Gavin Freeguard: Orwell Lecture 2007

Friday 07 December 2007

A brief summary of the Orwell Lecture 2007, ‘The Politics of Response’, given by Michael Rosen.

‘Beyond the End of the Corridor’

Michael Rosen began by assuring us that, despite his range of roles and responsibilities, he was neither Michael Rosen, the New York glamour photographer, nor Michael Rosen, the Hegelian philosopher. The charges of being everything else from a poet to a radio broadcaster he gladly accepted. This having been cleared up, he related his experience of university in 1968. The world was changing around his – and his contemporaries’ – ears, and they felt that they were part of this change: ‘these times felt special, new and generally upending… revolutionary’. There was apartheid in South Africa, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, ‘some kind of mass uprising’ in France, and civil rights protests in the United States. These political events were divorced from his literary study. In Oxford in 1968, English Literature began in the 9th Century, ended in 1900, and was entirely contained within the British Isles. The course was rather like ‘a trip down a corridor’, with each room hosting either a single author or a single appointed movement such as ‘pre-reformation’ or ‘English Civil War’. Some of these doors were opened and allowed to burst into life. Others remained locked. Some authors were the fathers of others, birthing in the corridor. Others were ‘inconsiderate’, ‘irritating people’ who wrote both before and after 1900, and were not easily confined within the room or the corridor. With English Language an entirely separate, parallel corridor, and political life being a different corridor again, ‘my head was a peculiar place to be’. How could they be brought together? What could possibly connect the corridors? The answer was George Orwell. Orwell, whose ‘writing was well beyond the end of the corridor’. Orwell, whose ‘Politics vs. Literature’ essay on Gulliver’s Travels Michael found in a collection of Swiftian criticism. Orwell, whose essay Michael read with ‘a mix of excitement and a sense of revelation’, ‘released from the hold of literary, critical game-playing’, talked about ideas and demonstrated that English literature, like politics in 1968, could be a battleground of ideas.

‘The Reader Can Be an Orwell’

Could literary quality be disassociated from subject matter? What were the roles of reader and author? Michael Rosen talked about how he was grabbed by the notion that a writer has ideas which are embodied in his or her work, ideas which can be attached to the author and rooted out by the reader: ‘the reader can be an Orwell’, discerning ideas and feelings. This is what reading and criticism should be about. Reading a book is a ‘transaction’, a sort of ‘enmeshing’ between text and reader, from which the reader draws conclusions. It is neither the extreme of the whole experience being contained in the text, nor the text being only squiggles on a page entirely at the mercy of the reader. The transaction allows individual experience without neglecting the intentions of the author. Somewhat ironically, although Orwell recognised this, his essay on Swift bristles with totalising his own views, recruiting millions of other readers to what he acknowledges is an individual viewpoint.


‘How we learn to read… is part of how we respond to it in the way we do.’ Michael Rosen was critical of both the government and the opposition: forcing methods of literary response upon children through the curriculum, and enforcing the curriculum through inspection, was ‘anti-literary’. It led to a system where children might only read passages, rather than books, after the age of eight; a system where money could be found for reading schemes, but not to buy books, books which show why reading is important in the first place; a system which ‘flies in the face of democratic openness’. Orwell had helped Michael Rosen develop his own way of reading. Orwell had provided a bridge that helped him to understand literature. For that, Michael said simply: ‘Thank you, George.’