Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Paul Preston, Tolstoy & the Fool!

Scholarly Snobbery in Professor's Attack on Orwell
WHEN last Saturday, in Manchester at the International Brigade Memorial Trust's series of lectures dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia'
I heard, yet again, Professor Paul Preston's criticisms of the book, I was reminded of George Orwell's own essay 'Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool', written towards the end of his life in March 1947, and dealing with an attack by Tolstoy, perhaps the greatest Russian writer on William Shakespeare, regarded as possibly the greatest dramatist ever. Tolstoy wrote his pamphlet 'Shakespeare and the Drama' as an introduction to another pamphlet, 'Shakespeare and the Working Classes', published around 1905 by Ernest Crosby. Orwell, in another essay 'Tolstoy & Shakespeare' (1941), wrote: 'I want to examine one of the greatest pieces of moral, non-aesthetic criticism – anti-aesthetic criticism, one might say – that have ever been written': Tolstoy's essay on Shakespeare, according to Orwell, is 'terrific attack on Shakespeare, purporting to show not only that Shakespeare was not the great man he was claimed to be, but that he was a writer entirely without merit, one of the worst and most contemptible writers the world has ever seen.' 

For years, Professor Preston has similarly sought to diminish the influence of George Orwell and undermine his eye-witness accounts of the Spanish Civil War as described in the book 'Homage to Catalonia' and elsewhere by saying: 'George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is a book which I would rank alongside Spike Milligan's “Adolf Hitler: My part in His Downfall”, another interesting book by a footsoldier who played a small part in a much wider conflict'. Preston, has previously used this silly aside, more times than I care to remember: in a lecture years ago at the Imperial War Museum; on Radio Four's 'Start the Week' with Andrew Marr; on Radio 3's 'Night Waves'; again last year in an International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) talk at the People's History Museum, to mention a few of the many times over the last few years. 

At last Saturday's IBMT's event at the Manchester Conference Centre Jim Jump, the IBMT  Secretary, read from Professor Preston's written draft to an auditorium filled with about 300 (Prof. Preston was suffering from kidney stones and could not present his own paper), and again the old 'joke' about Orwell and Milligan was repeated together with the slight praise that the good Professor would place 'Homage to Catalonia' among his top one hundred books on the Spanish Civil War. Well the good Professor, like Tolstoy, can do a good put down, but Paul Preston is a far less skilled writer than the likes of Tolstoy or even Orwell, and despite his erudition with regard to the Spanish Civil War Preston often, it seems to me, displays a lack of grasp of the cultural anthropology of Spain and its peoples. Space won't allow me to elaborate what I mean here, but let me say that I am concerned about the contents of Chapter Two entitled 'Theorists of Extermination' in Professor Preston's recent book 'The Spanish Holocaust' that demonstrates to me that either Preston doesn't grasp the anthropology of Spanish culture and civilisation, or that he is deliberately dealing with it in a superficial way to justify his own hypothesis and his ideological standpoint.

Professor Preston challenges Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia' on the grounds that his eye-witness account as a footsoldier in the POUM Brigade represents a view with a limited and narrow perspective. Such a participant observer, it is argued, lacks a broad understanding of the overall nature of the war and its international consequences. Thus, we are told, Orwell's first-hand reports were those of a politically naïve footsoldier who couldn't speak Catalan: Orwell, we later learn, was fairly fluent in French and was promoted precisely because this knowledge gave him an advantage in understanding the Catalans. Orwell may initially have had a limited understanding of the origins of the Spanish Civil War, but by coming fresh to the conflict he was able to get under the skin of the participants thus coming to terms with the real world events on the ground, and to then see the war in microcosm. Academic critics, like Preston, like to say this is a fundamentally distorted and perverse view because it is so narrowly defined, and some argued that it is only because of Orwell's well crafted writing that he has had so much influence with his book being far and away the best seller on the Spanish war.  Timothy Garton Ash, the distinguished war journalist, has recently written that 'Homage to Catalonia' represents a 'gold standard' in war reporting which ought to be seen as a model for journalists, and Noam Chomsky while saying that it was Orwell's best book, has warned us against the snobbery of scholars and historians who affect an air of superiority when dealing with the accounts of participants in conflicts like the Spanish Civil War.

Clearly Paul Preston is not a writer of the quality of either Tolstoy or Orwell, but like Tolstoy in his treatment of Shakespeare, he has now in later life dedicated himself to debunking George Orwell's book on the Spanish Civil War. In doing so he is clearly flogging a dead horse, just as Tolstoy was with Shakespeare, for the one thing he cannot explain away is George Orwell's popularity. When he is questioned about this, we are left with the conclusion that the influence and success of Orwell's work, including 'Homage to Catalonia' is to do with the way his ideas were embraced by the Cold War Warriors in America in the 1950s. Tolstoy faced with the same problem of what he called 'the false glorification of Shakespeare', had to blame it on a conspiracy or delusion began in the 19th century owing to the machinations of certain German intellectuals like Goethe. Only Tolstoy on Shakespeare is able to see through the con-trick and grasp that he is not a simply not a genius but is 'a bad writer', and, in the same way, only Professor Preston, the 'definitive' historian on the Spanish Civil War, and a few of his cronies in academia, aren't taken in with the collective delusion that considers 'Homage to Catalonia' to be something other than a 'perverse' piece of war reportage.

1 comment:

barry said...

The following quotes from Geoge Orwells "Homage to Catalonia" ilustrate nicely the argument posited in the posting. "In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek litle professors are busy proving that socialism means no more than a planned state capitalism with the grab motive left intact...To the vast majority of people socialism means a classless society or it means nothing at all. The good luck of being among Spaniards with their innate decency and their ever present anarchist tinge would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had a chance". Orwell then referred in England to "the good party man, the gangster-gramaphone of continental politics as a rarity" "The notion of liquidating or eliminating everyone who happen to disagree with you does not yet seem natural.It seemed only too natural in Barcelona. After the May Days 1937, "The Stalinists were in the saddle". I would suggest that the learned Professor Preston reflects on these insightful comments which constitued a devastatin critique of Communism and Its "fellow travellers"