Orwell and the Paranormal, by Philip Bounds

Orwell and the Paranormal, by Philip Bounds

George Orwell sometimes complained that the English were incapable of intellectual consistency. One of the areas in which his own inconsistencies were most fascinatingly on display was that of the paranormal. As an atheist who was deeply interested in the ethical, cultural and religious consequences of the decline of religious faith, Orwell might have been expected to eschew all talk of ghosts, mediumship and psychokinesis.

In fact he had a casual interest in such things that lasted for the whole of his adult life. While at Eton he famously tore the leg off an effigy of an older pupil called Philip Yorke, reacting with horror shortly afterwards when Yorke died of leukaemia. More than thirty years later one of his last book reviews was a respectful account of Jean Burton’s Heyday of a Wizard, a well-documented biography of the Victorian medium Daniel Dunglas Home.

In between came a fleeting encounter with a ghost in Walberswick cemetery, correspondence with Sacheverell Sitwell on the subject of poltergeists and several other brushes with the world of the unknown. Whatever else it might have done, Orwell’s atheism did not preclude the feeling that there was more in heaven and earth than was dreamed of in Bertrand Russell’s philosophy.

Why was Orwell interested in the paranormal? And to what did extent did his fascination with it relate to his wider intellectual concerns? His most deeply considered remarks about the paranormal grew out of his engagement with literary modernism.

Several of the British modernists were steeped in occultism and while most referred to it only sparingly, at least one of them – the notoriously credulous W.B. Yeats – based his entire life’s work on it. When Orwell examined paranormal themes in his writings on modernism, his approach was primarily that of an analyst of ideology. Like other socialist critics of his generation, he tried to explain how a belief in the occult intersected with modernism’s political prejudices. The most sustained work along these lines appeared in the essay on Yeats that was first published in Horizon in 1943.

Characterising Yeats’s political ‘tendency’ as fascist – perhaps a slightly unfair judgement – Orwell suggests that there are several reasons why a devotee of the far right might be attracted to occult doctrine. The first relates to the prevalence among initiates of a belief in what Orwell calls ‘our old friend, the cyclical universe’. With their insistence that history moves in cycles, occultists bolster the ultra-right’s most deeply cherished hope that the modern values of liberty, equality and fraternity will shortly be superseded by an older commitment to discipline, hierarchy and charity: ‘It does not much matter if the lower orders are getting above themselves, for, after all, we shall soon be returning to an age of tyranny’.1 Complementing all this is the deep strain of elitism among believers
in the paranormal. Just as fascists deplore democracy and advocate the rule of the few, so occultists believe that only a gifted minority can master the esoteric doctrines that make human self-transcendence possible. In a quasi-Nietzschean flourish, Orwell also argues that fascism and occultism are bound together by their ‘profound’ opposition to Christian values.

In the essay on Yeats, Orwell’s stance is that of the no-nonsense critic of occultism.

At one point he states quite clearly that Yeats’s beliefs are mere ‘hocus-pocus’. Nevertheless, there are a number of places in his work where he seems to toy with the idea that the paranormal can play a salutary role in modern life. I shall focus here on two especially suggestive examples, one from the early 1930s and one from the late 1940s. The first is a letter written to Dennis Collings in August 1931 while Orwell was on one of his down-and-out expeditions. Although Orwell’s main purpose is to describe the ghost which he claims to have encountered in Walberswick Cemetery, his letter derives its significance from the speed with which it moves back and forth between the mundane and supernatural. In the very first paragraph he says that he has not yet acquired any interesting information about the working classes – the ostensible purpose of his tramping expedition – only to launch into a nicely Gothic account of his ghostly visitor:

I wasn’t looking directly at it & so couldn’t make out more than that it was a man’s figure,
small & stooping, & dressed in lightish brown; I should have said a workman. I had the
impression that it glanced towards me in passing, but I made out nothing of the features. At the moment of its passing I thought nothing, but a few seconds later it struck me that the figure had made no noise, & I followed it out into the churchyard. There was no one in the churchyard, & no one within possible distance along the road – this was about 20 seconds after I had seen it… 2

