Our North American correspondent, Carol Biederstadt, recently attended a talk by Eric Laursen, who spoke about his new book on George Orwell and pacifism in the Second World War. She tells us about it now.
“Is There Such Thing As a Good War?”
Eric Laursen Speaks on The Duty to Stand Aside
by Carol Biederstadt
It at first struck me as ironic that Eric Laursen’s recent talk on his newly released book, The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort, would be taking place in Woodstock, New York. The term “hippie,” so commonly associated with Woodstock, had not yet been coined during Orwell’s time, but Orwell was clearly no hipster, as his contempt for the early counterculture proves: he famously scorned not only “Nancy boys” and vegetarians, but also “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England” (Orwell 174: could his list have been even longer if he had not imposed that final geographical constraint?), many of the types that likely gathered at Yasgur’s Farm those four momentous days back in 1969. On second thought, though, I realized Woodstock was actually the perfect location for a discussion of a book examining the relationship between two highly principled men concerned not only about the war against Germany, but also about the new world being forged in World War II; the ultimate goal of both men was peace, after all, even if their political views about how best to achieve this end differed dramatically.
The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY
Hosted by The Golden Notebook bookstore on August 18, Eric Laursen discussed his thoughts about the two men with a small group of Orwellites. Sadly, as bookshop owner Jackie Kellachan made a point of noting while introducing Laursen, one longstanding local fan of Orwell was missing from the event: Jay Wenk. A political activist, Woodstock councilman, and author of the self-published Study War No More: A Jewish Kid from Brooklyn Fights the Nazis (2010), Wenk passed away at 91 just three months before the Laursen reading. Still, Kellachan made it known he was there in spirit.
Following some speculation about whether Wenk might have corresponded with any of the key players in The Duty to Stand Aside, Laursen began his talk by explaining the inspiration for the book, describing how the concept had grown out of another project he is currently working on, a biography of Alex Comfort, the poet and physician who later wrote The Joy of Sex. While doing research for the upcoming bio, Laursen became interested in the Orwell-Comfort quarrel regarding the duty of writers during the war, a dispute carried out publicly in the pages of Partisan Review and Tribune long before Orwell and Comfort had penned their most well known titles. Orwell, of course, supported the effort to defeat fascism, deemed by many “a good war.” Comfort, on the other hand, opposed the war and is described by Laursen as “an anarchist and pacifist who distrusted his government’s intentions and worked to expose the warfare on civilians that it initiated as part of the struggle to defeat Hitler” (3). The Duty to Stand Aside, Laursen said, was an attempt to tease out not only the political differences between the two writers, but their differences as individuals as well.
Closely following the outline of the book, Laursen went on to discuss the complex relationship that developed between the two men: antagonistic at times, yet paradoxically, always one of mutual respect. Noting Orwell’s admiration for Comfort’s poetry, which Orwell spotlighted in his BBC radio broadcasts, Laursen pointed out that Orwell viewed Comfort’s fiction as pacifist propaganda; their quarrel, in fact, began when Adelphi published Orwell’s review of Comfort’s first novel, No Such Liberty (1941). The review makes Orwell’s own position clear:
You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you. . . . We only have the chance of choosing the lesser evil and of working for the establishment of a new kind of society in which common decency will again be possible. (qtd. in Laursen 42)
A dispute between the two men then ensued in a series of letters published in Partisan Review, reaching a crescendo with an exchange of caustic satirical poems – written in the style of Byron – that appeared in Tribune. Published under the pseudonym Obadiah Hornbooke, Comfort’s verse “Letter to an American Visitor” was followed by Orwell’s equally vitriolic “As One Non-Combatant to Another (A Letter to ‘Obadiah Hornbooke’).” (So clever were the poems, Laursen noted, that they were even anthologized in Philip Larkin’s 1973 Oxford Book of Twentieth- Century English Verse.) Despite their public animus, the two men exchanged cordial letters behind the scenes, and one such letter from Orwell even included an apology of sorts: “I am afraid I was rather rude to you in our Tribune set-to, but you yourself weren’t altogether polite to certain people” (qtd. in Laursen 59).
