There is a price to be paid for divorcing actions and concepts from the words that describe them. Government, and the law that undergirds it, is made up of words. Devalue the words, strip them of meaning, and you do the same thing to the concepts those words describe. Action follows Thought, and for Thought to exist there must be the Word.
This was George Orwell’s central insight when he invented Newspeak for his novel 1984. Language doesn’t just describe what we think about, and allow us to communicate with each other; in a major way, it actually determines what we think about, and how we think. We conceptualize the way we do, even in the abstract, using constructs of language — even mathematics and computer code is a kind of language. Orwell understood that the Word could actually be turned into a weapon, an invisible knife to cut away a man’s ability to think (and thus, to act). All you have to do is convince a man that the Word he’s hearing means something other than what he thought it meant … or can mean anything, really. Or nothing at all. Science, history, literature, even music — they evaporate like a puddle in the hot sun because the Words used to build them stop conveying meaning.
Words have meaning. They must have meaning, for if we are to communicate at all we must transmit meaning from one person to another. This is perhaps the most unforgivable part of the postmodernist assault on the language itself: it has weakened our ability to even describe the loss of meaning.
Monty, “In the beginning was the Word”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-01-27.
August 25, 2014
May 8, 2014
April 19, 2014
Bruno Waterfield reviews a recent “intellectual biography” by Robert Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel:
Orwell, or rather Blair, was of the British upper class, but he could clearly see that human equality was a fact. It transcended class and nationality, and was palpable even in the briefest of encounters between people. It was the ‘crystal spirit’ that had bought a young Italian, and Orwell, to fight for democracy in Spain, just as it was the same human quality that made life in a slum unbearable. Equality for Orwell was not a merely a measure or a statistic; it was a quality that all living humans have, a resistance to fate even at its most blind.
These two encounters also reveal a man with a deep belief in the character and qualities of living humans, something that Robert Colls understands in his excellent ‘intellectual biography’ of Orwell. No book about Orwell can be perfect; the man was too contradictory, too contrarian and too bloody minded to be an easy study. But Colls (with some limitations) really gets it. Orwell refused ideology in a century defined by it, and that was his strength and brilliance. Setting out his stall, Colls, a professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, puts his finger on why Orwell despised ideology as a ‘form of abstract knowledge which, in order to support a particular tendency or regime, has to distort the world and usually does so by drawing off, or separating out, ideas from experience. Ideology, in Orwell’s eyes, could never afford to get too close to the lives of the people. The more abstract the idea and the language that that expressed it, the more ideological the work and vice versa’, he writes at the book’s beginning.
‘[Orwell] knew that if he was saying something so abstract that it could not be understood or falsified, then he was not saying anything that mattered’, Colls continues. ‘He staked his reputation on being true to the world as it was, and his great fear of intellectuals stemmed from what he saw as their propensity for abstraction and deracination – abstraction in their thinking and deracination in their lives. Orwell’s politics, therefore, were no more and no less than intense encounters turned into writings he hoped would be truthful and important. Like Gramsci, he believed that telling the truth was a revolutionary act. But without the encounters he had no politics and without the politics he felt he had nothing to say.’
Orwell was on a collision course with the intelligentsia to which he, as a rebel and a modernist radical, instinctively belonged, but which, due to its embrace of social engineering, the state and Stalinism, he was starting to oppose. His dissidence appears early in The Road to Wigan Pier where, as Colls wisely remarks, ‘Socialism emerges not as the solution but the problem, and the unemployed and exploited emerge not as a problem but the solution’. Colls paraphrases Orwell: ‘The battle of the classes… will not be won in the abstract, or in some future state, but in the present, in how people actually are and what they actually think of each other.’ Orwell despised the ‘Europeanised’ intellectual British Left because they had become wilfully displaced and removed, uprooted from the lived life of their country. Even worse, the deracinated intellectuals, divorced from the majority, wanted to refashion the people in their image. In the world of Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Fabian socialism, gaining political power also meant using the state to engineer the people, through eugenics and public health.
