While our country is bitterly divided by radically opposing views on domestic and foreign policy and we are engaged in an increasingly costly and risky far-off war, we had to vote in a presidential election in which neither candidate inspired hope or confidence. In London during the Second World War, when the propaganda war at home raged in concert with the war against Hitler, Orwell felt as many of us feel now. In his "War Diary" of April 27, 1942, he recorded: "We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth.... Is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs." Repeatedly struck by the viciousness and dishonesty of political controversy, Orwell used his journalism to attack politicians' lies and blatant fear-mongering tactics, the supine press and passive public.
Orwell perfected his rhetorical arsenal and lucid but flexible prose style during the political battles of the 1930s and 1940s, when the threat to western civilization came from totalitarian and fascist regimes in Europe. Today we wage a "war on terror," for which the "Patriot Act" has been passed (both classic Orwellian locutions) against a shadowy and multinational army of radical Islamists. In Orwell's time people suffered large-scale bombing and destruction, and after 1945 learned to live with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war. In our time we feel nostalgic for the good old days, when the major powers, at least, had enriched plutonium under lock and key. Terrorist attacks signify an additional loss of security that affects every aspect of our lives, and we are now led ever deeper into confrontation and danger.
Though he died in 1950, Orwell's ideas about the language and style of polities, expressed in witty how-to-do-it essays as well as in his weekly political commentary and literary journalism, are not merely relevant to this moment, but more desperately needed than ever. As Wyndham Lewis wrote in One-Way Song (1933): "These times require a tongue that naked goes, / Without more fuss than Dryden's or Defoe's." "A happy vicar I might have been," wrote Orwell in a reflective poem about that pre-1914 world he had briefly glimpsed in his childhood. His ambition was to create long "social" novels, and he also tried almost every other kind of writing. But history and polities claimed him, and his genius was to write more acutely about polities than anyone had done before.
Orwell, whose books have sold a phenomenal forty million copies in more than sixty languages, was the most influential prose stylist of the twentieth century. Homage to Catalonia (1938), which showed that good reporting not only describes the urgent political and military issues but also captures the spirit of the place, influenced both the concepts and methods of participatory journalism from Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote to Joan Didion, George Plimpton, and Tom Wolfe. Kingsley Amis observed that "no modern writer has his air of passionately believing what he has to say and of being passionately determined to say it as forcefully and simply as possible." Norman Mailer, agreeing with Amis, maintained: "I don't think there's a man writing English today who can't learn how to write a little better by reading his essays. Even his maxims and instructions on how to write well are superb." Like Hobbes and Swift, Orwell saw political writing not only as a powerful tool for conveying ideas, but also as a demanding and enthralling art with a moral imperative to search for truth.
Orwell was obsessed by writing, felt compelled to write and composed with great fluency in an age that greatly admired authors like Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, and Franz Raffia, who'd tortured themselves with creative agony. Flaubert, the antithesis of Orwell in his complete lack of political commitment, thought the artist "should have neither religion, country, nor even any social conviction.... No cause is worth dying for, any government can be lived with, nothing but art may be believed in, and literature is the only confession." The smoldering indignation of Orwell was also the opposite of the cool objectivity of Joyce, who said he wrote Dubliners in a style of scrupulous meanness. And his personal reticence is quite different from Kafka's serf-exposure and belief that a book must "be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."
Who, then, was Orwell's model? In an autobiographical note of April 1940, he said "the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills." Both writers advocated direct language and unambiguous expression, distrusting attempts to "dress up" facts and ideas to make them more palatable. They believed that the writer ought to communicate in the clearest possible way and employed a plain style that appealed to their readers' common sense. Maugham wrote that "good prose should be like the clothes of a well-dressed man, appropriate but unobtrusive"; Orwell echoed him in his famous simile: "Good prose is like a window pane." Despite their preference for simplicity, both were also deeply moved when young by the rich sounds and exotic associations of John Milton's high style. Maugham noted: "The exultation, the sense of freedom which came to me when first I read in my youth the first few books of Paradise Lost." Orwell also recalled that "when I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words.... The lines from Paradise Lost ... sent shivers down my backbone."
Like Maugham, Orwell trusted his audience to share his values and understanding of the world, but had a far more didactic bent, a crusading spirit that sought to cut through cant and intensify political consciousness. He developed a clear, racy, supple style, fluent and readable, forceful and direct, with a colloquial ease of expression. The critic Edmund Wilson, defining his essential qualities, praised his "readiness to think for himself, courage to speak his mind, the tendency to deal with concrete realities rather than theoretical positions, and a prose style that is both downright and disciplined." The English historian Veronica Wedgwood elegantly described Orwell's combination of passion and restraint: "The strength of his feelings and his determination that they should not intrude make his style spare and economical, while his acute observation and sensibility make its very bleakness the more powerful."
