Getting History Wrong
Getting history wrong is part
of being any major nation.
Consider it an art
which shouldn’t cause you consternation,
because it is a sine
qua non for national history,
as important as vaginae
to mistresses’ great mystery.
gershon hepner's Other Poems
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Poet's Notes about The Poem
Inspired by an article on George Orwell by Julian Barnes in the NYR, March 12,2009, reviewing Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays, by George Orwell, compiled and with an introduction by George Packer, All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays, by George Orwell, compiled by George Packer, with an introduction by Keith Gessen, and Why I Write by George Orwell (“Such, Such Was Eric Blair”) :
'Getting its history wrong, ' wrote Ernest Renan, 'is part of being a nation.' [Renan foreshadows Hobsbawm (The Invention of Tradition, ed. E. Hobsbawm, T. Ranger, Cambridge,1983) , whom I cite on page 64 of my book Legal Friction as stating that social change necessitates the fabrication of historical traditions even in societies whose histories are legitimately historic. GWH]. Pointedly, he said 'being, ' not 'becoming': the self-delusion is a constant requirement, not just part of a state's initial creation myth. Similarly, getting its iconic figures wrong—and rebranding them at intervals—is part of being a nation. The Orwell whom the English have sanctified is a descendant of the stone-kicking, beef-eating, commonsensical Dr. Johnson (another malleable iconic construct) . It is the Orwell who writes to the publisher Fredric Warburg in October 1948, 'I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot.' It is the Orwell of straight thinking, plain writing, moral clarity, and truth-telling. Yet things are never so simple, not even in the truth-telling, and Orwell's own line—'All art is to some extent propaganda'—might make us cautious (and reflect that the dictum applies a fortiori to journalism) . Take Orwell's denunciation of St. Cyprian's. Despite being written three decades after young Eric Blair's grim experiences, it is much harsher than that of anyone else who wrote about the school. If Orwell had lived to show up at Flip's funeral, the revenge of the golf correspondents might have been worthy of St. Cyprian's itself. But was Orwell's account so unremitting because he saw more truth than all the others, because time had not sentimentalized him, because with hindsight he could see exactly how that kind of education system perverted young minds and spirits to the wider purposes of the British establishment and Empire? Or was his thumb propagandistically on the scale?
One small moment of literary history at which many Orwellians would like to have been present was an encounter in Bertorelli's restaurant in London between Orwell's biographer Bernard Crick and Orwell's widow, Sonia. Crick dared to doubt the utter truthfulness of one of Orwell's most celebrated pieces of reportage, 'Shooting an Elephant.' Sonia, 'to the delight of other clients, ' according to Crick, 'screamed' at him across the table, 'Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word! ' The widow, you feel, was screaming for England. Because what England wants to believe about Orwell is that, having seen through the dogma and false words of political ideologies, he refuted the notion that facts are relative, flexible, or purpose-serving. Further, he taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit.
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