Aspidistras and Money

Contains spoilers.

Two weeks ago I finished reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, published in 1936.  As with most things he wrote, the issues he raised in the novel have lingered in my mind long since returning it to the library.  It focuses on the life of Gordon Comstock, a part-time bookseller and poet who descends into a life of squalor and poverty.  While not as revolutionary or powerful as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell admitted that, somewhat fittingly, he wrote the book largely because he was in need of money and claimed to be dissatisfied with the final edit – I would argue that it takes a critical look at society just as effectively.

The main theme of Aspidistra is, of course, poverty.  Never one for subtlety, Orwell shoehorns in references to the topic wherever possible, but the nature of poverty allows him to get away with it.  Throughout the novel are constant repetitions regarding Gordon’s lack of money; he is ever-aware of the coins in his pocket, he does mental calculations for every transaction he makes – every aspect of his life is ruled by money.  Through such basic repetition, Orwell gets his point across that we live in a society ruled by what he terms ‘The Money Gods’.   How shocking it is to have the dream of capitalism pulled away to reveal the murky truths hidden belief.  To follow a lifestyle where Gordon must turn down almost all social invitations, including pub gatherings, journeys to the countryside or meals, because they require him to spend money he doesn’t have.  For those of us who have never been at such a poverty line it truly is horrifying to consider how prevalent worries about money can be.

Arguably, Aspidistra is written as a comedy.  The way in which Gordon becomes obsessed by money is so unrealistic as to be comical, yet it does highlight how consuming poverty can be.  The most interesting part of the book is when Gordon unexpectedly gets sent a cheque from a magazine he sent poems to.  He begins rationally, planning to save and repay his debts, but by the day’s end he has squandered it all; on alcohol, transport, his girlfriend Rosmary, a prostitute – even his wealthy friend Ravelston – and finds himself in prison the next day.  As someone incredibly scrupulous with money I find this behaviour difficult to comprehend, yet it’s utterly realistic and the sort of actions I’ve seen displayed time and time again.  It’s not a case of “the proles can’t handle money,” but the result of handing someone the opportunity of a brief, glimmering escape from crushing poverty.  Therefore, it can be surmised that poverty breeds self destructive behaviour.  Never is this clearer than in Gordon’s eerily prophetic yearnings to see London destroyed by foreign bombers.

There are a couple of flaws with the book, however.  Most notably is that Gordon’s poverty is self-inflicted, as he actually once had a decent job working for an advertising company and throughout the novel faces the possibility of returning.  Fair enough, I can appreciate his disgust for such a job and his reasons for leaving in an attempt to defy the defy the Money God, but this does, in my opinion, somewhat limit the impact.  Is is true poverty if you have an escape route?  Much better to have had Gordon suffering from rapid unemployment and poor working conditions, I’d have thought.  It comes across less of a criticism of capitalist economics and more the character study of a slightly deranged man.

Also, I take issue with the suggestion that only two options were open to Gordon: that he could either live by the Money God or reject the system and live in complete poverty.  Orwell’s message is almost ruined by the resolution of the novel – Gordon returns to his job at the advertising company, and therefore has to submit to the Money God, symbolised by throwing his poetry manuscripts into a drain and buying an aspidistra, that symbol of middle-class money worship.  What is Orwell trying to say?  A Democratic Socialist to his death, as a person he clearly wouldn’t have supported Gordon’s decisions yet he never provides any condemnation through the narrative.  Thing is, life rarely works in absolutes and I believe Gordon didn’t have to take such an extreme route either way.  Why couldn’t he have returned to the job but continued with the poetry in his spare time, resolved to resign the moment he could make a decent income from writing?  While most of the novel is brilliance, after reading the ending I could see why Orwell was ashamed of the book.

The only other option vaguely mentioned is Ravelston’s vague Marxist theories of tearing down the capitalist system altogether and establishing a Socialist State.  This, I suspect, is closer to Orwell’s own views, yet it’s discredited whenever mentioned.  I accept that political apathy is another byproduct of poverty and this is a point Orwell expressed well, but to expand on this option for Gordon would have gone some way to giving the conclusion the depth it lacked.

Criticisms aside, it’s remarkable how relevant Aspidistra remains today.  One opinion it has caused me to rethink is the morality of tipping.  It was actually another of Orwell’s books, Homage to Catalonia, which first made me wonder whether tipping is right.  He described the Communist/Anarchist (the ideologies were diverse and vague) revolution in Barcelona where, among other rules, tipping workers was banned.  This supposedly coincided with the emancipation of workers, whereupon tipping would be considered a bourgeoisie insult.  It has always been my opinion that the introduction of, say, a living wage would be much more preferable than making people rely on tips for an income.  Of course I do tip because I know how underpaid many workers in the service industry are, and Aspidistra has reinforced this for me.  It’s very much like giving money to beggars in that we shouldn’t have to do it, that there should be provisions from the state to make such actions unnecessary, yet until that happens to do nothing would be even worse.

