An Animated Introduction to George Orwell

When his short and (by his own account) often miserable life came to an end in 1950, could the English political writer Eric Arthur Blair have known that he would not just become a household name, but remain one well over half a century later? Given his adoption of the memorable nom de plume George Orwell, we might say he had an inkling of his literary legacy’s potential. Still, he claimed to choose it for no grander reason than that it sounded like “a good round English name,” and would have loathed the pretense he sensed in the use of the phrase “nom de plume,” or, for that matter, any other of conspicuously foreign provenance.

The attitudes that shaped the author of Animal Farm and 1984 come out in this animated introduction to Orwell’s life and work, newly published by Alain de Botton’s School of Life. In explaining the motivations of this “most famous English language writer of the 20th century,” de Botton quotes from the essay “Why I Write,” wherein Orwell, with characteristic clarity, lays out his mission “to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

Orwell hated his fellow intellectuals, whom he accused of “a range of sins: a lack of patriotism, resentment of money and physical vigor, concealed sexual frustration, pretension, and dishonesty.” He loved “the ordinary person” and the lives led by those “not especially blessed by material goods, people who work in ordinary jobs, who don’t have much of an education, who won’t achieve greatness, and who nevertheless love, care for others, work, have fun, raise children, and have large thoughts about the deepest questions in ways Orwell thought especially admirable.” Though raised middle-class and educated at Eton, Orwell eschewed university and believed that “the average pub in a coal-mining village contained more intelligence and wisdom than the British Cabinet or the high table of an Oxbridge college.”

One might want to call such an intellectual a poseur or even a sort of fetishist, but Orwell backed up his pronouncements about the superiority of the working class with his years spent living and working in it, and, with books like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, writing about it. He praised newspaper comics, country walks, dancing, Charles Dickens, and straightforward language, all of which informed the attacks on ideology and authoritarianism that would keep his writing meaningful for future generations. The holiday season now upon us makes another work of Orwell’s especially relevant: his Christmas pudding recipe, one blow in his lesser-known struggle to, as the London-based de Botton puts it, write “bravely in defense of English cooking” — a project which would, by itself, qualify him as a champion of the underdog.

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Try George Orwell’s Recipe for Christmas Pudding, from His Essay “British Cookery” (1945)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Noam Chomsky’s Wide-Ranging Interview on a Donald Trump Presidency: “The Most Predictable Aspect of Trump Is Unpredictability”

Last May, during the contentious presidential primaries, Noam Chomsky spoke about the mounting resentments in America, the opening they’ve created for a figure like Donald Trump, and the parallels to 1930s Germany. Six months later, Trump has apparently won the election. So what does Chomsky, one of America’s leading public intellectuals, make of it all now?

The MIT professor presciently warned back in 2010 that a Trump-like figure was coming. (See his comments pasted below.) But he couldn’t tell you how Trump will actually govern once he takes office. That’s because “The most predictable aspect of Trump is unpredictability. It’s dangerous, very dangerous.” He also adds, “It’s certainly extremely hazardous to have an ignorant, thin-skinned megalomaniac who sends off [tweets] at 3am if somebody angered him.”

If there’s room for some optimism, it’s because Trump might actually make good on his promise to deescalate tensions with the Russians.

We don’t know what’s in [Trump’s] mind. I suspect he doesn’t know what’s in his mind… But anything that would reduce the growing and dangerous and severe threat of nuclear war is to be welcomed. It would be a nice thing if humanity could survive.

A textbook definition of what’s called damning with faint praise.

But don’t worry Republicans, Chomsky doesn’t go easy on Democrats either. Continuing the line of thought above, Chomsky added “One of the presidents who worried me most was Kennedy. In fact Kennedy brought us closer to nuclear destruction than anybody.”

And asked about Democrat suspicions that the Russians possibly hacked the election, he retorts: “It’s a kind of a strange complaint in the United States. The U.S. has been interfering with and undermining elections all over the world for decades and is proud of it. So yes maybe they’re doing it here too.”

Around the 18:15 mark, Chomsky gets to chiding progressives who refused to stop Trump, and voted for Stein or Johnson instead. They simply made “a bad mistake,” he adds.

For me, the best part comes when the al Jazeera interviewer asks Chomsky how we should address the rise of fake news and the “post truth” climate we’re now living in, as some claim: “You combat it by being an educator, by trying to educate, organize, and bring people to understand that they should use their critical intelligence, to evaluate what they’re reading, whether it’s in the mainstream media or on some other site they are looking up.”

