The Reading Life: “Shooting an Elephant” and Orwell’s Clarity

I once wanted to be a lawyer, and being a paralegal was a stop on the way to where I thought I wanted to go. To get to 100 Church Street I took the M15 bus down a road where pedestrians were not allowed, past 1 Police Plaza and the courthouse named for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, stopping in front of J&R Electronics. I would walk through the park to Broadway. I would get a large coffee at Dunkin Donuts. The whole thing felt less like a commute and more like a tour with no guide. Over there was Ground Zero, and right there was the post office. Here was the stock exchange and also a falafel place that was closed on all Jewish holidays. Down the street was a parade of 9/11 truthers, past a coffee stand with a long line of construction workers. My view narrowed inside 100 Church, where lawyers for the city dispersed under low ceilings.

I had always been a believer in the potential of government, but it’s the experience we haven’t had yet that we know the most about; after a month I started to see what heretics called “waste.” Fat needed to be trimmed: one employee watched anime all day long; another, sitting right behind me, would talk on the phone for hours about her personal life. One overheard conversation seemed to be about a friend using a boyfriend’s credit card without his approval, to which my officemate replied, “Oh, who cares?” I think that’s called fraud, but then again I’m not a lawyer.

It was during this time that I fell hopelessly in love with someone who felt similarly disillusioned working for his government, but who would never return my affection, no matter how much I pined. I was lost in a fog of his words, distracted to the point of sickness. I was preoccupied by his thoughts, haunted by things he had said, struck with a yearning to be with him in times of boredom and frustration. It was the perfect romance, thanks to its guaranteed impossibility. I am talking about my hopeless, temporary infatuation with George Orwell.

There’s no accounting for taste, you might say. The guy was no looker, for sure, I’ll give you that. But the version of himself that he crafted for his nonfiction — the meticulous and outraged observer in The Road to Wigan Pier, the confused and brokenhearted soldier in Homage to Catalonia — matched everything I didn’t know I had been missing in life. It was like any love affair with literature except for the fact that this was not a strictly fictional character, it was supposedly George himself, truthful and convincing and heroic. It was intimacy with the exciting self-importance of journalism, politics, and war. Unlike Mailer, for example, who was always huffing and puffing in his accounts of being arrested or otherwise in the middle of it all, Orwell seemed like he was testing himself, not just the authorities, and in perfect Strunk and White English too. His observations felt like burdens he had to share, unload; is there anything more romantic than a confession? “When we went on leave I had been a hundred and fifteen days in line,” he wrote in Homage to Catalonia, “and at the time this period seemed to me to have been one of the most futile of my whole life.” You poor thing, I swooned. Tell me more.

Of course I know that George was actually Eric; that he was a womanizer and plenty gimmicky; that he led two lives as a public atheist and a private traditionalist. But the intellectually honest man he presented in his journalism overpowers and even lends charm to his eccentricities. This was the first time I realized so passionately that writing was, as Joan Didion says in probably better words, a form of forcing yourself on someone else, demanding that the reader see it your way. I was seduced, utterly.

The problem with this sort of fling is its one note. In his just-published book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, psychotherapist Adam Phillips points out that “people become real to us by frustrating us; if they don’t frustrate us, they are merely figures of fantasy.” Too little frustration and the person is unreal, but too much and the person is a nightmare. What made Orwell so perfect, but ultimately an infatuation, was his almost inhuman correctness, how right he seemed to me all the time. I always agreed, we never argued; our love was doomed to fade into a pleasant sensation, like the kind you get waking from a nice dream. But hey, try telling that to me at the height of my worship; you couldn’t find a deafer pair of ears.

What’s so comforting about Orwell is his clarity. In “Shooting an Elephant” he plainly renders a complex emotional situation — hating imperialism and its subjects equally, trying to hide his discomfort and incompetence, having too much power and yet still not enough to do the “right” thing — via one deceptively simple incident. As a police officer in Burma, he is asked to do something about a mad and destructive elephant; in other words, shoot it. Setting the scene: “I remember that it was a cloudy stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains.” When the elephant is finally shot: “An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him.” His emotional resolution: “I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.” Violence darkens the comedy slightly. “I sent back for my small rifle,” he writes, “and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.”

I read this on the bus into work the day I had to go with a lawyer to Long Island for an appearance, and I thought about it the whole day. I thought about how, as prolonged as the death was, as useless a shot as Blair had been, at least there had been an ending. Blair learned an important lesson about imperialism, and the Burmese had stripped the elephant to its bones. In contrast, there was no end to these lawsuits, only settlements. Any potential for satisfaction diminished the longer the fight waged on without a bad guy, a good guy, or a calm narrator making sense of it all.

Most of the cases I worked on during my time as a paralegal bleed into one another; you hear one story about an EMT putting the wrong tube in the wrong place, you’ve heard them all. But one in particular continues to haunt me, in no small part because it coincided with the first time I read “Shooting an Elephant.” Let’s call it the Anonymous case.

Anonymous was a police officer who had been “involved” (ahem) in an altercation with a belligerent junkie in Bed Stuy. During the altercation, he had punched the perp and cut his hand. Fluids were exchanged, and it was allegedly at this point that Anonymous had contracted HIV. The list of the accused parties took up more than a page. Several groups of medical professionals were being blamed for not providing treatment that could have prevented the plaintiff’s condition. Several arms of the police department were being sued for discrimination. This was a decades-long dispute over every aspect of Anonymous’s life that had gone wrong since one punch, and it would most likely never be resolved in the most important way: his career, his relationship with his wife, and his entire physical and mental life would never be the same.

The lawyer I worked with had no hope of seeing the case get decided. “The poor guy,” she would say, and I would only nod. I began to feel attached to Anonymous. Like any tragedy, this was a story of what could have happened had things gone a slightly different way. Phillips again: “We have an abiding sense, however obscure and obscured, that the lives we do lead are informed by the lives that escape us. … The story of our lives becomes the story of the lives we were prevented from living.” Any lawsuit that takes a while, from months to years to decades, erases all satisfaction and replaces it with frustration, instability, and waiting. Nowhere was that more evident than in the transcript of Anonymous’s deposition, which at that point was already a six-year-old document of an increasingly despondent man.

Depositions, as far as theatrical dialogues go, are not exactly thrilling. There is a lot of repetition, a lot of pausing, plenty of interruption, and none of it has the literary value of Pinter or Churchill. Often the facts being discussed are mundane: what did you do after you got out of the car? On which side of the street were you parked? What did you do after that? For Anonymous though, these questions meant recalling a moment he had been replaying in his mind over and over to prove that he had done everything right and the outcome had been determined by other people. The result was a sad, emotionally intense drama that left me distressed and upset. There was a plot, but no resolution. It was a horrible thing, it had happened; now this person’s life was shaped entirely by it, and no one could decide whose fault it really was.

Phillips once more: “as the story unfolds, [our protagonists] get less and less of what they thought they wanted.” I don’t know what happened to Anonymous, but I knew I didn’t want to go to law school. I moved on. My next job was with a costume designer. We did costumes for a romantic comedy about a woman with colon cancer who falls in love with her doctor. She dies at the end, but everyone who knows her, especially the hunky doctor, learns the importance of seizing the moment, or living for today, or something. It went straight to DVD, and I moved onto other infatuations.

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