Orwell’s Clock

Orwell’s Clock – What Made Orwell Tick?

A diagnosis of Orwell’s flawed analytical skills suggests he had an unusual mental problem, which explains how he helped give socialism a good name, and why many of his political insights have diminished relevance for us.

Over the past few years, three excellent biographies of George Orwell (Bowker, Meyers, Taylor) have been published. Each has shed new light on how Orwell’s complex character developed, primarily by discovering previously unknown contacts, friendships, and source documents. But none has succeeded in explaining the multiple paradoxes that defined the author, whose often puzzling pronouncements have allowed him to be claimed by both Right and Left as their prophet, whereas during his life he was mistrusted by the former and castigated by the latter. Bowker crystallized this enigma by stating, “The ability to hold two opposing views simultaneously, used to perverse effect in Nineteen Eight-Four, was a characteristic of his own paradoxical cast of mind”, going on to portray Orwell as a cruel nature-lover, a pious atheist, a conservative rebel, and an irrational debater. But a psychologically-based analysis shows that Orwell had an obscure mental disorder.

Orwell displayed in his essays and journalism a lack of patience and organizational ability that can make his conclusions and recommendations frustrating for the reader looking for a consistent and pragmatic viewpoint. Taylor writes that he was “hopelessly naïve as a practical thinker”. Meyers asserts that he had “no patience with abstract thought”. Edward Crankshaw wrote that he lacked the sort of logical mind that might have knitted his insightful perceptions into a clear system. Orwell was notorious for not having the mental endurance to tackle complex topics in a disciplined fashion, as is shown in his weak understanding of economics and political economy. His nostrums thus take on a very simplistic air.

Outstanding in all his unsettled social remedies, Orwell’s romantic idea of socialism continues to give that weed a vaguely fragrant aroma. Variously classified by his biographers and critics as “Christian”, “liberal”, “democratic” or “bourgeois” socialism (to contrast it with the “centralized”, “Marxist” or “totalitarian” variety), Orwell’s socialism is still socialism. He said that he became unreservedly a socialist after his arrival in Catalonia, when he witnessed a very short-lived euphoria induced by the anarchists, and he called himself such for the rest of his life. Despite his jabs at socialist stereotypes, and his attacks on the authoritarian form that socialism inevitably assumed, he still openly supported the nationalisation goals of the Labour Party, emphasizing that support after Animal Farm was published, and the book’s receipt of warm praise from conservatives. But the essence of his puzzling compromise between freedom and collectivism has continued to plague debates about his legacy. For example, as late as 1983, in Harper’s, Norman Podhoretz claimed Orwell as a neo-conservative, opening the door for Christopher Hitchens to counter that he was needed by the “democratic socialist” camp.

And, for all his muddy and contradictory visions, Orwell is still used as a symbolic architect for what a gentler, British variety of socialism might look like. For example, Simon Schama, in his conclusion to A History of Britain, builds his final chapter around Churchill and Orwell, and dwells lovingly on the latter’s essential decency. Orwell’s nostalgia for an England of simplicity, forged around a sense of local community, thriving before the advent of large bureaucracies and 20th-century mechanization, is used to suffuse a roseate glow over the perturbations of the mixed economy and the post-Thatcherite Third Way of Blair’s government. But Schama, like Orwell, neglects to address how such a world might survive and function.

So what could explain how such an insightful observer of humanity could leave so many loose ends and unfulfilled disquisitions? Was there a unifying thread that wove together such ambiguities? In the light of current knowledge, certain behavioral patterns point towards a potential diagnosis. Consider, for instance, the following Orwellian traits:

Acuity of Sensory Perception: Orwell had a very strongly developed sense of smell; his friend Kay Ekevall described him as having a phobia about it. Orwell believed he himself smelled badly, a fact confirmed by friends, and his writing is full of vivid impressions of odours, both pleasant and rank, to an excessive degree, as some critics have noted. It pervades his largely autobiographical novels: in Coming Up For Air, for instance, he has George Bowling describe how his keen sense of smell overpowers his other recollective abilities. Orwell famously repeated the belief that the working-classes smelled, and a Mr. Quinton argued, in a 1954 radio broadcast titled Orwell’s Sense of Smell, that smell played a large part in forming his opinions.