For more on that, see this item in our archive:

Noam Chomsky Defines What It Means to Be a Truly Educated Person

Daniel Dennett Presents Seven Tools For Critical Thinking

How to Spot Bullshit: A Primer by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt



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Watch Georges Méliès’ The Dreyfus Affair, the Controversial Film Censored by the French Government for 50 Years (1899)

History resounds with events so momentous they can be conjured with a single word: Waterloo, Watergate, Tiananmen, Brexit….

In the late nineteenth century, one simple phrase, J’Accuse!the title of an open letter published by novelist Emile Zolastood for a serious injustice that inflamed the political passions of artists, journalists, and the public for decades afterward, and presaged some of the 20th century’s most incredible state crimes.

Zola wrote in defense of French artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was accused, court-marshalled, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island for supposedly giving military secrets to the Germans. It was the trial of the century, writes Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker, and afterward, Dreyfus, “a young Jewish artillery officer and family man…. was publicly degraded before a gawking crowd.”

His insignia medals were stripped from him, his sword was broken over the knee of the degrader, and he was marched around the grounds in his ruined uniform to be jeered and spat at, while piteously declaring his innocence and his love of France above cries of “Jew” and “Judas!”

Two years later, compelling evidence came to light that showed another officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, had committed the treasonous offence. But the evidence was buried, and the officer who found it transferred to North Africa and later imprisoned. The Dreyfus Affair marked a major turn in European civil society, “the moment where [Guy de] Maupassant’s world of ambition and pleasure met Kafka’s world of inexplicable bureaucratic suffering.” After a perfunctory two-day trial, Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted by a military court, and Dreyfus convicted of additional charges based on falsified documents.

Five years after Dreyfus’ conviction, his supporters, the “Dreyfusards,” including Zola, Henri Poincare, and Georges Clemenceau, forced the government to retry the case. Dreyfus was ultimately pardoned, and later fully exonerated and reinstated in the French army. He went on to serve with distinction in World War I.


Dreyfus’ accusers’ have mostly sunk into obscurity. His supporters— some caricatured above as “the twelve apostles of Dreyfus”—included some of the most illustrious men of arts and letters in France. They can count among their number the great French director and cinematic visionary Georges Méliès. During the heated year of 1899, “Méliès made a series of eleven one-minute non-fiction films about the Dreyfus Affair as it was still unfolding,” writes Elizabth Ezra,” portraying sympathetically Dreyfus’ arrest,” imprisonment, and retrial. You can watch Méliès’ complete Dreyfus film at the top of the post.

It may be difficult to appreciate the daring of Méliès’ project from our historical distance, and in the somewhat alien idiom of silent film. “For today’s viewers,” writes Ezra, “it is not always easy to discern the sympathetic elements of the films, but the abundance of huffy gesturing and self-righteous facial expressions on the part of Dreyfus make of him a dignified hero who refuses to be degraded by the accusations made against him.” (In this respect, Méliès anticipated another silent film about another unjust trial in France, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.)

Likewise, we may find it hard to understand the significant social import of “Méliès’ only known expression of political commitment.” But to understand the Dreyfus Affair, we must understand, as the National Library of Israel points out, that “France was already a divided country and the case acted as a casus belli…. ‘The Jew from Alsace’ encapsulated all that the nationalist right loathed, and therefore became the symbol of the nation’s profound division.” Landing in the middle of this political firestorm, Méliès’ Dreyfus series “provoked partisan fistfights,” writes Ezra.

Not only did the Dreyfus case introduce into the public eye a vicious anti-Semitic show-trial, but it also served as a test case for censorship and media sensationalism. Méliès’ film, says author Susan Daitch in the On the Media episode above, was the first docudrama, the “first recreation based on photographs and illustrations in weekly newspapers in France at the time.” And it proved so controversial that it was banned, along with all other Dreyfus films, for fifty years, and only shown again in France in 1974.

The film, says Daitch—who has written a novel based on the Dreyfus Affair—emerged within a partisan mass media war of the kind we’re far too familiar with today. “Both sides,” Daitch tells us, “used and altered the media,” and Dreyfus was both successfully railroaded into prison and successfully retried and exonerated partly on the strength of his supporters’ and accusers’ propaganda campaigns.