Orwell's style is spare but never drab. His vigorous prose, engaging honesty, and sly wit immediately engage his readers. And his literary personality--his integrity, idealism, and commitment--shine through his writing like pebbles in a clear stream. The striking openings of his major essays are uncannily effective and immediately hook the reader:
--In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people.
--As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
--Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.
--Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.
The first two sentences portray Orwell as a victim of hate and war; the last two are paradoxical statements about the complexity of human nature. All four are as vivid and concentrated as a line of poetry.
Fascinated by every aspect of an author's life, in the course of his all-too-brief career Orwell discussed the teaching of creative writing, revising one's work, being edited, editing others, author's notes, and the limitations of reviewers. In his "As I Please" newspaper column in the London Tribune, he satirized ads for writing courses (which were just beginning in England and have since become entrenched college courses, even majors, in America). He effectively punctured their pretensions with a commonsensical question: "If these [anonymous] people really knew how to make money out of writing, why aren't they just doing it instead of peddling their secret at 5/- a time? ... If Bernard Shaw or d. B. Priestley offered to teach you how to make money out of writing, you might feel that there was something in it. But who would buy a bottle of hair restorer from a bald man?"
In these days when everybody wants to be a writer (but nobody wants to read, preferring to get information and interpretation from television "news" and radio talk shows), it is worth emphasizing that writing even competently demands diligent effort that few students are prepared to give. In June 1940, chronically poor and still under pressure to earn money after more than a decade as a writer, Orwell reflected that his apparent ease of composition had been achieved by years of practice and repetition: "Nowadays, when I write a review, I sit down at the typewriter and type it straight out. Till recently, indeed till six months ago, I never did this and would have said that I could not do it. Virtually all that I wrote was written at least twice, and my books as a whole three times--individual passages as many as five or ten times."
Reviews and articles kept Orwell's body and soul together as he labored to complete his novels, and he wrote interestingly on the practical problems of writing for newspapers. As a highly contentious and polemical writer, hostile to any form of censorship, he loathed cuts that weakened his argument and changed his meaning, yet had to accept the reality of being edited. "The question of 'editing' might be more difficult," he told his agent. "In my experience one can never be sure that one's stuff will get to press unaltered in any daily or weekly periodical. The Observer, for instance, habitually cuts my articles without consulting me if there is a last-minute shortage of space. In writing for papers like the Evening Standard, I have had things not merely cut but actually altered, and of course even a cut always modifies the sense of an article to some extent. What really matters here is whether or not one is dealing with a civilized and intelligent paper."
When Orwell took over as literary editor of the socialist Tribune in November 1943, he found his desk drawer "stuffed with letters and manuscripts which ought to have been dealt with weeks earlier, and hurriedly shut it up again." As an editor himself, he had a fatal tendency to accept manuscripts which he knew very well could never be printed, but didn't have the heart to send back. When he considered manuscripts submitted to the newspaper, he must have remembered Gordon Comstock's bitter rage (in Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1936) when his verse was politely rejected: "Why be so bloody mealy-mouthed about it? Why not say outright, 'We don't want your bloody poems. We only take poems from chaps we were at Cambridge with.'" In June 1947 Orwell, an ex-policeman, recalled his generous weakness as editor and concluded the discussion with a characteristically witty simile: "It is questionable whether anyone who has had long experience as a freelance journalist ought to become an editor. It is too like taking a convict out of his cell and making him governor of the prison."
Reserved about his private life and wary of improper publicity, Orwell was reluctant to provide biographical details for his dust jackets and, with a prematurely lined face and idiosyncratic mustache, didn't think his photograph would be a good advertisement for his books. He justly complained about the low standards of book critics and told a fellow novelist Anthony Powell: "The reviewers are awful, so much so that in a general way I prefer the ones who lose their temper & call one names to the silly asses who mean so well & never bother to discover what you are writing about." Though Animal Farm was enthusiastically received in 1945, Orwell felt reviewers had missed an essential aspect, compared them to the villains of his book and called them "grudging swine ... not one of them said it's a beautiful book."
Orwell's primary ambition was to be a writer of fiction, and he carefully studied writers he admired--like Edgar Poe, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce--to learn how they'd achieved their artistic effects. His account of Poe's realistic fantasy suggests how he created his own convincing futuristic world in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): "Poe's outlook is at best a wild romanticism and at worst is not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense. Why is it, then, that [his] stories ... which might very nearly have been written by a lunatic, do not convey a feeling of falsity? Because they are true within a certain framework, they keep the rules of their own peculiar world, like a Japanese picture. But it appears that to write successfully about such a world you have got to believe in it."
Writing in July 1933 to one of his girlfriends about Lawrence (who'd died, neglected and reviled, in 1930), Orwell tried to account for his powerful, heroically primitive vision: "There is a quality about L. that I can't define, but everywhere in his work one comes on passages of an extraordinary freshness, vividness, so that tho' I would never, even given the power, have done it quite like that myself, I feel that he has seized on an aspect of things that no one else would have noticed.... He reminds me of someone from the Bronze Age."
