Burmese Days by George Orwell
a fable of social metaphysics
by Tom Radcliffe
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe
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What does George Orwell have to tell us about social metaphysics?
Orwell (the pen name for Eric Blair) was the most literate of intellectual socialists in the English-speaking world, a keen observer of humanity, and if his writing is any indication, a deeply depressed man. While his observations rightly depressed Orwell, we can be thankful for his acuteness and objectivity, especially as expressed in his first novel, Burmese Days.
Orwell served the British Empire as a colonial policeman in Burma in the 1920's, and used his experiences to draw a portrait of colonial life that is almost naturalist in its unsparing, unflattering view of people of all races and creeds, and yet at the same time deeply analytical. The fascinating thing about the book is that it can be read as a long fable about social metaphysics, which is the notion -- often held but rarely expressed -- that what other people think constitutes reality. By telling the story of a small number of English expatriates living on the fringes of Burma's sweltering jungle, far from major centers of power and commerce, Orwell spotlights the deadly consequences of believing that an individual's actions must conform to the common will rather than to the evidence of the senses and the reflections of the individual's mind.
John Flory must count as the hero of the piece, deeply flawed though he is. A factor for a teak-wood company, he retreated to Burma in the face of an inability to come to terms with English society. Disfigured by a birthmark on one cheek, which he perennially tries to keep turned away from the world, and deeply scarred by the complete social rejection this minor blemish produced in the England of his boyhood and youth, he hides in this most distant outpost of the Empire, running a lumber camp and coming into the town of Kyauktada when he can, spending his evenings at the local European Club, "playing bridge and getting three parts drunk."
Flory is a would-be decent human being, but his lack of self-esteem and self-confidence make him weak in the face of the enormous social pressures exerted by the tiny community of Europeans, from which he is profoundly alienated. He sees a green pigeon while walking in the forest, and thinks:
Alone, alone, the bitterness of being alone! So often like this, in lonely places in the forest, he would come upon something -- bird, flower, tree -- beautiful beyond all words, if there had been a soul with whom to share it. Beauty is meaningless until it is shared. If he had one person, just one, to halve his loneliness!
Flory is friendly with Dr. Veriswami, a native physician, but the gulf between Europeans and Indians is too large to bridge the gap of Flory's loneliness. His fellow-Europeans, united by bigotry and paranoia, and divided by the rare decent impulse that passes through one or the other of them now and again, draw him, control him, disgust him. He tries against his better judgment to live the life of the pukka sahib, trying to conform to the social standard of colonial domination, treating the beliefs of those around him as if they had the status of metaphysical truths, as if they determined reality. To do this, of course, requires him to give up his mind:
It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahib's code.
Flory tries to avoid the worst excesses of this world, but to gain any value from the people around him he has to play their games. Humans are social creatures, and Orwell recognizes the terrible price that can exact on us when the society we live in has basic premises that are false to fact. In the case of colonial Burma, the central false premise is that there's any basic difference between black and white. Both oppressor and oppressed believe implicitly that the English are more worthy, more capable, more real than then Burmese or Indians. U Po Kyin, the Burmese villain of the piece, is described as having "grasped that his own people were no match for this race of giants [i.e. the British]."
The plot of the novel follows the conflict between U Po Kyin and Flory's friend Dr. Veriswami over who will be admitted as the first and only native member of the European Club. Flory's attempts to avoid conflict with the code of the pukka sahib vie with his desire to behave decently toward his friend, in an atmosphere "in which suspicion counts for more than proof, and reputation for more than a thousand witnesses." This is social metaphysics in full flood: the opinions of others count more than the facts of reality.
The tension is heightened by the arrival of Elizabeth Lackersteen, the eminently marriageable niece of another European couple in Kyauktada. She is utterly unsuited to a man of Flory's temperament and interests, but in Flory's blinded eyes:
She had brought back to him the air of England -- dear England, where thought is free and one is not condemned to forever dance the _danse du pukka sahib_ for the edification of the lower races.Even when he comes to see her "almost as she was -- silly, snobbish, heartless" the effect she has on him does not diminish. Here is the promise that compels good people to sell their souls to corrupt social mores: the power of human company in a lonely world.
This is a theme Orwell would return to in 1984, with the difference that there the situation was essentially fantastic, an impossible world of a stable tyranny, whereas in Burmese Days the world depicted is all too real. Flory tries to change himself, he dismisses his Burmese mistress, drinks less, almost becomes the gentleman he yearns to be. But he does so in an environment where decency is nearly impossible, where his support for Dr. Veriswami gets him called a "nigger's Nancy Boy" and worse, while Elizabeth gladly flings herself at a surly, laconic visiting officer who happens to be the younger son of an aristocrat, dropping Flory the moment a more likely prospect tops the horizon.
Orwell weaves a complex plot well, especially for a first novel, and even the minor characters such as the bigot Ellis and the soft-headed McGregor are well drawn. Too much of the plot depends, perhaps, on the niceties of timing, but one can see that even had the timing worked out differently, the end would have been the same. It is no more probable you will live a long, healthy and happy life while acting as if the insane ideas of your compatriots constitute reality than it is likely you will live long and well while smoking three packs a day. The end of social metaphysics is death; as Orwell remarks, "There is a rather large number of suicides among the Europeans in Burma, and they occasion very little surprise."