“The picture of war set forth in books like All Quiet on the Western Front is substantially true.”
A professor of English who had fought with the U. S. Army in the Second World War published long afterward his memoir of the battle of Monte Cassino. A colleague, congratulating him upon it, remarked, “You got it all in,” meaning, as he explained, that all the elements of the genre, the “war book,” were there. Which surprised the author, for until that moment he had not considered that such a genre existed. “But it did,” he said, “and I had.”
Eric Blair, who renamed himself George Orwell, was a mite more self-aware; but the presentation of his memories, ostensibly simple and frank, is shaded with ambiguities. He was eleven when the First World War began, and the first publication of Eric Blair, in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard, was a challenging patriotic poem:
Awake! Oh you young men of England,
For if when your country’s in need,
You do not enlist by the thousand,
You truly are cowards indeed.
He was at school throughout the war years and has recorded some memories (“petty and irrelevant”) of the outbreak of war and of the middle years. But the existence of the poem, testifying to his eleven-year-old’s enthusiasm, has been forgotten or the memory suppressed, for the final and dominant memory he gives is typical Orwell in stressing the least creditable of motives for himself and in giving the least elevated account of his actions, focusing on the later years of the war.
It is an instance of the horrible selfishness of children that by 1917 the war had almost ceased to affect us, except through our stomachs. In the school library a huge map of the Western Front was pinned on an easel, with a red silk thread running across on a zig-zag of drawing pins. Occasionally the thread moved half an inch this way or that, each movement meaning a pyramid of corpses. I paid no attention.
Enthusiasm had been replaced by a cynicism which contributed much to the great “myth” of the First World War. “1914—18 was written off as a meaningless slaughter, and even the men who had been slaughtered were held to be in some way to blame.” Orwell in 1940 had accepted this as a myth, but he knew too its power as a literary theme. The books of personal reminiscence written about that war “are the records of something completely meaningless, a nightmare happening in a void. That was not actually the truth about the war, but it was the truth about the individual reaction. The soldier advancing into a machine-gun barrage or standing waist-deep in a flooded trench knew only that here was an appalling experience in which he was all but helpless.”
The myth of “meaningless slaughter,” which was often, as Orwell points out, simple truth as far as the individual was concerned, lives on, as myths must, in literature and the popular mind. The poetry of the First War, of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, Gurney, and the others, is its most eloquent expression. Popular history, like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, popular drama, like Oh, What a Lovely War, or films like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory prove its vitality today, though historians sometimes mount forlorn attacks against it, such as John Terraine’s essay, “A Comfortless Mythology.” And the genre of the “war book” serves the myth. The “war book” has been specialized. From among the enormous mass of memoirs of various viewpoints published in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, one strain has come to dominate the genre. The “war book” now is personal reminiscence of meaningless slaughter, of nightmares happening in a void to an individual all but helpless.
The books about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Le Feu, A Farewell to Arms, Death of a Hero, Good-Bye to All That, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and A Subaltern on the Somme were written not by propagandists but by victims. They are saying in effect, “What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure.”
It is a genre clearly defined, and so defined to advance an ideology.
But on the generation which welcomed the myth, providing its audience, there was a paradoxical effect. The myth flourished, particularly in the pacifism of the 1930’s, but many who still continued to believe in it—the “facts” of war, trenches, wire, machine guns, slaughter, stayed the same— nevertheless lost their faith in cynicism. The corpse of Honor rose like Falstaff from the mud and made its claim. As Orwell said, “But the dead men had their revenge after all.” The generation who had been “just too young” realized “the vastness of the experience they had missed. You felt yourself a little less than a man because you had missed it.” Orwell recalled hearing his fellow police officers in Burma reminiscing about the war, “unceasingly, with horror, of course, but also with a steadily growing nostalgia. You can see this nostalgia perfectly clearly in the English war books.”
