Musing About Orwell’s "Politics and The English Language"

"I've gotta use words when I talk to you," Apeneck Sweeney tells his girlfriend Doris as he tries to explain how it is that "death is life and life is death." Though he dwells near the bottom of the cultural food chain, T.S. Eliot's protagonist nonetheless identifies a problem that has high-brow implications, and the 20th-century jitters, written all over it. For even a consciousness as coarse as Sweeney's has intimations about how fragile words, in fact, are. And it is surely among Eliot's intentions that those more sophisticated than Sweeney Agonistes should also "wrestle" with one of the central questions of our age—namely, how making coherent sense becomes increasingly problematic. Think of Prufock, worrying himself into night sweats because his allusion to Lazarus might be misunderstood ("That is not what I meant at all, / That is not it at all."); or of nearly any character in The Waste Land dangling uneasily between "memory and desire."

Words, let us simply admit it, were always slippery; and the problem is only exacerbated when shoddy speech becomes the norm. At a time when we are surrounded by the bromides of advertisements and editorials, when language has an increasingly difficult time competing with the power of visual images, and perhaps most of all, when the case for clear writing raises scholarly eyebrows, the 50th anniversary of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" is a useful occasion to ruminate about the long-term prospects for mounting clear, unequivocal prose against our continual cultural ruin.

Long before efforts to destabilize language became a cottage industry and then a staple of academic politics, Orwell worried about the social implications of wretched speech. "All issues are political issues," he declared with the same no-nonsense clarity that characterized nearly every paragraph, every sentence, indeed, every word he wrote. He then went on to finish the sentence by making it clear just how debased most political writing had become: "and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia." Orwell had recently completed Animal Farm and was hard at work on 1984 when he wrote these words. He had had a bellyful of the worst that willful obfuscation could offer and set about cataloguing the sins of dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, and pretentious diction. Those who wrote on automatic pilot, which is to say most writers then and now, never had a chance. At its most benign, their ham-fisted efforts generated fog rather than light; at its worst, they produced the Newspeak that 1984 held up for scathing critique: "WAR IS PEACE FREEDOM IS SLAVERY IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH and 2 + 2 turns out to be any number the government says it is."

Political speech and writing, Orwell insisted, were largely "the defense of the indefensible." The result was cloudy constructions such as transfer of population or elimination of unreliable elements rather than the blunt sentence that says what it means: "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Politicians across the political spectrum knew full well that blood-thirsty utterances of this sort would be, let us say, problematic, so they learned to cover their tracks with verbal grease. If it is true, as Eugene Genovese once observed, that all political movements include idealists, careerists, and thugs, it is equally true that it is the "thugs"—that is, the propagandists, professional obscurantists, and spin-doctors—who do most of the writing.

Looking back at Orwell's essay from the vantage point of a half century, one quickly realizes how it is possible to be simultaneously prescient and short-sighted, for Orwell could feel the intimations that would lead to our current conviction that "everything is political" without being able to fully imagine the pretentiousness and tin-eared jargon that such reductiveness would unleash.

What Orwell's essay championed was nothing more or less than writing committed to plain sense, a process he described as "picking words for their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer." Unfortunately, those who should know better, and more important, whose responsibility it is to pass along a healthy respect for language are often the same people who take a special delight in giving "Politics and the English Language" the scholarly raspberries. That Orwell has a hard time passing muster among the composition theory crowd is now a matter of record, but I had a preview of the hammering-to-come during the late 1970's, when my college's director of freshman writing treated the English department to an impromptu stump speech about just how pernicious, and badly written, Orwell's essays were. I can't remember the bill of particulars—probably because my shock and her certainty were on a collision course—but I do recall pointing out that if people couldn't recognize the intrinsic greatness of an essay like "Politics and the English Language," they wouldn't know a first-rate piece of writing if it bit them on the ass. In those benighted days, when talk about literary values wouldn't get you hooted out of the room, knowing why a work mattered mattered. And while I am not particularly proud of my intemperate outburst, I do take some small measure of satisfaction in remembering that my colleagues nodded in agreement, and that the Orwell-knocker in our midst was soon sacked.

Much has changed in the decades that followed. For example, I am not entirely sure how my colleagues would respond to a similar attack on "Politics and the English Language" were it to be delivered by somebody at composition theory's cutting edge. If recent experience is a guide, I suspect we would be much divided as a department, and that, this time around, I would be neither shocked nor surprised. Where is there an English department, pray tell, that does not serve up daily reminders of the ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times!" But that said, who would really prefer a world where syllabi were set in granite and all manner of ideas, writers, and works (some good, some decidedly less so) were not constantly vying for our attention, and ultimately our official approval? In these contentious matters I find what solace is possible from writers who have earned my trust—not because they know the latest critical fashion, but because the imagination pushes them toward deeper truths. Even better, what such writers reveal about one set of specific, wholly imagined circumstances can often be applied to radically different situations—say, the current squabbles about what good writing is and how best it should be taught. No doubt that is why I found myself highlighting this passage from John Updike's recent novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies:
"Everything passes," his father said, huskily. This, too, shall pass away' are words more comforting than any I ever found in the Bible. Abraham Lincoln said them, in a speech before the War between the States. He was referring to a story about an Eastern potentate who asked his wise men for a sentence that would be good for all occasions, and that's what they came up with. This, too, shall pass away.' It's good when you're high, and good when you're low . . ."
My hunch is that the assault on everything that Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" stands for will also pass away. Indeed, I am so convinced about this that I no longer worry about the intellectual sky falling when some linguist tries to convince me that the word "dog" has no intrinsic meaning and that even "My dog Spot" is not much help so far as establishing meaning goes. True enough, I confess to be taken aback when the same linguist begins to widen the range to include words—once commonly used and widely agreed upon—such as "intellectual standards," "excellence," and perhaps most problematic of all, "pursuit of truth." Like poor Sweeney, I wonder how we can talk (much less debate) with each other if we don't use words—and use them with a reasonable hope that they have shared meanings. Besides, I have yet to meet a linguist on a faculty payroll who feels the same way about the word "salary," or who would especially welcome a dean giving him or her a quick lesson in deconstruction when the rent is due and a piece of blank paper showed where there had once been a pay slip.

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