This collection is part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, which I am steadily working my way through (read my review of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” here). I adore these little publications; the cover designs by David Pearson are some of the best he has ever done, and the full series is a great overview of some of the most influential essays and manifestos in (mostly) Western history.
Some Thoughts On the Common Toad is one of four George Orwell collections included in this project, and contains eight articles written between 1944 and 1947. Spoiler alert: the titular essay is not actually about toads – it’s about capitalism.
Like most collections, this volume is a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from fascinating to forgettable. “In Defence of English Cooking” is basically a list of food Orwell likes, and “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray” pales in comparison to some of the other articles. In terms of recurring themes, this collections has everything you would expect from a George Orwell book: frequent insights of a political nature and a healthy dose of moral outrage, even directed at himself.
“Politics vs Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels” and “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” are interesting works of literary theory where Orwell combines contextual discussions with close-reading of the texts in question. “Benefit of the Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí,” on the other hand, seems fuelled by personal disgust. Throughout this collection, Orwell repeatedly asks himself how we should approach an artist whose work is morally reprehensible. In the case of Dalí, Orwell makes an attempt to understand his obsession with necrophilia and decay, but by the end of the essay basically throws his hands in the air and goes: “Look, this guy clearly needs help, so why do we call his rotting horse corpses art? I just. I can’t.”
One essay of particular interest to me was “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse,” which tackles the British public’s condemnation of Wodehouse’s broadcasts on the German radio in 1941. Orwell claims that Wodehouse was painfully naïeve when it came to the fascist movement, and that his books do not mock the English elite, but actually show a fondness that these aristocrats don’t deserve.
In his radio interview with Flannery, Wodehouse wondered whether ‘the kind of people and the kind of England I write about will live after the war’, not realizing that they were ghosts already. ‘He was still living in the period about which he wrote,’ says Flannery, meaning, probably, the nineteen-twenties. But the period was really the Edwardian age, and Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915.
“Shooting an Elephant” is the most personal work in the book; it tells the story of how Orwell, while stationed in Burma, tracks down an elephant that has gotten loose and ends up shooting him to avoid looking like a fool in front of the villagers. Orwell describes his younger self as a reluctant police officer who condemned imperialism and wanted nothing more than to leave this place. Standing there, with the crowd’s eyes on him, he came to a curious conclusion:
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only the absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’ and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. [...] my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
Eh, I’d say that imperialism destroys much more than just the white man’s freedom, George… But okay.
So what does all this have to do with toads?
In the titular essay, Orwell starts talking about why the spawning of toads is ultimate miracle of spring, only to halt and contemplate whether we should even take pleasure in such things “while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system”. Is it wrong to feel like life is more worth living when we see a bird building a nest in the tree outside our window? Orwell argues that nature can give us a kind of joy that “eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer” cannot, and that these pleasures are unaffected by the terrible things people keep inflicting upon each other. A blackbird’s song, he writes, “does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle”.
I don’t even know why I’m surprised that the man who wrote Animal Farm managed to put toads and capitalism together in one essay and somehow make it work.