His was a life of paradoxes, and one of them was this regret at having missed the experience of meaningless slaughter. He himself had been
toting a rifle ever since I was ten, in preparation not only for war but for a particular kind of war, a war in which the guns rise to a frantic orgasm of sound, and at the appointed moment you clamber out of the trench, breaking your nails on the sandbags, and stumble across mud and wire into the machine gun barrage.
Orwell wrote this in the early years of the Second World War, knowing quite well that this model of warfare corresponded very little with current reality. But in his own experience there had been a war, the civil war in Spain, in which he had participated and for which his own mental preparation was the possession of just that folk memory of World War I which is the territory of the “war book.” His memories of the First War are usually memories of his reading, and his reading provided the structures of his own writing about his war.
No experience, not even perhaps that of sexual initiation, is as productive of tension between myth and reality as the experience of the soldier in war. In Western European and North American literature, there is a 20th-century industry of the soldier as dupe and victim, of the experience of war as disillusionment. This has become the predominant myth of man in war, so pervasive that an encounter with a memoir recounting positive experience of battle is now shocking. The home key of memoirs of war in 20th-century Western literature is that at which even so recent a memoir as William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness (1980) arrives:
I now knew that banners and swords, ruffles and flourishes, bugles and drums, the whole rigmarole, eventually ended in squalor. . . . My dream of war had been colorful but puerile. It had been so evanescent, so ethereal, so wholly unrealistic that it deserved to be demolished.
The demolition, of course, is a myth in itself, the next stage of a well-established literary progression.
Orwell acknowledged the function of his own myth in helping to bring about his involvement in Spain.
I am convinced that part of the reason for the fascination that the Spanish civil war had for people of about my age was that it was so like the Great War. At certain moments Franco was able to scrape together enough aeroplanes to raise the war to a modern level, and these were the turning points. But for the rest it was a bad copy of 1914—18, a positional war of trenches, artillery, raids, snipers, mud, barbed wire, lice and stagnation. In early 1937 the bit of the Aragon front that I was on must have been very like a quiet sector in France in 1915.
“Fascination” is an ambiguous term. In Orwell’s case it seems to explain part of his desire to get to Spain, and to get into the fighting once there. But the desire to claim an experience like the one of which the accident of birth had deprived him was, by his own accounts, hardly the most instrumental of his motives for enlisting. The most powerful ones were actually political, his own commitment to a socialist ideal, or to use the terms he preferred, the defense of the working class against their enemies. Orwell’s pointing to his feelings about the “Great War” to explain his fascination with Spain was retrospective, made several years after he had written Homage to Catalonia. The Great War, in fact, whatever its part in the motives that took Orwell to Spain, played its most forceful role, structurally and thematically, in the book, that Orwell made of his experience. That role was not a simple one, however, because in trying to understand his experiences according to the patterns that the “war book” made available to him, Orwell encountered complications and difficulties. There is a structural drama in Homage to Catalonia in Orwell’s struggle to accommodate experience to pattern. Throughout the book he wrestles with paradoxes of form and meaning, and those paradoxes are one source of the book’s continuing life.
Orwell’s comments on the experience of the Great War have indicated contrasts of emotional attitude he was to face. The experience was “meaningless” and “nightmarish,” yet men who had not undergone it felt diminished. They feared its recurrence, yet had been prepared for it and embraced its opportunity so as to acquire for themselves a share of the “nostalgia” from which they were excluded. “Nostalgia” is as elusive as “fascination,” but one can see in general what is meant. “Nostalgia,” by virtue of the nature of war, could have only one object: human relationships among those who were war’s victims, the fighting soldiers. “Comradeship” is too feeble for the strength of this feeling in the personal literature of war. The only honest term is “love,” though since the one English term must embrace both “agape” and “eros,” the word has come, for William Manchester as for Wilfred Owen, as a discovery.
And then, in one of those great thundering jolts in which a man’s real emotions are revealed to him in an electrifying vision, I understand, at last, why I jumped hospital that Sunday thirty-five years ago and, in violation of orders, returned to the front and almost certain death.
It was an act of love. Those men on the line were my family, my home. . . . They had never let me down, and I couldn’t do it to them. . . . Men, I now knew, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other abstraction. They fight for one another.
