Monday, June 9, 2008

Quote du Jour

Prior to becoming a successful novelist and journalist, George Orwell, still using his real name, Eric Blair, spent a couple of years working as a policeman in colonial Burma. It was, in large part, the disgust that he developed for this role that led to Orwell’s subsequent anti-imperialism and aversion to rank and privilege in British society. In the quote that follows, his biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, gives an account of the only public hanging witnessed by Orwell during his stint as a cop. Orwell was moved to later write about this experience:

“A Hanging” is Orwell’s first distinctive work. It gives an apparently objective account of a ritualistic execution—from fixed bayonets to a bag over the head of the condemned—in which the narrator officially and actively participates. …The procession to the gallows is interrupted by a stray dog that leaps about and disturbs the solemnity of the occasion. In a strikingly human detail, the prisoner, who’d pissed on the floor when he heard his appeal had been dismissed, steps aside to avoid a puddle on the path—as if he feared he might catch cold on the way to his execution. This act of conscious will confirms his human existence. At this halfway point Orwell states his theme: “till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.” Instead of invoking religion, he asserts a quasi-religious sense of life’s sacredness—the first expression of the instinctive humanism that characterizes all his work.