I have a confession to make, my dear friends: I am a donkey.
This may come as a shock to some of you. Others will have seen it coming these many moons. Regardless, I feel I owe you all an explanation.
Let me start with a question. Who is familiar with Animal Farm?
Most of us, I’d hazard a guess, are. Have been since the cradle, or at least, like, high school. It’s an icon of Western culture, what! Some animals are more equal than others. Political fable. Animals overthrow their human oppressors, institute self-government, become a direct metaphor for Soviet Russia, and end up worse off than they started. The pigs may have begun with good intentions (who knows), but by the end they are walking on two legs – no different than the humans.
All that I knew without having actually read the thing. And perhaps it made me rather reluctant to do so.
Others may differ, but I’m rarely much on overt allegory. I want to read a story, not a message. I knew George Orwell was a wonderful essayist (“Shooting an Elephant” was a highlight of things-you-have-to-read-because-high-school), but a good essayist does not (of necessity) a good novelist make.
Still, as they say, if you never try nothin’, you ain’t never gon’ find nothin’.
(I don’t know if anyone actually says that. But I just said it in my best sassy Southern accent, so that makes it true.)
So all right, I thought, I will try George Orwell. 1984 sounds dreadful (sorry, 1984 fans), so I will try Animal Farm.
So then I did.
And I liked it?
And also I am a donkey.
(Never fear. The donkey thing will soon be explained; but first I have to pontificate on why I liked it.)
George Orwell has an effortless writing style, akin to E. B. White’s in its wry simplicity and easy, unique turn of phrase (though, of course, it’s not as good as E. B. White’s, because what is?). It’s what makes his essays so readable. It’s also what made Animal Farm work.
Animal Farm is about (and from the perspective of) a passel of uneducated animals. They see the world as they see it – no frills, no pretension. They’re unhappily oppressed, but what are they going to do about it? No one has ever done anything about it.
Then the pigs (subtle, discerning, intelligent animals) come to them with a plan. With ideals. With the tantalizing dream of something better. Who could resist that? Who in his right mind would want to resist that?
Not the animals, certainly. They are hesitant at first, unsure exactly what they are offered, afraid of the cruel farmer. (Ideals are all well and good, but Mr. Jones has the power.) Gradually the dream takes hold. The seven commandments are painted on the barn wall, the last and most important of which is, All animals are equal.
Ideals lead, as true ideals always do, to action. To battle. The animals triumph; the humans are vanquished. Freedom is theirs.
The animals aren’t sure what to do with it. What does one do with freedom, when one has no experience of it, and one has still to eat?
Fortunately, the pigs have answers.
The pigs have gotten the animals this far. Without the pigs, they’d still be languishing under Mr. Jones’s tyranny. Who better than the pigs to entrust with the safekeeping of this freedom that, but for the pigs, they’d never have achieved?
Alas for the animals, generals do not always make good governors. Alas, power corrupts. Alas, professing pure-hearted interest in the welfare of all the animals alike does not always guarantee that the pigs’ hearts in question are quite so pure as their profession might lead one to believe.
It goes downhill from there, basically. As I expected.
What I didn’t expect was Boxer. One doesn’t expect to get emotionally attached to not-so-bright plough-horses, you know.
(By the way, the following section does contain spoilers. If you care.)
Boxer is one of the major forces behind the revolution. It might not have got off the ground at all if it wasn’t for him. He took to heart the vision of Old Major, he hung on the pigs’ words with cart-horse humility and doglike devotion, he memorized the seven commandments, he inspired the others continually with his unfaltering devotion to the cause. He was one of the bravest in battle. When the new freedom was achieved, he worked harder than anyone else. When disaster struck and they had to start again from the beginning, he worked still harder – not for himself, because his days were running out, but for the coming generations, for the others.
And when his body gave out and he was no more use to the regime, and would have done nothing but lie in the barn eating hay in the well-deserved rest of his old age, the pigs sent him to the knacker’s.
(You don’t want to know how near I came to tears over a fictional cart-horse.)
Not all the animals knew what was going on when the van came up to the farm to take Boxer away. But Benjamin the donkey did. Benjamin the donkey had known what was going on the whole time. He was smart. [This is true, by the way, that donkeys are smart. They’re literal escape artists, let me tell you.] He kept his eyes open and his mouth shut. He didn’t say much before the revolution and he didn’t say much after. But when he realized the kind of reward the pigs were offering Boxer for a lifetime of humble and devoted service, he – well, in modern parlance, he flipped.
He tried frantically to rescue his friend, and when that didn’t work and he was still a little frantic, he stirred up the animals. Mostly by calling them fools. Because that, after all, is what he had thought them the whole time. Even Boxer, probably, slaving devotedly for the animals who sent him off to the knacker’s the moment his usefulness ended.
Benjamin is a grand cynic. He never believed in the false paradise. Until his friend was taken, he never did anything about it, and he never did anything about it afterward either. The pigs came and explained to the animals that it wasn’t the knacker’s van at all, that Boxer had gone to a good place to die in peace and well-deserved comfort. Benjamin had settled by then and did not object to this. He went on keeping his eyes open and his mouth shut – except with Clover, the horse who shared his grief. She was not clever like Benjamin, but she knew what had happened, as he did. She was perhaps luckier, because it only made her sad, where it made Benjamin bitter.
If the animals hadn’t been foolish, perhaps the atrocities of Animal Farm would never have come to pass. But Benjamin was clever enough, and he did nothing to stop them. He was clever enough to know he hadn’t a chance.
And Benjamin, you see, is me. I’m a fairly intelligent person. I’m not blind to bad things happening in the world, and I’m not naive enough to believe everyone’s professions of good faith. In fact, I’m cynic enough to believe pretty much nobody’s professions of good faith. But do I do anything about it? No. Do I say anything about it? No. Because I know that nothing I do, and nothing I say, will change anything. I’m completely powerless, and I know it. And sometimes it makes me very, very bitter.
What was the proper thing for Benjamin to have done? I don’t know. Perhaps there was nothing he could have done. But I wonder. There are a lot of us like Benjamin, I think. A lot like Clover, but a lot like Benjamin. Can we really do nothing? And if so, is that really an excuse to do nothing?
I feel like those are important questions to ask yourself. (But what do I know, I’m just a donkey.)
…This has been Sad and Vaguely Political Thoughts With Sarah. If you’re thinking it has to do with current politics, you’re kind of right but only insofar as it also has to do with politics like…two years ago? I dunno. I wrote this post before COVID was even dreamed of, and then it just sat in my drafts for forever and a day. And then today I posted it because who says you have to make good decisions when you’re an adult? Actually I have been musing in this vein recently too, so it just seemed like a good time to empty out that drafts folder.
I hope y’all are having as beautifully rainy an October day as I am. ✌️