufficient food or support?

            Orwell writes with relief in Paris of finding a job as a dishwasher.  The hours are punishing and wage theft is standard, all of which continue to be true for much of precarious employment in the same cities and throughout the world.

“…I set to work rather hurriedly.  Except for about an hour, I was at work from seven in the morning till a quarter past nine at night; first at washing crockery, then at scrubbing the tables and floors of the employees’ dining-room, then at polishing glasses and knives, then at fetching meals, then at washing crockery again, then at fetching more meals and washing more crockery…The work did not seem difficult, and I felt that this job would suit me.  It was not certain, however, that it would continue, for I had been engaged as an ‘extra’ for the day only at twenty-five francs.  The sour-faced doorkeeper counted out the money, less fifty centimes, which he said was for insurance (a lie, I discovered afterwards).”

Besides the fact that Orwell was a gifted observer of his own condition and circumstance, as well as the economic and social conditions around him, it is unsettling to think that 80 years later we have still done so little to deal with inequality and precariousness.

Orwell shares a caveat in this regard though that is worth remembering, because it is less art that holds the answer that A. O. Smith is searching for than social movements.  Orwell warns that,

“A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or hundred others to back him, he will show it.”

Hear!  Hear!