Orwell was passionate about Joyce's Ulysses, which he'd bought when working in Paris and smuggled into England. In a letter to another girlfriend a year later, he confessed that "Joyce interests me so much that I can't stop talking about him once I start." He was writing his weakest novel, A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), very much under the influence of Joyce. But he went on to make fun of his work in comparison to the Master's: "My novel, instead of going forwards, goes backwards with the most alarming speed. There are whole wads of it that are so awful that I really don't know what to do with them.... When I read [Ulysses] and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production and can pass himself off fairly well as a bass or baritone, but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever." He knew that he could not be a Joyce or a D. H. Lawrence, but realized that he had to keep trying to find his own narrative style.
Lawrence was a great travel writer and like Joyce in Ulysses--had broken through traditional restraints with his vivid sexual descriptions in Lady Chatterley's Lover. (Both novels, suppressed on grounds of obscenity, were only published in England after contentious trials.) But Orwell disliked both travel books and detailed descriptions of sexual acts. Henry Miller's narcissistic account of his life in Greece in The Colossus of Maroussi, for example, "has all the normal stigmata of the travel book, the fake intensities, the tendency to discover the 'soul' of a town after spending two hours in it, the boring descriptions of conversations with taxi-drivers." And Orwell felt that in a novel by his friend Humphrey Slater, "the sex stuff was out of place and in poor taste," disapproved of "this modern habit of describing lovemaking in detail," and thought it would one day seem as meaningless as the sentimental gush of Victorian novels. He was surely right about this modern obsession. Depictions of sex in contemporary novels and films have become ever more graphic, ugly, and depressing.
Orwell's illuminating comments on his own work show how desperately he wanted to be a writer and how long he had to struggle to become one. He destroyed his early stories and first novel, and after returning from police duties in Burma, worked as a dishwasher, hoppicker, tutor, teacher, and tramp before publishing his first book, the autobiographical Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), at the age of twenty-nine. In his introduction to the French translation the following year, he defended the truthfulness and explained the artistic rearrangement of the incidents in that book: "As for the truth of my story, I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting. I did not feel I had to describe events in the exact order in which they happened, but everything I have described did take place at one time or another."
Orwell found it difficult to invent fictional incidents and wanted to use the events of his early life in Coming Up for Air (1939), but also saw the technical weakness in telling the story from the hero's point of view. "You are perfectly right," he told a friend, "about my own character constantly intruding on that of the narrator. I am not a real novelist anyway, and that particular vice is inherent in writing a novel in the first person, which one [i.e., Orwell] should never do. One difficulty I have never solved is that one has masses of experience which one passionately wants to write about, e.g. the part about fishing in that book, and no way of using them up except by disguising them as a novel." Orwell felt that he should use every scrap of his experience in his work. If it couldn't be placed in an essay or review, it ought to be "used up" in his fiction.
Most writers, after struggling for seventeen years to achieve literary success, would have remained in London to be lionized and enjoy their celebrity. But Orwell, immune to the effects of wealth and fame, couldn't endure the success of Animal Farm in 1945. It didn't match his guilt-ridden idea of himself. Success also led to the conflict between accepting endless lucrative offers to write for periodicals and dedicating himself to his more serious books. Nineteen Eighty-Four was beginning to take shape in his mind, and he wanted to rest for two months and allow the idea to germinate. "I am anxious to get out of London," he wrote a friend, "because I am constantly smothered under journalism--at present I am doing 4 articles every week--and I want to write another book which is impossible unless I can get 6 months quiet." Quite unexpectedly, the man who'd always hated Scotland took off for the remote island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides.
When he finished Nineteen Eighty-Four, under harsh living conditions and with a terminal illness, Orwell, with his usual honesty, saw the flaws in his work and conceded: "the vulgarity of the [torture in] 'Room 101' business. I was aware of this while writing it, but I didn't know another way of getting somewhere near the effect I wanted.... I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied. I first thought of it in 1943. I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB."
Orwell's description of his ghastly treatment in the tuberculosis sanatorium is very close to his portrayal of Winston Smith after his torture in the novel and reveals Orwell's horrific condition when completing the book: "The truly frightening thing was the emaciation of his body. The barrel of the ribs was as narrow as that of a skeleton.... The curvature of the spine was astonishing. The thin shoulders were hunched forward so as to make a cavity of the chest, the scraggy neck seemed to be bending double under the weight of the skull.... He was aware of his ugliness." When Orwell was in the sanatorium, the doctors had to take extreme measures to prevent him from writing. The medical staff, insisting on complete physical and mental rest, confiscated his typewriter. When he kept on writing with a ballpoint pen, they put his right arm in plaster.
