Orwell: The Authorized Biography. By Michael Shelden. HarperCollins. 498 pages. $25.
Michael Shelden's Orwell is an extremely likable book. With sympathy and respect, but with no reverence whatsoever, Shelden has written a lively account of Orwell and his life.
Orwell was a socialist. However, unlike many leftists of his time, he made no apologies for Stalin and was a consistent opponent of the totalitarianism of the Right and the Left. Moreover, he combined strong political passions with an unusual zeal for fairness and clear-sightedness. He knew these did not come easily. "To see what is in front of one's nose," said Orwell, "is a constant struggle." Unlike the politically correct of his time or ours, he was more than willing to criticize his own side.
Despite chronic ill health, he led an adventurous life. After a strange false start as an imperial policeman in Burma, a career he abandoned while still in his early 20s, he returned to England eager to become a writer. Disgusted by the injustices he had seen in Burma, he became interested in the European poor. Disguising himself n the worst clothes he could find, he went to live among tramps (gaining material for his first -book, Down and Out in Paris and London). Later, he also spent months living with coal miners, and protested the astonishingly dangerous conditions of their work in The Road to Wigan Pier. In both books he appealed to his readers to see the poor as fellow human beings. After catching a glimpse of the desolate face of a miner's wife, he wrote, "It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say, It isn't the same for them as it would be for us.' She understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard."
Not content with these protests against injustice, Orwell fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Although he won praise for his courage and only narrowly escaped death after a bullet wound, Orwell finally had to flee Spain to avoid arrest by Stalinists. He then alienated many fellow leftists by observing that the Communist-influenced government of the Republic had "more points of resemblance to Fascism than points of difference." Determined to give an honest account of what he had seen, Orwell had difficulty finding a publisher for his Homage to Catalonia. Orwell was to have trouble with frightened editors throughout his life. His Animal Farm was rejected four times.
Orwell's experiences with censorship strengthened his belief in free speech. Shelden is especially perceptive in relating these experiences to the nightmarish world of Orwell's most famous novel, 1984, which is, among other things, one of the most convincing arguments against censorship ever written. In 1984 a totalitarian society perpetuates itself in part by reducing the vocabulary of its citizens; the words that make dissent possible simply disappear. Censors work nonstop rewriting books. One wishes that today's crusaders against unintentionally "offensive," "sexist," or "biased" language would read 1984.
One of Shelden's most engaging qualities is his ability to provide comic relief. He has done a first-rate job of collecting quotes from Orwell's contemporaries. Brenda Salkeld, a lifelong friend, expresses amusement at the young Orwell's attempts to shock her: "All that business about being a tramp was just ludicrous. He had a nice home." Cyril Connolly remarks: "He could not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry."
As Shelden points out, people of the most varied political views have tried to claim Orwell. Shelden is probably right to be skeptical of such claims, but in a broad sense, all those who try to put truth before ideology have something in common with Orwell. And those who refuse to join witch-hunts (whether conducted by bigots, overzealous patriots, or the politically correct) have caught some part of his spirit.
By and large, Orwell embodied the best qualities of radicalism and liberalism. He combined the radical's heartfelt concern for the poor and the unfortunate with the true liberal's unswerving devotion to free speech. At a time when even some leftists share neither that concern nor that devotion, this biography is a welcome reminder of what the Left at its best can offer.
- Barbara Bazyn
Certain Women. By Madeleine L'Engle. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 352 pages. $21.
At the center of her novel, Madeleine L'Engle places a renowned actor, David Wheaton, whose terminal cancer forces him to look back at what he has done with his fourscore and seven years. Though in his last stage role he has just played King Lear, L'Engle's character is not (as Lear was) a man forced to come to terms with his life by an assault of events so relentless that his mind cracks with his world. Rather, Wheaton is a man whose life is being contemplated by certain women among them his daughter Emma, his present and ninth wife Alice, and his second wife Abby. David has had as many marriages as the proverbial cat has lives, and has been as lusty. The story, told from Emma's point of view, is about life in an "extended family" where few of Emma's brothers and sisters have the same mother.
