Below the Surface: Reading Burmese Days

George Orwell’s first novel Burmese Days (1934) is preceded by a quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It: ‘That in this desert inaccessible, Under the shade of melancholy boughs’. This spoken after Jacques encounter with the clown Touchstone. And so, In Burmese Days as John Flory occupies deepest Burma, in the wilderness of British Colonialism, Flory exists in a place of remote despotism – Burma ruled by the British Empire. As Orwell reflects on the empire supposed to be Great, we’re reminded of Touchstone’s later remark in the play ‘And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot’ which sounds even more poignant. The Empire for Orwell, was both a source of enrichment and poison.

Perhaps there is something in that sense of delay, of Orwell not giving that more urgent precedent. The Empire was rotting or a rot as Orwell saw it, and it was not a method of ‘ripening’ or enlivening humanity. But for something to rot it means that there is still action, change and transformation; something is living, even though it may not be the thing itself. As bacteria eats away at the dying, essentially, the thing has ceased to exist yet. Orwell said in 1929, under his real name of Eric Blair, in a French newspaper ‘The government of all the Indian provinces under the control of the British Empire is of necessity despotic, because only the threat of force can subdue a population of several million subjects. But this despotism is latent. It hides behind a mask of democrac’. Whilst decay may be obvious, we’ve all heard the case of the ‘rotten apple’, not knowingly unhealthy until we’ve bitten into it, or as Orwell said there – revealed its mask.

Burmese Days is a bite into that apple. It is set within the British Raj, living inside its processes and contradictions, based partly on Orwell’s experiences in the military police whilst in Burma, and in the words of Orwell, ‘much of it is simply reporting what I saw’ (although admitting that most of it was inaccurate). We know now to be careful of how we interpret Orwell’s matter-of-fact statements, a man who has written fictions about ideologies, cannot simply be reporting what he has seen. Before Orwell was stationed in Burma , Emma Larkin in the introduction to the 2009 edition, and author of Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell In a Burmese Tea Shop, notes how Orwell was a ‘typical child of the empire’ and ‘enjoyed the decadence of the ruling class in Burma’. For Orwell to say it was ‘simply reporting what he saw’ is arguably one of the several tongue in cheek remarks he made about his fiction and in his non-fiction. However you take it, what Orwell saw in Burma was a formalising element for his fiction and perhaps his non-fiction as well.
It focuses on John Flory – not a wholly semi-autobiographical account for Orwell despite sharing particular traits and looks – a 35 year old teak merchant in the fictional district of Kyauktada. Here, the Europeans have higher prestige over the Burmese, which the Burmese submissively recognise. Zadie Smith remarked how Middlemarch despite its size physically and metaphysically, was weirdly and obsessively local. Here, Orwell seems to share that very British trait. Local politics naturally reflect global ones, and Orwell seems to have the very British fascination with locality. U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate plans to destroy the reputation of the Indian Doctor Veraswami, because of the election to the European club, and it is the chalice that they ultimately both desire, and Veraswami, in a non-exploitative way hopes his friendship with Flory will get him there. Flory and Veraswami then is quite an unconventional relationship as Veraswami, the native and the oppressed defends the Raj to Flory, the oppressor’s, disdain.

