George Orwell & Empathy

As usual, George Orwell says it better than anybody. Here he is in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, asking his readers not to give up using coal, but just to recognize whose labor is providing them with coal. Nowadays I would only add to the coal miner all the people behind all of our conveniences; because if we aren’t willing to give some or all of the dependence and enjoyment derived from technology, infrastructure, culture, fast food, sports, and so much else, the least we can do is empathize with those behind the process who (like us) would rather spend our days doing something else.

The entire text of the book can be found here; the following comes from chapter two. And if his faith in Socialism in the second half of the book seems unfortunate nowadays, his description of coal miners and the unemployed in the north of England in the first seven chapters are still well worth reading.

***

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’—something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But-most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants—all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “George Orwell & Empathy

  1. I’m familiar with Orwell, specifically “Animal Farm,” but this is one that I never read. His timing is remarkable. He writes “if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution, the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal.” A year and a half after this book was published, WW2 began, despite some conflicts on smaller scales prior to 1939. I can only imagine from a miner’s perspective, suspecting that war was on the horizon across Europe.

    Even at my strongest, when I played tennis for 5 hours a day every day in school, I know I still couldn’t be a coal miner, let alone a pregnant one. I don’t think I ever had that kind of stamina to work in a dark, dank environment, as my lungs slowly died each day.

    Also a very timely post given the controversial commentary of Mrs. Clinton on dismantling the coal industry.

  2. Reblogged this on Write On Writers! and commented:
    A timely post by wordandsilence.com.

    I’m familiar with George Orwell, specifically “Animal Farm,” but his 1937 book “The Road to Wigan Pier” is one that I never read. His timing is remarkable. He writes “if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution, the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal.”

    A year and a half after this book was published, WW2 began, despite some conflicts on smaller scales prior to 1939. I can only imagine from a miner’s perspective, suspecting that war was on the horizon across Europe.
    Even at my strongest, when I played tennis for 5 hours a day every day in school, I know I still couldn’t be a coal miner, let alone a pregnant one. I don’t think I ever had that kind of stamina to work in a dark, dank environment, as my lungs slowly died each day.

    Also a very timely post by wordandsilence.com given the controversial commentary of Mrs. Clinton on dismantling the coal industry.

  3. Thanks Kimberly. I’ll post his descriptions of the miner’s day tomorrow. Like many people, Orwell couldn’t help but see the war coming. His two famous novels are good, but (at least for me) they don’t come close to his nonfiction, especially what he wrote during the war. (His series “As I Please” is better than any blog out there today) One of the best collections of his shorter essays and newspaper pieces is this book, which I’d recommend to anyone: https://www.amazon.com/Essays-Everymans-Library-Classics-Contemporary/dp/0375415033/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1474650987&sr=8-2&keywords=george+orwell+essays

  4. Pingback: George Orwell in the Coal Mines – word and silence

  5. It is nice Orwell is grateful for his coal and appreciates miners; but he doesn’t seem to really care how those miners suffer. As he said, “And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.”

    That is exactly the attitude that has brought the world to the brink of destruction by global warming. We must have and use oil no matter what happens as a consequence. Miners can go ahead and die from black lung and the ice caps can melt and this world become a sea with wild weather, as long as we can fly our planes, ship our goods and drive our cars.

    Orwell seemed to think he was superior to miners. How odd. He was just luckier.

  6. I actually don’t know of anyone who cared more about the miners, or the poor, than Orwell. Perhaps there were other writers in the 30s and 40s doing the same as he did, but his sense of empathy and sympathy (and his belief that something should be done for them) comes through every page. When he says “I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal,” he’s speaking cynically for the masses of people he knows just won’t care; he could see the horrid knots humanity puts itself through, in which without coal the miners wouldn’t have jobs (and the rest of the book is about the unemployed), but also, without coal all manner of his own transportation, writing, and publication about them would be radically altered, that without even meaning to be, he is involved in the sin; in the same way that we have internet and fast food and other workers all behind our conveniences, and yet we go on with our internet just the same. And he doesn’t think he’s superior to anybody; he’s one of the few people to at least admit that supposed “superior” people owe their every moment “to the lives of poor drudges underground.” Perhaps his writing only opened other peoples’ eyes to this fact, and didn’t lead to any political change; but even that is more that can be said for most people, who quite literally considered the poor and the miners to be something close to inhuman.

  7. There are so many jobs that we could replace the coal miners with – those workers who slave to bring us our electronic devices spring to mind. I suspect we would also say the same as Orwell that we would also let them do it rather than deprive ourselves. A challenging read

  8. Pingback: George Orwell & Empathy — word and silence – This Much I Know

  9. Rebooted this on This Much I Know and commented –
    In the midst of an amazing trip where we have had the privilege of doing and seeing so much, these words from the past ask a question of me that still needs answering today. As I write this on my iPad I am reminded of the plight of those who work in dreadful conditions churning out these technological wonders. Progress still comes with a terrible price just as it did in the time of coal. I need to remember whose labour is providing me with my lifestyle. What changes do I need to make so that my sympathy becomes empathy?

  10. My grandfather was an American WW2 Army soldier. He was 18 when he volunteered to enlist. I still wonder if he knew what that truly meant. And if many Americans also saw it coming our way eventually. Of course not specifically Pearl Harbor, but did they wonder when, not if, we would get brought into the fight?

  11. Last night, when I was thinking about your post, the thought came to me, “Was that satire?” Then I felt stupid. Thank you for giving me this explanation. I’m glad he brought the miner’s plight to people’s attention. It’s too bad something wasn’t done for them, although I suppose their working conditions are better now. Hopefully not killing them.

    I know we all benefit from electricity and gas. And I know that if the world got serious about the world and its melting ice-caps, millions would be affected in a negative way. We really need to go back to horse and buggy days and eat food that is grown near us. We need to go back to sailing ships and no plastic. But I know none of this will happen. The world will die by our own hands. They are fracking in my province and we had an earthquake. They said not to worry about the dam and reservoir in Vancouver. It’s five miles away! They won’t stop fracking until thousands of people die. Thanks again.

  12. Pingback: George Orwell & Empathy – worldviewsoftware's blog

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s