Things I Don’t Want to Know: A Response to George Orwell’s Why I Write
By Deborah Levy
Notting Hill Editions
In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell identified four great motives for writing, including aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. The other, he observed, was that writers are “vain and self-centred,” motivated by egoism and a “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood. It is humbug to pretend that [egoism] is not a motive, and a strong one,” he wrote.
Deborah Levy would seem to quibble with that last bit. In her recent response to Orwell’s essay, “Things I Don’t Want to Know,” Levy ponders:
Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about the sheer egoism of a female writer. Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.
Billed as a feminist reply to Orwell, Levy’s political purpose is indeed related to gender — both as female stereotypes in literature and gender constructs in society:
When a female writer walks a female character in to the centre of her literary enquiry, she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part to do with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the societal system in the first place… It’s exhausting to learn how to become a subject, it’s hard enough learning how to become a writer.
Yet this assertion in itself does not constitute a riposte to Orwell so much as a reaffirmation of his universal principals. Both in conforming to Orwell’s framework and in writing a very feminine (as well as feminist) and deeply personal account of her own motives, Levy has proven Orwell to be essentially correct, including on the charge of egoism, but in particular on childhood experience and the importance of political, historical, and aesthetic motivations. What Levy in fact shows is that, whatever their considerations, male and female writers are more alike than not.
“I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development,” Orwell wrote. Levy grew up in apartheid South Africa. Her father was a member of the African National Congress, knew Nelson Mandela, and was a political prisoner for four years. During that time, Levy lived with her godmother and went to a provincial Catholic school run by nuns where she was the only Jewish girl on the register. “You must speak loud,” Melissa, her godmother’s daughter, told her.
Her father sent her letters from prison. Levy recounts an instance where she read aloud one of them to Sister Joan, one of her teachers. “Be sure to say your thoughts out loud and not just in your head,” he wrote. “When your father says say your thoughts out loud, he means for you to speak louder,” Sister Joan told her. Levy though the sister meant aloud to god, but she did not say so, and it was the first instance where Levy says she learnt to “read between the lines.”
This was when Levy began to write. “I had been told to say my thoughts out loud and not just in my head but I decided to write them down.” Her main thought was for the caged bird Billy Boy, which lived in her godmother’s living room, and which she went home and released that afternoon.
Levy’s historical impulse, then, derives from where the memories of childhood and of apartheid South Africa meet — the traumas of loneliness, segregation, and difference. To become a writer, Levy says, “I had to learn to interrupt, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speaking in my own voice which is not loud at all.” To speak a little louder meant saying the things that needed to be said.
“From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer,” Orwell wrote confidently — egotistically. But only after learning the need to speak up would Levy develop the love for and need to write. That was in England, where she moved at the age of 9 — into Exile, as her mother put it.
Writing made me feel wiser than I actually was. Wise and sad. That was what I thought writers should be. I was sad anyway, much sadder than the sentences I wrote. I was a sad girl impersonating a sad girl… I knew I wanted to be a writer more than anything else in the world but I was overwhelmed by everything and didn’t know where to start.
Where she started was with the things she didn’t want to know. “What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with?” Levy asks. The answer is evident. As Orwell wrote, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”