In Flory, it is not so much a biographical device, but it does feel like an abstracted Orwell, the roaming spectator of a man who could eventually write 1984 and Animal Farm. Certainly, early incarnations of Orwell’s ideas appear to be prevalent; Flory is ‘the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature’ which is something that could have been taken from 1984. With Orwell, his prophecies of totalitarianism were often attributed to the rise of fascist states in Germany and Russia, but it’s evident that the warnings come from much closer to home. There is the irony and contradiction again. Orwell was a series of contradictions and the Empire was an ultimate contradiction for him, to at one time in life to enjoy its decadence that it afforded, but to realise its penury later.
Let’s look at the prevailing and obvious motif in Burmese Days –  Flory’s birthmark, a large physical aspect of Flory’s appearance. It’s given an introduction by Orwell worthy of being its own separate character: ‘the first thing that one noticed in Flory was hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth…And all the times when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he maneouvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight’. And keep it out of sight he does, quite implausibly throughout apart from one important moment, which is the enduring, impossible irony. Whilst Flory shares some aspects of Orwell’s appearance, the birthmark represents that token of appearance that is central to life in Kyauktada – skin colour – but also its obviousness means that it’s something more than that. As Larkin states in the introduction, the birthmark marks represents that personal emblem, that love he had of a child, unwittingly not knowing the implications of it, yet that stays with him. A ‘child of the empire’ she calls him and and whether Larkin chose those words purposefully there is an unsettling of coincidence if she did not.
A birthmark is irremovable, they can fade or become more noticeable through several factors, but where white skin supremacy is prevalent throughout Kyauktada, is it then Flory’s or a projection of Orwell’s blemish? Is it that sense of rotting or of there being something beneath the veneer? In this sense I think Orwell shares something with later Philip Roth, this explicitly male fascination that Burmese Days upholds, the revulsion but also the wonder of the messy contradictions of humanity (admittedly, mostly male). With Flory made to bear it and take part in it, he is the only redeeming white man at the European club, despite him still being part of it. It’s only personal that he seems to be able to rebuke it. Like Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, he wears his stain on the outside (unlike a novel such as The Plot Against America the stain is within: the narrator, a young Philip Roth, bears witness to the many different males in his world wondering what to revile and what to admire and eventually becomes externalised).
Time has not done a great service to Orwell, which is ironic, as he was a man who had an ability to resurrect or sustain disregarded writers through his own criticism. Perhaps this is because Orwell is a writer who can be taken upon any mantle to prove a point; at times he appears to revile against individualism, but then at others, he only sees futility in a collective state, and an inevitable descent into totalitarianism. As such his verbatim quotations are ravaged out of their context to support any argument. But I think this is a fate Orwell would have taken a humorous satisfaction in; he was a writer at home with contradictions and realised that from contradictions, there emanated truths. We all know of his essays on writing and perhaps most famously, Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, some years after Burmese Day, where he wrote of prose being like a ‘windowpane’, and ‘not choosing long words where short ones will do’. These are all quite idealistic, even juvenile mantras, largely dismissed even. But instead, reading them now, after my own, probably juvenile fascination, they represent a way of saying that the truth is not so easily obtainable as reducing writing to simplicity, but there is not necessarily any greater or higher artistic truth to be gained either.

And if you look at Burmese Days, the novel represents a lesson in that. As Orwell said in Why I Write ‘I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…. is rather that kind of book’. It was an experiment in contradiction. Orwell’s biographer D.J Taylor said ‘the most striking thing about the novel is the extravagance of its language: a riot of rococo imagery that gets dangerously out of hand’ and then you start to see the formula behind Why I Write. Like his experience of the Empire, it was as if Orwell did not want to gloss these truths for the sake of an artistic truth, for the sake of imagery, because that was what he was riling against in the first place. Perhaps then Marcellus’s line from Hamlet would have been a more appropriate epitaph: ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark’, substituting Denmark for Burma. There was something rotten in the state of the world, and Orwell realised by the end of Burmese Days that there was no point in concealing it. Like Kyauktada, Orwell realised that beneath the skin, of which our imperialised world based itself on, was the messy world of humanity, a world of flaws, contradictions and painful truths: we have to be thankful that writers like Orwell were willing to confront this, because often we cannot do it ourselves and for good, life-affirming intentions. Orwell was willing to bear his own failures of belief and conviction. It wasn’t flaws in his writing (although sometimes it was), but one can feel the flaws felt personal, even if they were detached and removed from himself, problems with the world; a realisation that fiction can only go so for in correcting our internal world, sublimating it into an understanding for ourselvesbut only going as far as illuminating the outer, proper world.


Daleks, Orwell, and the Power of Language.

Over the decades, famed Doctor Who villains the Dalek’s have proved to be impervious to the challenges threatening them; stairs, the Doctor himself, a tellytubby style makeover in the new series, complete obliteration, being written out, and BBC cuts, because they keep returning no matter what challenges there are to their fictional life as the Doctors enemy, or to their reputation as salt shaker looking, overly used props. They keep returning, and despite producer Steven Moffat saying that he was shelving them for a while, they returned after a very brief period in the warehouse.


However, what castigated my interest in them was not just the imminent return of them, but a podcast from The Philosophers Stone. In fact it didn’t really inspire my fear and intrigue of the Daleks, more the power and beauty of language. The podcast, fronted by the late Alan Saunders, discusses several classic philosophical and contemporary issues. In The Evil of the Daleks, Saunders was joined by Robin Bunce, an academic from the University of Cambridge promoting the publication Daleks and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside, and discussing what makes these legendary foes, visually benign looking entities, so scary. Initially there is the historical context. When the Dalek’s were introduced back in the early 1960’s, people genuinely thought that World War III was about to ensue due to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Indeed, the episode The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) which was set in 2164 was effectively an allegory of the political mechanics involved in the crisis. As the episode centres in ‘New Washington’, the Daleks have been interpreted as the Soviets.