Orwell returned to Britain in time for the beginning of the Second World War. Apart from taking up the cudgels on behalf of the truth in Spain, without which the historical record would have been badly damaged by the falsifiers, he was not immune to much of the confusion that plagued the left in the run up to hostilities. Should socialists refuse to take sides in a conflict between imperialist powers? Should socialists sabotage the war efforts and oppose rearmament in the face of the threat from Nazi Germany? George Orwell was as confused as anyone else and his writings of 1939 and early 1940 are full of the turmoil and contradictions of the day.
But then in 1940, Orwell took another one of his leaps away from the lines and orthodoxies of leftish ideology which had led many intellectuals into pacifism or the defeatism of toeing the Stalinist line on the Soviet Union’s 1939 pact with the Nazis. In a way, Orwell’s experiences in Wigan and Barcelona, prepared the ground. In the Second World War, he would side with the British people, and an imperfect British state, because Britain’s political and wider culture reflected a way of living better than the fascism or Stalinist communism preferred by many of the intelligentsia. He reserved and exercised his right to criticise British imperialism, which he continued to attack throughout the war and his life. Again, his instincts were right or, at the very least, less wrong than most on the left. Instead of abstract ideology, distorted and twisted to suit either a Marxism that was synonymous with Stalinist tyranny, or the elitist social engineering of the Fabians, Orwell advocated a patriotic defence of a way of life that could not be trusted to intellectuals or, by implication, the state.
March 26, 2014
In The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell wrote that the most salient fact about England’s liberal elite was “their severance from the common culture of the country”. By “the common culture” Orwell was thinking of things like beer and bingo, as well as smutty humour, the tabloid press and a distrust of the state and its officials. What connects these things, according to Orwell, is that they all have a whiff of rebelliousness about them, something that appeals to the Sancho Panza in all of us rather than the Don Quixote – “your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul”. These are the things ordinary people genuinely enjoy, as opposed to what they ought to enjoy. In indulging in these simple, unpretentious pleasures, they are making use of their freedom to spend their money on whatever they like, not what various authority figures think they should spend it on. “One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical,” wrote Orwell. “They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.”
The reason the liberal elite are disconnected from this culture isn’t simply because it’s alien to them. It’s also because they actively disapprove of it. Unlike the common people, they are puritanical. They think gambling, drinking and bawdy humour, not to mention tabloid newspapers, are wrong and they often give vent to these feelings. Alongside a desire for a more just society, sits a yearning for a purer, less sinful society, one in which the workers spend their evenings reading self-improving books – Booker Prize-winning novels – and engaging in traditional arts and crafts, like basket making. The reason they seek political power isn’t primarily because they want to protect working-class people from being exploited by evil capitalists. They want to protect them from themselves.
Toby Young, “The Conservatives should become the party of beer, bingo and Lamborghinis”, Telegraph, 2014-03-26
February 25, 2014
Brendan O’Neill isn’t comfortable with the widespread media descriptions of Ukraine’s change of government and calls it regime change instead:
Even in this era of rampant political spin and platitudes, where George Orwell’s claim that political language is used and abused to ‘make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’ has never been truer, the commentary on Ukraine stands out for its dishonesty. Western observers tell us there has been a revolution in that benighted nation. They claim revolutionaries have overthrown a dictator. They say the people of Ukraine have risen up and deposed their despot, and are now ‘experiencing the intense emotions expressed so eloquently by Thomas Paine in 1776 [in his writings on the American War of Independence]’. It is hard to remember the last time political language was so thoroughly used to obfuscate reality, to impose inappropriate historical narratives on to a messy modern-day event. For what we have in Ukraine is not revolution, but regime change, set in motion far more by the machinations of Western politicians than by the stone-throwing of Ukrainians.