Horror and love. These are the elements of war’s paradox. Eric J. Leed has suggested that postwar groupings, of men or of memories, veterans’ organizations or war books, can be classified as either “conservative” or “liberal” according to the extent to which they stress love or horror, gain or loss. The predominant patterning of war memoirs presents the love as palliative, a partial compensation existing beneath the overarching horror. War is not made worthwhile by love; love is accepted as part compensation for the horror. Most “war books,” therefore, are “liberal.”
The dilemma that Orwell uncovered as he wrote Homage to Catalonia, and of which he was not more than half aware by the end of the book, was that the experience he had to record could not be patterned according to the myth of warfare he had absorbed from his reading in the memoirs of World War I. His book is a structural contest between Leed’s “conservatism” and “liberalism,” and the victory goes unexpectedly to “conservatism,”
As he moves from chapter to chapter, Orwell increasingly sees that in order to be true to his experience he must include an account of Spanish politics and especially of events in Barcelona (“it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle”), but whenever he prepares to pay out the political strand of his narrative he apologizes, and moreover several times encourages the reader “not interested in the horrors of party politics” to “please skip.” He adds: “I am trying to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters for precisely that purpose.” The assumptions that lie beneath this brisk but startling suggestion deserve some scrutiny.
Orwell proclaims the essential unity of his, and Spain’s, military and political history. “It was above all things a political war. No event in it, at any rate during the first year, is intelligible unless one has some grasp of the inter-party struggle that was going on behind the Government lines.” Yet he assumes that some of his readers, particularly I believe those who are hypothetical reflections of his own tastes and attitudes, are likely to recoil from “the horrors of party politics.” To make it easy for such readers to find in his work the kind of narrative they prefer, he has tried to keep separate what he admits are the inseparables of war and politics. He wants it to be possible to read his book solely as a memoir of war, and yet the memoir of war, according to the paradigm of it that Orwell accepted, was a tale of futility, meaninglessness, and horror. The “horrors of party politics” are matters from which Orwell expects the reader to recoil, and he has tried to facilitate that recoil, which reflects his own distaste, so that the reader may convert the book into a “war book” and concentrate all his energies on—and presumably find enjoyment in—the horrors of war.
To sustain the theme of war’s futility, the memoir of war must refuse politics. It would be quite possible to read a long way through the personal narratives of the First War without encountering any description of the political causes or objectives of the conflict, and John Terraine’s attack on popular misconceptions of that war includes a barrage against “the most persistent and pernicious myth of all,” that of futility, as found, for instance, in Siegfried Sassoon’s hero’s discovery that the war was “ruining England” and had “no good reason for continuing.” “Futility” implies that the soldier under fire could summon to mind no sensible political reason for his predicament, and when one attempts to make a connection in the terms suggested by Terraine, the absurdity seems rather reinforced than removed. “I am standing in a flooded trench, at any moment perhaps to be blown apart or buried alive by the bursting of a shell, so that Germany shall not impose upon the Western allies a treaty of the kind forced upon the Russians at Brest-Litovsk.” Terraine calls this “gross and insular insensitivity which disregards every other predicament than its own,” but surely it is simply that the distance between existence and objective, like that from start-line to point of breakthrough, is simply too great. The power of the futility myth is such that it can reduce Terraine’s historical perspective to absurdity.
But Orwell really had no conceptual problem. He was writing a war book, but in that war, despite its day-to-day confusions, he had the clearest vision of his objectives; he did understand what the whole thing was about. He had Terraine’s kind of certainty that the Republic was better than Franco, and a degree of simple and idealistic conviction which never collapsed into naivete in his own eyes. The literary paradox was that his stylistic, structural, and ideological pattern was derived from the kind of war book that rejects and ridicules the attitudes that Orwell’s experience finally endorsed.