Eric Laursen at The Golden Notebook, photographed by Carol Biederstadt
Of particular interest was Laursen’s suggestion that their complex love-hate relationship may have had important implications; described in greater detail in his book, Laursen theorizes that Comfort’s writings as well as Orwell’s exchanges with Comfort might have influenced Orwell’s own works: “ . . . it is hard to read Nineteen Eighty-Four . . . and the articles and essays he produced in the postwar years alongside Comfort’s political writings from the same period and not be struck by the close parallels in the development of their thought.” Laursen concedes, however: “Nothing in their correspondence or in Orwell’s other published work confirms (or contradicts) this” (94).
A discussion of the Orwell-Comfort relationship would not have been complete, of course, without a reference to Orwell’s infamous list of the thirty-eight people “he suspected of being either Communists or morally squishy when it came to totalitarianism” (Laursen 114), and Laursen duly described what he referred to as the “final ironic twist to their relationship.” The so-called “snitch list,” which Orwell submitted to Celia Kirwan of the Foreign Office in May 1949, included the name of Alex Comfort, along with Orwell’s estimation of Comfort: “Is pacifist-anarchist. Main emphasis anti-British. Subjectively pro-German during war, appears temperamentally pro-totalitarian. Not morally courageous. Has a crippled hand. Very talented” (qtd. in Laursen 114). The complete list was not published until 2003, however, after Comfort had died, and Laursen noted that Comfort’s son, Nicholas, feels confident that his father never knew that Orwell had included him on the list. Recognizing the apparent contradiction about Orwell yet endeavoring to remain nonjudgmental, Laursen opined that Orwell likely thought “the Cold War against Stalin was as imperative as the war against Hitler”; still, Laursen made clear his feeling that in submitting the list to the Foreign Office, “he was putting people in jeopardy.” His thoughts on the matter are included in greater detail in the book:
Whatever he knew or thought he knew about some of the people on his list, Orwell seems to have been oblivious – or merely chose to ignore the fact that sharing his personal observations with a state intelligence service was quite different from attacking or sparring with his intellectual opponents in the pages of Tribune. What is most striking about the list as a text is how far it departs from the practice of a writer so often praised for the analytic precision of his prose and his intense concern about the misuse of language for political purposes. (116-17)
Laursen closed by sharing a few more of his own views, stating that in a war like World War II, pacifists such as Comfort were not actually protesting the war being fought at that time, but taking a stand against future wars instead. Giving his own verdict on the wartime quarrel of Orwell and Comfort, Laursen concluded that “Orwell won the battle,” for it was clearly necessary to oppose Hitler. Believing there exists a “need to take the activist role that Comfort envisaged,” however, he stated that in his opinion, Comfort had ultimately won their ideological war. He elaborates on this in the final pages of The Duty to Stand Aside, wherein he draws attention to the fact that whether or not current governments label a military action a “war,” modern assaults continue to sacrifice civilians. He cites, for example, Associated Press statistics that claim there were between 9,000 and 11,000 civilian casualties in the 2017 “assault against Islamic State forces in Mosul.” Still, he says, “[n]either the Iraqi government, the U.S.-led coalition, nor the Islamic state itself would acknowledge the numbers, even though most of them came from Mosul’s morgue” (151-52). Reflecting on this, he speculates:
If Comfort were alive, these revelations would have shocked but not surprised him, registering as yet another example of the irresponsibility of the State, carrying us one step further in the decline of sociability and another step toward barbarism. His answer would doubtless be the same one he offered during World War II and the nuclear buildup of the postwar decades: Be responsible. Disobey. (151-52)
Laursen, a journalist best known for his 2012 book The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan, makes no claim to be an Orwell scholar, and it was stimulating to hear the analysis and conclusions of one with a fresh perspective. Both the book and the discussion ended on thought-provoking but weighty topics, though, and I couldn’t help but wish Orwell had lived long enough to review Comfort’s most famous work, The Joy of Sex (1972). Orwell was notoriously awkward with women, after all, and one can only imagine what he would have had to say about Comfort’s “Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking.” One thing seems certain: Orwell’s musings on Comfort’s sex manual would no doubt have enabled Laursen to leaven the end of his discussion with a hefty dose of humor.
Laursen, Eric. The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort. AK Press, 2018.
—. “Is There Such Thing As a Good War?” 18 August 2018, The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY.
Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier. 1937. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958.
Uploaded September 2nd 2018