Orwell was right – too much political writing is less about clarifying real-world events than it is a collection of pre-existing phrases ‘tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse’. So it has been in relation to Ukraine, where the words selected by Western observers tell us more about them and their prejudices than they do about events in Kiev. So the word ‘meddling’ is used to describe Vladimir Putin’s interventions in Ukraine, but never to describe Angela Merkel’s or John Kerry’s cultivation of the oppositional forces – that is ‘mediation’. Ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich is now widely referred to as a ‘dictator’, confirming how exhausted and meaningless that word has become through overuse: unlike serious dictators like Gaddafi or Assad, Yanukovich won a free and fair election, in March 2010. As for the word ‘revolution’ – that has been knackered by misuse for decades, but its deployment in Ukraine takes its bastardisation to a new low: there has of course been no replacement of one social order by another in Ukraine, or even the instalment of a people’s government; instead various long-established parties in parliament, some of which are deeply unpopular among certain constituencies in Ukraine, are forming an interim government. Revolutionary? Hardly.
The Western debate and coverage of Ukraine has cast a massive political fog over events there. It may not have quite made ‘murder seem respectable’, but it has certainly made externally generated regime change seem revolutionary, and the Western-assisted anti-democratic removal of an elected leader seem like an act of people’s democracy. It has exposed a severe dearth of independent critical thinking among the Western commentariat. Even those on the right who are normally passionately anti-EU are now lining up like lemmings behind Brussels’ dishonest moral narrative about being a mere observer to a glorious revolution in the East. And even those on the left who condemned regime change in Iraq or Libya are buying the idea that Ukraine has undergone a revolution of Paineite proportions, with the Observer giddily declaring that Ukraine is currently experiencing ‘an intoxicating sense of liberation from an old guard’. Across the political spectrum, narratives about Ukraine that don’t add up, and which are being promoted by people normally seen as untrustworthy, are being accepted as good coin – among both a right excited by the prospect of a return of the neat Cold War-era divide between good West and bad East, and a left so desperate for evidence of revolutionary behaviour in the twenty-first century that it will lap up even staid, grey, distinctly unrevolutionary Brussels’ claims about a revolution being afoot in Ukraine.
Note: This article is posted at Spiked Plus, which is normally a pay site. They’ve made the site available to non-subscribers for a limited time to mark their second anniversary. If you’re reading this post at a later date, the link to the whole article may not work unless you’re a member.
February 2, 2014
After reading a post called An Incomplete Guide to Feminist infighting, ESR did a bit more spelunking down the feminist rabbit hole and came back with a bit of a travelogue for those trapped down there:
The most conspicuous thing is that these women ooze “privilege” from every pore. All of them, not just the white upper-middle-class academics but the putatively “oppressed” blacks and transsexuals and what have you. It’s the privilege of living in a society so wealthy and so indulgent that they can go years – even decades – without facing a reality check.
And yet, these women think they are oppressed, by patriarchy and neoliberalism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and there’s a continuous arms race to come up with new oppression modalities du jour and how many intersectional categories each player can claim.
While these children of privilege are filling out their victimological bingo cards…elsewhere, women are treated like chattels. Raped under color of law. Genitally mutilated. But none of this enters the charmed circle of modern American feminism. So much safer to rage at the Amerikkan phallocracy that provides them with cushy jobs writing about their outrage for audiences almost as insulated from reality as they are. Not to mention all those obliging men who will grow their food, fix their plumbing, mow their lawns, and know their place.
And to return to an older theme – I think this sort of bitter involution is what eventually and inevitably happens when you marinate in left-wing duckspeak for long enough. (Clue: if you find yourself using the word “neoliberal” as non-ironically as these women do, you’re there. For utter lack of meaning outside of a dense thicket of self-referential cod-Marxist presuppositions disconnected from reality, this one has few rivals.)
Accordingly, George Orwell would have no trouble at all identifying the language of the feminist twitter wars as a form of Newspeak, designed not to convey thought but suppress it. Indeed, part of the content of the wars is that some of these women dimly sort of get this – see the whole argument over “callout culture”. But none of them can wake up enough to see that the problem is not just individual behaviors. Because to do that they’d have to face how irretrievably rotten and oppressive their entire discourse has become, and their worldview would collapse.