Bunce also cited how the Daleks may have been humans, and gone through a period of dehumanisation. There were theories that the Daleks’ predecessors were the Dals who were exposed to radiation and mutation after a war with the Thals. This is not wholly certain, but this element of nuclear war reverberates with the times and the missile crisis and, clearly, the Daleks have gone through some kind of mutation, not just physically, but mentally and, ultimately, represented what the human race feared happening to them.


Without wanting to divulge too much into Dalek geneaology, another point Bunce made was of the dystopias created in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World(1931), and George Orwell’s 1984(1949). The two books focus on the omni-powerful state, but differ in their methods of doing so. Huxley’s was achieved through technological interventions and emphasis on the consumerist society, and making its citizens so happy that they disregard their personal freedom and will. In 1984, the state uses constant surveillance, torture, or as Christopher Hitchens put it “a house of horrors”. The nightmare society created by Orwell lays a strong foundation for the totalitarianism of the Daleks. The Daleks represent both the power of selective language use on thought—as well as fear. Likewise, these two themes are explored in Orwell’s classic novel.


For example, Orwell created Newspeak as a hallmark of his dystopia. As Syme the Big Brother loving worker puts it “It’s a beautiful thing, destroying words”. Beautiful it might be, the impoverishment of language, such a simple concept. What the Party hopes to achieve through Newspeak is to remove meanings of old language and construct new meanings. By eradicating a word that implies something is negative, could you still perceive something as negative? This creation then is an invention of controlling thought by leaving simple concepts: bad becomes ungood; bad is now not negative but neutral or un-positive: excellent becomes doubleplusgood; not entirely neutral, but still good and positive, it is exceedingly positive, and can be placed on the same spectrum as ungood. Now there is one singular concept of good and it is very large and encompassing. The word orthodoxy comes under scrutiny in Newspeak, but orthodoxy is treated as a verb. It’s probably best exemplified by the following passage:


“How could you have a slogan like ‘Freedom is Slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconscious.”


It almost seems that by eradicating words, you are eradicating thought, which in turn reduces the opportunity of judgment, emotion and morality, all conscious acts; maybe not so much emotion, but the effect of emotion on thoughts, or thought preceding emotion. If the whole state become orthodox not doing anything other than the norm, where the norm is created by the state then the Party could ultimately create a society of unconscious Sentients to their needs.


When you look at 1984, it is not the torture that helps achieve this, the torture and Room 101 is only really reserved for those most resilient to Big Brother’s ways. Newspeak’s power strikes at the unconscious. In the form of a novel it works, but its resonance permeates more than fiction. Back in the late 1920s, two linguistists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf were studying the effect of language on thought. Their hypothesis (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) was linguistic relativism, ie.the structure of somebody’s language affects the way in which speakers conceptualise their world. Still, its not as simple as that. There is little empirical evidence for the hypothesis, and its counterpart linguistic determinism. Even more so, most of the research has been done in a cognitive paradigm, which is encountering problems about its theories of language itself, mainly those of Noam Chomsky and Universal Grammar (which suggests that all humans have a capacity to produce language, and there is a universal, cognitive mechanism of grammar which supports this).


What is emerging however is a new approach to language and its effects on thought and psychology which may give us a greater insight into the world of the Daleks and Newspeak. The linguistic relativism debate was before Orwell’s and the Dalek’s time. One provoked nearer the time was by Ludwig Wittgenstein. His philosophy was based on the way language can change not quickly and obviously, but in a more evolutionary manner. What’s more his views on language were deterministic – language and its structure determines human knowledge and thought. Language is a powerful, human tool. Language, is governed by implicit rules in its social and private uses. A man has private language, which nobody will ever be able to access, and if a solitary man tried to translate his inner, private language which is composed of sensations, its translation to somebody else would render it pointless. It is easy to see how Newspeak could effect its population. If language really did determine thought then the limited vocabulary available would constantly reduce the ability of its members to participate in linguistically diverse world. Wittgenstein did also state “about what one can not speak, one must remain silent.”


Language as we know it, is human. The Dalek’s limited vocabulary suggests that they were once exposed to human language or were once human. The Dalek’s world is limited by its primary purposes to kill enemies and world domination. But the point Wittgenstein made about language means the limits of the world, also means the limits of the other speakers world. It restricts the ability to empathise, to understand, and simply communicate on any level. The Dalek’s vocabulary reduces any level of compassion because their social language is nothing but a few words, and when there is no reason left, one is left to physical means. If we had an ability to talk to lions and bears, would we feel the need to shoot them, run away, or use any other physical action if they attacked us?


