Turning All History to Flesh

A biography of Agha Shahid Ali portrays the poet without paradox

30 June, 2022

IN HIS 1940 ESSAY “Inside the Whale,” George Orwell appeared to champion something surprisingly un-Orwellian. You would think that the future author of Animal Farm and 1984—one of the twentieth century’s most raucous moralisers, the writer who famously declared that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”—would dismiss a book like Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller’s lusty auto-fictional journal about a group of idle Americans in Paris. Instead, he was taken in by the novel’s “preoccupation with indecency and with the dirty-handkerchief side of life.” Years ago, the two writers had met in Paris, when Orwell had stopped over on his way to join the civil war in Spain. Miller presented Orwell with a corduroy jacket, but dismissed his political convictions. To Miller, Orwell’s “ideas about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc, etc, were all baloney.” For a writer to go to Spain in the 1930s and join a militia combating General Franco’s takeover of a democratic regime was, in his view, not the best use of their talents.

In Miller’s political aloofness, Orwell could perceive a quieter assertion of artistic temperament. Because “he is passive to experience,” he wrote, “Miller is able to get nearer to the ordinary man than is possible to more purposive writers. For the ordinary man is also passive.” The “more purposive writers”—and Orwell counted himself as one—were sometimes too overwhelmed by what was happening in the world to be spontaneous on the printed page. Miller and his kind—ensconced from reality, like Jonah in the Old Testament, inside the whale’s belly—were in a better position to be artful, to imaginatively portray how things were. Orwell may have ended the essay on a bleak note, by predicting that no work of “major literature” would be produced until the end of the Second World War, but only a guileless reader will conclude that the piece is disdainful of politically committed artists. Miller is a straw man for a somewhat basic argument: that a writer’s intentions, however lofty or noble, do not suffice by themselves in a novel or a poem. Orwell tips his hand when he calls Miller “essentially a man of one book.”

Sooner or later I should expect him to descend into unintelligibility, or into charlatanism: there are signs of both in his later work … Like certain other autobiographical novelists, he had it in him to do just one thing perfectly, and he did it. Considering what the fiction of the nineteen-thirties has been like, that is something.

Miller’s post-war reputation turned out to be more or less as prophesied. Scenes from his novels crumbled under the searchlight of Sexual Politics, Kate Millett’s withering study of misogyny in male writers, and, these days, he is remembered, if at all, as an ardent potty mouth. But, beyond his logic of low expectations, Orwell seems to be getting at something rarely acknowledged by literary critics: that their judgements are not impervious to the time period in which they encounter a book. A writer who seemed persuasive before might later “descend into unintelligibility.” Those who seem inside the whale today might tomorrow seem outside.