Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell, 1933
An Englishman starves in Paris before eventually getting a job as a
dishwasher. After following a friend to another restaurant, he can't
take the poor conditions anymore and writes to an acquaintance in London
for a job. Upon arrival, he discovers that the job won't start for another
month, obliging him to return for the duration to life as a homeless guy,
this time in his own country.
This is a weird little book. You can't really call it a memoir, because
it's fiction, but you also can't really call it a novel, because it's
basically plotless. I guess Orwell wanted to paint as accurate a picture
as he could of extreme poverty in 1930s Paris and London while leaving
himself free to conflate events and characters in a manner forbidden to
journalists. This makes Down and Out non-rigorous and therefore
pointless more readable than the vast majority of
journalism. Orwell's spare prose style does a pretty good job of
painting the scenes he sets forth, and his occasional interludes of
explicitly commenting on the problem of poverty are interesting and
One of Orwell's gifts is his ability to point out water to fish —
that is, we're all so immersed in our absurd economic system that we
don't even notice that it's absurd until someone like Orwell draws our
attention to it. Think about it: through a miraculously unlikely series
of subatomic blips, we are alive, and after 13.7 billion years of
oblivion, we get a few decades before returning to the void. What do
we do with our waking hours? Mostly our jobs. Now, if your job is
something that you actually want to do with your life, great. But say
you wait tables. Your job is not actually necessary — plenty of
restaurants, even some really extraordinary ones (such as my personal #1,
Di Fara Pizza), allow you to place your order and then pick up your food
at the counter. While there are some extremely high-end restaurants whose
chief draw is the service, at the overwhelming majority of restaurants
counter service would not really detract from the experience. But as
Orwell points out, hotels and restaurants are places "where a hundred
people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the
nose for things they do not really want."
There was, for instance, no great demand for microwaveable sausages,
wrapped in chocolate chip pancakes, on a stick. Someone created them
anyway. But evidently there was still not enough demand for them,
because every week my mailbox is crammed full of ads for crap like
this. They're printed on big sheets of newsprint that get wadded up
and stuffed in there — it's really annoying because I have to
stand there and sift through it in order to see whether there's any
real mail mixed in. No one looks at these things. Some of them get
recycled; most end up in the trash. Now, think about that. Think
about the lumberjacks who cut down the trees, the workers at the paper
mill who turned those trees into newsprint, the graphic designers
who laid out the page, the people at the chemical plant who mixed the
ink, the printers who ran off tens of thousands of copies, the mail
carriers who delivered them to each mailbox, the garbage collectors
who picked them up after they had been discarded unread... all of that
work was entirely useless. Seriously, you might as well have
just cut down the trees and thrown them directly into the landfill.
All of the people in this chain were paid for no reason. It would
be better for all concerned if they had been paid the same amount to
sit around and play Tetris.
But as Orwell observes, we live in a society that will pay people for
nothing only so long as there is some sort of toil involved. The down
and out have not disappeared; the streets are full of panhandlers and
other homeless people. But nowadays the debate over the poorest of the
poor has shrunk to question of how to get them jobs and whether tax cuts
will create jobs or whether job training is a better way to create jobs
and how trade policy affects jobs and who gets the jobs and oh did I
mention jobs ps jobs. People are so blinkered that it's really quite
wonderful to read Orwell stepping outside the narrow confines of acceptable
political discourse to point out that the idea of making work
is both perverse and proves that one's pay is orthogonal to one's
contribution to the world. "Last month you were standing at a freeway
offramp with a cardboard sign. Very bad! Now you're standing at the
entrance to a Wal-Mart nodding at the people who walk in. Much better!
Here's your paycheck. Don't spend that $400 all in one place. Sincerely,
a guy who sits at a desk nodding at people and makes $120,000 a year."
However, there are also some interesting bits that make it clear
that Orwell's society and ours do not line up. "Fear of the mob is
a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some
mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though
they were two different races, like negroes and white men." Wow.
I don't know what's more jarring, the reminder of European
homogeneity or the casual suggestion on the part of this supposed
egalitarian that there is some kind of "fundamental difference"
between races. In the US race and class are not so easily divorced;
indeed, class terminology is often used as code for race.
Orwell claims that "the average millionaire is only the average
dishwasher dressed in a new suit" and that no one would know the
difference if the two were switched. He says that "since there is no
difference between the mass of rich and poor, there is no question of
setting the mob loose" because "the mob is in fact loose now" "in the
shape of rich men." But when Orwell says this, he is imagining British
dishwashers changing places with British millionaires. That's not
how fear of the mob works in the United States. When Bill O'Reilly
freaks out about setting the mob loose, he's imagining brown people
changing places with white people. And while their character may
be the same, their culture is different, and people like O'Reilly
explicitly identify with the "white male Christian power structure"
find that prospect terrifying.
I also suspect that personal factors come into play here. Orwell
says that "everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows"
that they're just like the rich, but that "intelligent, cultivated
people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions,
never do mix with the poor" and therefore remain ignorant of the
essential equality between the classes. But one thing that is clear,
both in Down and Out and in the other works of Orwell's that I
have read, is that while he was educated, above all else he valued
what Patrick Farley termed
"the simple, sturdy pleasures of life." A drink at the pub, an
earthy story from the fellow sitting next to you, a smoke. (One thing
apparent in Down and Out is that the dude was f'ing obsessed
with tobacco.) If enjoyment of this stuff is what you're looking for,
then yes, you will find it among rich and poor alike. You may well find
that despite having gone to Eton you find many kindred spirits among the
dishwashers. But if your criteria are different...
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