In December 1936, George Orwell met American writer Henry Miller in Paris. The two couldn’t have been more different, says Ian McEwan in The New Statesman. Miller, a “tirelessly sexually active” bohemian, had a profound disregard for politics of any kind; Orwell was “deeply engaged in the anti-fascist cause” in Spain and incensed by social injustice in Britain. They parted on friendly terms, despite disagreeing on everything, and Miller gave Orwell his corduroy jacket to keep him warm while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by their meeting, Orwell later wrote the essay Inside the Whale, which defends a writer’s “liberty to refuse political engagement”.
In Orwell’s eyes, writers such as Miller remained “inside the whale”, far removed from politics, “in the dark cushioned space… with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens”. Alas, today I fear it’s impossible for a writer to remain apolitical. With climate change transforming our “politics and culture, our flora and fauna, our sense of the seasons, our rootedness in the world”, almost every aspect of life has become politicised. A simple haiku about a frog becomes a story of extinction. But I think Orwell would still urge us to spend time inside the whale – “a place where the imagination can retreat” from harsh political reality.
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