Ah well. This too shall pass. The university system and establishment journalism are both in the process of collapsing under their own weight. With them will go most of the ecological niches that support these precious, precious creatures in their luxury. Massive reality check a’coming. No doubt the twitter wars will continue, but in historical terms they won’t last long.
January 21, 2014
The British Library has posted an interesting short item on their Untold lives blog about George Orwell’s pamphlet collection:
George Orwell’s collection of mostly political ephemera was an important barometer of the social changes of the 1930s and 1940s, and a measure of his influences during those decades. While Orwell’s personal papers went to University College London and the National Archives, his miscellaneous materials are held by the British Library. Totalling over 2700 items, a full inventory of Orwell’s collection of pamphlets is now available via the British Library’s website.
Orwell was not a writer of ‘bestselling’ books until the end of his life, after the Second World War. He became known as a journalist, a critic of other people’s writings and a word-portraitist of the landscape of politics. It is likely he never passed up the opportunity to acquire pamphlets of any persuasion. He wryly observed in The Tribune that the pamphleteer’s road was paved by a “complete disregard for fairness or accuracy” (8 December 1944). Perhaps the most appealing aspect of his pamphlets collection is that he wasn’t Hoovering them up to form a George Orwell Archive; he considered them as a spectrum of thought that was deserving of preserving.
Orwell’s heaps of pamphlets informed his writing, both fiction and non fiction. He took pride in his squirrelling-away of pamphlets, “political, religious and what-not”. In 1949, he estimated that this hoard numbered 1200-2000, but even the higher figure was an underestimation. He wrote that “a few of them must be great rarities” and they were “bound to be of historical interest in 50 years time.” In line with most of his considerations, he wasn’t wrong.
January 17, 2014
Ben Domenech discusses the books that “everyone must read”, but very few have actually done more than turn the pages a bit, or perhaps scanned the Wikipedia entry for:
The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.
So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.
10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.
9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.
8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”
7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.
6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.
5. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith: Smith’s invisible hand is all that many people seem to know about his work, but his contributions were more sophisticated than that, rejecting a simplistic view of self-interest and greed as the motivating factors in a healthy economy.
4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville: If you haven’t managed this one yet, consider that William F. Buckley, Jr. did not actually read this until he was 50, remarking then to friends: “To think I might have died without having read it.”
3. The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Misunderstood and misapplied by people who’ve never bothered to read it, Sun Tzu’s advice is as much a guide to war as it is to avoiding combat via deception and guile, and to only fight battles one is certain of winning.
2. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli: Viewed by people who don’t understand the context as a guide to mendacious political gamesmanship and the use of hypocrisy and cruelty as political tools, Machiavelli’s work is likely a brilliant work of sarcastic trolling which contradicts everything else he wrote in life – which is one reason it was dedicated, sarcastically, to the Medicis who exiled and tortured him.
1. Ulysses, James Joyce: I own this book but have never read it.
Yeah, there are a few books I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read or, in the wonderful phrase used on the Bujold mailing list, “bounced off”. I’ve read lots of Rand’s non-fiction, but have only ever finished We, the Living in her fiction works. I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and own copies of most of the others, but haven’t finished most of them (and haven’t even begun with the Darwin, Dickens, Hugo, or Melville titles).
January 16, 2014
This should be entertaining: not the film, the reactions to the announcement of a romantic remake of 1984:
The literary world is agog, reeling, aghast, at the news that Kristen Stewart is going to star in a romantic remake of 1984. You read that right. Romantic. Remake. 1984.
Anyway, the news has sent literary types into a flat spin. “THIS IS MY ROOM 101,” bellowed Chocolat author Joanne Harris on Twitter. “This is more chilling than ANYTHING actually in 1984,” said publisher Gollancz, adding: “Ministry of Truth announces ‘romantic adaptation’ of 1984. Then announces its own closure as there is nothing left for it to do.” And “just to finish my terrible mood off, I read this about one of my favourite books. *head implodes*,” tweeted author Sarah Pinborough.