Orwell’s political reason for fighting was the society, the polis in fact, of the men in the trench beside him. Love, which for the war memoirist is a substitute for the too distant objectives of power politics and global alliances, was the very fabric of politics for Orwell. The politics behind the lines, as revealed by the Barcelona events, are not therefore to Orwell distant, meaningless, or irrelevant. They are the real enemy in his war, since they strive to end the existence of the polis Orwell loves, the truly socialist society of the P. O. U. M. militia. When in Homage to Catalonia Orwell speaks of “horror,” it is the horror of finding the militias betrayed.
Orwell, the reluctant but dutiful historian, must write of politics, but his sympathies are with the reader who would prefer not to read of them. These sympathies indicate a value judgment of literary kinds and a preference for a particular authorial self-image or role. He began with, and long persisted in, the belief that the “war book” was better than what he later called the “political book”—defined as “a sort of enlarged pamphlet combining history with political criticism.” In 1941, Orwell was prepared to call this “an important literary form,” despite its mixed nature. He makes this judgment in the context of one of his attacks on British insularity, “the sheltered conditions of English life” which have permitted intellectuals, ranking high in the Orwell demonology, not to take Hitler seriously. The British signify their distance from reality, too, by not writing the “political book.” The list he gives of “the best writers in this line” includes Trotsky, Silone, Borkenau, and Koestler, but no British writer. Either modesty or polemical tactics has excluded Orwell himself from the list, for Homage to Catalonia is manifestly just such a “political book,” though it may be that the need to cross his war book with the ill-bred strain of politics still pained Orwell. But his acceptance of the political book’s importance as a form is an advance in maturity.
We can get some idea of what Orwell’s ideal war book would have been like if we follow his recommendation to skip the chapters containing the tainted political matter. What this will show is that it was even less possible than Orwell believed to detach military from political experience because of the intense and peculiar nature of his own political involvement. And once that is understood, the refusal of this warfare itself to conform to its “mythological” shape becomes explicable.
In the war book within Homage to Catalonia, expected proportions are reversed, most notably of all in the relationship of horror to love. Love there is the predominant force, instead of the compensatory element, and the horror does not simply exist to contrast with love but to validate it. The fears and pains of life in the trenches are the price Orwell and his fellows are willing to pay for a human relationship.
Orwell signifies the supremacy love is to have in his narrative in the famous opening tableau, the emblematic encounter with the Italian militiaman. “It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. . . . One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.” Contacts, connections: Orwell’s experience of human relationships in Spain is the great positive force of the book, to be countered later by the great negative power of party factionalism within the revolution. Orwell himself seems to believe that “party politics” is as separable from human relationships as it is from warfare, but his book in fact displays the essential unity of all three. Good human contacts, warfare, and political vendettas are on the same spectrum.
On arriving in Spain, Orwell underwent an experience of conversion. He found, on reaching Barcelona, that “the working class was in the saddle,” and he describes in detail the aspects of this revolution which impressed him. “Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. . . . In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist.” He found it “queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” He had come to Spain ostensibly as a journalist, though well before his arrival he had indicated his intention to get into the fighting. In literary form, however, that intention has to await the experience of conversion. And it is a fact that for Orwell conversion meant human contact; political commitment was based on manners. He was an Etonian believer in the Wykehamist motto: Manners makyth man.
In the first sentence of his book, to introduce his vignette of the Italian militiaman, he says that it occurred “the day before I joined the militia.” Presumably he was at the Lenin Barracks as a journalist; next day he is a volunteer, and the implication stands that the encounter had motive force. His well-known letter to Cyril Connolly from the sanatorium in Barcelona speaks vaguely but powerfully the language of the convert: “I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.” He had been calling himself a Socialist, openly and by implication, for years, but only in Spain—not in Wigan—does the belief acquire reality. Yet in Wigan he at least spoke the language. The look of things, the look of people in the street, the look of the Italian militiaman—the look is enough to produce the commitment to fight. “I have seen wonderful things.”
