On Time & Place, Labeling & Guilt
I clipped and then lost a review of Orwell's Roses from the London Review of Books, a periodical I receive by mail. The reviewer's take on Rebecca Solnit's book was singularly critical. Why? Because it had not discussed Orwell's 'misogyny' at length. It was not enough that Solnit admitted Orwell held prejudices of class, race, nationality, heterosexuality, and gender. In contrast to the aggrieved LRB reviewer, Helen McApin of the L.A. Times wrote: "Solnit's tribute to Orwell does not ignore his significant blind spots around gender…he was a product of his age."
I admit that I do not accept the labeling now routinely attached to noteworthy persons from the past. Do we not all have thorns from being born in a time and place distinct from the here and now? Is not a well-lived life one in which there occurs a rearrangement of old assumptions, with the deceased not allowed this benefit? Who cannot be demeaned as "products" of her or his time and place? In asking myself these questions, I have decided to teach two literature courses in Fall 2022. I'll offer a class on Flannery O'Connor's first short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, to counter the 'racist' label now attached to her name. And I will offer a second course, in which students read Solnit's Orwell's Roses, and a small collection of Orwell's essays.
Solnit's book impressed me, as it did four reviewers from the Guardian, L.A Times, New York Times, and Washington Post. All noted that the interlinked essays and disparate ideas melded. Throughout her book, Solnit repeats a variance of this sentence: "In the spring of 1936 a writer planted roses." My favorite of these varied sentences, given our times of Putin (Stalin) was this one. "In the year 1946, a dictator planted lemons, or rather ordered them planted." All four reviewers enjoyed (as did I) Solnit's "exuberant associative leaps" and "whimsical meanderings." Their appreciation and mine was "to explore Orwell as more than a dark prophet driven by political rage." Suzannah Lessard in the October 19, 2021, NY Times wrote: "Solnit…creates a frame large enough to contain both revolutionary brilliance and unwittingly reactionary associations in the same person." In Solnit's own words, she "found another Orwell whose perspectives seem to counterbalance his cold eye on political monstrosity."
Which leads me the fourth word in my heading. Guilt. Solnit does what I did not do in the past while teaching Orwell's 1984. As an essayist, Solnit convincingly shows that Orwell praises beauty, broadens its definition, finds versions of beauty not elite or established, and discovers loveliness in the quotidian, plebian, and neglected. In other words, Orwell had the capacity to see "imperfect unidealized beauty."
"How awful," I say to myself, the way you taught 1984 at Vintage High School in Napa, California, in the 1970s. At the time, did I draw attention to the paperweight with its bit of coral, which Winston Smith finds in a prole junk shop? Did I note the thrush singing in the Golden Country and discuss how its beauty allowed Winston to leave his fearful thoughts and be united in being with Julia? I know that Orwell's "mystical reverence" for the prole washerwoman would have missed me. He sees her often pegging clothes outside his illegal flat. Then, just before Big Brother's thought police arrive to arrest Winston, he sees the woman as beautiful for the first time. Solnit claims this is Orwell's recognition of beauty as toughness, of survival and endurance as beautiful in themselves. "It's a moment when metaphor mends disconnection, when what he has learned of flowers and fruit and the passage of time in the biological world become equipment to understand humanity."
I look back five decades and see a young woman, not yet 30, unaware of weeds in her garden.
Next week: Solnit's chapter on a Colombian rose factory in Bogotá.