Some thoughts on Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

I recently reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” and I had one of those experiences where rereading a piece after several years resulted in new insights. Many of which seem obvious in hindsight. The first time I read Orwell’s essay I was either in college or just graduated. I remember being obsessed with his list of questions every “scrupulous writer” will ask himself:

1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

On the whole, I still endorse these questions. In fact, I often write variations of them in the margins of my students’ papers. I also still enjoy his critique of the five writing samples he collects from various publications.

However, after reading it again, I’m simultaneously more enthusiastic about his thesis but less enthusiastic about how he illustrates his point.

On a pop-culture level, Orwell is right. The relationship between thought and language is relatively unexamined. We are quick to repeat words and phrases without any keen sense of what they mean or what we mean by them.

To pick an easy example: does anyone know what “Make America great again!” really means? No. But by golly it is a wonderful empty bucket for anyone to dump their ideas of “Make,” “great,” and “again” into.

The underlying assumption, which Orwell leaves largely unaddressed, is the idea that words are not inherently attached to their historical meanings. Speaker’s meaning—as Owen Barfield argues—is everything. Nevertheless, the fluid relationship between meaning and language allows for the kind of manipulation of language that results in the political chaos Orwell describes.

The political sphere in particular, with its sloganeering and repetitive rhetoric, functions as a linguistic siphon. Language originally used to communicate complex philosophical concepts is forced into the small tube of the immediate political context, and then disseminated to a wider audience that has no awareness of the etymological significance. The result is a handy slogan with viral capabilities.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to politics. But as a general thesis of how language and thought affect each other, you could do worse than Orwell’s assessment.

My less-than-enthusiastic response occurs when Orwell begins to discuss the mind numbing effects of political speeches. He uses the image of a speaker who utters words of dead imitation:

The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

I don’t deny the veracity of the experience Orwell describes, but I do take issue with two things:

First, political rhetoric and the ancient prayers of the Christian Church, recited by congregants on a weekly basis, are hardly comparable. The one is the product of the needs of an immediate context—e.g., election seasons. The other is part of a tradition that spans two centuries of painstaking reflection, prayer, and analysis from people in different time periods from all over the world.

Second, repetition does not necessarily imply mindlessness, nor does it inhibit sincere thought. My own experience has been the opposite. Memorizing poetry, for example, has made me more attune to the rhythms of language, the nuance of vocabulary and syntax, and has revitalized otherwise mundane experiences. This would not have happened had I not taken the time to learn through repetition.

The same could be said for the purpose and function of the prayers in the church. Congregants repeat the Nicene Creed every week not for the purpose of social conformity, but with the assurance that what they’ve said is true and the truth will continue to reveal himself to them as they meditate on the words of the creed.

As Orwell himself argues, language affects thought and thought affects language. If this is the case, then we would do well to repeat, daily and often, passages where language and thought are in harmony with each other. Free thought, as Orwell seems to conceive of it, is not free from repetition. Sometimes our freedom occurs only when we’ve freely subjected ourselves to the imitation of higher standards. Such ideals won’t be found in our political sloganeering, and so we should avoid such habits in our speaking and writing like the plague. But I’ve never known an artist who doesn’t owe a great debt to a previous artist—someone they first imitated when they began to develop their craft.

So too with writing. Find the good stuff, and then, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”

The Art of Self-Knowledge

As someone who enjoys writing, I’m my own worst critic. I don’t see every flaw in my work. I only see the flaws. The difference is slight, but one results in the willingness to revise and the other in creative paralysis.

I remember having similar experiences as a kid when I took piano lessons. Some days I would practice a single scale until I could play it perfectly. The imperfections motivated me to keep practicing. But on other days, the imperfections were too much to handle. I wished I could push the piano out of a ten story building, light all of the copies of music on fire, and yell, “To hell with it!”

So when Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a class of high school students surfaced in my news feed, I was convicted of my all-too-often cynical attitude:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

He reminds me that the practice of art is more like exploration and less like decoration–it is about the soul of the artist. My worse criticism of my own writing stems from this confusion. Instead of asking myself, “What does this blog, poem, or essay say about my soul?” I ask whether it compares well to the writing of my peers or my favorite authors.

The same principle applies to the way I consume art. Instead of worrying whether I like the right movies or books, I could inquire about how my response to particular stories reveals some new aspect of my soul.

In an interview from 1968, Ray Bradbury describes human beings as “tension collecting animals.” We sometimes suppress violence, grief, and joy because those impulses are not always appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in. These tensions, however, accumulate over time and need to be exercised.

We usually don’t know what tensions we’ve accumulated. Sometimes we feel emotions without a clear understanding of where they’ve come from or why we’re feeling them. So, ray-bradburyas Bradbury says, the artist will come along and help us discover what they are and allow us to exercise them. It’s a form of catharsis—an often neglected avenue for self-knowledge.

Whether creating or consuming art, we should learn to posture ourselves for inquiry. We don’t always know what tensions we need to exercise on a particular day, so we need to go exploring. Because of my own propensity to care more about art as decoration instead of exploration, I’ve set up some guidelines to follow:

1. Follow Vonnegut’s advice: “…starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”  If Vonnegut’s advice were a rule, I think it would read, “Create first, edit later (but only if you want to).” I regularly stifle my own creativity by editing the first draft of a poem as I’m writing it. From here on out, I plan to write the poem and only edit once I’ve written everything I want to write.

2. Don’t overwhelm yourself with art. Instead, allow yourself the space to get to know one painting, sculpture, poem, or song. Inquire about your experience by asking “what tensions am I feeling? What tensions is the artist representing?”

3. Pay attention to your preferences and start there. If you’re wondering what counts as good art, then you’re thinking about this backwards. If you do not find Van Gogh intellectually or emotionally engaging, then don’t try to force yourself to like him just because everyone else does. Exploring art isn’t a competition, and it doesn’t require a refined taste. Like the things you like and ask yourself “why do I like this?” Only when you start reflecting on your own experience will you eventually begin to see what makes an artist like Van Gogh great.

4. Be aware of how much art you are consuming and how much you are creating. You’ll always consume more art than you create. It takes several years to create a movie but only an hour and half to watch it. If you find that you haven’t created anything in a long time (paintings, poems, music, mashed potatoes faces etc.), then consider making time for your own art. Creating art often has the effect of not only revealing something new about your soul to yourself but of helping you to better appreciate good art when you see it.

5. Finally, follow Vonnegut’s last instruction: don’t show your art to anyone because “you will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded…You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.” For a host of obviously bad reasons, this is a hard rule to follow. I like it when people like the things I create, and without fail, this desire eclipses the real rewards of making art. Art as self-expression is an act of exploration. Who knows what knew thing I’ll discover about myself or about the world through the crappy poem I wrote today? My job is only to be interested. The rest is not my business.