Orwell’s Ersatz Englands
by Robert Newton
January 13, 2019
Robert Newton is writing a PhD thesis on British literary responses to the materials of the Anthropocene.
For all life-forms of the 21st Century, ‘exposure to some form of toxicity is an unavoidable and necessary part of everyday life’. Thom Davies, ‘Toxic Space and Time: Slow Violence, Necropolitics, and Petrochemical Pollution’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers 108.6 (2018), doi:10.1080/24694452.2018.1470924, p. 1539. Since first they were industrially produced, synthetic substances have diffused into and persisted in landscapes, from cities to mangrove swamps. Once dispersed, synthetics, many of which have molecular structures not found in nature, interact with biota in unpredictable ways, wreaking new forms of harm. Pollution wreaks a ‘slow violence’ on human societies through ‘discriminatory geographies’, most viciously poisoning those with least power. Davies, ‘Toxic Space’, p. 1539. Toxins circulate in, and reconfigure, earth systems. Ocean gyres gather polyester tendrils; leachates seep from landfill; living tissues metabolise artificial molecules. Some synthetic residues will endure for aeons in rock strata, enforcing a disorienting view of industrialised society as a participant in ‘deep’ geological scales of time. Such chemical legacies register not only in the physical environment, but also in culture.
Images of waste’s afterlives proliferate in newspaper articles, in twitter feeds, in literature and in dreams.
Don DeLillo recognised something of this entwinement of synthetic technology, violent heritage, and horror in his 1997 novel Underworld: ‘what we excrete comes back to consume us’. Don DeLillo, Underworld (London: Picador, 2015; 1997), p. 791.
What we might call ‘synthetic consciousness’ seems a definitively contemporary phenomenon. However, current cultures of chemical technology have complex prehistories, arguably beginning with the experiments of mid-19th Century scientist-inventors, and growing in influence with the expansion throughout the 20th Century of synthetic industries. Semi-synthetic plastics – materials set from a paste of vegetable cellulose, rather than the ‘pure product of chemical formula’ – were first commercially produced after Alexander Parkes created Parkesine in 1862 David Trotter, Literature in the First Media Age: Britain Between the Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 86. . In 1907, a new polymeric molecular structure crystallised from a reaction between phenol and formaldehyde. This was Bakelite, the first true synthetic resin, marketed as the ‘material of a thousand uses’, and soon a household substance – in telephones, in bracelets, in radios…Stephen Fenichell, Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 93.
The 1930s saw the increasingly methodical industrial application of advances in synthesis by powerful chemical cartels like Du Pont, IG Farben, and Imperial Chemical Industries. The decade witnessed corresponding cultural responses to new substances. Visitors to a British Art and Industry Exhibition in London marvelled at ICI’s pellucid new Resin M – later known as Perspex. In the USA, Du Pont’s cellophane was a watchword for glamour, even draping the set of an avant-garde Gertrude Stein opera as ‘sparkling décor’ Judith Brown, ‘Cellophane Glamour’, Modernism/Modernity 15.4 (2008) doi:10.1353/mod.0.0035, p. 609.. In Germany, IG Farben’s ersatz triumphs propelled nationalist pride, and fascist power. Synthetic technology promised a new mastery over matter. Chemists ‘were no longer to be at the mercy of Nature. They could decide now what properties they wanted a molecule to have, and then go ahead and build it’, offering new combinations of texture, colour, and form, and new affective and imaginative potentials. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (London: Vintage, 2013; 1973), p. 296.
There was ‘rayon and viscose, Formica and formaldehydes. There was Perspex and polystyrene, polyethylene, acrylic, and melamine. The names clunked from the lips like new hexes’. Esther Leslie, ‘Waste in Time and the Radioactivity of Objects’, Technosphere, 15 January 2018 <http://goo.gl/rahDhq>.
