28 June, 2013

Down and Out in Paris and London: George Orwell

Poverty is a tricky notion; a state that cannot be empathised with or understood unless lived and experienced. Like hunger, it is often irresponsibly categorised (above vs.below poverty line?) but its experiential quality is perhaps never quite captured by such sweeping definitions. I have studied poverty, observed and documented it. But from lofty theoretical ideas, to my wide-eyed reflections of it, I have not known what it is to be poor. Drawing on his experiences of scavenging a living from dishwashing in Paris and shuttling from lodge to lodge in London in the late 1920s, George Orwell, introduces to his readers, life, as defined by poverty.
'It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty... You thought it would be simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.'
In this semi-autobiographical novel, Orwell wades into the world of human depravity. He takes the reader on a journey through the painfully dreary life of a plonguer (dishwasher) in Paris. From the numbing routine of working in steamy cellars, washing dishes till the mind is subdued into blankness, he charts his journey through hunger, desperation and utmost depravity. London, where he moves to because of the promise of a job, is worse. Here he discovers the treacherous life of a tramp: bug-infested beds, bitter cold, counting pennies and twenty men bathing in a tub of water.

The best parts of his journey are his anecdotes about fellow workers, scraping a living through menial jobs, lies and often thieving. Through the story we encounter Boris, a handicapped Russian refugee who helps Orwell secure a job as a plongeur, the lowest rung in the unforgiving hierarchy of the Parisian hospitality sector. In London, we meet Bozo, a 'screever' or pavement artist, who inspires some of the most profound passages in the book. Orwell narrates how Bozo considered begging to be below him and made cartoons that were commentaries on current political and social events. However, like the life of the poor, the fate of these cartoons were in constant flux; erased either by rain or an errant police man.

Most critically, the story is not a mere chronicle of life and times in the poor of London and Paris. Orwell goes further and questions Society and its need for plongeurs and tramps. He breaks down the romanticisation of poverty and exposes hunger and boredom, hopelessness and a deadening of aspirations. He questions why money has become 'a grand test for virtue'. Almost a century later, we are still asking the same questions.
'You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing...You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs...The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually.'

2 comments:

  1. "I have studied poverty, observed and documented it. But from lofty theoretical ideas, to my wide-eyed reflections of it, I have not known what it is to be poor."

    very interesting indeed...

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    Replies
    1. Anonymous7:48 AM

      Interesting? Experience it my good sir and you'll never find it interesting again. I'd like to disagree though that poverty is complicated. Its in fact extremely simple in the aspect that you're too occupied to worry about anything except trying to land that next meal for the gravity of its misery to actually dawn on you. Fortunately, I never went hungry for longer than a day or two, and never hit that rock bottom of despair. The only statement hence, which I can personally resonate to, is that its impossible to know what it is to be poor.

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