However, since hypocrisy is a pet hate of ours over here at Obscene Desserts, and something we both have a hard time taking as a positive character trait, I feel the need to comment.
Runciman begins by drawing attention to these pathologically confessional times of ours (which have recently reached their carnivalesque nadir with the publication of Cherie Blair’s tell-all blah-blah). Our problem with Gordon Brown, he suggests, is that he does not fit the bill of showbiz politicians like George W., Obama and our Tone, with their insufferable populist pseudo-honesty (after all, who knows whether they're not just being drama queens?).
In this climate, a person like Gordon Brown can but fail. The PM's voluntary exposure in the confessional media circus tends to result in embarrassing clumsiness, which one can either despise or read as a sign of his hypocrisy (i.e. he’s not genuine, he has something to hide). Runciman, by contrast, construes Brown’s blatantly unmediagenic style as a positive symptom of unease about contemporary political culture, which in turn betokens the secret – "the deep" – Gordon behind the public mask.
Fair enough. I too am sick to death of public personae forcing intimate details of their sorry lives upon me (from the texture of their bodily fluids to the kinky stuff they like to do in their spare time – it’s spare time, so would you please keep it private?). I really don’t care about “what happened at Balmoral” and whether Cherie favours banana-flavoured jiffies – but after my daily online dose of the British press (and I don’t mean the tabloids) one can’t help not knowing. My brain-cup overfloweth with the Snowdon of bullshit which “respectable papers” heap up as “valuable” information these days.
Runciman’s critical overture is followed by a longish discussion of George Orwell, whom he is at pains to co-opt to his defence of hypocrisy. Orwell according to Runciman was “an anti-hypocrite for whom there were worse things than hypocrisy.” Obviously, this defiant rejection of the popular image of Orwell as the incarnation of absolute moral honesty and plain speech is meant as a stab at people who endorse this view, such as Christopher Hitchens, whom Runciman doesn't seem to find all that cuddly.
Fair enough, too. We all know (or should know) how difficult it is to uphold one’s high moral standards as an instinct-driven animal surrounded by other, equally instinct-driven animals and there is no reason to believe that Eric Arthur B. was an exception to this rule of animal urges.
Nevertheless, I can’t help finding Runciman’s argument … dodgy, to say the least. So let's look at it a little more closely.
Given Orwell’s first-hand experience with British Imperialism (in which the imperial police officer in Burma was hopelessly – albeit critically – entangled), Runciman goes on to explain, Orwell not only accepted a certain, “sustainable” form of hypocrisy as an unavoidable trait of liberal democracy, he also thought that such a strategic hypocrisy is infinitely preferable to its radical opposite – absolute sincerity. Compared to this terrible sincerity, hypocrisy is not only the lesser evil, one might in fact take it positively, as a quasi-heroic act of resistance (these are ot Runciman's terms, but this seems to me to be the gist of his article).
Consider fascism, Runciman says, which, in ruthlessly promoting an all-engulfing ideology that infiltrates every nook and cranny of private life, eliminates the possibility of hypocrisy (in the Runciman sense of self-determined action).
To elaborate on this point, Runciman quotes from Orwell’s novel 1939 Coming Up For Air (nice touch: I love this sadly underrated book). The passage he refers to is one where the protagonist, George Bowling, attends an anti-fascist lecture. Having listened to a barrage of ideological claptrap in a half-empty auditorium, Bowling comments on the speaker:
Which leads Runciman to make a big leap from this lesser known novel by Orwell to (arguably) his most famous one:
Interesting to know a chap like that in private life. But does he have a private life? Or does he only go round from platform to platform, working up hatred? Perhaps even his dreams are slogans.
The scene from Coming Up for Air also foreshadows a theme of , which is what it might mean not to have a private life, not to have anything held back or reserved, but simply to be the slogans that one is forced to spout through and through. In such a world, hypocrisy would not simply be valuable, it would in a sense represent the ultimate value, because its precondition is having something to hide. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a description of a world in which hypocrisy has become impossible.Two points need to be made here. First of all, wherever did Runciman get the stupid idea from that fascism destroys hypocrisy? Granted, total transparency might have be an officially-desired by-product of Nazi Gleichschaltung (as indeed of any utopian-totalitarian system), but how encompassing was this desired transparency in Nazi Germany really? Runciman here seems to confuse Nazi propaganda with real life in Nazi Germany, in a way that seems entirely typical of the British obsession with this historical period.