Orwell, usually able to write four serious articles a week (or about 200 articles a year!), was a desperately driven and manically compulsive writer. In one of his most revealing passages (in a notebook of 1949), he confessed, despite his extraordinary output, that he always felt guilty about his work and fearful that his creative energy would dry up:
[Since I started publishing in 1928] there has literally been not
one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was
behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably
small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a
book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been
able to get away from this neurotic feeling that I was wasting
time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work
that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than
I intend, & in any ease I feel that a book or even an article
does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book
is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying
because the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear
that there never will be a next one--that my impulse is exhausted
for good & all.
Though guilt made Orwell miserable, it also energized him and drove him to produce his impressive body of work.
Orwell completed the final draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four in November 1948, but found it too indecipherable to send to a typist. His friends desperately tried to find a London secretary to go to Jura. Despite intensive efforts, no one was willing to help the distinguished author type his extraordinary manuscript--even at two or three times the going rate of pay. He had to sit up in bed typing the final copy of the 150,000-word novel, finally collapsed and went into hospital. Mortally ill when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in June 1949, he died seven months later, before he could enjoy his newfound wealth. The creation of the novel virtually killed Orwell, and its vision of the future (by a man who himself had no future) is correspondingly grim. It's not surprising that in "Why I Write" he exclaimed that "writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness."
Orwell had limited success in creating a credible first-person narrator in his fiction, but the lively persona he created in his nonfiction made essays his most successful genre. His essays on writing fall into three main categories: the writer's life, popular literature, and the search for truth. These essays--and three passages from his novels--cover many aspects of writing and reading, or how to deconstruct the meaning and purpose of pieces of writing: the deceptions of advertising, techniques of book reviewing, writers' income, and authors' motives; the brutality of crime novels, definition of humor, mediocre but enduringly popular books, and children's literature; the creation of new words, effects of propaganda, genesis of satire, suppression of literature, purity of language, relation between content and pleasure, political pamphlets, keeping a diary, and rewriting history.
With a keen nose for the bogus, Orwell saw early on the falsity and fraudulence of the newly spawned advertising agencies that serve the corporate economy and would eventually contaminate the media. Orwell, who'd been to school with the advertising innovator David Ogilvy, had amused himself in childhood by answering a fake ad for a weight-reducing course and, by pretending to be an obese lady, had deliberately prolonged the cheeky correspondence. "Do come before ordering your summer frocks," the weight-reducer insisted, "as after taking my course your figure will have altered out of recognition." This went on for some time, he recalled, "during which the fee gradually sank from two guineas to haft a crown, and then I brought the matter to an end by writing to say that I had been cured of my obesity by a rival agency."
In Keep the Aspidistra Flying Orwell's embittered hero and would-be poet Gordon Comstock is forced by poverty to take a humiliating job as a hack writer in a cynical, hard-boiled, Americanized advertising agency. He calls it the dirtiest swindle of capitalism, and (in a homely farm metaphor) "the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket." When the boss discovers that Comstock has published poetry, he promotes him to copy editor and launches him on a successful career. Fearful that he'll be trapped by "blind worship of the money-god," Gordon manages to escape. But when his girlfriend Rosemary becomes pregnant during their plein air frolics, he feels obliged to marry her and is trapped once again in his old job.
Orwell's family in Southwold and Leeds, and visitors to his London flat and house on the Scottish island of Jura, emphasized how hard he worked and how he constantly pounded away at the typewriter. The endless clacking sound became part of his legend. But no one ever mentioned his sitting quietly (if not comfortably, for he thrived on hardship) in a chair and actually reading the books he was reviewing. The chief bore (he felt) was having to read at least fifty pages of each book to avoid making a howler, but he eventually learned to skip expertly through these useless volumes.
He begins the autobiographical "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" like a short story--with himself as the satiric victim. Looking (like Orwell) much older than his age and plagued by unpaid bills, predatory creditors, and tax demands, the literary hack tries in vain to write his way out of poverty as a book reviewer. Since most books are worthless, yet somehow have to be praised, Orwell calls book reviewing "a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job." To alleviate this tedium, he advocates fewer but longer reviews; and claims that the book reviewer is, at least, better off than the film critic (who has to praise a greater proportion of trash). Since there's an endless supply of amateurs eager to break into print, there will always be desperate men willing to have a shot at the disparate books that, the editor falsely claims, "ought to go well together."
Most of Orwell's fictional heroes are impoverished and (like Charles Dickens and George Gissing) he puts a great deal of emphasis on money, or the lack of it. In August 1941, when he took a job at the BBC and earned a salary of 640 [pounds sterling] a year, he made, for the first time since 1925, more money than he had as a policeman in Burma. A writer like Gordon Comstock usually has to have another job. In "The Cost of Letters" Orwell, always the Socialist, states that a writer should ideally have 1,000 [pounds sterling] a year, which would enable him to live in reasonable comfort without joining the privileged class. He concedes that it's almost impossible to earn this income solely by writing books; and that a second occupation, useful for putting the author in touch with the real world, should be nonliterary. He'd been strongly discouraged by his conventional family, who were horrified by his resignation from his secure job in the Burmese police, and recalls that "I had to struggle desperately at the beginning, and if I had listened to what people said to me ! would never have been a writer."
