As I Please

in Tribune

27 October 1944

George Orwell

READING, a week or two ago, Mr C. S. Lewis’s recently-published book, Beyond Personality (it is a series of reprinted broadcasts on theology), I learned from the blurb on the dust jacket that a critic who should, and indeed does, know better had likened an earlier book, The Screwtape Letters, to The Pilgrim’s Progress. ‘I do not hesitate to compare Mr Lewis’s achievement with Pilgrim’s Progress’ were his quoted words. Here is a sample, entirely representative, from the later book:

Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There’s a bad kind, where the pretence is instead of the real thing, as when a man pretends he’s going to help you instead of really helping you. But there’s also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you’re not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a much nicer chap than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we’ve all noticed. you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That’s why children’s games are so important. They’re always pretending to be grown-ups—playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretence of being grown-ups helps them in earnest.

The book is like this all the way through, and I think most of us would hesitate a long time before equating Mr Lewis with Bunyan. One must make some allowance for the fact that these essays are reprinted broadcasts, but even on the air it is not really necessary to insult your hearers with homey little asides like ‘you know’ and ‘mind you’, or Edwardian slang like ‘awfully’, ‘jolly well’, ‘specially’ for ’especially’, ‘awful cheek’ and so forth. The idea, of course, is to persuade the suspicious reader, or listener, that one can be a Christian and a ‘jolly good chap’ at the same time. I don’t imagine that the attempt would have much success, and in any case the cotton wool with which the B.B.C. stuffs its speakers’ mouths makes any real discussion of theological problems impossible, even from an orthodox angle. But Mr Lewis’s vogue at this moment, the time allowed to him on the air and the exaggerated praise he has received, are bad symptoms and worth noticing.

Students of popular religious apologetics will notice early in the book a side-kick at ‘all these people who turn up every few years with some patent simplified religion of their own’, and various hints that unbelief is ‘out of date’, ‘old-fashioned’ and so forth. And they will remember Ronald Knox saying much the same thing fifteen years ago, and R. H. Benson twenty or thirty years before that, and they will know in which pigeon-hole Mr Lewis should be placed.

A kind of book that has been endemic in England for quite sixty years is the silly-clever religious book, which goes on the principle not of threatening the unbeliever with Hell, but of showing him up as an illogical ass, incapable of clear thought and unaware that everything he says has been said and refuted before. This school of literature started, I think, with W. H. Mallock’s New Republic, which must have been written about 1880, and it has had a long line of practitioners—R. H. Benson, Chesterton, Father Knox, ‘Beachcomber’ and others, most of them Catholics, but some, like Dr Cyril Alington and (I suspect) Mr Lewis himself, Anglicans. The line of attack is always the same. Every heresy has been uttered before (with the implication that it has also been refuted before); and theology is only understood by theologians (with the implication that you should leave your thinking to the priests). Along these lines one can, of course, have a lot of clean fun by ‘correcting loose thinking’ and pointing out that so-and-so is only saying what Pelagius said in A.D. 400 (or whenever it was), and has in any case used the word transubstantiation in the wrong sense. The special targets of these people have been T. H. Huxley, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Professor Joad, and others who are associated in the popular mind with Science and Rationalism. They have never had much difficulty in demolishing them—though I notice that most of the demolished ones are still there, while some of the Christian apologists themselves begin to look rather faded.

One reason for the extravagant boosting that these people always get in the press is that their political affiliations are invariably reactionary. Some of them were frank admirers of Fascism as long as it was safe to be so. That is why I draw attention to Mr C. S. Lewis and his chummy little wireless talks, of which no doubt there will be more. They are not really so unpolitical as they are meant to look. Indeed they are an out-flanking movement in the big counter-attack against the Left which Lord Elton. A. P. Herbert. G. M. Young, Alfred Noyes and various others have been conducting for two years past.

.     .     .     .     .

I NOTICE that in his new book, Adam and Eve, Mr Middleton Murry instances the agitation against Mosley’s release from internment as a sign of the growth of totalitarianism, or the totalitarian habit of mind, in this country. The common people, he says, still detest totalitarianism: but he adds in a later footnote that the Mosley business has shaken this opinion somewhat. I wonder whether he is right. On the face of it, the demonstrations against Mosley’s release were a very bad sign. In effect people were agitating against Habeas Corpus. In 1940 it was a perfectly proper action to intern Mosley, and in my opinion it would have been quite proper to shoot him if the Germans had set foot in Britain. When it is a question of national existence, no government can stand on the letter of the law: otherwise a potential quisling has only to avoid committing any indictable offence, and he can remain at liberty, ready to go over to the enemy and act as their gauleiter as soon as they arrive. But by 1943 the situation was totally different. The chance of a serious German invasion had passed, and Mosley (though possibly he may make a come-back at some future date—I won’t prophesy about that) was merely a ridiculous failed politician with varicose veins. To continue imprisoning him without trial was an infringement of every principle we are supposedly fighting for.

But there was also strong popular feeling against Mosley’s release, and not, I think, for reasons so sinister as Mr Murry implies. The comment one most frequently heard was ‘They’ve only done it because he’s a rich man’, which was a simplified way of saying ‘Class privilege is on the up-grade again’. It is a commonplace that the political advance we seemed to make in 1940 has been gradually filched away from us again. But though the ordinary man sees this happening, he is curiously unable to combat it: there seems to be nowhere to take hold. In a way, politics has stopped. There has been no General Election, the elector is conscious of being unable to influence his M.P., Parliament has no control over the Government. You may not like the way things are going, but what exactly can you do about it? There is no concrete act against which you can plausibly protest.

But now and again something happens which is obviously symptomatic of the general trend—something round which existing discontents can crystallize. ‘Lock up Mosley’ was a good rallying cry. Mosley, in fact, was a symbol, as Beveridge still is and as Cripps was in 1942. I don’t believe Mr Murry need bother about the implications of this incident. In spite of all that has happened, the failure of any genuinely totalitarian outlook to gain ground among the ordinary people of this country.

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