The Dreyfus Affair will be added to our list of Free Silent Films, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

The film is considered to be in the public domain in the United States and comes to us via Wikimedia Commons.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

British Advertisers Predict in 1935 What the World Will Look Like in 2500: Wireless TV, Atomic Cars & More


Back before the public came to terms with the grim causal relationship between cigarettes and cancer, smoking was a jolly affair, whose pleasures extended well beyond the physical act.

Smoking was sociable. Yes, there were certain situations in which three on a match could spell doom, but a far greater likelihood that lighting an attractive stranger’s coffin nail might kindle conversation, and more.

If you were at a loss for words, you might break the ice with the trading cards manufacturers slipped inside cigarette packs, such as these mid-30s beauties that came inside packs of Greys, a now-defunct British cigarette brand, and favorite of WWI vets.

The subject is unusual. Sports, cinema stars, and military scenes were common themes of the time. The “Greys Anticipations” series took creative liberties, by imagining a (cancer-free) year 2500, in which Londoners would be privy to such innovations as solar-lighting, moving sidewalks, and wireless television…

Great Scott! Were they psychic!?

Hopefully not.

Hopefully, we’ve still got 484 years to find out…


“Picadilly, London, A.D. 2500: Roofed-in under non-conductive mica glass . . moving pathways . . rubber roadways avenued into 50, 100, 150 and 200 miles per hour . . suspended mono railways . . motors driven by atomic energy . . phonetic spelling . . wireless television . . lighted by captured solar rays . . excursions to Mars.”

I’m fine with excursions to Mars and monorails but atomic energy is as problematic as the health claims once put forward by cigarette ads.


“At the Customs House on the Roof of London, A.D. 2500: The railway train has followed the ichthyosaurus into extinction. Mighty aerial liners transport passengers in their thousands, with great cargoes of merchandise from continent to continent. Mankind, living amidst such tremendous achievements, thinks, plans, and acts with corresponding bigness.”

Hmm…I was kind of rooting for train travel to make a comeback


“The Pleasure City, London, A.D. 2500: Pleasure-seeking has been raised to a fine art . . . mutitudes when the short day’s work is done find a satisfying means of relaxation in smoking “GREYS” Cigarettes and listening to the mammoth mechanical orchestra . . . characteristic of the music of the period . . . music so complex that it can be rendered only by wonderous mechanism.”

This does sound rather fun, depending on who’s doing the programming… perhaps we should just stick with headphones and a busker on every corner.


A Hive of Industry, A.D. 2500: Literally a “hive” in that it is a city unto itself . . . radiating from the mammoth super-factory are workers’ dwellings and associated institutes . . . architecture governed by the prevailing material — concrete . . . no smoke (other than from tobacco!) . . . no household cooking . . meals delivered by pneumatic tube from central cookhouse.

Um…I strongly suggest revisiting Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film, Brazil,  before signing off on the whole pneumatic tube thing.

Darran Anderson, author of  Imaginary Cities, took a closer look at one of the cards in the above talk about imaginary London. I share his opinion that “phonetic spelling… is the best thing that they envis­aged of the future.”

He also notes that the card is about 20 years ahead of its time in promoting a mid-50s-style vision of the future, but that it failed to predict the demise of Greys Cigarettes, by prominently advertising them on the side of a suspended monorail.


via Metafilter

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Great 19 Century Poems Read in French: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine & More


Here’s how Smithsonian Folkways describes this 1961 album now made available by Spotify. (If you need their free software, download it here):

Paul A. Mankin recites the most famous French poetry from the 19th Century. Gérard de Nerval, Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine, the main poets from the romantic period are represented, as well as precursors of Symbolism, Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé. In addition, the album includes poems written by the tortured Charles Baudelaire and the unclassifiable Arthur Rimbaud.

Note: The image above is of Charles Baudelaire.  This album will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free. Other albums featuring Mankin’s readings can also be found there, including:

  • Multiple Authors – 20th Century French Poetry, Narrated by Paul Mankin – Spotify
  • Multiple Authors – French African Poetry, Read in French by Paul Mankin – Spotify

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Watch Animations of Two Italo Calvino Stories: “The False Grandmother” and “The Distance from the Moon”

There are those books we go to not to escape this world, but to experience the truth of a mysteriously attributed quote, “There is another world, and it is this one.” That is to say that the worlds we find in certain novels are no less filled with dread, ambiguity, and moral freight than our own. But these sorts of stories offer new maps for reality. They may at first be those of the Protestant theology and Victorian morality of C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia books (available in a free audio format here) rather literally give us another world in this one.