At the eve of the Second World War, George Orwell was speculating about the effects of these accelerating environmental and technological changes on structures of perception, and on experiences of subjectivity. His 1938 novel Coming Up for Air consistently foregrounds the standardised, substitute, and synthetic aspects of everyday suburban life in 1930s England. Through the novel’s hapless narrator, George Bowling, Orwell investigates the influence on individual subjectivity of technologies of mass production – technologies which, by the late 1930s, were enmeshed with the rapidly-developing domain of synthetics.
Bowling ‘leads a desperate half-life in the company of a more or less comatose family in the heart of suburbia. There is not much in his life that is not synthetic’. David Trotter, Literature in the First Media Age: Britain Between the Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 113.
Every day, he takes the train into London from the ‘inner-outer suburbs’, looking through the window at a ‘great sea of roofs stretching on and on George Orwell, Coming Up for Air (London: Penguin, 2000; 1939), pp. 9-21. (hereafter CUFA). Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on’.
‘Do you know’, Bowling asks the reader, ‘the road I live on – Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley? Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it’.CUFA, p. 9.Bowling, prompted by the chance apparition of a childhood memory, and funded by the profits of a bet on a race, hatches a secret plan to escape from ‘the realities of modern life’ and to return to Lower Binfield, the village of his birth, where he intends to rekindle a sense of the pastoral England he remembers from ‘before the war’. CUFA, pp. 37-132.
‘Before the war’, he reminisces, ‘it was summer all year round. I’m quite aware that that’s a delusion. I’m merely trying to tell you how things come back to me’.CUFA, p. 37.‘Before the war’ comes back to him as ‘the market place at dinner time, with a sort of sleepy dusty hush over everything and the carrier’s horse with his nose dug well in his nose-bag’; as ‘a hot afternoon in the great green juicy meadows’; or as ‘dusk in the lane behind the allotments, and there’s a smell of pipe-tobacco and night-stocks floating through the hedge’.CUFA, pp. 37-38. Orwell tacitly urges readers to consider ‘how things come back’ to the narrator. CUFA, p. 37. He indicates the fusibility of a memory with desires produced by circumstances subsequent to the time remembered. In Coming Up for Air, subsequent circumstances are determined by replication, substitution, and synthesis. By way of this prompt to consider the workings of his narrator’s mental processes, Orwell gestures to how the modern proliferation of industrial-technological systems conditions Bowling’s perception and thought. In 1935, writing about imagination and technological modernity, Walter Benjamin suggested that the ‘manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well’; that ‘social transformations’, such as those effected by technologies of mass production and mechanical reproduction, give rise to ‘changes in the medium of contemporary perception’. Benjamin, ‘Reproduction’, p. 224. We might then suggest that the ‘realities of modern life’ shape Bowling’s impressions of rural, localised social organisation, abundance, sensuality, and leisure – a self-reflexive but nonetheless committed sentimental stereotype of a pastoral England in continuity with its authentic traditions. CUFA, p. 132. Bowling believes that something of ‘before the war’ lives on inside him, like ‘a hangover from the past’, and he goes in pursuit of its revival CUFA, pp. 20-37.. But his plan goes awry.
On the morning the novel begins, Bowling drops his papers at the office, and sets out for his dentist, located ‘between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler’, to get a new set of false teeth fitted CUFA, p. 22.. He is early for his appointment, so he goes into a milk bar. The place is ‘slick and shiny and streamlined’ CUFA, p. 22.. There is ‘no real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube’ CUFA, p. 22.. He orders frankfurters. He saws at the ‘rubber skin’ with his ‘temporary false teeth’ until ‘suddenly – pop! … horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue’, tasting of fish. It’s worth quoting in full from the ensuing passage:
I remembered a bit I’d read in the paper somewhere of these food-factories in Germany where everything’s made out of something else. Ersatz, they call it. I remembered reading that they were making sausages out of fish, and fish, no doubt, out of something different CUFA, p. 24.. It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios playing all the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. CUFA, p. 24.
