Volume > Issue > Briefly: April 1993

April 1993

Orwell: The Authorized Biog­raphy

By Michael Shelden

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 498

Price: $25

Review Author: Barbara Bazyn

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.

Certain Women

By Madeleine L'Engle

Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux

Pages: 352

Price: $21

Review Author: Elaine Hallett

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.

Farming on the Edge: Saving Family Farms in Marin County, California

By John Hart

Publisher: University of California Press

Pages: 174

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Mary Hanley

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.”

Jesus' Jewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus in Early Ju­daism

By James H. Charlesworth

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 288

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Achad HaSh'erit

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.

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