Orwell: Animal Farm
Somehow Animal Farm escaped from the boxes where most of my books still reside, and I picked it up and started reading it on a whim. I had read it in high school and not since. I don't recall having a very strong opinion or impression of it, beyond the obvious satirical-polemical intent. And it's referred to often enough in political discussions that I didn't feel like I needed to re-read it. After all, it's a pretty slight book, once and maybe still favored for book reports by un-bookish students. How much more can there be to it than the grim news that revolutions, in this case a clearly left-wing revolution, can turn repressive? (I imagine everyone knows this, even if they haven't read the book, but just in case you haven't: it's a sort of allegory in which farm animals stage a revolution, drive out the human farmer, and set up a regime which quickly turns into a new form of oppression in a very Soviet style.)
It's better, both funnier and sadder than I expected. The justification for the revolution, the genuine oppression to which it's a response, is made clear. The rebellion begins with a stirring--really--and presumably sincere speech from an old pig, but he dies soon afterwards, and the revolution is made by others. The animals, both as species and as individuals, are sketched in a way that makes me think Orwell had a fair amount of knowledge of and sympathy for them, especially the horses.
Several pigs--Snowball, Squealer, and Napoleon--are the clever scoundrels who take advantage of the revolution to rule others for their own benefit, though Snowball is subject to a Trotsky-style expulsion and thereafter blamed for everything that goes wrong. I don't know whether it's true or not that pigs are actually quite intelligent--what little contact I've had with them argues against it--but that of course does not in the least prevent them from acting in the way that has caused us to make "pig" an insult.
The dogs are loyal but malleable, and loyal to the wrong person, soon becoming Napoleon's bodyguards, enforcers, and executioners. The cat (singular) looks out for number one. There are three horses, two big draft horses named Boxer (male) and Clover (female), and Molly, "the foolish, pretty white mare who drew Mr. Jones's trap." Boxer is pure nobility, "as strong as any two ordinary horses put together," and not only a more productive worker than anyone else, because of his strength, but more diligent as well. But he's not very smart. He believes everything the pigs tell him, even when he thinks it doesn't really sound quite right, and his response is always a resolution to work harder. So he works himself nearly to death, and then is despicably betrayed. Molly only cares about sugar and ribbons for her mane, and is soon lured back to human service.
The hens and cows mostly do as they're told, most of their attention absorbed by the production of eggs and milk, and aroused to anger only when that is interfered with. One rooster becomes a gaudy sort of mascot for the pigs, marching at the head of parades. An old donkey named Benjamin is the only one who seems to see what's happening, but he's a cynic and doesn't do anything about it.
And then there are the sheep. Next to the pigs, the sheep are the worst. They are fools, the useful idiots once praised by Lenin (or one of those guys). Having reached the limits of their intelligence in learning to repeat "Four legs good, two legs bad," they bring to an end any meeting of the community in which disagreement with Napoleon is expressed, or seems about to be expressed, by drowning out with their chanting of their six words the voice of anyone whose speech threatens to be "problematic," to use a word favored by our own sheep. I never have thought very highly of protests that involve marching and chanting simple slogans. And now whenever I see a crowd of students shouting down a speaker I'll think of those sheep.
It's really quite brilliantly done, and might have remained popular even if it had not remained relevant. The probably-most-quoted bit from the book has been on my mind lately: "All animals are equal. But some are more equal than others." Examples of this syndrome appear in the news every day. There are the many politicians and officials who, during the COVID pandemic, laid stringent restrictions on the rest of us which they felt free to ignore. There are the wealthy climate activists who demand sacrifices of us while showing no inclination whatsoever to stop flying around in private jets and in general living at the upper end of wealth and privilege. And there is the current flap over the illicit possession of classified documents by important politicians: from what I've read, immediate dismissal and loss of security clearance is the least that would happen to an ordinary government employee who so much as leaves the building with classified documents, and jail would be a definite possibility. (Maybe you remember the case of Sandy Berger, who just flat-out stole classified documents, for reasons which as far as I know have never been definitively revealed, and who actually had his security clearance restored after a three-year suspension.)