Orwell concludes his description of the ghost with an abrupt explanation for what
had happened: ‘Presumably an hallucination’. Then he immediately returns to his experience of being down-and-out, informing Collings of his intention to go hop-picking and of his conversations with tramps. The whole letter foreshadows some of Orwell’s later writings on the fate of the imagination in the modern world. As is well known, Orwell often complained that the crisis-ridden atmosphere of modern life posed a terrible threat to the continuation of high culture. The twentieth-century’s hideous combination of wars, recessions and dictatorships forced sensitive men and women to immerse themselves in the grimmer side of life, in the process compromising their appreciation of what Matthew Arnold famously called the “best that has been thought and known“.

What Orwell appears to be doing in the letter to Collings is identifying the paranormal as a sort of minor specific against modernity’s woes. In ascribing the appearance of the ghost to the powers of his own mind – and in sandwiching his description of it between references to the penurious – he seems to affirm that the imagination can hold its own even in the most uninspiring of times. An encounter with a phantom in a provincial churchyard is no mere metaphysical anomaly but a symbol of hope.

There is another fascinating attempt to pit the paranormal against modern barbarism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s last major work. One of the most startling aspects of the novel is that its leading character sometimes seems to foresee the future. Winston has a vivid dream of the Golden Country before he ever sees it in the flesh, accurately predicts his incarceration in the Ministry of Love (“the place where there is no darkness“) and recognises that O’Brien has the ability to anticipate his train of thought.

One way of interpreting this little-noticed emphasis on precognition is to see it in the context of Orwell’s wider account of the metaphysics of totalitarianism. As O’Brien explains to Winston during his interrogation, Oceania’s government has a vested interest in disseminating an extreme form of philosophical idealism. Obsessed with continually rewriting history in order to prove its infallibility, it sedulously fosters the idea that the objective world is merely a projection of the human mind and that necessity can play no part in it. O’Brien’s message is that every event in the past, present and future is infinitely malleable and directly reflects the collective will of the Party:

…I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and
nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth.3

It is in this context that Winston’s ability to see into the future acquires its significance. If a man is capable of receiving information about the future by paranormal means, there is a sense in which the events he foresees must occur necessarily. To dream of an event years before it unfolds is to recognise that certain aspects of life are somehow mapped out in advance, even if others are not. That is why Winston’s precognitive gifts pose such a threat to Party doctrine. His dreams about the future show that there are some things even the Party cannot control. Governed in the final analysis by the laws of predestination, human beings are less in thrall to Big Brother than to an implacable fate.

It would be wrong to ascribe too much importance to Orwell’s relatively sparse references to the paranormal. For one thing it is by no means clear that he really believed in the existence of paranormal powers, though there is no doubt that he had a pronounced strain of superstition in his character. However, the point that needs emphasising is that his speculations about ghosts, occultism and precognition were intimately bound up with his broader themes. As much as they conflicted with his atheism, they allowed him to reinforce some of his most important arguments about literature, culture and the nature of political power.

They also seem to have brought him a certain amount of reassurance. Unlike the majority of his left-wing contemporaries with their dogmatic adherence to a materialist philosophy, Orwell felt uncomfortable with the thought that he lived in a world from which all traces of religious faith were being expunged. By invoking the paranormal he gave disguised expression to spiritual yearnings that otherwise he felt obliged to suppress. It is not necessary to believe in the paranormal oneself to feel glad that Orwell derived some comfort from it.

Originally published in the Orwell Society Newsletter, vol 1, January 2012, available in print form for members of the Society

1 George Orwell, Review of The Development of William Butler Yeats by V.K. Narayana Menon, Horizon, January 1943. Reprinted in The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. XIV: Keeping Our Little Corner Clean 1942-1943, edited by Peter Davison (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001), p. 282.
2 George Orwell, ‘Letter to Dennis Collings, 16 August 1931’ in The Complete Works of George Orwell Vol. X: A Kind of Compulsion 1903-1936, edited by Peter Davison (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), p. 211.
3 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Books, 2000), p. 261.

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