(Return to Part IV)
Both bourgeoisie and proletariat are antebellum terms, but they may as well be antediluvian; describing things that existed before the Bolshevik revolution threw everything into doubt, WWI cut what was left to pieces, and the Great Depression burned reduced the remainder to rags and ash. Consider George Orwell considering Charles Dickens; two artists separated by the flood of those upheavals; already the flora and fauna of Dickens' thinking were as strange as Australia to Orwell.
The vivid pictures that he succeeds in leaving in one's memory are nearly always the pictures of things seen in leisure moments, in the coffee-rooms of country inns or through the windows of a stage-coach; the kind of things he notices are inn-signs, brass door-knockers, painted jugs, the interiors of shops and private houses, clothes, faces and, above all, food. Everything is seen from the consumer-angle.
What is most remarkable about Orwell's essay is not how alien Dickens is, it is how alien Orwell is. He belittles James Joyce for spending a decade on a novel about the "common man" that ends up being about a highbrow "Jew." And as familiar as his contempt for Dickens' foodie preoccupations may seem, he complaint wasn't that Dickens is a pretentious aesthete, or that he out of touch with the realities of what most people can afford, or even that Dickens is oblivious of the production system his dining requires. Orwell was complaining that Dickens is out of touch with manual labor. "He has an infallible moral sense" writes Orwell, "but very little intellectual curiosity. And here one comes upon something which really is an enormous deficiency in Dickens, something, that really does make the nineteenth century seem remote from us — that he has no idea of work."
This is the type of the Victorian happy ending — a vision of a huge, loving family of three or four generations, all crammed together in the same house and constantly multiplying, like a bed of oysters. What is striking about it is the utterly soft, sheltered, effortless life that it implies. It is not even a violent idleness, like Squire Western's. That is the significance of Dickens's urban background and his noninterest in the blackguardly-sporting military side of life. His heroes, once they had come into money and "settled down", would not only do no work; they would not even ride, hunt, shoot, fight duels, elope with actresses or lose money at the races. They would simply live at home in feather-bed respectability, and preferably next door to a blood-relation living exactly the same life.
I share Orwell's confusion at the idleness of the bourgeois ideal. But bridle at his contempt for consumers, "of people who are deeply civilized but not primarily useful." Orwell died in 1955, he didn't live long enough to see consumer culture, to witness the sort of work men, at once vulgar, and yet with no interest in "blackguardly", would do. To see how different they would be from a Snodgrass, Chuzzlewit, Pickwick, or a Nickleby. The end of history isn't peopled with virtuous hard fisted men with eyes to real work, it is overstuffed with the "deeply civilized but not primarily useful"; consumers are as different from the bourgeois as anyone had hoped, or feared, the communards would be. The big difference is consumers aren't capitalists, they work for a living.
According to Orwell, "in the typical Dickens novel, the deus ex machina enters with a bag of gold in the last chapter and the hero is absolved from further struggle... The ideal to be striven after, then, appears to be something like this: a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work." This is the ideal, at the end of the 19th century, of a class that emerged at the end of the 18th - a class that depended entirely on capital gains for their comforts. At the end of the 20th century this class began reconstituting itself. Mitt Romney and his Wall Street peers lobbied to be taxed at rates fare lower than Americans whose income comes from labor. The high prices commanded by art stars like Damien Hirst are often pointed to as an indication of artworld dysfunction. However, Hirst, who's rise accompanied Romney's, is in perfect step with his neo-liberal counterparts. While the bourgeois ideal may sound like the life most consumers hope for, and Hirst's highly branded art may look like consumer commodities, both are at odds with the economy that took shape in the years after Orwell's death. (To be continued...)
Shit is Fucked Up: Romney joking about being unemployed with a group of unemployed workers; Damien Hirst, The Golden Calf (2008)