Benjamin suggests that the ‘presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’ Benjamin, ‘Reproduction’, p. 222. Bowling can locate no original presence in the frankfurter. This is why it so appals him.
David Trotter suggests that with the development of plastics, there came into being new methods of classifying materials – new ways of comparing and contrasting the ‘archaic’ and the ‘contemporary’, the ‘raw’ and the ‘cooked’, the original and the imitation, the organic and the synthetic Trotter, Literature, p. 87.. This sensibility, he suggests, operated ‘within and upon technologically mediated experience by means of a strong awareness of synthetic and semisynthetic substance’ Trotter, Literature, p. 89.; new classes of materials prompted an altered ‘awareness of substance, and… of the information encoded in synthetic or semisynthetic substance’. Trotter proposes the concept of ‘techno-primitivism’ – by which he means, the intuitive sensory detection of the original, organic, raw, and archaic in, rather than outside of, products of technological modernity Trotter, Literature, p. 86.. Vulcanised rubber, for example, is the semi-synthetic product of industrial processes through which latex is toughened or elasticated Trotter, Literature, p. 95.. This material can be traced to a biological origin – the raw substance worked over by industrial process is a gum extracted from a tree Trotter, Literature, pp. 94-95.. Trotter claims that in the early-20th Century, a ‘techno-primitivist’ awareness of rubber made it available for characterisation as a material with ‘dormant energies and aptitudes’ Trotter, Literature, p. 99..
The concept of techno-primitivism provides a useful point of entry for thinking about authenticity in the age of synthetics. By way of Benjamin’s classic essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, we might consider an object’s authenticity as ‘the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced’ Benjamin, ‘Reproduction’, p. 223.. If an object is duplicated by technical means, Benjamin suggests, its authenticity expresses itself as an ‘eliminated element’, as ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction’: aura Benjamin, ‘Reproduction’, p. 223.. We might think of techno-primitivism as a way of sensing latent aura in semi-synthetic materials – of locating ‘the natural in the synthetic’ Trotter, Literature, p. 106.. Semi-synthetic materials encode their organic origins, harbouring a ‘residue of nature that no degree of artifice could wholly expunge’ Trotter, Literature, p. 112.. Their beginnings can be identified; from these beginnings, it is possible to trace histories, and thus to detect aura. Techno-primitivism, however, does not cover the full range of synthetic experience. In ‘wholly synthetic substance’, Trotter suggests, ‘absolute artificiality threatened to rule out altogether any appeal to the primitive’ Trotter, Literature, p. 125..
Benjamin proposes that the ‘technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition’, destroying its aura Benjamin, ‘Reproduction’, p. 223.. Synthesis has a different way of creating experience without aura. It does not by necessity imitate or reproduce; it does not rely on the prior ‘presence of the original’ Benjamin, ‘Reproduction’, p. 223.. For Bowling, to encounter a fully synthetic material is to encounter an endlessly unfolding chain of substitution, with no beginning and no original – ‘everything made of something else’ CUFA, p. 24.. He experiences what might be described as synthetic vertigo. Esther Leslie has proposed ‘aura’s technological reinvention as synthetic’, suggesting that synthetics may produce ‘something akin to aura, a haze… this is aura after aura. It takes its place alongside those other entities that generate not aura but fake aura, the rotten shimmer of the commodity fetish or untimely artwork’ Esther Leslie, Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (Kings Lynn: Reaktion, 2005), p. 226.. Bowling’s synthetic vertigo expresses another side of this ‘aura after aura’ Leslie, Synthetic Worlds, p. 226.. If aura relates to ‘the essence of all that is transmissible from [a thing]’s beginning’, then ersatz aura has to do with the difficulty of locating original identity Benjamin, ‘Reproduction’, p. 223.. Bowling cannot trace ersatz to a stable category, finding only an ongoing chain of substitution with an uncertain source: ‘sausages out of fish, and fish, no doubt, out of something different’ CUFA, p. 23.. He has no cultural resources on which to draw to contextualise this ‘phantom stuff’, other than ‘a bit I’d read in the paper somewhere of these food-factories in Germany where everything’s made out of something else’ CUFA, pp. 22-24..