To what extent will Emma be influenced by her father's lifestyle? She herself has recently separated from her (first) husband, Niklaas Green (they are, respectively, actress and playwright), and hanging fire in the background of her father's story is her own: Why did Emma and Nik separate? Will they be reunited?
There are complications enough here for any reader to unravel, but L'Engle has enriched the plot by weaving into it the story of the biblical David and his eight wives. Several devices are used to juxtapose these parallel stories: A colorful Southern preacher thunders prophetically from his pulpit, his sermons based on texts from 1 and 2 Samuel, the source of the David story; David Wheaton feels a kinship with his namesake and comments often upon the fact that both of them, in their human weakness, made similar errors; Emma keeps rereading the script of her husband's play about King David, "like pressing a bruise to see if it still hurt."
At the heart of both Emma's and her father's story is the manuscript of Nik's play about David. The role of King David was written for her father and the role of Abigail, second wife of the King, for Emma. During their courtship and the happy years of their marriage, Nik and Emma analyzed the characters and planned the scenes together. But when crises in the extended family make such concentration on the sins and sufferings of the biblical characters too emotionally painful, when historical characters merge with living ones, Nik is overwhelmed and abandons his unfinished play.
For a novel so grounded in the theater, there is relatively little action. This novel has the same flaw that Emma sees in one of Nik's scenes: "Emma picked up Nik's pages, reading silently a scene between Zeruiah and Asahel, followed by a scene between Zeruiah and Michal. There was too much talk. The play bogged down." Even in the last chapters of this novel we are still getting exposition. Talk. Certainly talk can produce action, and it does in the conversation between Nik and Emma in which Nik wishes Emma "weren't so churchy" and Emma stands upon her freedom to attend: Such talk, springing from two irreconcilable desires and reflecting deeper and potentially volcanic emotions, is the essence of drama. But the dialogue in Certain Women is rarely of this quality. Talk, in Certain Women, consists of talking about one woman narrating a story to another, usually while preparing supper, or rinsing the dishes. For this reason the characters never fully come alive. L'Engle wants us to understand that David and Nik and Emma and certain of the wives, such as Alice and Abby, are the stronger for their sufferings, But the fact remains: We have to be told that. We don't experience their strength.
As a sympathetic portrait of a family struggling to understand suffering and endure grief, Certain Women has only a certain fascination.
- Elaine Hallett
Farming on the Edge: Saving Family Farms in Marin County, California. By John Hart. University of California Press. 174 pages. $16.95.
A dairy farmer in our parish recently said, "Every acre of land developed takes bread out of someone's mouth." He knows. Last year he lost some of his farm land; it's now being covered with suburban housing.
Our farming area is just south of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and development is knocking at our door. So it was with great anticipation that I read Farming on the Edge: Saving Farms in Marin County, California, which relates the story of how ranchers (and rancher-farmers), conservationists, and government officials worked together to save an agricultural community from urban development.
Marin County is north of San Francisco and has some of California's best natural rangeland. It predominantly hosts dairy farms, with a number of beef and sheep ranches. In the 1950s the state highway department targeted the county for a four-lane highway, which would have led to dense housing and the demise of farming. John Hart details the actions this proposal triggered, which led to the saving of the green hills of West Marin.
The author's viewpoint is not Christian. God doesn't figure in his chronicle, nor does Hart even put the individual person before the saving of land. And yet the Gospel message is at work in Farming on the Edge because it gets reflected in the lives of ranchers and conservationists, longtime enemies, who dared to modify their world views to save those green hills.
In 1972 a strict zoning bill was passed: No parcel under 60 acres could be sold in the agriculture zone. This law angered a number of rancher-farmers, because it took away their option of selling land for development at a high profit. But the intent of the conservationists and government officials wasn't only to stop the ranchers from profit-taking. They also wanted them to survive as ranchers.
A Committee for Family Farms was formed to find ways to help the rancher-farmer survive. Members from the Committee and from six conservationist groups, including urban members, testified on behalf of dairy ranchers at a state milk-price hearing. Prior to this, such groups had always spoken for the consumer. Part of the increase was granted.
