Sunday, 19 December 2010

Orwell on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

For my last birthday my daughter gave me a selection  of booklets from the Penguin "Great Ideas" series.  They're extended extracts (100 or so pages each) from great works of literature or philosophy.  In my little pile are extracts from Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Fyodor Dostoevsky and this selection of essays by George Orwell.  Both Penguin and my daughter know me well - a full volume of Kant would wait on my shelf for years, but I can promise you the 100 page version will be read pretty soon.  They're also good for plane flights.  I read about half the Orwell on a flight to Sydney last week.  

Orwell would have been a great blogger - he doesn't waste words, he draws you into the world he describes, he is prepared to live his art not just read about it, and he is interested in a wide range of things.   Here's something I thought was especially clever.  One of the essays is called The Art of Donald McGill.  McGill was a designer of comic postcards and the essay is an examination of the themes and ideas presented in those postcards - the kind of illustrated jokes you still see sometimes in tabloid papers or on comic blogs.

"I like seeing experienced girls home."
"But I'm not experienced!"
"You're not home yet!"

And so it goes on - you can see lots of examples here.  I love the fact that he takes an interest in this kind of popular culture.  I also love his explanation that these postcards "give expression to the Sancho Panza view of life."

If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza?  Almost certainly you are both.  There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin.  He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul.  His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with "voluptuous" figures.  He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One...

There is a constant, world-wide conspiracy to pretend that he is not there, or at least that he doesn't matter.  Codes of law and morals, or religious systems, never have much room in them for a humorous view of life....A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise.

Society has aways to demand a little more from human beings than it will get in practice....I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of fuehrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal. 

Nevertheless, the high sentiments always win in the end, leaders who offer blood, toil, tears and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time.  When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.  Women face childbed and the scrubbing brush, revolutionaries keep their mouths shut in the torture chamber, battleships go down with their guns still firing when their decks are awash.  It is only that the other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.

No comments: