I don’t recall sharing this with you (‘you’ because I believe you are the only one to read this particular blog, but maybe you aren’t and maybe other ‘you’s are reading this and trying to figure out how they are the ‘you’ that has warranted such individual attention) but perhaps I did share it with you and just don’t recall. Either way, it’s here, with my more “blog-worthy” pieces. True it was a homework assignment, and a response at that. But I think it manages to stand alone (and if there are any ‘you’s present who have not read Orwell’s essays, let me know if my essay fails miserably -or even just slightly- as a stand-alone piece) and aside from that, it makes mention of that particular ‘you’ that I originally intended to address, and some delightful times that we shared together. That’s all. On to the good stuff. :)
Life, Death, and Honesty
A Response to Orwell’s Marrakech
I am sitting on the front porch of my boyfriend’s grandmother’s ranch house. The two lane highway in front of it reverberates the sound of traffic occasionally, but other than that there is stillness. Stillness in the suburbia understanding of it. Really it isn’t still at all. A wind chime drifts back and forth, hardly enough to release any sound. The birds make up for that though. I haven’t heard birds like this in a long time. The land is flat around me. It is rented out to farmers. In the distance the San Gabriel Mountains rise to cloak the valley. Across the highway green is patterned over the soil. A white pick-up is the only contrast and nearby it is a man, bent over. There may be more, but his slow-moving body is the only one that catches my eye, a shadow more or less. It didn’t occur to me to wave, though if someone was walking the street, it might. Orwell calls them “undifferentiated brown stuff” (78). “All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important work they do, the less visible they are” (79). The truckers along Interstate 5 go unnoticed too, unless they barrel into my lane to slow me down. Right now I am surprised at the slowness. More than that, I am surprised at my appreciation of the slowness. The sky is still, the North East wind that was chilling my home just last night is nonexistent here.
The natives go unnoticed, because to notice them would do two things. First, it would acknowledge their poverty. To acknowledge their poverty would demand confronting it or would reveal the true heartlessness and selfishness behind the ignorance. Second, it would give credit to those working hands. To give them that recognition would demand credit along with it. Esteem even, for doing the work on which the world revolves. To give credit and esteem to them would require taking credit and esteem given elsewhere, to those who deserve it less but need it more. The Jews of Marrakech were noticed and hated. The natives couldn’t be hated because to hate the natives would be to hate their very land and the products of the land, which could not be done.
In the afternoon my boyfriend and I walk down a hard-packed dirt road, irrigation channels on one side of us, silage sprouts on the other. A pick-up truck passes us from behind, this one the same color as the earth and the same color as the driver and his passenger. They reach the end of the road before of us, the end of the fields, and the back fence of my boyfriend’s grandmother’s house. I watch them for a moment, but then watch the sky. It comes alive as a flock of birds rise, like a quilt being shaken out in the breeze, before laying smooth on the ground again, as they land and disappear into the branches of a pine tree. When we near the turnoff to the gate of the fence I realize the men were still a part of the landscape, moving fluidly with the forced streams of murky, nurturing water. We walk past them, both of them out the truck and wading with their galoshes in the irrigation channels, adjusting pipes. I hesitate before handing off an abrupt, congenial greeting when we had almost passed them. I try to justify my hesitation by convincing myself it is because I don’t expect them to speak my language. Greetings are greetings though. The nod and half smile translate in any language, I believe.
“Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” Orwell explains in Politics and the English Language (86). Socially acceptable language too, so it seems. Nods and “hellos” out of compulsion to politeness contain only a deeply buried sincerity, and that sincerity not to the individual interaction but to some obligatory duty to our democratic catch-phrases. Orwell’s sincerity is arresting because of his innate sincerity to humanity, a recognition that we cloud over with our experiences, a recognition that we all have mouths and ears and a heart. Looking at a single human life without a context, in A Hanging, Orwell cannot justify the taking of human life. In Marrakech Orwell chooses an intriguing order to his vignettes. Unlike the natural way of thinking, he begins his essay with death, not ends it. Death is not the end of poverty, it is the entire shaping of such an existence. It is death that the impoverished experience first hand, a forced daily death to self, a death to society from the point of birth. It is their constant reality. Their poverty, especially under oppression, can’t grand them any sort of life, only rob it day by day through filth and disease. After referring to the poverty-stricken natives as “undifferentiated brown stuff” and noting their lack of individuality, Orwell goes on to describe, “They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone” (79). Those who can claim the most nativity to Southern California, if only because they most closely interact with the earth itself, can at least gain some recognition in their death. The most beautiful graveyards and headstones that I have ever seen were along California’s coast, veiled within the adobe walls of the Spanish missions. The Mexicans carry on this Catholic heritage of revering those lives passed on. Even the true natives of America embraced an enriched spiritual life where death and life often overlapped. The Native Americans, I would gather, never acknowledged poverty until the Europeans encroached on their land and invoked it upon them through oppression and tyranny.
Those who work the land, the source of life and the sustenance of life, become a very part of the land in their life and their death. Orwell discloses from his experience, “You notice that it is rather bumpy underfoot, and only a certain regularity in the bumps tells you that you are walking over skeletons” (79). Do the regularities of produce shipments to the grocery stores, of semi-trucks present on the highway, of wide green patchwork alongside the highway tell us of those being walked over, skeletons even as they live? The wind picked up by evening, not enough though to prevent the outdoor grilling of steak. Inside the house, solidity rang out through laughter and fellowship. Laborers were hardly on my mind any longer. Death and lies are frightening, but they can be ignored and become invisible. When I was younger I used to count the Mexicans standing on the street corners. Now I forget they are there. They aren’t our natives but in a way maybe their situation is worse because they came here for hope to escape the oppression of their native land and found just another oppressed invisibility. They also become viewed like the Jews in Marrakech, disrupting our economy and stealing our jobs. I don’t see any Caucasians standing on street corners to dig holes and pour concrete. But still they are offensive and intruding. I can scrape the surface of honesty but I can’t begin my essay confronting death. That is too harsh and I can’t be that real.