The expectation of conversion, the belief that war would effect an utter transformation of the individual’s being and perception, was the most widely shared attitude of the Great War volunteer, on all sides of the conflict (Eric J. Leed explores it fully in No Man’s Land). In the myth of war experience this expectation plays a vital, structural role, since it prepares for the experience of disillusionment that follows. The disillusioned frontsoldiery of the war books owe their disillusionment not first to politics or really to horror, but to the irony of the contrast between the transformation they hoped for and the transformation—into the troglodytes of industrialized warfare—that in fact overcame them.
Orwell’s war begins with the experience of conversion, and as he recounts it he prepares the reader simultaneously for disillusionment. What he has seen on the streets of Barcelona and in all its public life is largely an illusion. “I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ state. . . .” But this is only “outward appearance.” Servile and ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. From his later vantage point he sees the deception that was practiced upon him (“great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being”), but despite the apparent preparation, disillusionment does not follow. The situation he found in Barcelona was not all it seemed, but then and later it was nevertheless “a state of affairs worth fighting for.” In these opening pages, covering the encounter with the militiaman and the description of revolutionary Barcelona, Orwell conveys idealism, indicates the facts that run counter to it, but refuses disillusionment.
Similar sequences occur when he turns to his military experience. He describes, for instance, the mañana attitude of the Spaniards towards their war, but his actual experience of the war disarms his “northern” criticism. Similarly, he finds the basic training of the Republican “guerrilla army”— “parade ground drill of the most stupid, antiquated kind”—to be “useless nonsense,” but then he discovers that it exists simply to give the troops something soldierly to do in the absence of weapons for weapon training. The expected irony of the war memoir leaves the Spaniards unscathed.
The literary equipment with which Orwell went to war had continually to be adapted, like the matériel of war itself, to new and surprising uses. He was the “Northern” observer of Spanish inefficiency who discovers his own basis of judgment to be “neurosis.” Most emphatically, Orwell was the volunteer mentally trained for a war that the Spanish war simply would not be. Orwell’s indignation at this refusal is exploited marvelously in the opening chapters. It becomes a recurring comic motif, a cumulative irony, but one that serves as the vehicle for the positive aspects of Orwell’s political education in Spain.
As Orwell’s centuria, “ “eighty men and several dogs,” approached the front line, he found himself secretly frightened. “I was old enough to remember the Great War.” (Of course, what he truly remembered were the war books. ) “War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold.” Given that tuberculosis was in fact his deadly enemy, Orwell’s confessed dread of the cold in the trenches was well founded, but the dread is formed in the style of the war memoir: “the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours of sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot-tops.” From this, he turns to another “horror,” the quality of the troops with whom he marched: “You cannot possibly conceive what a rabble we looked.” They had “less cohesion than a flock of sheep,” and a great many of the troops were boys of sixteen or less. Their shouts, “meant to be war-like and menacing,” were in fact “as pathetic as the cries of kittens.” Defenseless youth and the simile of sheep (it is said that French infantry returning to the line after the 1917 mutinies bleated aloud in sardonic commentary on their plight) are both motifs of helplessness in First War literature. Orwell finds it “dreadful that the defenders of the Republic should be this mob of ragged children carrying worn-out rifles which they did not know how to use.” To the eyes of any Fascist pilot who might fly over, it would be surely clear that “we were not real soldiers.” This paragraph seems to prepare for a sequel in which these troops will fulfill their destiny as victims. But, as so often when Orwell is able to exploit the structures of the Great War mythology, no further advance occurs along the designated line. The troops duly take over the position assigned and one of the “children” of the company is wounded by the bursting of his own rifle. “It was our first casualty, and, characteristically, self-inflicted.”
