A certain hermit once said, “There is one thing that even I, without worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up: the beauty of the sky.” I can see why he would have felt that way.
—Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness, 20
It is a pity that George Orwell is known mainly for his sharp, unforgettable fables, 1984 and Animal Farm, plus one or two essays — a pity, because no other writer has ever had such a profound understanding of what it means for a human being to work, to be poor, to be ordinary, and to live a good life within the mediocrity that will be the lot of most of us. Everyone should read Down and Out in London and Paris (1933), an account of Orwell’s period as a sweating kitchen serf in Paris and then as a tramp in London. The book is often piercing in its analysis of the system that condemns many to a life of penury or hopeless grind, but it is also very funny in its bleakness, and full of interesting characters who have had to find a way to stay human in crushing circumstances. In literature generally, the hardest thing is to write believable descriptions of good, happy people, so when an author succeeds in giving us a credible image of happy goodness — that is, not an idealized hero or a barely human sage — we have to pay attention and be thankful for the gift.
In chapter 30, we meet in London “a very exceptional man” — Bozo (the name Orwell gives him, presumably in 1933 without the connotations it has now), who is a pavement painter or “screever.” To a reader of Chinese philosophy, he feels like a character from Zhuangzi, not only because of his knack with colored chalks but because he is a cripple, with one foot injured from a terrible fall: His right leg was dreadfully deformed, the foot being twisted heel forward in a way horrible to see. Like Zhuangzi’s cripples, he does not complain of his crippledness and even sees himself as independent of it — even though he possesses nothing, and must know that he is destined to lose his rotting limb and die in the workhouse. After being impressed with the man’s skill in sidewalk cartooning, Orwell gets a little revelation:
We walked down into Lambeth. Bozo limped slowly, with a queer crablike gait, half sideways, dragging his smashed foot behind him. He carried a stick in each hand and slung his box of colours over his shoulder. As we were crossing the bridge he stopped in one of the alcoves to rest. He fell silent for a minute or two, and to my surprise I saw that he was looking at the stars. He touched my arm and pointed to the sky with his stick.
‘Say, will you look at Aldebaran! Look at the colour. Like a — great blood orange!’
From the way he spoke he might have been an art critic in a picture gallery. I was astonished. I confessed that I did not know which Aldebaran was — indeed, I had never even noticed that the stars were of different colours. Bozo began to give me some elementary hints on astronomy, pointing out the chief constellations. He seemed concerned at my ignorance. I said to him, surprised:
‘You seem to know a lot about stars.’
‘Not a great lot. I know a bit, though. I got two letters from the Astronomer Royal thanking me for writing about meteors. Now and again I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.’
‘What a good idea! I should never have thought of it.’
‘Well, you got to take an interest in something. It don’t follow that because a man’s on the road he can’t think of anything but tea-and-two-slices.’
‘But isn’t it very hard to take an interest in things — things like stars — living this life?’
‘Screeving, you mean? Not necessarily. It don’t need turn you into a bloody rabbit — that is, not if you set your mind to it.’
If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here”’ — he tapped his forehead — ‘and you’re all right.’
Bozo’s peculiar dignity sounds like classical Stoicism, which sets out to protect us from suffering by giving us the means to see ourselves as fundamentally unaffected by what happens to us; but it really is not the programmatic anesthesia of Stoicism because it roots itself in love of the beautiful — for Bozo, the stars. Moreover, this love is not a posture, an attitude, but a genuine delight that comes from a soul deep enough to find joy in something as simple as the sky. I’m not sure if this can be taught, or even cultivated. Orwell suggests that it is manifested not only in Bozo’s pleasure in watching the stars, but also in the startling and original way in which he talks. To describe Aldebaran as “like a great blood orange” shows a freshness of perception that can only come from true inner freedom, an unfettered intelligence.
Bozo talked further in the same strain, and I listened with attention. He seemed a very unusual screever, and he was, moreover, the first person I had heard maintain that poverty did not matter
‘Have you-ever seen a corpse burned? I have, in India. They put the old chap on the fire, and the next moment I almost jumped out of my skin, because he’d started kicking. It was only his muscles contracting in the heat — still, it give me a turn. Well, he wriggled about for a bit like a kipper on hot coals, and then his belly blew up and went off with a bang you could have heard fifty yards away. It fair put me against cremation.’
Or, again, apropos of his accident:
‘The doctor says to me, “You fell on one foot, my man. And bloody lucky for you you didn’t fall on both feet,” he says. “Because if you had of fallen on both feet you’d have shut up like a bloody concertina, and your thigh bones’d be sticking out of your ears!”’
Clearly the phrase was not the doctor’s but Bozo’s own. He had a gift for phrases. He had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but so long as he could read, think, and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.
There are valuable lessons in this concise chapter. The children I spend most time with can marvel at small stones for hours on end, and bring home common pebbles to make inconveniently vast collections of stones in their rooms: each pebble is different,beautiful, and fascinating, and each is worthy of occupying its place on a shrine. After all, what is a planet but a giant stone? Every adult friend of mine marvels in the same way at the extraordinary beauty of leaves: who could have thought up something as perfect as a leaf? — but we are usually too mentally busy to spend hours dwelling on the perfection of one leaf, unless we happen to be genius-children like Goethe. Stones and leaves are around us always — but the sky, both in the daytime and at night, is a perpetually available treasure. Bozo is not poor because he doesn’t feel he lacks anything, and what he has is not — as it is with a child — jewels for mute admiration, but rather a delight that sings in his words.