While reading Homage to Catalonia, I thought about the hypotheses that Jon mentioned in class at the beginning of the course, particularly the hypothesis that the Spanish Civil War was not really civil, nor was it a war. In the previous novels, we have seen that the war tends to be portrayed as a revolution, which is maintained here. Orwell talks often about the revolutionary spirit of the war that was intentionally sabotaged by the Communist Party.
However, it seemed to me that a secondary characterization was also present: rather than a war, especially in the earlier chapters, the conflict is depicted as a sort of camp-out or survival exercise. This can be seen in the many descriptions of looking for firewood, having to make due with little water and food, and having to put up with the discomforts caused by the weather. Indeed, the most important military objective is firewood, and the men even risk their lives going under fire to collect this valuable resource. For Orwell, this becomes a way of coming in contact with and learning about the plants around the posting:
“We classified according to their burning qualities every plant that grew on the mountain-side; the various heaths and grasses that were good to start a fire with but burnt out in a few minutes, the wild rosemary and the tiny whin bushes that would burn when the fire was well alight, the stunted oak tree, smaller than a gooseberry bush, that was practically unburnable” (30).
It seems like he is getting to know intimitely the land and its plants, and this is probably true, but he is motivated, mostly at least, by a desire to simply exploit it (by taking away the firewood).
The war is portrayed as if it were almost an annoying afterthought. The real enemies were the lice that infested their clothing or the weather conditions; he notes at one point that “two Englishmen were laid low by sunstroke” (105 in my version). This trend comes full circle near the end of the book when human violence is likened to phenomena from the natural world. For Orwell, “a sudden clash of rifle-fire” is “like a June cloud-burst” (142) and, as in Cela, the violence is presented as “some kind of natural calamity, like a hurricane or an earthquake” (142). The idea seems is that this war is somehow uncontrollable, but in other ways ‘natural’. I wonder how widespread this use of ‘natural’ metaphors is in other war novels of this period, especially about the first and second world wars.
On the other hand, there are many passages that talk about the beauty of the landscape surrounding the battlefields, despite the poor conditions and the suffering that they bring him. At one point, he mentions both sides of the coin (i.e. the suffering and the beauty) in the same breath:
“seas of carmine cloud stretching away into inconceivable distances, were worth watching even when you had been up all night, when your legs were numb from the knees down, and you were sullenly reflecting that there was no hope of food for another three hours” (40).
Even though he ends the sentence with a complaint about the cold, still he says that it was “worth watching”. In some passages, it seems that the landscape —and the reproductive, cyclical aspect of the natural world— is evoked to contrast with the death and destruction of the conflict. Life will go on, despite the war.
Later, this contemplation of the landscape turns into a contemplation of the ‘human’ or ‘cultural’ landscape of the place, with accounts of the different customs of the Spaniards near the front, their dwellings, and their ways of making a living. These passages are particularly interesting given the end of the book that portrays the cultural and natural landscape of southern England. There seems to be a connection between ‘Englishness’ or ‘Spanishness’ and these landscapes that are presented in both cultural and ‘natural’ terms. This last passage is very interesting to me, especially because of the opposition that Orwell establishes between the “industrial towns” and “the England I had known in my childhood” (237). There is a desire to somehow preserve this landscape, both from war and (as we are led to believe from the opposition industry-old England) from industrial development.
This is a very rich book and I am excited for our discussion tomorrow evening.