Orwell's instinctive approach to literary topics was moral. He analyzed crime novels in "Raffles and Miss Blandish" to reveal the social and political dimensions of popular art. In a classic contrast he argues that there was an "immense difference in moral atmosphere" between the two novels (Raffles, by E.W. Hornung, published in 1900, and No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase, in 1939) and discusses the "change in the popular attitude that this probably implies." The first had an almost schoolboy atmosphere; the second, full of cruelty and corruption, was "a header into the cesspool." There are, however, perverse elements in Orwell's condemnation. He loathed Chase's fictional character, "whose sole pleasure in life consists in driving knives into other people's bellies" but, as he himself sadistically wrote in "Shooting an Elephant," as a young policeman in Burma he thought the "greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts." He blames the horrors of James Hadley Chase on the American obsession with violence--though the author was in fact English. Connecting his thesis to wartime polities, Orwell argues that Chase's obsession with the struggle for power and the triumph of the strong over the weak reveals "the interconnection between sadism, masochism, success worship, power worship, nationalism and totalitarianism."
Just as "Raffles and Miss Blandish" explains the moral and stylistic decline of crime novels, "Funny, But Not Vulgar" defines comedy and describes the decline of English humorous writing from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Humor, Orwell observes with many lively examples, must "show a willingness to attack the beliefs and the virtues on which society necessarily rests" and dare to upset the established order. All comedy attacks social evils, and in order to be funny you have to be serious and include an element of vulgarity.
"Good Bad Books" reveals Orwell's nostalgia for the idyllic prewar era of his youth as well as his keen interest in popular "escape" literature. Like his previous essays, it also attempts to explain the decline of the contemporary novel. Good bad books (a term he borrowed from G. K. Chesterton) show that "one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously," and that "art is not the same thing as cerebration." Despite Orwell's valiant attempt to revive interest in out-of-date popular fiction, only Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Rider Haggard's She and perhaps Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin--all of which have been made into films--are still in print and read today.
"Riding Down from Bangor," closely related to "Good Bad Books," describes Orwell's strong attraction to works like Helen's Babies and Little Women that formed his childhood vision of America. The characters in these books, though slightly ridiculous, have "integrity, or good morale, founded partly on an unthinking piety ... a native gaiety, a buoyant, carefree feeling, which was the product, presumably, of the unheard-of freedom and security" of nineteenth-century America. He's nostalgic about the lost world of these books that have no hint "of the twin nightmares that beset nearly every modern man": unemployment and state interference. When Orwell, a new boy at his preparatory school, had to stand on a table in the dormitory and sing a song, he sang "Riding Down from Bangor," the American folksong he quotes in the essay.
In 1942 Orwell wrote that "Kipling is the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language." But in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell also invented many vivid phrases: "Big Brother Is Watching You," "two minutes hate," "thought police," "thoughtcrime," "facecrime," "doublethink," "memory hole," "vaporized," and "unperson." These words, which uncannily expressed the ideas and emotions of people living under totalitarian oppression, read like advertising catchwords. They became political shorthand during the Cold War, and remain so today.
In "New Words" Orwell ventures into the realm of dreams and psychology, argues for the expansion of language and boldly but impractically suggests that "it would be quite feasible to invent a vocabulary, perhaps amounting to several thousands of words, which would deal with parts of our experience now practically unamenable to language." Just as the French Academy was created in the seventeenth century to preserve the purity of language, so, Orwell argues, "several thousands of people with the necessary time, talents and money" could, by dedicating themselves to this noble task, create new words "for the now unnamed things [intuitions, fantasies, dreams] that exist in the mind." Through this unrealistic project Orwell hoped to increase understanding through language and reduce "the star-like isolation in which human beings live."
"The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda" considers the influence of history on literature and explains why English writers have shifted from an interest in form over content in the 1920s to the reverse in the 1930s. Minimizing the military, political, and social effects of the Great War, which shattered a century of relative peace in Europe and killed ten million men, Orwell argues that it was the Depression and the Second World War that forced writers into % world in which not only one's life but one's whole scheme of values is constantly menaced." Detachment is no longer possible and "literature had to become political because anything else would have entailed mental dishonesty." Propaganda has crept into art and aesthetic judgments are now influenced by the author's prejudices and beliefs.
Orwell's preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm describes the genesis of his most humorous and wickedly satiric book. As in "Why I Write," he describes his background--including his five years with the police in Burma, association with the criminal class in Paris, and warfare in Spain--to explain his political beliefs. His experience in Spain taught him about the great dangers to clear style and free thought: "how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries" and "the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement." His duty, he felt, was to expose the illusions created by such propaganda, make people "see the Soviet regime for what it really was," and destroy the Soviet myth in order to revive the real Socialist movement. Inspired by seeing a little boy whip a huge farm horse, Orwell imagined a revolution of oppressed beasts and analyzed "Marx's theory from the animals' point of view."