The milk-price hearing was the turning point in the fight between ranchers and conservationists. Ranchers began to see the benefits of the zoning. William and Ellen Straus, dairy ranchers, had supported the strict zoning from the beginning. Hart writes, "An old antagonist, one of the most traditional of the ranchers, came toward him [William Straus] on a street with an extended hand and a smile. Bill knew the gap had closed."
Still, Farming on the Edge retains something of a conservationist bias. Hart is quick to criticize the rancher and idealize the conservationist. Virtues of the ranchers aren't adequately described, nor are the vices of the conservationists.
Despite its limitations, this book is worth reading, especially in conjunction with Pope John Paul II's message, "The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility" (Dec. 8, 1989). John Paul insists that the root crisis is a moral one, and he reminds us of our deep obligation to the environment. In so doing he is clear about the priorities we should follow: respect for God, reverence for human life and the dignity of the person, and then by extension the dignity of the rest of creation.
A final home truth. When you notice Hart's put-downs about ranchers, remember my 12-year-old neighbor boy who says, "Everyone in the world should envy the farmer, because the world can't live without him."
- Mary Hanley
Jesus' Jewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus in Early Judaism. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. Crossroad. 288 pages. $24.95.
That Christianity is a historical religion is a truism, yet very easy to lose sight of. The notion that God acts in history, that not only is each human being engaged in his own personal drama of salvation or damnation, sin or sanctification, but that, collectively, the entire human race is involved in such a drama and that there is such a thing as salvific historical development, while true, is an idea not commonly held. Most of the "great religious traditions" do not have it. Indeed, even among Christians this belief is often confined to the events recorded in the Bible, and to the end of history when the Messiah will return as King and Judge. One consequence is that reading the signs of the times something the Messiah strongly recommended is simply not taught or done, leaving the field wide open to those with overheated imaginations and simplistic ideas of how to interpret the books of Daniel and Revelation. Another consequence is that Jesus is not understood well.
One of the hopeful signs of a different approach is the field of "Jesus studies," which tries to use all the literary and archaeological information available (and there is an increasing amount) to understand Jesus. For those of us who acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and Son of God, this is welcome. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, the object of faith is not a proposition but a person. Thus, a better understanding of Jesus' time and place will us to a better understanding of Him.
The volume under review, a collection of previously published papers, is a good introduction to this exciting field. The editor, James H. Charlesworth, is a leading figure in Jesus studies. Major Christian and non-Christian scholars are represented. Some essays are at odds with each other; there is no attempt to smooth over differences or impose some party line.
I am puzzled, though, that essays by Harvey Cox and Hans Küng were included and placed in prominent positions (first and last, respectively). I am not aware that either is truly an expert in this particular area. Are they here simply because of their "name" value?
While second in the collection, I suggest that Charlesworth's essay be read first. It gives a good overview of the history, background, and themes of Jesus studies. For example, the author points out how the many Jewish apocalyptic works that have been discovered suggest a widespread Jewish apocalypticism in the first century that "is precisely absent in the later Rabbinic Judaism." Thus the method of identifying rabbinical Judaism with a "normative" Judaism of the first century is simplistic and distorting. Moreover, what Jesus studies have accomplished, in Charlesworth's estimation, is to undermine Bultmannian skepticism regarding what can be known about Jesus: "He [Bultmann] showed no interest in archaeology and the land of Israel. He did not attempt to master the vast deposits of early Judaism that are contemporaneous with Jesus. His gaze did not include the important references to Jesus by Joseph . He did not examine the agrapha or extracanonical gospels ."
The contribution by the noted Jewish New Testament scholar, Davis Flusser of Hebrew University, includes these intriguing words, "The early Christian accounts about Jesus are not as untrustworthy as people today often think." Indeed, one can learn much that is surprising from this book: for example, that the Essenes were in agreement with Jesus about the indissolubility of marriage.
Obviously, we do not expect historical research to eliminate the mystery of Jesus. What we can hope for, if not precisely expect, is that the new, vigorous efforts by scholars to examine Jesus by utilizing all available tools and resources will make Him better known by all, and allow the Church to reflect more deeply and with greater precision on the message that has been entrusted to her.
- Achad HaSh'erit