Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Two-Egg Man

As a non-card carrying member of the Orwell cult (a loose-knit, lower-case affiliation whose numbers include everyone from Thomas Pynchon down to, we're proud to say, our 19 year old), we were excited---interested is probably a better word---when an associate informed us last summer that the Orwell Prize Web site was to begin running entries from the great man's personal diary, each one posted online 70 years to the day after he first committed it to the long-outdated medium of paper. Since then we have peeked in occasionally at the Orwell Diaries to see what the old boy was up to back in 19-and-38, and we can report that his daily not-for-publication jottings fully reveal him to be the proto-hippie/survivalist/localist (who semi-famously despised proto-hippies) we had always pegged him for. They also confirm what is evident from even a cursory scan of The Road to Wigan Pier: that Orwell, the author who wrestled with the Big Issues of the 20th Century with greater honesty and equanimity than any of his English-speaking contemporaries, had more than a touch of the accountant in him.

At present the diaries find him in Morocco, where he went to recuperate after being shot in the throat while lighting a cigarette during the Spanish Civil War, and there he seems to be consumed with the minutiae of nature, machinery and social and agricultural custom. He records in detail, and diagrams, the local farmers' method of irrigation. He estimates the price of wheat he has purchased in "English dollars." The entry for Nov. 14, 1938 (or "14.11.38") reads, in its entirety, "Planted out nasturtiums." The previous day he reported seeing a "dead dog by the roadside. I am afraid the same one that came asking for food a few days back ... "

But what Orwell really found worthy of recording was the output of the hen, or hens, on the farm outside of Marrakesh where he was billeted. His Dec. 1 entry read:
Two eggs.
The Nov. 30 entry read:
Two eggs.
On Nov. 29:
One egg.
Nov. 28:
Two eggs.
Nov. 27:
One egg.
Nov. 25:
Two eggs.

As you might imagine, this dedicated daily accounting of egg production (while storm clouds massed over Europe, as we think we heard on a PBS documentary) has occasioned great hilarity among online commentators, whose postings are laced with the kind of late-modern snarkiness (some are too damn funny) we'd like to think Orwell would eschew, were he alive today and forced to take his smoke breaks on the sidewalk outside an office building.

Of course, these days Orwell probably would be diagnosed as an obsessive-compulsive depressive and coaxed into a regimen of medication and daily exercise after consulting with his primary care physician. But his diary entries---while far from scintillating reading---show a man who while publicly confronting imperialism, totalitarianism and the rampant phoniness of the Modern World remained privately engaged with the everyday, the ordinary, the basic. A remarkably sane man, in other words.

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