With this incident, helped greatly by that parenthetical adverb “characteristically,” the narrative modulates into another key, and one which the predominance of “helpless victim” motifs has not introduced. Orwell asks “Where are the enemy?” Someone points vaguely, and Orwell gazes vainly through the spectacles of war memoirs. “According to my ideas of trench warfare the Fascists would be fifty or a hundred yards away. I could see nothing—seemingly their trenches were very well concealed.” Then, “with a shock of dismay,” Orwell sees the enemy position, on a hilltop seven hundred metres away. “I was indescribably disappointed. We were nowhere near them! At that range our rifles were completely useless.” But not only at that range. Someone attempts a shot. “Click! A dud cartridge; I thought it a bad omen.” Bad, that is, for someone eager to get at the enemy. The pathetic mob of children contains one man “indescribably disappointed” that the enemy is not closer, someone, it now seems, unlikely to see himself as a victim. The disillusionment presented is comically quite other than that of the volunteer engulfed by industrialized war. This is the disillusionment of the volunteer who finds that war is not war enough, or perhaps that the literary image is inadequate to “real life.” The last paragraph of the chapter is a superbly manipulated comedy.
Now that I had seen the front I was profoundly disgusted. They called this war! And we were hardly in touch with the enemy!
The whole thing is beneath his contempt.
I made no attempt to keep my head below the level of the trench. A little while later, however, a bullet shot past my ear. . . . Alas! I ducked. All my life I had sworn that I would not duck the first time that a bullet passed over me; but the movement appears to be instinctive, and almost everybody does it at least once.
All his life he has planned to be shot at, to go in harm’s way; he expects to be able to control his reactions; he is well studied in the subject; he has read the books. Yet still he ducks, for his literary preparation is inadequate. There is a true sense of apology in “almost everybody does it at least once.” He knows that the bullet outpaces its sound; this isn’t really war—not bookish enough; yet instinct, the body, betrays him. Eventually Orwell is to learn that the body is right. The bullet is real, so is the war, and the book must modify the literary models to fit the unexpected shape of experience.
In Homage to Catalonia, war is, of course, deadly. Men are hit by bullets—Orwell was—and are maimed and killed. The conditions of life are foul: poor rations, little sleep, lice, cold. Men suffer, and the suffering are often the enemy, though there, too, the pattern is modified. Pity for the enemy recurs as a motif notably when the conditions of warfare seem to enforce futile antagonism at the behest of an anonymous military “machine,” administered in personal safety by those far from the fighting. The frontsoldiers direct their moral antagonism at this “enemy in the rear” and the enemy to the front can then be included in a community of pity. But in Orwell’s work no community of pity is needed, since the fact that controls both ideas and expression in his book, the single most powerful shaping element, is that his own side, the Spanish Republicans, are not to be pitied. Pity for the individual enemy is uttered from time to time; pity for himself is out of the question; pity for those who uphold the cause of the Republic simply does not apply. One cannot make a community of happiness, of pointed endeavor, into a community of pity. Orwell expected to write of horror, futility, and pity; cheerfulness kept breaking in.
Irony—in the discovery that war is not living up to its literary reputation—is only one literary response to the effect of belief (commitment, purpose, hardship and death willingly endured) on the experience of war. A subgenre of the war memoir, often appearing as a countertheme or second subject in the recounting of horror, is the farce of war. Generally this signals that horror has attained the pitch of self-evident absurdity. Catch-22. In war memoirs proper, events seen in this literary perspective can extend from simple farce to farce with death on the side. Orwell retails the comments of others which pick out the farcical highlights ( “”This is not a war,” he used to say, “it is a comic opera with an occasional death”“), makes such comments himself (“I began to wonder with increasing skepticism whether anything would ever happen to bring a bit of life, or rather a bit of death, into this cock-eyed war”), but most vividly recounts details of farcical incident. A wonderful example is warfare by megaphone.
When the trenches were close enough, the Republicans and the Fascists shouted insults and slogans at one another. On the Republican side this developed into a regular, morale-sapping technique. “In every suitable position men, usually machine-gunners, were told off for shouting-duty and provided with megaphones.” They usually shouted a predetermined text of political sentiments, urging the Fascists to desert. “This was repeated over and over by relays of men; sometimes it continued almost the whole night.” Orwell recalls a shouter who was “an artist at the job.”
