Orwell, Desperate Hours, and a Cosmic Library

This week, a conversation with Rebecca Solnit about George Orwell: essayist, novelist, and gardener. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website

Rebecca Solnit’s new book Orwell’s Roses gives readers a fuller picture of George Orwell than they might have from reading 1984. In Solnit’s book, you’ll read about Orwell the anti-fascist prophet, but also Orwell the essayist, Orwell the aesthete, and Orwell the gardener. On our show this week, Solnit says,

I had known for decades that in his wonderful essay “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray,” George Orwell talked about planting and tending roses… But until I was actually face to face with those roses, November of 2017, I’d never really thought hard enough about what it meant that our great anti-fascist, our great prophet of totalitarianism, had also been an avid gardener and tender of roses.

It felt like it raised questions about what pleasure and beauty and non-utilitarian activities might have in the life of somebody very dedicated to a utilitarian purpose, a question of what the plant kingdom and the natural world has to do with political life, of who George Orwell was in his time, who he can be for our time, and what we might learn for thinking about our own lives, as we enter this very intense era of climate chaos, about how to live as we look at how he lived through the chaos of wars and the rise of fascism, totalitarianism, and the rest.

Orwell-the-Gardener becomes a helpful focal point, reminding you what appealed to the author known more for what he hated than for what he loved. And in Solnit’s account, the two—what he loved and what he loathed—had a connection:

Just before Orwell planted those roses, which I had read about, and with the fruit trees he planted at the same time as he started a garden in Wallington — that all happened right after he’d come back from industrial and coal-mining north and been really shocked and horrified and awakened by what he saw. And so it felt like that made the garden almost the antithesis. You see something dead and ugly and destructive and alienated, you go try and making something that’s the opposite of that. . .

He says himself in his book The Road to Wigan Pier: “It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far off labor in the mines.” And he writes that with the coal being unloaded into his coal chute in the cottage in Wallington just after seeing the mines and really being shocked by them, tunnels so low you had to go through on all fours or stooped over; men working almost naked because it was so hot; the terrible, dangerous conditions; the miners living, you know, blackened because they only got one bath a week to get it all off; the deadness of the districts in which almost nothing grew and everything was befouled with the coal, and despite the wealth that the coal drove for the manufacturing class, the desperate poverty of the people around there. And so I felt that in planting a garden, he was really trying to make an opposite of that.

To maintain the good life, or to secure it, Orwell looked to socialism—specifically to informal, disorganized, freely occurring sorts of social organization, according to Solnit:

He was always something of an anarchist, and I think what he liked was kind of village commons and small things. So he believed that there should be no desperation, hunger, starvation, absolute poverty. He was not a fan of the wealthy. And so I think he wanted to see a just distribution of resources and possibly something like an ideal social democracy, not necessarily what we’ve sometimes called socialism, which is, you know, a government control of most means of production, because he’d seen that government control can become a very bad thing. And, of course, a lot of what governments do in, you know, our non-socialist countries is protect the aggrandizement of the rich and justify the impoverishment of the poor. Certainly that’s happened in our own country over the past 40 years. We’ve gone from a relatively just economy to one that’s produced a lot more financial desperation, indebtedness, and a lot more obscene wealth as we dismantled the tax system and the social safety nets.

Watch: The Desperate Hours

Sticking with mid-century icons: watch Humphry Bogart play an irredeemable home-invader in The Desperate Hours, from 1955, directed by William Wyler (also the director of Ben-Hur). The meticulous organization of a happy suburban home becomes the layout for Piranesian imprisonment, as characters zoom around upstairs, downstairs, through hallways, in and out of doors, without really making progress.

The effect is chilly, bracing. Andrew Sarris wrote of Wyler more generally:

“Wyler’s career is a cipher as far as personal direction is concerned. What has become increasingly apparent in retrospect is a misanthropic tendency in Wyler’s technique, particularly with romantic material like Wuthering Heights and Roman Holiday. It would seem that Wyler’s admirers have long mistaken a lack of feeling for emotional restraint.”

Listen: McSweeney’s Issue 64

The 64th issue of McSweeney’s is an audio issue, something much needed for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that we’re in an era of proliferating guided meditations. This means there’s a growing appreciation for how music and language direct attention therapeutically; and so, it’s time to get imaginative about how listening might continue to reroute attention.

The trailer for the 64th McSweeney’s suggests experiments with attention-work via “jumper cables for your senses,” which you can sample, for instance, here, from a piece about toys that make “meaningless threats.” The issue was produced by McSweeney’s editor Claire Boyle, Radiotopia’s Julie Shapiro and Audrey Mardavich, and writer-producer Andrew Leland, and it has work by Renee Gladman, Rick Moody, Dorothea Lasky, plus tons more.

Listen: The Cosmic Library

Producer Adam Colman’s “infinity books” podcast with Lit Hub has a new five-episode season, available in weekly installments wherever podcasts are found. The podcast, now and forever called The Cosmic Library, operates from the premise that the most overwhelming books—like Finnegans Wake (the focus of the first season), like 1,001 Nights (the focus of the new season)—are the most accessible.

You don’t need to worry about perfect understanding of these massive books, because that kind of understanding is a) impossible and b) not the point of books like these. So whether you’ve tried reading them or are totally new, you’re ready to visit The Cosmic Library and start rambling through the possibilities of the most overbrimming literature. Guests this season include The New Yorker’s Katy Waldman, theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, translator Yasmine Seale, and more.

This week’s ephemeral library

Tony Judt inspires Ta-Nehisi Coates. Britney Spears is free. American sushi: the untold story. Rebecca Solnit: In Praise of the Meander. You Are the Object of a Secret Extraction Operation. David Graeber’s Possible Worlds.

See you next week, folks; we’ll be back with the evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson and his biographer Richard Rhodes. Til then we’ll be in the garden!

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org