Pinborough managed to find a bright spot, however — “I’m quite entertained by the thought of a million Twilight fans rushing out to buy 1984 after it”. Let’s hope she’s right — and literary Twitter has been cheering itself up by imaging how, exactly, this Orwellian romance will play out. Will Big Brother be overthrown? Will Winston and Julia’s love conquer all? And what about the rats — what place do they have in a love story of epic, epic, epic proportion?
H/T to Terry Teachout:
"Nineteen Eighty-Four," the romcom: http://t.co/z7njQe7rLH
— Terry Teachout (@terryteachout) January 15, 2014
Those aghast at the news might also not have considered how well Kirsten Stewart can play an expressionless automaton.
Jokes aside, there is perhaps a legitimate silver lining to Hollywood interpreting the greatest anti-totalitarian novel of the 20th century as a romance.
The struggle against fascism and totalitarianism consumed most the 20th century. It was the defining conflict of Orwell’s life, and he dedicated most of his short time here to fighting it, both on the page and in the trenches as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War.
By contrast, the youngest generation in the West, and even in former Eastern Bloc countries, has grown up in a post-Soviet world that has never faced a truly existential threat. They weren’t even born when the fearsome year of 1984 rolled around. (This probably explains the title change, because what tween Twilight fan wants to go see another ‘80s movie?)
October 27, 2013
I’ve already quoted from this week’s edition of Jonah Goldberg’s The Goldberg File email, but I quite liked this passage as well:
The bad news is that we don’t feel that way — anymore — about softer, more diffuse and bureaucratic forms of tyranny. Every American is taught from grade school up that they should fear living in the world of Orwell’s 1984. Few Americans can tell you why we shouldn’t live in Huxley’s Brave New World. We’ve got the dogmatic muscle and rhetorical sinew to repel militarism, but we’re intellectually flabby when it comes to rejecting statist maternalism. We hate hearing “Because I said so!” But we’re increasingly powerless against, “It’s for your own good!”
(Sadly, the surest route to the 1984-ification of America is to embrace Brave New Worldism. Once you’ve created a society of men without chests — in C. S. Lewis’s phrase — you’ve created a society ripe for a father-figure to make all of the decisions).
For instance, when the national-security types intrude on our privacy or civil liberties, even theoretically, all of the “responsible” voices in the media and academia wig out. But when Obamacare poses a vastly more intrusive and real threat to our privacy, the same people yawn and roll their eyes at anyone who complains. If the District of Columbia justified its omnipresent traffic cameras as an attempt to keep tabs on dissidents, they’d be torn down in a heartbeat by mobs of civil libertarians. But when justified on the grounds of public safety (or revenue for social services or as a way to make driving cars more difficult), well, that’s different.
And it is different. Motives matter. But at the same time, I do wish we looked a bit more like the America Edmund Burke once described:
In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; [In America] they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.
September 8, 2013
Learned controversies, reverberating for years on end in American magazines, have not even been able to determine whether or not Fascism is a form of capitalism. But still, when we apply the term ‘Fascism’ to Germany or Japan or Mussolini’s Italy, we know broadly what we mean. It is in internal politics that this word has lost the last vestige of meaning. For if you examine the press you will find that there is almost no set of people — certainly no political party or organized body of any kind — which has not been denounced as Fascist during the past ten years. Here I am not speaking of the verbal use of the term ‘Fascist’. I am speaking of what I have seen in print. I have seen the words ‘Fascist in sympathy’, or ‘of Fascist tendency’, or just plain ‘Fascist’, applied in all seriousness to the following bodies of people:
Conservatives: All Conservatives, appeasers or anti-appeasers, are held to be subjectively pro-Fascist. British rule in India and the Colonies is held to be indistinguishable from Nazism. Organizations of what one might call a patriotic and traditional type are labelled crypto-Fascist or ‘Fascist-minded’. Examples are the Boy Scouts, the Metropolitan Police, M.I.5, the British Legion. Key phrase: ‘The public schools are breeding-grounds of Fascism’.