Sometimes instead of shouting revolutionary slogans he simply told the Fascists how much better we were fed than they were. His account of the Government rations was apt to be a little imaginative. “Buttered toast!”—you could hear his voice echoing across the lonely valley—ldquo;We’re just sitting down to buttered toast over here! Lovely slices of buttered toast!” I do not doubt that, like the rest of us, he had not seen butter for weeks or months past, but in the icy night the news of buttered toast probably set many a Fascist mouth watering. It even made mine water, though I knew he ws lying.
The splendor of this comedy, however, actually owes nothing to futility, for I have quoted the beginning and end of Orwell’s account, omitting the middle. There he turns the irony against himself and against the expectation, which the farcical view of war would conventionally foster, that such a military expedient must be futile. First, it works: “everyone agreed that the trickle of Fascist deserters was partly caused by it.” And deserters were a valuable source of intelligence. Then Orwell examines his own attitude. “Of course such a proceeding does not fit in with the English conception of war. I admit I was amazed and scandalized when I first saw it done. The idea of trying to convert your enemy instead of shooting him!” He now accepts its utility. “But at the beginning it dismayed all of us,” “us” being the foreign volunteers. “It made us feel that the Spaniards were not taking this war of theirs sufficiently seriously.” The lesson learnt, then, is that the war is the Spaniards’, that it is serious, that it is not being conducted according to the “English conception of war,” and that memoirs of this war must mediate in form between “English” or “Northern” literary expectations and Spanish realities. The farce moves from the activity, the shouting, to the expectations, military attitudes transmitted through literature, of the observers. Orwell finds farce in his experiences without being in a farcical war.
Consistently, the reader of Homage to Catalonia is offered experience shaped by formal conventions that have been deprived of their conventional force. The motif of the soldier as victim is thwarted and defaced because the war has meaning. The farce of war concentrates itself in the misperceiver of futility. And by the biggest reversal of all, Orwell is able to present himself as the soldier, the professional, out to win.
To want passionately to win one’s war is almost enough in itself to violate the ethos of the memoir of war. Yet Orwell frequently records that dream.
Sometimes I used to gaze round the landscape and long—oh, how passionately!—for a couple of batteries of guns. One could have destroyed the enemy positions one after another as easily as smashing nuts with a hammer.
Moreover, unlike the typical disillusioned volunteer, he never loses his volunteer spirit, and in fact volunteers for everything: to go on night raids, to find wounded left in noman’s-land, to go back alone, to spy on the Fascists by lying out close to their wire, to carry stretchers. “The job was not popular . . .and I soon found that I could get leave to go out on patrol as often as I wished.” When he records—along with his fears—his enjoyment of these volunteer exploits, he apologizes for his unconventional reactions by employing verbal markers of qualification.
[Of a night raid on Fascist trenches] It was not bad fun in a way. . . . [Of daylight patrols in no-man’s-land] It was not bad fun in a Boy Scoutish way. . . .
Orwell faces an odd dilemma at such moments. He wants to tell the truth, and the truth is that, for all its horrors and its farce, the war makes sense and is sometimes enjoyable. But no sanctioned literary language exists for such an attitude. When he tries to express it, he has to use, with conscious awareness of its inappropriateness, the language and imagery of juvenile fiction. Yet the positive aspects of Orwell’s experience in Spain were not a stage of immaturity. He found in that war the ideas and affections which were to dominate the rest of his life. One does not ordinarily think of Orwell as lucky, but in this respect his luck was amazing. The war in Spain offered him the living reality of his political ideal, the liberty, equality and fraternity—”human brotherhood”—that lasted him the rest of his life and that was the spot on which he could rest his machine in his efforts to move the world.
General and private, peasant and militiaman, still met as equals; everyone drew the same pay, wore the same clothes, ate the same food and called everyone else “thou” and “comrade”; there was no boss-class, no menial-class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers, no priests, no boot-licking, no cap-touching. I was breathing the air of equality. . . .
Orwell’s time in Spain is war as pastoral. He said that a political thinker must have “a picture of the future.” His own, like so many others, depicted scenes from an idyllic past, called not Arcadia but the Spanish militias, and he had been there.