Overall, Keep the Aspidistra Flyingis a very engaging book which can truly change your perspective on society and economics.  I wonder how long it will continue to be relevant for?

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Thoughts on The Great Gatsby (2013 Film)

Contains spoilers.

 

This won’t be a full review, due to my lack of concentration at some parts as a result of it being my first 3D film and also the fact that I haven’t read the original 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor seen any of the other film versions, which I feel I’d need to experience before making a full assessment of the film.  I walked in blind, as it were.  It’s directed by Baz Luhrmann, who I’m told is a skilled director, and has previously directed Romeo + Juliet and Australia, neither of which I’d seen but had heard a lot about.

To me, the most thought-provoking aspects of the film is its themes within the historical setting.  Set during the Roaring Twenties, a period of unparalleled economic growth within the USA following the First World War (and preceding the inevitable collapse of the system in the 1929 Wall Street Crash), this was the period of jazz, of unenforceable prohibition and of corruption.  The film certainly glorifies the nightlife scene of New York in 1922, showing a seemingly endless sequence of parties, pleasure, alcohol and chaos.  It’s certainly atmospheric, but my main reaction was thankfulness that I never lived during this period!  The film encapsulates the changing moral landscape of the time, which is also expressed through the romantic relationships characters form.  Gatsby, Daisy and Thomas all participate in extramarital affairs, while Nick and Jordan’s fling begins in an alcohol-fueled party.  The film is no advocate of the sanctity of marriage, and it’s fascinating to see society’s change portrayed so successfully.  The importance of money within the film also stood out to me – scenes are littered with references to the gap between the wealthy and the poor.  Indeed, the crux of the film lies around the idea that Gatsby did not feel worthy of Daisy’s love until he had made something of his life.  It’s difficult to say whether the book’s message was for or against this individualist, ‘dog-eat-dog’ culture; the novel would really need to be read  to say for sure.

A result of many of these themes is that I personally found it difficult to relate to many of the characters.  I struggle to understand the forces which drive the characters in their greed and their lusts.  Why does Gatsby see such an importance in money?  The parties, the affairs… I had the same problem with Othello, leaving me wondering whether it’s flaws in the writing or flaws in me.

There are many comparisons to be made between the period the film is set and the society of today.  Economically, the excesses of the 20s bear a lot in common with the economic book experienced in the early 2000s, only to be shattered by a financial meltdown in a similar way.  The same values of individual profit, private enterprise and the ‘American dream’ still dominate today, despite having been proven fundamentally flawed again and again when unregulated.  Ultimately, it’s Gatsby’s need to attain individual economic success – which he achieves through the illegal distribution of alcohol – that proves to be his downfall and prevents him from experiencing a happy ending.

Despite my feelings towards the characters, I can’t deny they are well written and acted.  Hearing the lyrical lines many were given made me want to read the novel, even if the eventual plot and themes had the opposite effect.  I was surprised by how likeable a character Gatsby proved to be; I imagined he would be a flawed, irredeemable character, but I was mistaken.  The character is possibly even portrayed as too virtuous.  He’s brilliantly acted by Leonardo DiCaprio, who always impresses me with his diversity.  I also enjoyed Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator – the only character I personally believed to be realistic.   Daisy is well acted by Carey Mulligan, although her role in the story rather annoyed me.  She is viewed as an object, as a prize, by the men who compete over her.  Never is this clearer than in the confrontational scene, where they both cry variations of: “She is mine!” “she loves me!”  That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except she is there with them and says nothing.  She cries a bit, then wanders off, then is all, “oh, don’t make me choose.”  But essentially, it’s a confrontation between Gatsby and Tom over Daisy, in which she has no input.  I appreciate these were the values of the society at the time, but it still irritates me.

It was an interesting decision, in setting up the period, to use modern music.  In the soundtrack can be found names including Beyoncé, Florence + The Machine, Lana Del Rey and André 3000 (presumably a rapping robot – or sounds like one at any rate), all of whom are generally in the charts right now.  The obvious decision would have been to go for 20s jazz music to set the period but, oddly, modern pop music kind of works.  It establishes that this is a period of partying and excess, ideas that most pop music today push forward.  I don’t like the music, but it works.

Finally, I was quite impressed by the levels of detail and symbolism present in the film.  Little touches, like that optician billboard symbolosing the ‘Eyes of God’, judging characters and disapproving of their lifestyles, or the green light across the bay acting as a source of hope for Gatsby, make me realise how The Great Gatsby became a literary classic.

Overall, I have conflicting feelings over The Great Gatsby.  I kind of liked it and disliked it at the same time.  Visually, it’s beautifully directed by Luhrmann, but I’m unsure of how I feel about the central concepts of the story.

Final rating (if forced): 7/10