But just because Joe Bloggs thinks that German life between 1933 and 1945 was completely suffused with Nazi ideology (in fact there seem to be quite a few Joe Bloggs around who believe that German life in 2008 continues to be suffused with Nazi ideology), does not mean that academics should also have licence to do so.
All the more so, as this conflation comes at a price. Runciman here seems to overlook Nazism’s distinct ability to foster and exploit the human capacity for hypocrisy: from the averted eye in the face of everyday violence to stockpiling spoils from confiscated Jewish property for personal gain – not to mention the hypocritical official line of the two Christian denominations (For a complex analysis of the position of the Church in Nazi Germany see Chapter 3 of Richard J. Evans’s The Third Reich in Power).
Secondly (and here’s the literary scholar speaking, who hates it when people plunder literary texts to illustrate their non-literary arguments): I really think that Runciman misreads Coming Up for Air, or at least that he doesn't read it fully. It is true, the notion of “keeping things private” expresses Bowling’s own guiding principle in life, but the novel also points out that it is precisely this attitude that gets him into trouble, especially with his forever nagging wife Hilda. The whole novel hinges on Bowling's clandestine trip - in a bout of middle-age nostalgia and with the aid of money won on a horse (without the wife knowing, of course) - to his childhood village of Lower Binfield. The frustrations of his journey down memory lane herald the domestic catastrophe to come.
When he is found out, Bowling briefly tries to explain, but Hilda’s stubborn refusal to listen to him leads him to back down and choose “the line of least resistance” instead. The novel ends with him listing the three options available to him in this situation:
A. To tell her what I’d really been doing and somehow make her believeFrom Runciman’s perspective, Orwell would have to favour option C.: Keeping one’s peace by remaining silent, even when the need to explain oneself is urgent (along the lines of: "Screw Hilda, I know what’s the truth, and that’ll do me"). The open end of Orwell’s novel potentially affirms this interpretation.
B. To pull the old gag about losing my memory.
C. To let her go on thinking it was a woman, and take my medicine.
But, damn it! I knew which it would have to be.
But there is a deeper undertone to Bowling's concluding post-adolescent sulk. For what might work in Bowling’s private life is a different thing in reality. Written on the eve of WWII, Coming Up For Air is an alarm cry against the protagonist’s complacency, which may be read allegorically, as the embodiment of a particularly British attitude or even Britain itself (George Bowling - "GB" - know what I mean?). In the particular historical context in which the novel is written and set, taking the line of least resistance means accepting the possibility of global catastrophe.
Moreover, as we say in Eng Lit: never conflate author and narrator! Clearly, Bowling does not ventriloquise Orwell's view when he seeks refuge in his own mediocrity:
And what’ll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England? The truth is it probably won’t make the slightest difference. As for the lecturer and those four Communists in the audience, yes, it’ll make plenty of difference to them. They’ll be smashing faces, or having their own smashed, according to who’s winning. But the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as usual.This statement would seem to be a full endorsement of Runciman’s idea of hypocrisy. But “George Bowling Hero” is certainly not the message of Orwell’s book. Instead of a latter-day St. George, he is a very British Everyman ready to put up with anything as long as his little life remains intact: “Who’d bother about a chap like me? I’m too fat to be a political suspect.”
Only Bowling’s latent anxieties give reason for hope. Only his fears suggest that he might muster some kind of courage if push comes to shove:
And yet it frightens me. The barbed wire! The slogans! The enormous faces! The cork-lined cellars where the executioner plugs you from behind!The novel is clear about this: in order to prevent such things from happening, one must be ready to act – and in all honesty. In a world of cork-lined execution chambers, there is no space for hypocrisy.
But, come to think of it, there isn't any in an environment of mollycoddled post-capitalism either.