This period which then seemed so futile and eventless is now of great importance to me. It is so different from the rest of my life that already it has taken on the magic quality which, as a rule, belongs only to memories that are years old. It was beastly while it was happening, but it is a good patch for my mind to browse upon.
“Et ego in Arcadia” famously—and in spite of grammar— means two things: “I, Death, exist even in Arcadia,” and “I, the memoirist, once lived happily in Arcadia.” Homage to Catalonia extraordinarily blends both attitudes. Orwell’s Arcadia was the battlefield of a good cause—”the last good cause,” it has been called—but the plenitude of death, about which Orwell was so well equipped to write, could not bury the Arcadian truth, and the nature of his memoir underwent the strains and modulations here observed.
The last chapters of Homage to Catalonia are exclusively political, for Orwell’s war culminated in the series of events by which the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s found their bizarre and bloody reflection in Spain. The elements of the Republican coalition that could be identified as “Trotskyist”—the P. O. U. M. prominent among them—were proscribed, and this war within the revolution—betrayal by the Left—was a trauma that changed and dominated Orwell’s political thinking. This was the future as nightmare whose literary embodiment became his most famous achievement and gave English the word “Orwellian.”
Like so many who recalled war, Orwell found himself betrayed, but politically betrayed. In the First War books, life outside the trenches comes to seem unreal, and a deep hostility toward the mental and physical worlds of the noncombattant is felt repeatedly. Sassoon’s poem “Tanks” encapsulates it.
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls
Lurching to rag-time tunes or “Home, sweet home,”
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.
The difference between the music-hall version of war and the “riddled corpses” is the knowledge of horror. Moving among civilians in Barcelona, Orwell sees a similar difference between the front and the rear, but the differentiation is not in knowledge of horror. It is political: “the revolutionary atmosphere had vanished.” It is a difference that Orwell can take calmly. He manifests the symptomatic bitterness of the First War memoirist only when love is betrayed. When the P. O. U. M was suppressed, Orwell was in imminent danger of arrest. With great courage, he and his wife went to visit Georges Kopp in jail. “And the first person we saw inside was an American militiaman who had left for home a few days earlier” but who had been arrested. “We walked past one another as though we had been total strangers. That was dreadful. I had known him for months, had shared a dug-out with him, he had helped to carry me down the line when I was wounded; but it was the only thing one could do.” The American militiaman and Orwell are forced into repudiation, so reversing the iconic scene with the Italian militiaman with which the book opens. The thwarted encounter serves as one measurement among many of the comradeship (which was the politics) of the front poisoned by the politics of the rear. And the manner in which the imperiling of comradeship, of love, was carried out by the press, particularly the British press of the Left. This was the bitter betrayal.
To find the Daily Worker, the News Chronicle, and the New Statesman accepting the Stalinist view of the P. O. U. M. militia as active agents of Franco was a decisive event in Orwell’s intellectual life. It was a trauma, more painful, more violent, and in its effects more enduring than the bullet that went through his throat and gave him his unwanted “Blighty wound.” For the people who read those papers, Orwell had gone to Spain, found socialism, a future that worked and with a human face, only to see his audience told in the New Republic that “the P. O. U. M. troops were “playing football with the Fascists in no man’s land” at a time when, as a matter of fact, the P. O. U. M. troops were suffering heavy casualities and a number of my personal friends were killed and wounded.” He later adds: “there must have been numbers of men who were killed without ever learning that the newspapers in the rear were calling them Fascists. This kind of thing is a little difficult to forgive.”
He never tried. Spain had shown him the difference between a realized socialism—liberty, equality, and fraternity—and totalitarianism borrowing the language of socialism—”Ingsoc.” The rest of his short life was devoted to dramatizing the difference.
He still thought All Quiet on the Western Front told the truth about war, but that is not the truth of his own book. Jeffrey Meyers seems bewildered by Richard Rees’ description of Homage to Catalonia as “predominantly a gay book.” But in it Orwell wrote: “When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this . . . the result is hot necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.” And in the possibilities of a just war, and a truthful reminiscence. “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.”