Sunday, January 3, 2010

Shooting an Elephant

I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.

-- George Orwell, "Shooting An Elephant," 1936

I found this lovely Orwell essay
in my RSS reader and was ashamed to admit that I had never read it before. So here it is, along with a picture of an elephant from the Seoul Zoo. (Constant Readers may be aware of my affection for elephants, and so they may understand why I find Orwell's conclusion sad if lovely.) I don't know whether I agree with the thrust of Orwell's argument myself, so whether the statement above is correct I leave as an exercise for the reader.

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