Socialists: Defenders of old-style capitalism (example, Sir Ernest Benn) maintain that Socialism and Fascism are the same thing. Some Catholic journalists maintain that Socialists have been the principal collaborators in the Nazi-occupied countries. The same accusation is made from a different angle by the Communist party during its ultra-Left phases. In the period 1930-35 the Daily Worker habitually referred to the Labour Party as the Labour Fascists. This is echoed by other Left extremists such as Anarchists. Some Indian Nationalists consider the British trade unions to be Fascist organizations.
Communists: A considerable school of thought (examples, Rauschning, Peter Drucker, James Burnham, F. A. Voigt) refuses to recognize a difference between the Nazi and Soviet régimes, and holds that all Fascists and Communists are aiming at approximately the same thing and are even to some extent the same people. Leaders in The Times (pre-war) have referred to the U.S.S.R. as a ‘Fascist country’. Again from a different angle this is echoed by Anarchists and Trotskyists.
Trotskyists: Communists charge the Trotskyists proper, i.e. Trotsky’s own organization, with being a crypto-Fascist organization in Nazi pay. This was widely believed on the Left during the Popular Front period. In their ultra-Right phases the Communists tend to apply the same accusation to all factions to the Left of themselves, e.g. Common Wealth or the I.L.P.
Catholics: Outside its own ranks, the Catholic Church is almost universally regarded as pro-Fascist, both objectively and subjectively;
War resisters: Pacifists and others who are anti-war are frequently accused not only of making things easier for the Axis, but of becoming tinged with pro-Fascist feeling.
Supporters of the war: War resisters usually base their case on the claim that British imperialism is worse than Nazism, and tend to apply the term ‘Fascist’ to anyone who wishes for a military victory. The supporters of the People’s Convention came near to claiming that willingness to resist a Nazi invasion was a sign of Fascist sympathies. The Home Guard was denounced as a Fascist organization as soon as it appeared. In addition, the whole of the Left tends to equate militarism with Fascism. Politically conscious private soldiers nearly always refer to their officers as ‘Fascist-minded’ or ‘natural Fascists’. Battle-schools, spit and polish, saluting of officers are all considered conducive to Fascism. Before the war, joining the Territorials was regarded as a sign of Fascist tendencies. Conscription and a professional army are both denounced as Fascist phenomena.
Nationalists: Nationalism is universally regarded as inherently Fascist, but this is held only to apply to such national movements as the speaker happens to disapprove of. Arab nationalism, Polish nationalism, Finnish nationalism, the Indian Congress Party, the Muslim League, Zionism, and the I.R.A. are all described as Fascist but not by the same people.
George Orwell, “What is Fascism?”, Tribune, 1944
July 20, 2013
George Orwell wasn’t a perfect writer, but most of us could stand to be able to write more like he did. Here, from his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, are the rules he recommended to produce clear, understandable writing:
To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style’. On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.
However, as Tom Chivers points out, even Orwell could be wrong:
One: never use a figure of speech which “you are used to seeing in print” is a bit weird. For example, you could make the case that “figure of speech” is a figure of speech, since the things it refers to are not literal figures, ie physical shapes or written symbols, but metaphorical ones. And you’ve definitely seen it in print lots and lots. And there’s nothing wrong with it. “Don’t resort to cliché” is what he means, but it’s so obvious it doesn’t need saying.
Two: Language Log nails the “Never us a long word” and the “Never use a foreign phrase” one neatly by pointing out that “when a shorter one will do” or “an everyday English equivalent” are entirely subjective terms. In the very same essay, they point out, Orwell talks of “scrupulous writers”. Could he have said “careful”, Language Log wonders: “Not quite the same meaning, of course. But would it have done?” Similarly, foreign and technical words have subtly different meanings to the English equivalents: there are no true synonyms. “Don’t show off by using needlessly fancy language”, again, is so obvious and unhelpful that it doesn’t need saying; it’s little better than saying “write well”.
