Monday, July 27, 2009

Orwell Avenue, a Street We Visit in Our Mind (Or So We’d Like to Think)

While recently performing deep-dish research on that alleged movement to rename a portion of Houston’s Hillcroft Avenue after Mahatma Gandhi—we’d be surprised if we hear of this proposal again, but we’re usually wrong about these things—we had occasion to re-read Orwell’s “Reflections on Gandhi.” Orwell viewed Gandhi with some ambivalence: While he admired his political skills and shared his hatred of the Raj—has there been another Westerner who wrote with such a cold eye of the soul rot of imperialism?—he was baldly contemptuous of the old boy’s “otherworldliness”—his sandals (Orwell really, really disliked such unmanly footwear), his vegetarianism, his pacifism, and, mostly, his attachment to “non-attachment” (we know folks who would say Orwell misunderstood the concept; we know others who would say he understood it too well). We had forgotten this choice bit, regarding Gandhi’s, and others’, pacifism:

Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: "What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?" I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the "you're another" type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer's Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths.
In other words, Orwell recognized that Gandhi seemed to have the courage of his convictions, and was willing to see others die for them, even if those particular convictions were, to Orwell’s mind, abhorrent.

Orwell was writing in 1949, just two years after Indian independence and the outbreak of the still-simmering Hindu-Muslim hostilities, and in the end was moved to voice his admiration for Gandhi’s particular genius:

One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi's basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!
All of which has nothing whatsoever to do with the misguided effort to rename part of a well-traveled Houston thoroughfare after Gandhi, but we're feeling lethargic today, and Orwell is always timely.

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