Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On Those Texts That Have Been Over-Analyzed: Animal Farm

It's hard not to read Animal Farm and immediately offer the fact that it is, with very little ambiguity, an allegory for the 1917 Russian revolution that led to the rise of Josef Stalin, one of the 20th Century's most brutal and callous leaders (in a century that had its fair share of those types).

Vladimir Nabokov labeling him a "mediocre writer" seems reasonable. As has been the charge leveled against Orwell from the beginning, one I doubt very much he'd have disputed, his prose is meant to teach more than it's meant to be any kind of work of art in itself. As a prose stylist, George Orwell's work does indeed leave a great deal to be desired, more often than not.

It happens, though, you can admire both writers for their respective strengths, although I must hand it to Nabokov, for my taste and obvious bias, with novels like Bend Sinister, he did the work of Orwell more than a fair measure beyond what Orwell ever achieved. And of course with that said, George Orwell's work is not to be simply discarded. He saw things about power structures and the human relations within them that, as those who invoke 1984, whether rightly or wrongly, to this day want us to remember, make clear Orwell is (and likely will remain) relevant.

I had the opportunity to read Animal Farm for the third time in my life, with a classroom of summer school students this past month. It's interesting what high school students, what younger readers in general, are liable to become obsessed by when you focus on one dimension of any reading material. It's probably worthwhile as an educator teaching something like Animal Farm, then, to avoid making specific reference to a subtextual aspect of a book, to the extent that that's possible (most of my students were already familiar with some aspect of Animal Farm, for instance). because for the better part of our week reading it, most students were hung up on the obviousness of the allegory.

"Why not just write the story of the Russian Revolution and the terror of Stalin? Why dress it up like this?" That was the question most were concerned with throughout our reading. That and the question of pacing. I was fortunate enough to come upon this quote by the author Jeff Jackson concerning texts of a political nature, which I shared with my students and used as a counterpoint to their line of thinking:

So much commercial and even literary fiction works hard to fill in details for the reader and stage manage their experience of the story. So-called good prose is engineered to ensure you glide effortlessly over its surface without significant disruption. It’s part of a trend of passive consumption throughout the culture. Our critical skills are eroding and we need them more than ever in this era of information overload, nonstop marketing, and political doublespeak.
I was hopeful they'd be equally curious about their assumptions concerning pacing, and a feeling that Animal Farm was overstuffed with ideas, could be streamlined to be more "readable" so they might "glide effortlessly over its surface" and not have to consider the implications of what was there, especially as they relate to not simply the Russian Revolution and Stalinism, but the great, wide world of human beings' gas-lighting, obfuscating and otherwise convincing those beneath them that their impression of how things really are is wrong and they must be mistaken. I wanted them to consider how Animal Farm isn't simply the story of the Russian Revolution but of the USA as it currently exists. And that's not to specifically indict America, but to instead showcase how the world of Animal Farm doesn't exist in the vacuum of one particular ideologue or ideology run amok. There is, instead, something profoundly human in its telling, which were it not told as it is, might be even less apparent to the average reader.

In every friend and colleague I've ever seen who died before they were able to receive the benefits (in the form of a pension or social security, etc.) of the life of work they did I see the betrayal of poor Boxer, who says always, "I must work harder."

In every misrepresentation of the truth perpetuated by Squealer I see our culture of victim-blaming and the ways we tell said victims--without literally saying it--that their experiences are not really so, that they imagined them, that it wasn't rape or assault or some other form of violence like they thought but instead a misunderstanding, or worse, revealing of some deficit in themselves for ever thinking that. It's this systematized approach that has allowed men like Bill Cosby to operate as they did for decades, unchallenged.

In those dogs trained from birth to be ruthless upholders of the system Napoleon has contrived, I see our own culture of systemic racism, misogyny and general oppression and suppression of ideas that fall out of sync with the established order. A police state in which people are reared from birth to respect authority and understand that anyone who at any time seems to have run afoul of it must necessarily have done something to deserve their situation, whether it's rudeness, insubordination, or being where they're not supposed to be, for whatever reason.

In Napoleon himself I see every leader who has ever claimed to be a righteous reformer but who ultimately serves only to do more to uphold the status quo. Certainly this charge could be leveled against a president like President Obama, who campaigned on notions of hope and change, and whose actions, and the absence of those words, have largely proven otherwise (the continuation of No Child Left Behind with Race to the Top, continued export of American hegemony around the globe, little-to-no change in the draconian gun violence our politicians refuse to address (Congress, too) and so forth). Though it would be impossible to indict Obama without likewise indicting the preceding Bush administration, among whose mendacious characteristics were to insist continually that WMDs were in Saddam Hussein's possession and that even though that was almost exclusively the pretext for going to war with Iraq, when no WMDs were found, it was actually not the only reason we had to go to war with Iraq. Humanitarian considerations were an actual reason. All of this obfuscating, gas- lighting and willingness to psychopathically say whatever one thinks needs to be said in order to appease the masses is exactly the kind of leadership Napoleon represents, as relevant to the US today as it was in Stalin's Russia.

And so, while I could belabor the point (I'm good at that!), I'll conclude here simply by saying, to those dubious who questioned the validity of studying an allegory about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, and any others who might raise an eyebrow to the study of Animal Farm. It's about us, them, and everything. Pay attention to its lessons, please!!!

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