When the frankfurter bursts ‘like a rotten pear’ in Bowling’s mouth, disemboguing a ‘sort of horrible soft stuff’ all over his tongue, he is shocked by a realisation of the extent of this reconfiguration of the ordinary; by the creeping occupation of the familiar by the synthetic CUFA, p. 23.. Perhaps this is why there appears to be comparatively little literary work on synthetic materials before the 1960s. For the most part, ‘the substance steals in, unregistered’ Email correspondence with Robert Macfarlane, 7 November 2018.. In Coming Up for Air, the recognition of a change in the condition of ordinariness occurs only through revulsion for unexpected encounters with ‘matter out of place’ Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1984; 1966), p. 35.. Slow habituation to new material conditions goes unnoticed. However, when the familiar exposes its presence in the strange, or when the strange manifests abruptly in the familiar, a realisation effect takes place. To borrow Bowling’s phrasing, sausages and synthetics do not ‘go with’ one another CUFA, p. 3.. The unavoidable reality, though, is that there are synthetic sausages; the familiar has been quietly estranged by an emergent industrial-technological regime. The sausage disgusts Bowling.
His disgust occasions, and is intensified by, a realisation of the extent to which everyday life has been rendered synthetic, without his having fully registered it. Were synthetics not so normal, he would not be so horrified.
Even as Bowling reckons with the pervasive normality of the synthetic, he insists on his independence from it. He claims that he retains traces of his identity from ‘before the war’ – that ‘I’ve got something else inside me, chiefly a hangover from the past’ CUFA, pp. 20-37.. He is unconscious, or in denial, of the extent to which he has been moulded by his contemporary circumstances, maintaining that he retains a latent authenticity. ‘Genuineness’, Esther Leslie writes, ‘is that which cannot be reproduced. Genuineness gains value in a world of endless reproduction and synthetics, precisely because it exists no more’ Leslie, Synthetic Worlds, p. 190.. In his tirade against his ‘world of endless reproduction and synthetics’, Bowling tacitly implies the existence of more authentic experience, in which ‘something solid’ does not give way to the repeating substitutions of synthetic production Leslie, Synthetic Worlds, p. 190; CUFA, p. 24.. However, following immediately from his unsettled response to ersatz matter comes an expression of relief stemming from the fitting of dentures: ‘When I’d got the new teeth in I felt a lot better. They sat nice and smooth over the gums’ CUFA, p. 24..
The ‘period from 1930 to 1940 represented a period of intense experimentation both by the plastic industry and the dental profession to find a suitable material’ for false teeth SK Khindria et al, ‘Evolution of Denture Base Materials’, The Journal of Indian Prosthodontic Society 9.2 (2009) <http://goo.gl/EuHfNN>, pp. 64-69.. Common materials included Bakelite, vinyl resins, and acrylic resins Khindria et al, ‘Denture Base Materials’, pp. 64-69.. It is probable that a dental patient in Britain in the 1930s would have been given false teeth moulded from some form of plastic. Given the importance in Coming Up For Air of synthetics, the location of the dentist between a photographer (celluloid photographic film was patented in 1889) and a rubber merchant, and Orwell’s maintenance in the novel of an ironical critical distance between readers and narrator, we might justifiably speculate that Bowling’s dentures are plastic Stephen Fenichell, Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 60.. The dentures are ‘nice and smooth’ CUFA, p. 24.. Immediately after having professed distaste for streamlined aesthetics, Bowling obliviously voices his enjoyment of sleek synthetic textures. When he claims to have ‘bitten into the modern world and found out what it was really made of’, he by implication asserts his apartness and exemption from that world – that the ‘new regime of pure prosthesis’ has no hold on him CUFA, p. 24; Trotter, Literature, p. 123.. He either overlooks or elides the uncomfortable detail that he bites with ‘temporary teeth’ made of plastic CUFA, p. 23..