Orwell's lucid, witty, and ironic style is perfectly suited to his political allegory of the Russian Revolution. In Animal Farm the actual writing of political slogans takes place after the revolution. The pigs, Napoleon (Stalin) and Snowball (Trotsky), become literate, reduce the principles of Animalism to seven commandments, and use writing to manipulate the animals and consolidate their political power. As the revolution is gradually betrayed and the pigs replace the oppressive farmer they have overthrown, each of these sacred rules is broken. Finally, the horse Clover realizes that the last and most important commandment--"All animals are equal"--has also been changed to "ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS." The most famous phrase in his fable, rewritten by the shrewd, self-serving pigs, combines Thomas Jefferson's fundamental concept in the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal," with Eve's command to the serpent in Milton's Paradise Lost: "Render me more equal, and perhaps, / A thing not undesirable, sometime / Superior." The defeat of the Loyalists in the Spanish War taught him that "history is written by the winners." His own minimal achievement, while working as a talks producer at the wartime BBC, was to keep "our propaganda slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been."
Several of Orwell's essays explore the conditions that allow or prevent the freedom of expression (and freedom from self-censorship) that's essential for good writing to exist. The polemical "Prevention of Literature" considers the more insidious factors, apart from totalitarianism, that mitigate against the creation of great, or even honest literature. It also anticipates Orwell's portrayal of Winston Smith's job in Nineteen Eighty-Four: rewriting and perverting history, in order to adhere to the ever-changing party line. In England, he argues, "the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence freedom of thought, are the Press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats, but on a long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all." All literature is political in an age like his own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties affect everyone's beliefs. In one of his most striking sentences, he insists that a writer must have freedom of thought and oppose the prevailing doctrines in order to create serious work: "To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.... Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes." The assumption that the act of writing is in itself a political act runs through all Orwell's work.
In a 1946 review of a book by the novelist Georges Bernanos, Orwell, always ready to expose poor style, noted: "A tendency towards rhetoric--that is, a tendency to say everything at enormous length and at once forcibly and vaguely--seems to be a common failing with present-day French writers." His classic essay "Polities and the English Language" opposes this trend and forcefully advocates dear language. Orwell's ideas were foreshadowed by Leviathan (1651), the major work of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, who had also attacked the abuse of words, argued that a sane, stable society must have a dear, stable language and believed that pure style was not only good in itself but also a civil duty. Writing during the English civil war, in an elegant and balanced style, Hobbes insisted that dear words benefited society while confused and confusing style could lead to seditious disruption:
The light of human minds is perspicuous words, but by exact
definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity; reason is
the pace; increase of science, the way; and the benefit of mankind,
the end. And, on the contrary., metaphors, and senseless and
ambiguous words, are like ignes fatui [delusions]; and reasoning
upon them is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities; and their
ends, contention and sedition, or contempt.
Hobbes also observed that the misuse of words and creation of meaningless speech--also the subject of Orwell's essay--were intended to deceive rather than enlighten readers:
There is yet another fault in the discourses of some men; which
may also be numbered amongst the sorts of madness; namely, that
abuse of words, whereof I have spoken before ... by the name of
absurdity. And that is, when men speak such words, ms put together,
have in them no signification at all; but are fallen upon by some,
through misunderstanding of the words they have received, and
repeat by rote; by others from intention to deceive by obscurity.
E. M. Forster, himself a notable stylist and, in A Passage to India, a major influence on Burmese Days (1934), wrote that in "Polities and the English Language" Orwell "was passionate over the purity of prose, and ... tears to bits some passages of contemporary writing. It is a dangerous game ... but it ought to be played, for if prose decays, thought decays and all the finer roads of communication are broken. Liberty, he argues, is connected with prose."
Orwell begins his practical advice to writers by giving five examples of bad contemporary prose, characterized by stale imagery and lack of precise meaning. He then lists (with convincing examples) four common faults, "a catalogue of swindles and perversions" that conceal and prevent rather than express clear thought: dying metaphors, verbal false limbs (including the use of passive rather than active voice and awkward noun constructions rather than gerunds), pretentious diction and meaningless words. He insists that a careful, thoughtful writer will always ask six essential questions about everything he writes:
"What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is unavoidably ugly?"
It's worth noting, as Orwell would say, that he enlivens his essay on the evils of bad writing with a number of striking satirical similes. He compares dead language to tea-leaves blocking a sink, to soft snow blurring sharp outlines, to cuttlefish spurting out ink, and to cavalry horses mechanically answering the call of a bugle.
Orwell's six stylistic rules (he seems fond of the number six) are worth repeating and should be carved in stone above every writer's desk:
i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outfight barbarous.
