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Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

18 SEPTEMBER, 2014

George Orwell on Writing, How to Counter the Mindless Momentum of Language, and the Four Questions a Great Writer Must Ask Herself

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“By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”

George Orwell was a man of unflinching idealism who made no apologies for making his convictions clear, be they about the ethics of journalism, the universal motives of writing, or the golden rules for making tea — but never more so than in his now-legendary essay “Politics and the English Language,” which belongs among history’s best advice on writing. Originally published in 1946, Orwell’s masterwork of clarity and conviction is newly published in Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (public library) — an altogether magnificent “intellectual biography” of contemporary thought celebrating the 100th anniversary of The New Republic with a selection of more than fifty timeless, timely essays from such formidable minds as Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, John Dewey, Andrew Sullivan, and Zadie Smith.

Decades later, Orwell’s essay endures as a spectacular guide to writing well — an increasingly urgent reminder that language is first and foremost a tool of thought which, when misused or trivialized, does a tremendous cultural disservice to both reader and writer. Much like clichés poison language through their contagiousness, Orwell argues that our carelessness with the written word is propagated, in a meme-like fashion, by our relinquishing of deliberate thought in favor of lazy, automatic replication. His “catalogue of swindles and perversions” remains a remarkable clarion call for mindfulness in writing.

Portrait of George Orwell by Ralph Steadman from a rare 1995 edition of 'Animal Farm.' Click image for more.

Orwell opens with a characteristically curmudgeonly lament, all the timelier in our age of alleged distaste for longform writing:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to airplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Noting that the decline of language isn’t “due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer” but, rather, has deeper political and economic causes, Orwell nonetheless offers the optimistic assurance that this downturn is reversible. Such a turnaround, he argues, hinges on our collective ability to uproot the “bad habits which spread by imitation,” an act of personal and political responsibility for each of us. Citing several passages as examples of such perilous abuse of language, he points to the two qualities they have in common — “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” — and lists the most prevalent of the “bad habits” responsible for this “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” that poisons the English language:

  1. Dying metaphors: A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.
  2. Operators, Or verbal false limbs: These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de-formations, and banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, the fact that, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by such refunding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, etc.
  3. Pretentious diction: Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual basic, primary, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on anarchaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, trident, sword, shield, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, status quo, gleichschaltung, Weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g. and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, lackeys, flunkey, mad dog. White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words and phrases translated from Russian, German or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentatory) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
  4. Meaningless words: In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: Consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot. The Soviet Press is the freest in the world. The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with the intent to deceive. Others words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Many decades before our era of listicles, formulaic BuzzWorthy headlines, and the sort of cliché-laden articles that result from a factory-farming model of online journalism, Orwell follows his morphology of misuses with a timely admonition:

Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit.

His most salient point, however, is a vivid testament to what modern psychology now knows about metaphorical thinking as conduit of an active imagination:

By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash … it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

Orwell concludes with a practical checklist of strategies for avoiding such mindless momentum of thought and the stale writing it produces:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 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? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself.

The remainder of Insurrections of the Mind offers a wealth of similarly sharp meditations on the vibrant variety of social forces and dynamics that we call culture. Complement this particular excerpt with more perennial pointers on writing, including Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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25 JUNE, 2014

Happy Birthday, George Orwell: The Beloved Author on Money, Government, and Taxes

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“Towards the government I feel no scruples and would dodge paying the tax if I could. Yet I would give my life for England readily enough, if I thought it necessary.”

“It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money,” Michael Lewis advised aspiring writers, “find another one.” More than a century earlier, Tolstoy had issued a similar admonition about money and motives. And yet no matter how much we read up on how to worry less about money, there is a baseline financial security necessary for writing, living, and remaining sane, whatever one’s occupation. When that’s missing, no amount of idealism can neutralize the anguishing practical reality.

From George Orwell: Diaries (public library) — which also gave us 33-year-old Orwell on gender equality in work and housework and his frugal dessert recipes — comes a short entry bemoaning the author’s money troubles. On August 9, 1940 — as World War II is reaching its menacing crescendo — 37-year-old Orwell writes in his diary:

The money situation is becoming completely unbearable… Wrote a long letter to the Income Tax people pointing out that the war had practically put an end to my livelihood while at the same time the government refused to give me any kind of job. The fact which is really relevant to a writer’s position, the impossibility of writing books with this nightmare going on, would have no weight officially… Towards the government I feel no scruples and would dodge paying the tax if I could. Yet I would give my life for England readily enough, if I thought it necessary. No one is patriotic about taxes.

As a footnote in the book points out, it’s odd that Orwell was being pursued for taxes so shortly after his state of near-poverty in the 1930s, and at a time when only 20% of the population paid taxes. One possible explanation is that because writers, artists, and others in the creative professions have a greater variability of income year over year, Orwell’s tax challenge may be due to higher earnings in a previous year, such as potential royalties for The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937. Another is that the earnings of his then-wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who had started working — rather ironically — at the Censorship Department of London’s Ministry of War at the onset of WWII, would have been considered his for tax purposes.

Whatever the case, one thing is of note — five years before Animal Farm saw light of day, Orwell is already contemplating the disconnect between the ideals of patriotism and the greed of the government.

Complement with Orwell on his motives for writing and the freedom of the press, his 11 golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, and Ralph Steadman’s gorgeous vintage illustrations for Animal Farm.

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25 APRIL, 2014

George Orwell’s Animal Farm Illustrated by Ralph Steadman

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“I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure.”

In 1995, more than twenty years after his irreverent illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, the beloved British cartoonist Ralph Steadman put his singular twist on a very different kind of literary beast, one of the most controversial books ever published. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first American publication of George Orwell’s masterpiece, which by that point had sold millions of copies around the world in more than seventy languages, Steadman illustrated a special edition titled Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (public library), featuring 100 of his unmistakable full-color and halftone illustrations.

Accompanying Steadman’s illustrations is Orwell’s proposed but unpublished preface to the original edition, titled “The Freedom of the Press” — a critique of how the media’s fear of public opinion ends up drowning out the central responsibility of journalism. Though aimed at European publishers’ self-censorship regarding Animal Farm at the time, Orwell’s words ring with astounding prescience and timeliness in our present era of people-pleasing “content” that passes for journalism:

The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.

Portrait of George Orwell by Ralph Steadman

Alas, this exquisite edition is no longer in print, but I was able to track down a surviving copy and offer a taste of Steadman’s genius for our shared delight.

Also included is Orwell’s preface to the 1947 Ukrainian edition, equally timely today for obvious geopolitical reasons. In it, he writes:

I understood, more clearly than ever, the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement.

And here I must pause to describe my attitude to the Soviet régime.

I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.

But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in Western Europe should see the Soviet régime for what it really was…

I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.

Orwell concludes with a note on his often misconstrued intent with the book’s ultimate message:

I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure. But I should like to emphasize two points: first, that although the various episodes are taken from the actual history of the Russian Revolution, they are dealt with schematically and their chronological order is changed; this was necessary for the symmetry of the story. The second point has been missed by most critics, possibly because I did not emphasize it sufficiently. A number of readers may finish the book with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs and the humans. That was not my intention; on the contrary I meant it to end on a loud note of discord, for I wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference which everybody thought had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. I personally did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.

Steadman’s Animal Farm: A Fairy Story is spectacular in its entirety, should you be so fortunate to snag a used copy. Complement it with his illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland and his inkblot dog drawings, then be sure to take a closer look at Orwell’s “The Freedom of the Press.”

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