Bowling is, though, careful to distance his new prosthetic teeth from the substitutions he associates with modern life. He insists his dentist is ‘a bit of an artist’, ‘like a jeweller picking out stones for a necklace’ CUFA, p. 24.. He ‘doesn’t aim at making you look like a toothpaste advert’ CUFA, p. 24.. However, even as Bowling claims for his teeth the cultural prestige of an artwork, he unconsciously reinscribes himself within mass consumer culture. Orwell works the register of advertising into Bowling’s narration: ‘though it’s very likely absurd to say false teeth can make you feel younger, it’s a fact that they did so’; ‘Nine people out of ten would have taken my teeth for natural’ CUFA, p. 24.. He catches a reflection of himself in a ‘shop window’, and tries a smile CUFA, p. 24..
‘The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.’ CUFA, p. 3.The novel’s first sentence plots the emergence of Bowling’s plan for an authenticating visit to the places of his childhood alongside his receipt of dental prosthetics, situating the desire for the genuine in relation to reliance upon the artificial. His memory of a ‘rooted organic community of pre-war England before it was devastated by capitalism’ can be understood as an effect of his immersion in an industrial-synthetic milieu Levenson, ‘The fictional realist’, p. 73.. The ‘lost Edwardian Eden’ that Bowling remembers is defined by its anteriority Jonathan Rose, ‘England his Englands’ in Companion, p. 30.. He complains that the ‘very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool – and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside – belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler… Now all the ponds are drained, and when the streams aren’t poisoned with chemicals from factories they’re full of rusty tins and motor-bike tyres’ CUFA, pp. 76-77.. Bowling cannot remember the world before the war without dwelling on its disappearance, and on the world that has replaced it. His memories are not so much the indexical impressions of his earlier experiences, as reactions to the disappearance of the remembered time, and to the coming of the modern world. The authenticity he associates with ‘before the war’ is not preserved in his memories CUFA, p. 37.. A perceptual phenomenon arising from consistent exposure to substitution, it does not enduringly inhere in memory, but imbues itself retroactively into it.
In a footnote to ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Benjamin notes that ‘at the time of its origin a medieval picture of the Madonna could not yet be said to be “authentic”. It became “authentic” only during the succeeding centuries and perhaps most strikingly so during the last one’ Benjamin, ‘Reproduction’, p. 245.. In Benjamin’s formulation, ‘authenticity is itself… a function of reproduction, not a quality of what precedes it’ Martin Jay, ‘Taking on the Stigma of Inauthenticity: Adorno’s Critique of Genuineness’, New German Critique 97 (2006) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/27669153>, p. 19. Intrigued by Benjamin’s insight, Theodor Adorno suggested in his 1951 aphorism ‘Gold assay’ that the ‘discovery of genuineness as a last bulwark of individualistic ethics is a reflection of industrial mass-production’ Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: NLB, 1974), p. 155.. These claims that the idea of the genuine is conditional on the ubiquity of the synthetic provide a framework for thinking about what propels Bowling to return to Lower Binfield, and his disillusioning experiences on arrival.
Of course, he cannot slough off modernity and reprise his life ‘before the war’ CUFA, p. 37. When he drives expectantly over the brow of Chamford Hill, he finds that Lower Binfield has ‘been swallowed’ by ‘a good-sized manufacturing town’, an ‘enormous river of brand-new houses’ presided over by ‘enormous factories of glass and concrete’ CUFA, p. 189.. So he goes to the pub. It has been refurbished ‘in a kind of medieval style’ CUFA, p. 196.. Waiting for the ‘slick young waiter’, he taps the panelled wall behind him. ‘Yes! Thought so! Not even wood. They fake it up with some kind of composition and then paint it over’ CUFA, p. 196.. He gets drunk. The beer has a ‘sulphurous taste. Chemicals’ CUFA, p. 207.. A ‘tiny bit boozed’, he feels an urge to visit his former home CUFA, p. 197.. It now bears a sign reading
WENDY’S TEA SHOP
HOME MADE CAKES CUFA, p. 198.