As we all know from the speeches we hear every day, it is possible to obey all these rules and write persuasively, with all the appearance of clarity and strength, yet still be an outrageous liar. In his rules for writing, Orwell assumes that the author wants to tell the truth. He believed that the consistent and courageous attempt to find the simplest and most direct way of communicating an idea would keep a person honest. In an observation that also describes government propaganda today, he concludes that in his time "political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible." Perhaps the most appealing quality of this essay is Orwell's daring to suggest that polities doesn't have to be dirty, and that the language we use can be a powerful force for order and understanding, for choosing the right thing to do.
In his "Imaginary Interview" with Jonathan Swift, published in the Listener November 1942, Orwell said that "Gulliver's Travels has meant more to me than any other book ever written. I can't remember when I first read it, I must have been eight years old at the most, and it's lived with me ever since so that I suppose a year has never passed without my re-reading at least part of it." Swift, a major influence on Orwell's ideas about writing, also wrote three important essays about the need to preserve clear style and eliminate corrupt language. In "On Corruptions of Style" (1710)--essential reading for anyone who wants to write good prose--Swift, like Hobbes, followed the tradition of English plain style. He attacked senseless, convoluted "wit" and condemned "all Words and Phrases that are offensive to good Sense."
Swift's "Proposal for Correcting the English Tongue" (1712) unrealistically hoped to arrest the decline of language and preserve (his editor wrote) "a sanctioned standard language, in order to give permanent life to all written records." Anticipating Orwell's plan in "New Words" to create an informal academy to study language, Swift proposed a strict English Academy (modeled on the well established Academy in France) dedicated to eliminating useless words. They "will observe many gross Improprieties, which however authorized by Practice, and grown familiar, ought to be discarded. They will find many Words that deserve to be utterly thrown out of our Language; many more to be corrected."
In his "Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately entered into Holy Orders" (1721), Swift, an old gentleman, long in holy orders, expressed his dearest ideas about style, which he classically defined as "Proper Words in proper Places." (In "New Words" Orwell, echoing Swift, defines good style as "taking the right words and putting them in place.") Swift emphasized clarity, particularly disliked the "Use of obscure Terms" and urged the young clergyman to address his congregation "in a manner to be understood by the meanest among them."
Orwell's "Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels" considers "the inter-connection between Swift's political loyalties and his ultimate despair" and "the relationship between agreement with a writer's opinions, and enjoyment of his work." He discusses the changes in Gulliver's character in the four parts of this rancorous, reactionary, and pessimistic book, as well as Swift's hatred of the human body, his paradoxical denunciation of oppression but dislike of democracy, his reverence for the past, lack of belief in religion or progress, and his scorn for humanity. For Orwell the most significant aspect of Gulliver's Travels and "Swift's greatest contribution to political thought" is his attack on totalitarianism: "He has an extraordinarily clear prevision of the spy-haunted 'police State,' with its endless heresy-hunts and treason trials."
Swift had a profound impact on Orwell's political fiction. Taking a hint from Swift's rational horses, he idealized the horses in Animal Farm, and transformed Swift's Floating Island of Laputa into the Floating Fortress in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He mentions that books were written by machinery in Gulliver's Travels and in "The Prevention of Literature" says it would "not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery." Orwell, like Swift, was a "Tory anarchist," a revolutionary in love with the past, but he was not a complete pessimist. In "Why I Write" Orwell states: "So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects." In "Politics vs. Literature," by contrast, he emphasizes Swift's inability "to believe that life--ordinary life on the solid earth ...--could be made worth living."
Orwell owned hundreds of political pamphlets, and in his essay on pamphlet literature, published in 1943, he exclaimed: "The pamphlet ought to be the literary form of an age like our own. We live in a time when political passions run high, channels of free expression are dwindling, and organised lying exists on a scale never before known. For plugging the holes in history the pamphlet is the ideal form." His introduction to a co-authored anthology British Pamphleteers (1948) advocates (like "Good Bad Books") another minor but valuable kind of writing. Closely connected--in comparative method and argument--to "Politics and the English Language," it forcefully laments the current decay of English and the corresponding decline of the pamphlet. After defining the topical and polemical pamphlet, rarely concerned with evidence or truth and essentially a protest expressed through exuberant argument and scurrilous attacks, he sums up the horrors of capitalism in a single, rhetorically effective sentence. "Wherever one looks," he exclaims, "one sees fiercer struggles than the Crusades, worse tyrannies than the Inquisition, and bigger lies than the Popish Plot." His age (like ours) cries out for political pamphlets but the form, to Orwell's deep regret, has virtually died out.