It’s harder to speculate on the private language of a Dalek and the inhabitants of George Orwell’s 1984 for example, because it was ultimately a philosophy. It suggests there is a finite distinction between a private and social language. Winston Smith, when finally converted to loving Big Brother, may still resent and abhor the regime in his mind, but without the ability to overtly express it he is a prisoner to his own language capabilities. There is no power to create a flexible social world.


This may enhance the Dalek’s villainy, but what about humans? This is not just a human vs alien argument. It would be assumed that the Daleks’ other worldliness, their extraterrestrial being-ness would make them more scary for viewers. But it would arguably be much more scary if they had gone through this transformation from once human to alien.


The classic Zimbardo prison study where the participants of the study were split into either prisoners or guards demonstrated how If given orders, people can easily lose empathy. The guards gradually became more sadistic to those who had to act as prisoners (and it must be remembered these were not actual prisoners but people who were also participants in the study). As a result, Zimbardo had to call a premature end to the study. Anybody familiar with the Milgram study, which had similar aims, will understand how people can be quite easily made to inflict misery on another person when they are in a state of subordination to a higher power. Even more so, this highlighted how atrocities like the Holocaust can occur. All this adds up to paint a rather vivid context in which the Daleks operate. They may seem like silly looking aliens to an outsider, but they have been expertly written to reflect the social and cultural context of society’s fears of the past and the future.


If anything, the Daleks tell us more about ourselves than their perception as a prop in a sci-fi television show – as some people might see them. In Nazi Germany, who were the Prison Guards that were caught up in an extreme regime of fascism? It’s highly unlikely they were all brought up to be evil workers of Hitler, but were most likely everyday people caught up In the nihilistic rhetoric and subordination of higher order. It also tells us the power of language, rhetoric and discourse. Orwell, and then writers of Doctor Who both recognise this. You can torture the most resilient, but you can win over the masses with cleverly nuanced rhetoric, good or evil, and this what the leaders of our day do.


In the past language and its repercussions have been, sometimes, ignored. Social constructionists have followed on from Wittgenstein, and a postmodern stance on not just language but psychology itself. Instead of focusing on numbers and statistics as sources of information, discourse psychology focuses on specific language use instead of the mind as computational device. This is also potentially what makes the Daleks more relevant. Modernism in culture peaked after the first world war, and despite cognitive science not gaining ground until the late 1950’s it is easy to see its influence; it emphasizes structure over process, information over meaning; one can see the human mind structured like a cubist painting. Modernism was psychology wanting to be a science, psychology wanting to tell the truth.


Humans were constantly being regarded in this mechanistic metaphor and still are. Culture was being ignored and traditional western science and psychology was bound in the individualism that capitalism can create. Indeed postmodern psychology is postcognitive. The boundaries of the world are created by discourse, which means they are not set in stone, they are not technically there. Its inhabitants are continually creating, reaffirming and changing them with their use of discourse and its constructions. It is real world.


One particular take on it is how the media can enforce anti-semitic and fascist ideology through its rhetoric. Michael Billig in Banal Nationalism explores how the these hidden ideologies can be reinforced and are prevalent throughout the media. Billig highlighted how the division of ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ news almost makes it an implicit and subliminal – which makes it all the more worrying. This is all achieved through language use and rhetoric.


This is just one of the instances of the applicability of studying language, as cognitivism, potentially dies away (although it will questionably never be left as a paradigm in the Kuhn sense) there is a door open for a post modern stance to psychology and human behaviour. But what about the Daleks? Exteriors aside, they have been one of the most famous villains and have played a monumental part in the longest running sci-fi show on the planet. Certainly in its old format before the return in the 2000’s, they provided fear for the youth of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Originally their context has played a big part in why this is so, the 20th century was a turbulent decade. Here I’ve presented the case that they represent the power of language and how this seemingly human invention can be used more destructively than any gun or weapon. The Dalek’s, though, also represent fear; the fear what made Orwell write 1984 – our fear of what we could turn into, emotionless beings ruled and conquered in a perpetual war zone.


Humans evolved to produce language, its what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, but we will continue to evolve, but in too what, and language is certain to be a prime factor in the moulding of our minds and societies. A future without emotions, would be a future a lot more frightening than a future without language.

The new series of Doctor Who airs this saturday on BBC1. Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside is published by Open Court Press. 1984 by George Orwell is published by Penguin, and there is a wealth of information about social constructionism, sapir-whorf hypothesis, and Wittgenstein wherever you want to find it. This essay also featured on