Poor Non-verbal Communication and Awkward Social Interaction: Orwell was an awkward social animal. Multiple acquaintances have referred to the fact that he had trouble treating people (especially women) as individuals, and he did not really like people unless they were at his intellectual level. He was clumsy at small-talk, frequently behaved inappropriately in company, and was insensitive to the small signals that others give off in social situations. Thus he would bore people with interminable anecdotes, often on inopportune occasions, and frequently upset people by his aloofness, or his insensitivity to favours they had performed for him. He could be amusing company, but his humour was often mechanical. Arthur Koestler famously wrote that Orwell never ‘knew what makes other people tick, because what made him tick was very different from what made most people tick’.

Rote Memory and Mental Obsessions: Orwell’s photographic (but occasionally flawed) memory was famous. He knew pages and pages of hymns by heart, and his essays and journalism are sprinkled with excerpts from both well-known and utterly forgettable works of literature that he called up from his memory-bank. But he would use his memory to bore people with his “interminable monologues” on such subjects as Samuel Butler and comic postcards, or British fauna and flora. And he had a passion for lists, which he compiled even on the barricades of Catalonia. Bowker writes of his lists ‘of books, redundant metaphors, jargon words, Kiplingesque epithets, poets who characterized the century, and sentimental writers’. Orwell himself described his list-making as “the jackdaw inside of us”, and he continued to make lists and collect junk to the end of his life.

Eccentricity and Sense of Difference: Orwell was without doubt an eccentric and a loner: Henry Longhurst even dubbed him “mad”. Norman Collins thought him suitable material for psycho-analysis. He was selfish, permeated with a sense of failure, given to self-pity, and had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He harbored prejudices about many groups. He had many friends, but was frequently unkind to them, and some analysts have characterized the degree of cruelty about him as sadism. Rayner Heppenstall called his mind “arid, devoid of poetry, derisive, yet darkly obsessed”. Some dark shadow from his childhood seemed to drag him into experiencing the lower depths at first hand.

An explanation does exist. Even casual observers may recognize here the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome. This condition was first described by Hans Asperger in Vienna in 1944, and is classified as a minor form of autism, often affecting people of high intelligence. (Newton and Einstein are two notable scientists who have been ‘diagnosed’ as having the trait.) It is officially described as a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially; other characteristics include clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements, heightened sensory ability, limited interests or unusual preoccupations, repetitive routines or rituals, speech and language peculiarities, and non-verbal communication problems. Some cognitive problems result in detailed but impractical ideas. Interestingly, D.J. Taylor (one of the above-mentioned biographers) compared Orwell’s laundry list of programs for a post-WW II socialist Britain to the impractical policies espoused by Anthony Wedgwood Benn, who is another famous man of the Left identified as someone with the syndrome. But no one appears to have linked Orwell to Asperger’s Syndrome before.

Could this diagnosis change our way of assessing Orwell, apart from solving a mystery of why such an intelligent man showed so many odd characteristics? For the most part, no. We live with the written record of the man as it stands. But in one respect, the pattern of behaviour has had a profound effect on Orwell’s legacy, and caused his influence to be both exaggerated and abused. It consists of the way in which Orwell’s rote memory interfered with the crafting of his political conclusions, the trait noted by several other observers, as indicated above. And one can find supporting evidence for this flaw in mental processes in the writings of the equally bewildering Frank Harris. Harris (who also had a photographic memory) stated in his memoirs, My Life and Loves, “I have always regretted the fact that a good memory often prevents one thinking for oneself”, and “I soon found too that a good memory was a handicap to the thinker: to know the thoughts of others prevents one from thinking – to think is a special accomplishment, and has to be especially cultivated.” Orwell’s writing suggests his ability to analyze and work out ideas was also impaired by his extraordinary memory. He must have had a constant clatter of ideas and phrases drumming through his brain (as reflected in the outbursts of quotation in his journalistic pieces), while his most famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rhapsody of notions and ideas about utopianism and totalitarianism. Incapable of stopping for orderly reflection, he could not resolve the ambiguities he perceived, and was left grappling with his curmudgeonly obsessions.

