Since writing a book on cynicism, I have been wondering about the portrayal of cynics in literature and film. So far the list is quite short: Melvin Udall in As Good As it Gets (played by Jack Nicholson) and Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Holden Caufield of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was suggested by a reader.
I have a new cynical character to add—a donkey named Benjamin. I just read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a brilliant work of satire that darkly criticizes totalitarianism. Benjamin is the old cynic who seems unimpressed with the flowery rhetoric of progress so persistently flowing from the lips of the pigs (the one fittingly named Squealer is responsible for the propaganda). Benjamin has a heroic moment when he tries to mount a rescue operation to save Boxer, the beloved workhorse on Animal Farm. But in the end, Benjamin is cynically resolved to the disastrous fate of the so-called “liberation” from human rule (ultimately exchanged for pig rule).
I think Orwell has to allow a cynic to be the (almost) hero. “Almost” because Benjamin is really not very heroic. There can be no actual hero on Animal Farm because totalitarianism eliminates all heroism. There can be no daring individual acts. All such acts end in death. On Orwell’s Animal Farm, it may well be that cynicism is not just a optional disposition. For the wise like Benjamin, it is a duty.
“Hopeful realism,” is a disposition that somehow penetrates beyond the implacable barriers of oppression. Totalitarianism cannot be total if God is indeed King. Imagination beyond the realm of the see-able, feel-able, and know-able is required, but the hopeful realist believes beyond the tyranny of the current status and, in an almost desperate stretch of faith, lunges toward some hope in the deep, black, darkness.
For Orwell’s purposes, Benjamin seems to do his job. He perceives the reality of tyranny, at least somewhat, which allows him to share in the knowledge of the reader. But he cannot see beyond that tyranny, a character dynamic that evokes the reader’s pain and sympathy. As an old cynic, he has been accustomed to accepting harsh reality.
The faith required for seeing beyond the parameters of a totalizing power is enormous… seemingly impossible at times. As I write, I am aware that many today are hoping and believing in God’s in-breaking power under the grip of such apparently insurmountable forces.
The only God who will do as the object of that sort of imaginative (yet real) hope is a God who can raise the dead (2 Cor 1). Only a God of empty tombs suffices for the prisoners on Animal Farm… and for the prisoners of sin, empire, and the Evil One.