But we may soon find ourselves catapulted into the neurotic nightmares of Kafka, the sci-fi paranoia of Philip K. Dick, the postindustrial ennui of J.G. Ballard, the scholastic labyrinths of Borges, and…. Well, what are we to call the work of Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler author Italo Calvino? Jonathan Galassi identifies Calvino as a postmodern folklorist, drawn into the mature idiom of his best-known books by his sustained engagement in “the magisterial anthology Italian Folktales” in 1956, a task that made him into “a modern-day Grimm.”

Calvino’s facility with the light magic of folklore infuses his work with a fleet-footedness and brevity that can mask its high seriousness. Two years after compiling his anthology, he wrote that his “true direction” was “the crisis of the bourgeois intellectual seen critically from the inside.” This accounts both for the theoretical sophistication of his prose and the experimental form. Calvino bests even Borges as an experimentalist, writing large parts of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler in the imperious second person, and pulling it off brilliantly.

However, Calvino will often break into the novel to remind us of the artifice, and at one point declare his desire “to follow the mental models through which we live our human events.” Those models, Calvino suggests, are not organized and systematic. They are as meandering and episodic as fairy tales, filled with irrelevant detail that we pick up in fascination then quickly forget. It’s a discomfiting idea for rationalists. But for those who know that life is lived in stories, it rings perfectly true.

In the two animated videos here, we see Calvino’s genius for conjuring irrational fables. At the top John Turturro reads Calvino’s “The False Grandmother” from his folklore anthology, a version of the “Little Red Riding Hood” story. And in the (subtitled) Hebrew-language animation above (perfectly scored by Erik Satie), we see an adaptation of Calvino’s “The Distance from the Moon” from Cosmicomics, a collection whose fictions, writes Ted Gioia, “are absurd and incoherent, yet the plot lines are filled with romance, drama, and conflicts that draw the readers deeper and deeper into the text.”

They are also filled with scientific ideas: “Each story in Cosmicomics begins with a scientific premise.” Like many a critical humanist before him, from Michel de Montaigne to Jonathan Swift, Calvino seems to wonder if our best intellectual efforts, even the sciences, fall subject to “the foibles and fancies of humans,” and to the askew narrative logic of folklore.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Only Surviving Behind-the-Scenes Footage of I Love Lucy, and It’s in Color! (1951)

The enduring popularity of comedian Lucille Ball’s 6-season sitcom, I Love Lucy, has resulted in so many full-color collectibles, occasional viewers may forget that the show was filmed in black and white.

More ardent fans may have tuned in for the special colorized episodes CBS aired a couple of years ago, but the only existing color footage of Lucy and her husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz, was captured by a stealthy studio audience member.

The ubiquity of smart phones have made unauthorized celebrity shots commonplace, but consider that this regular Joe managed to smuggle a 16mm movie camera into the bleachers of producer Jess Oppenheimer‘s tightly controlled set. This covert operation on October 12, 1951 shed light on the true colors of both the Tropicana nightclub and Ricardo apartment sets.

Oppenheimer’s son, Jess, eventually obtained the footage, inserting it into the appropriate scenes from “The Audition,” the episode from which they were snagged.

The Harpo Marx-esque Professor character Lucy plays is a holdover from both the pilot and the vaudeville show she and Arnaz created and toured nationally in 1950, in an attempt to convince CBS that audiences were ready for a comedy based on a “mixed marriage” such as their own.

In addition to Arnaz’ unbridled conga playing, the home movie, above, contains a lovely, unguarded moment at the 2:40 mark, of the stars calmly awaiting slating, side by side on the soundstage.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

1910 Fairground Organ Plays Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and It Works Like a Charm

First built in Paris by Charles Marenghi in 1910, the organ above quickly found a home in a Belgian restaurant. And there it remained for many years … until 1967, when it traveled abroad, to a Texas fairground. Imagine the culture shock it must have felt. But that’s not where it ends.

Nowadays, you can watch the 81-key organ play Queen’s 1975 hit “Bohemian Rhapsody,” quite different than whatever it was playing in Antwerp a century ago. Alexey Rom wrote the arrangement for the song, and programmed it using the strip of cards being fed through the instrument. Hopefully this isn’t the last stop on this organ’s grand journey.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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