Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Benefits of Classic Books

At the beginning of World War II, George Orwell started an essay off, as German bombs fell in his neighborhood. It was a scary time for the Brits. His essay was full of a determined optimism. He concluded with a prophecy of how the war would go:
...but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.
That sentence knocked me over, when I first read it. Looking back at it later, I wondered why it made such an impression. After all, it essentially says what the old proverb does: 'the more things change, the more they stay the same.'

Although there is some historical glamor to discovering some "new" truth, this experience reminds an individual how exciting (and more frequent) it can be to rediscover an old truth. Old truths become uninspiring as they devolve into bumper sticker slogans and one-liners. They become stale clich├ęs.

An individual must stretch to see their own particular experiences as a thinly-disguised reprise of something larger and more universal. For instance I play with that idea when mountain biking in the western states, by seeing the mountain biker as the reincarnation of the cowboy-era archetype of the 'lone rider of the plains', who in turn was just a reincarnation of the European knight-errant of the Middle Ages.

I doubt that motor-sport people appreciate that connection. They probably think that a mountain biker is just a health nut/exercise puritan.

Do you think that they see their sport as the reinvention of something noble and timeless? Perhaps they do, but I can't imagine what it would be.

More generally, creative re-invention is the purpose of reading classic books, quite unlike many people's notion that one reads them just for the snob appeal, or as a form of literary ancestor worship. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Why Do Road Tramps Talk Shop So Much?

I go back and forth when using quotes from classic books, that is, I give an anecdote from my own life that seems to illustrate the principle described in the quote. Perhaps some readers would prefer that I just give a juicy, classic quote, without watering it down with my own stuff. Hopefully it adds 'value' to intercalate my own experiences with the quote.


Recall George Orwell's "The Spike", 1931, written about his experience in homeless shelters with smelly bums:
There was nothing to talk about except the petty gossip of the road, the good and bad spikes, the charitable and uncharitable counties, the iniquities of the police and the Salvation Army. Tramps hardly ever get away from these subjects; they talk, as it were, nothing but shop. They have nothing worthy to be called conversation, bemused emptiness of belly leaves no speculation in their souls. The world is too much with them. Their next meal is never quite secure, and so they cannot think of anything except the next meal.
It brought a wry smile to my face to think of Orwell's thoughts as I camp near Quartzsite, at this time of year. This must be the limiting case of "tramps" talking shop, even if they are bourgeois tramps, instead of the smelly kind that Orwell was writing about.

If you look for it, you could probably find an affinity group for people who own, say, the 'Bloat-box' brand of RVs. They are all convinced that their rig is unique because the color scheme uses a certain shade of blue-gray that swoops downward -- instead of upward -- towards the front of the rig. You would not make a new friend if you pointed out that 'Bloat Box' uses the same top-tier suppliers as the rest of the industry, that is, Ford, Atwood, Norcold, Dometic, etc. 

The existence of these affinity groups is a testament to human nature: people can't relate to hordes of people. They want a community, a tribe, of manageable size. And it has to be based on some sort of commonality. Let's be optimistic and hope that there are better ways to find your tribe, someday.

Still, why all the shop talk? RVers aren't living on the edge, as Orwell's tramps were. They are wallowing in modern comforts. And yet they act like they are just hanging in there.

Is it because the RV industry pulls in such ultra-bourgeois people, so obsessed with their comforts and status symbols, and so timid and indoorsy, that they are fool enough to think they are having an "adventure," instead of merely pissing away their children's inheritance?

Friday, January 6, 2017

George Orwell Camps in Quartzsite

Rereading some essays of George Orwell, I really appreciate how much the world lost when he died so young. Why has it been so enjoyable to read him?  It isn't just for his opinions.

Much of the credit goes to his adventuresome life of poverty, suffering, war, and wide travel. He is like Jack London in that sense. There is a manliness to a writer who hasn't spent all of his life in a parlor, drinking tea with dowagers and maiden aunts; in the bubble of a college town, writing research grants to the Ministry of Culture; or at a desk job, stamping paper with "Approved!" Such a life is necessary in order to write about life instead of books, and things (processes and actions) instead of words.

The refreshment that the reader feels may result from the healthy balance in Orwell's writing. Although he aims his pen at interesting experiences in the real world, he never drowns in the minutiae of concreteness. Each observation seems well-chosen and pregnant with a wider significance. His writing is at its best when he holds back from explicitly pounding at this wider significance, but instead, unselfishly allows the reader to finish the job. 
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Let's take an apparent digression from Orwell, before returning to him. Currently I am camping in a lightly regulated area. All in all, I love this feature. But of course it means the accretion of an unsavory clientele.



At such a place once, a fellow camper and I had a laugh at how prejudiced a camper can be against a rig different from their own. The prejudice works in both directions, but it is especially aimed at a less expensive rig. 

For instance, I feel "creepie" every time I drive by two car-campers in my area, despite them being quiet and unobtrusive. Seldom does it occur to me that people in expensive motorhomes feel the same when they see my converted cargo trailer!
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Orwell wrote about an experience he had as a young man, staying at a Salvation Army-like mission with a bunch of smelly bums. ("The Spike", 1931.)

To occupy the time I talked with a rather superior tramp, a young carpenter who wore a collar and tie, and was on the road, he said, for lack of a set of tools. He kept a little aloof from the other tramps, and held himself more like a free man than a casual. He had literary tastes, too, and carried one of Scott's novels on all his wanderings. He told me he never entered a spike [a shelter for the bums] unless driven there by hunger, sleeping under hedges and behind ricks in preference.
This is exactly what I was experiencing, so it gave me a good laugh. It also brought to mind the odd rigs and 'rubber tramps' who hang out in Quartzsite at this time of year.
We talked of life on the road. He criticized the system which makes a tramp spend fourteen hours a day in the spike, and the other ten in walking and dodging the police...

...and at that he changed his tune immediately. I saw that I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman. Though he had been famished, along with the rest, he at once saw reasons why the food should have been thrown away rather than given to the tramps. He admonished me quite severely.
'You don't want to have any pity on these tramps--scum, they are. You don't want to judge them by the same standards as men like you and me. They're scum, just scum.'

It was interesting to see how subtly he disassociated himself from his fellow tramps. He has been on the road six months, but in the sight of God, he seemed to imply, he was not a tramp. His body might be in the spike, but his spirit soared far away, in the pure aether of the middle classes.
I cackled with glee when I read this. Here I was, a genteel tramp living in a converted cargo trailer, turning up his nose at 'van tramps' and car-campers! It is delightful to read a classic book and then get lucky at applying it to my own life.