When I was eighteen I went to an Oxford University open day. I remember an English Literature admissions tutor giving a speech about life as a student at the University. The thing he said that has stuck with me (although I can barely remember what he looked like now, never mind his name) was that no-one really reads anything properly, or at least that no-one reads anything well the first time they read it; it is only on rereading that we pick up structural ironies and see the author’s design. It’s a line I have repeated over the years, when trying to encourage students struggling for the first time through a difficult text. It certainly seems true to me: it’s hard to imagine anyone getting much from The Waste Land the first time around, or Gravity’s Rainbow, to name just a couple of texts that don’t reward rereading as much as demand it.
This afternoon I reread Orwell’s short essay Shooting an Elephant and have come away with a sharp sense of how rereading a text can throw your own life into relief. I first read this essay as an undergraduate and saw it (conventionally, not incorrectly) as a terse indictment of British imperialism in India, with Orwell casting himself as a microcosmic personification of that brutal and foolhardy project. Not once did I think of the person in the story, but rather of the story’s significance within the history of questionable British ventures overseas.
Earlier today, I might not have said that my outlook on life has changed that dramatically since being a twenty-year-old student. But clearly a decade or so of nine-to-fives has taken its toll on my sensibilities. Rereading the essay, with the evils of imperialism more of a given, my overwhelming sentiment was more individualistic: what an awful dilemma Orwell describes in the moments before the titular shooting, and what a horrible position for a person to be placed in by the institution by which he happens to be employed. What a shit thing to have to do as part of something so mundane as a job.
Secondary to this is a feeling of gratitude to be living now and not then – a not uncommon feeling in my experience of reading Orwell. It’s currently a popular (and compelling) belief that the world of work fails the young. While this may be so, and while the modern workplace may dump us into some sticky quandaries, surely none is ever as utterly devoid of a hopeful outcome as the twenty-something Eric Blair’s was in that water-logged rice paddy. And, one hopes, the institutions of today’s world, while they may be robotic, structurally moronic, callously pecuniary and ultimately doomed to fail the individual – young or old – in almost every meaningful way, are never so venal as the British Raj depicted in Orwell’s essay.
My status as a working stiff was not even on the horizon when I first read Shooting an Elephant. My high-minded twenty-year-old self would probably be horrified by how things have turned out in the intervening years, but he might at least be grateful not to be in Orwell’s shoes.