On the surface, you might be forgiven for thinking that George Orwell, widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest writers, hardly needs a day named after him or any more celebrations. After all, he’s created through his books concepts which have become part of our daily life – Big Brother, Room 101, 1984 et al. However, having spent a few hours with some of Orwell’s essays I really believe that we could do a lot worse than revisit more of his non-fiction works.
The creators of Orwell Day obviously think so too, as they have chosen to publicise a piece from 1946, “Politics and the English Language”. This has been made available in a nice little 99p pamphlet and can also be read online here if you can’t get hold of that. I read this essay plus four more from the Penguin Great Ideas collection “Books vs. Cigarettes”:
Books vs. Cigarettes
Confessions of a Book Reviewer
The Prevention of Literature
And what a joy they are! Orwell is a great essayist – clear, entertaining, never long-winded and always with something interesting to say or a good point to make. “Books vs. Cigarettes” bemoans the fact that people will spend more on cigarettes that on a book, which can revisit again and again.
“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later; and the cost in term of money may be the same in every case.”
In “Bookshop Memories” GO recalls his time as a bookseller and reflects on the fact that this actually damaged his love of books. His descriptions of the type of customer they had are hilarious! “Confessions” discusses the lot of the hapless hack who has to write about endless books that he or she doesn’t actually like. And “Prevention” is somewhat related to “Politics” in its discussion of how political regimes affect fiction.
As for “Politics”, after reading this I am more convinced than ever of the importance of Orwell as a writer and commentator. Although written in 1946, this essay is still relevant today. The piece demonstrates how the English language is being debased and complicated to such an extent that it is possible to write what appears to be an intelligible paragraph which is actually meaningless and impossible to untangle. Although initially this might appear to be amusing, it is in fact a dangerous trend as it allows politicians and despots to develop a kind of language of rhetoric of their own which sounds wonderful and inspiring and meaningful, but actually means nothing at all and is in fact hiding up something unpleasant that could not be stated in clear, bald speech.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
This is just one wonderful piece of analysis. Other quotes which leapt out at me were:
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”
“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
“…it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing.”
I could have kept on extracting parts, but really you should just read the essay! Orwell was always well aware of the danger that language could present and how the misuse of it could serve those in power. It is clear that this subject was much on his mind in the years immediately after the war, and this is one of the underlying themes of his great novel, “1984″. I always find it chilling how prescient his worldview was, and these essays have served to reinforce my view of his genius. “Politics and the English Language” should be read by every thinking person who wants to be able to recognise the way those in power are twisting words to their own ends.