Orwell for our Times
Few figures have cut a swath through the twentieth century like one lone individual, Eric Arthur Blair, known to us by his pen name as George Orwell. He was neither very rich, nor very famous during his lifetime. Orwell was one of the “landless gentry,” lower-middle-class people whose family had pretensions to social status. Orwell considered this status to be unearned, and disowned his own place on the socio economic ladder. He died a rebel against the establishment at 46 years of age, suffering from tuberculosis, leaving behind a wife, an adopted son, and 13 books which detailed his wanderings through life.
Must-reads from Orwell include, Politics and the English Language, Road to Wigan Pier, Down and out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia and his last and most famous works, Animal Farm and 1984.
The books are a sampling of Orwell’s unusual life. He sought out tough and raw experiences because he was most concerned about truth. This is why Orwell is more relevant than ever before. If he were alive today, he would hate all our leading schools of thought. He would recoil in shock at what the world has become. He would not be surprised however, because he predicted it. More than that, he understood how it would happen. Society would be subverted by language. Orwell detailed his motivations in an essay “Why I Write”. He says, “I write because there is some lie to be exposed... and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
Orwell’s advice for writers:
1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
The opposite to this advice, is most commonly seen in the press, government, and halls of learning. What they share is slippery language, laden with jargon, code, and buzz words which seem to say one thing but signal another. In Politics and the English Language, Orwell points out how corrupt language bends the truth in service of an agenda. Politicians avoid plain speech. The solution is for regular people to reclaim language as a central tenet of democracy. We should demand careful and precise speech from our leaders, and we should practise the same as the best means to a civil society.
Orwell felt compelled to reveal the underbelly of the things which would undo our basic freedoms of speech, movement, association, worship, and equality before the law. He sought to understand issues of power, class and poverty, by living in English tenements in “The Road to Wigan Pier”. He wandered as a labourer at the lowest social tiers, working as a waiter and other odd jobs in “Down and out in Paris and London”. During the Spanish Civil War, he joined the rebel communist fighters as a volunteer foot soldier. His disappointment in the Communists is laid out in “Homage to Catalonia” and “Animal Farm”. Perhaps his greatest work, 1984, encapsulates the machinations of an entire society corrupted by government. He artfully lays out the means by which people would be controlled and subdued.
Among his most famous quotes:
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
“He who controls the past controls the future. He controls the present, controls the past.”
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
“The rifle hanging on the wall of the working class flat or labourer’s cottage is a symbol of democracy.”
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their understanding of their own history.”
“We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
“In the end we will make thought crime impossible because there will be no words in which to express it.”
“All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force.”
All of these sayings are particularly cogent, if you read and pay attention to the news. What Orwell most feared is happening all around us. History is being rewritten, and what is ‘true’ is in the process of being redefined. If you want to do some worthy reading, now might be a good time to seek out some of Orwell’s writings. It is subversive literature. I wonder if in the not too distant future, it too will be banned. A worse danger might simply be that we are so distracted by trivia and satisfied with baubles that we will no longer care.