Three: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” should, by its own rule, be “If it is possible to cut a word, cut it.” Or even “Cut words where possible.” Is that better?
Four: “Never use the passive” is complete nonsense and Orwell uses it regularly himself because there is nothing wrong with it.
Five we’ve dealt with; see two.
Six: So what you’re saying, Mr Orwell, is that applying rigid rules to writing is unhelpful and silly? At last we agree.
All Orwell needs to say is that we should take care over writing, and that cliché and needlessly showy language are worth avoiding. That’s great, if largely empty (“Be better at the things you do” is rarely helpful advice). But the Six Commandments on their tablets of stone are all ridiculous, and if you go through your prose sternly applying them – or worse, if your editor does – then it is very unlikely to make it any better.
July 6, 2013
When he wasn’t writing books for the ages, George Orwell sometimes turned his hand to less world-shaking tasks such as making a proper cup of tea:
First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. [. . .]
Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. [. . .]
Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. [. . .]
Fourthly, the tea should be strong. [. . .]
Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. [. . .]
Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. [. . .]
Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. [. . .]
Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. [. . .]
Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. [. . .]
Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar.
June 29, 2013
What is the use of pointing out that a World State is desirable? What matters is that not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing. All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves. Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood. Before you can even talk of world reconstruction, or even of peace, you have got to eliminate Hitler, which means bringing into being a dynamic not necessarily the same as that of the Nazis, but probably quite as unacceptable to ‘enlightened’ and hedonistic people. What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the S.S. men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the ‘sacred soil of the Fatherland’, etc. etc.), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered from. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.
[. . .]
Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolised in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses. The principal villain of his Outline of History is the military adventurer, Napoleon. If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner. There survives somewhere or other an interesting controversy which took place between Wells and Churchill at the time of the Russian Revolution. Wells accuses Churchill of not really believing his own propaganda about the Bolsheviks being monsters dripping with blood, etc., but of merely fearing that they were going to introduce an era of common sense and scientific control, in which flag-wavers like Churchill himself would have no place. Churchill’s estimate of the Bolsheviks, however, was nearer the mark than Wells’s. The early Bolsheviks may have been angels or demons, according as one chooses to regard them, but at any rate they were not sensible men. They were not introducing a Wellsian Utopia but a Rule of the Saints, which like the English Rule of the Saints, was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials. The same misconception reappears in an inverted form in Wells’s attitude to the Nazis. Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately. But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous. Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration.
George Orwell, “Wells, Hitler and the World State”, Horizon, 1941.
June 17, 2013
In Salon, Andrew O’Hehir considers the separate strains of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick that predicted the way we’d be:
In 1946, two years before writing 1984, Orwell wrote an essay about the new form of social organization he saw on the horizon. He predicted it would do away with private property, which didn’t happen – but if we suppose that his idea of private property meant individual autonomy and freedom from debt slavery, this starts to sound more familiar:
These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new “managerial” societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.
That vision of the future, so much more sober than what we’re used to calling “Orwellian,” sounds eerily like the world we actually live in (with a few doses of Ayn Rand thrown in). So far as we know, our Huxley-Orwell hybrid society emerged organically from the end of the Cold War, rather than resulting from an apocalypse or a grand plan. It’s almost a case of life imitating art, as if Earth’s rulers had selected the most effective elements from various dystopian visions and strategically blended them. But I’m not sure we can blame all this on a secret meeting of the Bilderberg Group, or some Lee Atwater ad campaign. As in The Matrix, we chose the simulacrum of democracy and bumper stickers about “freedom” instead of the real things. We chose to believe that our political leaders stood for something besides rival castes within the ruling elite, chose to believe that a regime of torture and secrecy and endless global warfare was a rational response to the tragedy of 9/11. We still believe those things, but our dystopia is still messy, still incoherent, still incomplete. Which means, in theory, that it can still be undone.