But these are just more or less typical human behavior: one set of rules for the rich and powerful, another for the masses; business as usual. So comparisons to what's happening today are loose. Certain parallels are clear, but we've had no revolution, and comparatively little physical violence. What strikes me most in the way of resemblance to our own situation is the conversion of falsehood into truth. I say "conversion" instead of "substitution" because that's the real difference between totalitarianism and ordinary lying. I said many times during the Trump administration that those who took his blatant falsehoods as a sign that we had entered 1984 territory had either not read the book or did not understand it.
What makes the regime of 1984 so powerful and frightening is that it has the power to make you acquiesce in its lies. The pigs rewrite their own history, and punish anyone who tries to point out the change. If someone tells you an obvious transparent lie, and you know it's a lie, you can ignore him or scoff at him or point out the lie or whatever else suits you. But if he has the power to destroy evidence of the truth, and not only to punish you for contradicting him, but to force you to say you believe him on pain of losing your livelihood, or worse, you are in a very tough position. Today's progressives are much more willing and able to do this than Trump ever was or could dream of being, given the forces opposing him. The offense, which would be a crime if the progressives had their way, of "misgendering" is maybe the best example, but there are many others.
The adventure of the Chinese ballon (sounds like a Hardy Boys title) made me think of this song.
I recently sent a friend an article which looks at the rise of the use of psychedelics in our culture. He responded that it reminded him of Lewis's 'That Hideous Strength.' I noted that Dreher and others have observed that society isn't moving towards something exactly like either '1984' or 'Brave New World,' but rather a sort of mix of the two, which is what Lewis predicts in THS. Probably time to read it again, as it's been quite a while for me.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/09/2023 at 05:35 AM
I never thought of THS as similar to either 1984 or BNW. I don't recall it expressing any distinct vision of a goal for the satanists, though maybe I've just forgotten. What I do recall and am frequently reminded of by current developments is the "objective room." I think I wrote a post about that once....well, here's one mention:
The insistence that everyone agree that there is no intrinsic difference between heterosexual and homosexual sexual activity really partakes of that. Using the law to force agreement very much smacks of both dystopias, especially 1984.
Posted by: Mac | 02/09/2023 at 08:17 AM
"I don't recall it expressing any distinct vision of a goal for the satanists, though maybe I've just forgotten."
Same here. Maybe it's the "how" of getting to the goal, rather than the goal itself, where people are seeing the similarities.
Re: the "no difference in sex" thing, a couple weeks ago Rod had a post about a Catholic theologian or philosopher from Italy who wrote a prescient book about that subject back in 2012 or so. It was never translated into English but there was a sort of summary or precis of the book that's available in English. It was pretty interesting. If I can find it I'll post the link.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/10/2023 at 05:54 AM
Probing my memory a bit more, all I can come up with as an end game in THS is a sort of general desire for total domination and control, to be achieved with the help of demons. I think that proves to be the undoing of the would-be dominators, because their commerce with demons somehow opens up a path for the angels as well. I'm pretty hazy about it, though. I could pick up the book and see....
Was that the woman with, iirc, a British-sounding name? Definitely interesting.
Posted by: Mac | 02/10/2023 at 12:22 PM
Yes, that's her. -- Marguerite Peeters. I got it wrong about her -- she's Belgian, but apparently the book was first published in Italy (or something like that -- I found it hard to follow the trail).
Here's the link to the summary:
Posted by: Rob G | 02/11/2023 at 08:57 AM
I see why I thought British: I read it as "Peters." Sounds like she deserved more recognition.
Posted by: Mac | 02/11/2023 at 05:59 PM
Yes -- I'm wondering why the English translation is so hard to come by?
Posted by: Rob G | 02/12/2023 at 07:38 PM
Or, on the other hand, wondering that it was translated at all. It's certainly not something many publishers in the Anglosphere would want.
Posted by: Mac | 02/13/2023 at 02:02 PM
My guess is that it most likely was a conservative Catholic publisher.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/14/2023 at 06:03 AM