Orwell's political point of view informed all his criticism and fiction. "Why I Write," his retrospective artistic credo, begins with a brief account of his early life, including a description of his first novel, Burmese Days, in order to explain his four great motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. In a letter of 1938 he added, in amusingly cynical American diction, "pulling in the dough." He might also have mentioned, as he did in a review of John Galsworthy, "some inner trouble, sharpening his sensitiveness," that gave him the urge to write. He called the Spanish Civil War, in which he fought on the Loyalist side and was shot through the throat, the great turning point in his life. After that, he said, every line of his serious work--and in his view no work could be serious without a political purpose--was written "against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism." His conscious aim was to transform "political writing into an art."
Most of Orwell's essays on writing--particularly "New Words," "The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda," and "Politics and the English Language"--prefigure the ideas that he dramatized in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Fond of making political prophecies and honestly willing to admit his mistakes, Orwell urged readers to keep a diary--as Winston Smith does in the novel not only to recover and preserve the past, but also to maintain an accurate perspective on the truth: "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps towards it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one's opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it."
Like Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying,, Winston Smith is absorbed into the hateful system he'd once opposed, and expresses his anxiety in two kinds of composition. He professionally destroys the work of others while secretly writing his own work. In his job Winston alters the records of the past to fit Party policy. In private, he writes on the creamy paper of an old diary with an old-fashioned pen and ink. The first kind of writing (like Orwell's at the BBC) is mechanical and exhausting, the second (like Orwell's own creative writing) is psychologically liberating, but also sets off disturbing memories and dreams. The first is systematic lying in Newspeak, the second a passionate search for truth in Oldspeak. Orwell contrasts the mindless, bureaucratic attitude Winston needs to do this work with his panic at the blank sheet of paper, his poor handwriting, his mental and emotional confusion when he starts writing for himself. Winston's work forces him to practice "doublethink," the ability to hold simultaneously two contradictory opinions which cancel each other out. Winston has to believe that he's rectifying errors, yet also knows that he's falsifying information. Each kind of writing forces him to find a plausible formula to disguise the truth. Winston is manipulated by the system and, in his role of Outer Party intellectual, is also part of the system that manipulates others.
The word "Orwellian" constantly appeared in 2003, Orwell's centenary year, and has become essential to our political discourse. But the term is ambiguous. In the negative sense, it stands for the kind of oppressive totalitarian regime that he created in Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially political manipulation of the media to deceive the public. In the positive sense, it suggests the personal honesty, bravery, and idealism in both his life and his writing. For Orwell, writing has two essential aspects. The first concerns an individual writer (like Winston Smith) who sits down alone to communicate his most secret thoughts, even to an unknown future reader. He must have courage and dedication, and an optimistic belief in his own ideas. The second concerns the writer's desire and power to ameliorate society. For Orwell clear language and independent thought were an aesthetic as well as a moral responsibility.
Ironically, Orwell's subtle and morally acute lessons on how to read and write have been misunderstood and misapplied after his death. Neoconservatives have singled out his warnings about the totalitarian aspects of the Socialist state and claimed him as one of their own. Recent accounts of the Cold War described Nineteen Eighty-Four as "the canonical text" of conservative anticommunism, as "the key imaginative manifesto of the Cold War" and gave Orwell credit for having "invented ... a complete poetics of political invective." Willfully obscuring the complexity of its vision, they reduce the novel to a clever piece of propaganda. More grotesquely, the John Birch Society used to sell his novel in its Washington office and even used 1984 as the last digits of its telephone number.
Since Orwell himself was so scrupulous about his own limitations as a political observer and criticized the Left as sharply as the Right, it is easy to cite his ideas out of context and simply ignore his professed belief in democratic Soeialism. Like devout Mormons baptizing their helpless ancestors, the Neocons, by trying to co-opt him, have missed the whole point of his life and work. In an anxious, atheistic age like our own, he resisted the temptation to submit to religious or political dogma, and believed that ordinary people had to participate in the conduct of political life. Despite his vast influence, Orwell was never part of a movement, and remained a solitary, individualistic writer with a stubborn message: think for yourself and write the truth.
In a famous statement the eighteenth-century French naturalist Count Buffon said: "The style is the man himself." Like his hero Jonathan Swift and other writers of the Enlightenment, Orwell derived his clear style from moral integrity. There was in Orwell an unusual consistency between the gritty, combative persona that emanates from his lucid writing and his courageous, civilized, and intellectually truthful character. His description of Charles Dickens, another of his literary heroes, applies equally to himself: "In every page of his work one can see a consciousness that society is wrong somewhere at the root.... The strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.... As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere." Dickens, Orwell observes, has "the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry--... a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls." Irving Howe summed up Orwell as "craggy, fiercely polemical, sometimes mistaken, but an utterly free man. In his readiness to stand alone and take on all comers, he was a model for every writer of our age." Orwell belongs with Johnson, Blake, and Lawrence in the great English tradition of prophetic moralists.
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Source Citation:Meyers, Jeffrey. "George Orwell and the art of writing." The Kenyon Review 27.4 (Fall 2005): 92(23). Military and Intelligence Database. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 14 May 2009
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