Dispirited but curious, he enters. It is decorated in ‘an even more antique style than the George’ CUFA, p. 198.. He orders cake. ‘Home-made cakes! You bet they were. Home-made with margarine and egg-substitute’ CUFA, p. 199.. Bowling’s desire to return to Lower Binfield expresses his assimilation to a regime of synthesis and substitution. In acting out that desire, he discovers the physical extent of that regime.
The next day, on the street, he recognises his former girlfriend, Elsie. He keeps his distance. He follows her to her shop. He decides to go inside. She doesn’t recognise him. He says, ‘I want a pipe’ CUFA, p. 219.. A pipe with ‘an amber mouthpiece’ CUFA, p. 219..
‘I don’t know as we got any amber ones jest at present, sir. Not amber. We gossome nice vulcanite ones.’
‘I wanted an amber one’ CUFA, p. 221..
Amber, a fossil resin, forms when over indeterminate spans of time, from a year to a geological aeon, buried arboreal resins oxidise or polymerise Judith W. Frondel, ‘Amber Facts and Fancies’, Economic Botany 22.4 (1968) <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4252998>, p. 371.. Amber may entomb and preserve flora and fauna of past ages. This gives it metaphoric potential – as in Charles Cowden Clarke’s evocation of Shakespeare’s characters, kept ‘for all time in the imperishable amber of his genius’ Quoted in ‘Amber, n. and adj.’, OED Online <http://goo.gl/agCNdY>.. Vulcanite ‘may be regarded as the first truly semi-synthetic plastic, since it is made from a natural material, rubber, which has been chemically altered, its composition and properties being changed by the addition of sulphur under controlled conditions’ Susan Mossman, ‘Perspectives on the History and Technology of Plastics’ in Early Plastics: Perspectives, 1850–1950, ed. Susan Mossman (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), p. 27.. It is ‘a substitute for or imitation of wood, stone, and metal [and amber], remarkable only in so far as it gave rise to the particular form and function imposed during the process of manufacture’ Trotter, Literature, p. 95.. Amber and vulcanite remember differently. Amber holds matter – beetles, feathers, seeds – unchanged within itself. It is an organic medium of preservation, keeping its contents from decay through aeons, manifesting the deep past in the present. Conversely, vulcanite necessarily attests to early 20th Century synthetic technological regimens. Vulcanite may recall the raw rubber from which it is created. However, it is impossible to be alert to this prior, organic material form without awareness that it has since been chemically transformed into an industrial product.
The associative trace in vulcanite of raw rubber is like the retroactively-constituted memory in Bowling of ‘before the war’ CUFA, p. 37.. It attests by necessity to transformation. It is not preserved, but expresses irreversible change. It refers not to origin, but to process. Amitav Ghosh suggests that sensory perception of nonhumans is influenced by the ‘shadow of language’ – that an unavoidable tendency to name and classify may foreclose the possibility of direct non-linguistic perception Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (London: University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 82..
A similar perceptual process seems to be at play in Coming Up for Air – we might speak of a shadow of technological awareness. The awareness of synthetic experience is accompanied by a strong suspicion of its inauthenticity, prompting a fugitive imaginative conviction in an alternative, authentic domain, elsewhere in time or space. For Bowling, such suspicions and convictions pervade experience, to the extent that they alter ‘the organisation of perception’ Benjamin, ‘Reproduction’, p. 224.. Immersion in a newly synthetic world provokes him to imagine an authentic past. His reminiscences are conditioned by awareness of his contemporary situation, to the extent that his memories do not recall the past, but rather express his synthesised present. In Coming Up for Air, Orwell explores what we might now identify as an early psychic condition of the synthetic era – a precursor of contemporary anxieties about those aspects of the new substances that would become apparent only over time: their toxicity, and their persistence.