This trait is typical with Asperger’s syndrome. Dr. Stephen Edelson, from the Center of the Study of Autism, at the University of Oregon in Salem, has written: “Asperger described people with his syndrome as capable of originality and creativity in their chosen field. It would be more true to say that their thought processes are confined to a narrow, pedantic, literal, but logical, chain of reasoning. The unusual quality of their approach arises from the tendency to select, as the starting point for the logical chain, some aspect of a subject that would be unlikely to occur to a normal person who has absorbed the attitudes current in his culture. Usually the result is inappropriate, but once in a while it gives new insight into a problem.” This characterizes Orwell’s method of selection and argumentation perfectly. His prose is fresh, and logical, and thus very accessible, but it frequently represents a reaction to oddball observations, leaving out complete perspectives and areas of knowledge that would enable a more coherent philosophy to emerge. For example, Orwell constantly complained – even on his deathbed – about the inequity of the rich parading in their Rolls-Royces, but gave no thought to the workers employed in manufacturing them, the contribution of the luxury car (and aircraft engine) industry to the balance of payments, or the extent to which government should control citizens’ spending on luxury items.

Orwell’s view of socialism was therefore a very half-baked one. Even in the early 1940s, influenced by works such as Eugene Lyons’s Assignment in Utopia, and Burnham’s Managerial Revolution Orwell suspected that socialism (implying the government’s ownership of most land and production) was probably not possible without the installation of a new bureaucracy intent on power, unresponsive to the people, and a steady drift into totalitarianism. He sensed it would always end in despotism, but he would not drop its basic tenets, like many others judging the virtue of socialism by the apparent worthiness of its goals, and even suggesting that people would prefer slavery to the unpredictability of capitalism. His internal dilemma was thus left unresolved, as he never was able to make a cogent statement about what the alternative was, reluctant to give up on his egalitarian and wealth-despising beliefs. He continually attacked capitalism, only occasionally making a grudging recognition that it appeared to be working to some degree. Only once in his writings did he hint that he understood that the national economic cake was not something that automatically recooked itself each year to be sliced up for the various hungry constituents, but instead represented wealth that had to be continually recreated in a competitive world. On the question of individual freedom, Orwell failed to come to grips with the warnings of Hayek (whom he rather cursorily reviewed) and appeared never to have read von Mises. His oversimplified classification of aristocracy, plutocracy, capitalism, imperialism, and fascism as a sort of continuum, as all aspects of a single evil, meant that, to his death, he promoted an ugly egalitarianism that could only nullify the personal freedom of spirit and thought that he appeared to cherish so dearly.

Thus it is impossible to make claims about what Orwell would have said about the political phenomena of the present day, such as the vast bureaucracies that Blair and Brown have spawned, the crony relationships between capitalist organizations and the governments they rely on, and the opulent secretariats, unelected and irresponsible, of the European Union. He can be praised on all fronts – as Hitchens did in Orwell’s Victory –  but we end up with a straw hero. His conclusions would be muddled: all we know is that he would still be complaining about Rolls-Royces. We should always be grateful to him for his enduring lessons on the political abuses of language, and for those searing accounts of the horrors of totalitarianism. But we should rue the fact that Asperger’s Syndrome prevented him from being a more useful social critic, and from recognizing that his variety of socialism relies on an infinite number of decent people working unselfishly, competently, incorruptibly, and without ambition, and is thus doomed on this flawed planet. As Bishop Creighton wrote: “Socialism will only be possible when we are all perfect, and then it will not be needed.”

                                                                                                                                           Tony Percy ©  2005

[This article (written in 2004) was prompted by my reading of the four-volume edition of George Orwell’s Collected Journalism and Essays and Letters. I particularly noted Orwell’s lazy approach to quotation, demonstrating a photographic memory that was nevertheless flawed. Sadly, my article did not find a publisher, but the diagnosis at which I arrived – that Orwell had Asperger’s Syndrome – was subsequently confirmed by Professor Michael Fitzgerald of Trinity College, Dublin, in his 2005 book The Genesis Of Artistic Creativity. After reading my article, Professor Fitzgerald kindly complimented me, in a private letter, on my insights and depth of research.]

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