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Musing About Orwell’s “Politics and The English Language”—50 Years Later


ISSUE:  Winter 1997

“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.

II

What I do worry about, though, are the students who will not have the luxury of arguing the pros and cons of “Politics and the English Language” because many of them never encounter Orwell’s essay in freshman composition courses or anywhere else. In an age that hotly debates the value, the privileging as it were, of required texts, “Politics and the English Language” has become a casualty. Why so? Part of the reason, I am told, is that today’s freshmen are so far removed from the Realpolitik of 1946 that efforts to provide them with a sufficient intellectual background would be positively Herculean. Far better, some teachers argue, to engage students with material more immediately familiar—everything from the controversies swirling around collegiate athletics or multiculturalism to MTV and AIDS.

Others, however, take quite another tack. As they would have it, the “plain style” Orwell advocates is itself the problem. By insisting that words such as fascist, democrat, and freedom be used with precision, Orwell brands himself as something of a reactionary, partly because he imagines (erroneously) that words can convey clear, widely shared meanings, and partly because his preference for the concrete as opposed to the abstract puts ideologues into something of a pickle. Taking his cue from the radical pedagogy of Richard Ohmann, Carl Freedman accuses Orwell of not practicing the very principles he preaches (where, Freedman wonders, would a typical Orwell essay be without words like socialism, justice, totalitarian, and equality?) and then goes on to show how it is that the most seemingly innocent composition class, one presumably devoted to Orwellian principles and aimed at inculcating the plain style, is both intellectually bankrupt and politically dangerous:

What conception of argument has the pedagogue who advises the student first to find a “topic” and then to formulate a “thesis”—as though the real interest and the significance of the two were not inextricably connected from the start?. What intellectual level is assumed by the textbook author who suggests that “A checking account provides a convenient and safe method of payment” might be a good thesis for an essay by a college student? And what kind of biases, besides the obvious ones, lurk behind the pronouncement that the thesis “The United States is the best of all countries” could be easily be proved in several volumes, but not in a short paper? . . . This kind of thinking and writing does have an important role in the world beyond the composition classroom. This sort of education is in fact a preparation for life—life in capitalist America.

Freedman’s article, sporting the ponderous title “Writing Ideology, and Politics: Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and English Composition,” appeared in the pages of College English (April 1981) and set into motion a wide variety of critiques, reconsiderations, and outright attacks against the plain style. Some post-Freedman arguments took Orwell to task for his simplistic faith about thought and language existing in a dialectical relation with one another; others quickly cut to the chase by insisting that politics, rightly considered, meant the insertion of an undercutting whose before every value word the hegemony holds dear. The result was as predictable as it was dreary: Whose values? Whose standards? and most of all, Whose truths?

Most journalists and public intellectuals, having cut their teeth on Orwell and E.B. White, continued to peck away with an unquestioned belief in the utility and graceful eloquence of the plain style. But to politicians and other language weasels could now be added many who wrote literary criticism, instructed upper-level English majors about “discourse communities” and “texts,” or brought the good news about composition theory to freshmen unable to agree noun with verb, much less to parse a complex sentence.

Clear writing, in short, gradually came to be seen as an academic liability rather than as an asset. Graduate students, always a nervous bunch (and not without reason), tell me that they worry about whether or not their writing will be dismissed for being “too clear.” In most cases, what they’re really worrying about is being written off as “under-theorized” by those who make it their business to keep up with the latest buzz words. In a world where membership in the right “discourse community” divides the might-have’s from the probably-won’ts, naivete is a tough sell. Small wonder that the times dictate prudence, which usually means a generous sprinkling of terms such as “reify” or “aporia,” along with solemn arguments about the “social construction of reality.” In much the same way that political science professors produce number crunching studies about poverty without having ever met a poor person, au courant English professors deconstruct the obvious until it emerges as the ingenious.

Meanwhile, clear writing suffers the consequence. I can imagine some readers murmuring that thus was it ever, and they would be right. Diamond-hard prose always looks effortless—that, after all, is one of the illusions good writers labor to achieve—but making it look too easy often has its downside. Sometimes left-handed compliments take the form of “You probably just dashed that essay off”—this about a piece that went through ten drafts and included some late evenings, or very early mornings, that were a pretty close approximation of hell; sometimes they inspire comments like “I could have done that!” from people with lead ears. What makes writers really gripe, though, is that the same arguments are never applied to concert pianists or to opera singers. Vladimir Horowitz made playing a Mozart concerto look easy, but nobody in the audience ever imagined—or at least imagines for very long—that he or she could pull off the same performance if equipped with a tux, a concert grand, and a Carnegie Hall audience.

In the same way, people generally understand that there is a considerable difference between hearing Pavarotti and belting out a tune in the shower. Artists are artists, in part, because they make the difficult look effortless, as anyone who has ever attended an anxious recital by eight-year-olds can attest. There, effortfulness is on display as relatives hope against hope that the little darlings won’t hit a clunker and dissolve into tears. Such gloomy thoughts never cross one’s mind when a genuine artist takes his or her seat before the piano.

By contrast, those academic writers who highlight the difficulty, the sheer effortfulness that must have gone into their turgid paragraphs, operate on quite other assumptions. They bank on the admiration accorded to those who write with the heaviest weight. They are wrong about what writing ought to be, but, alas, right on the money in terms of what the academy currently rewards.

At this point, let me provide some examples of what I’ve been talking about in the abstract. Here, for example, is E.B. White, possibly the best writer—sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph—who ever appeared in The New Yorker’s distinguished pages:

In a free country it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty. Only under a dictatorship is literature expected to exhibit a harmonious design or an inspirational tone. A despot doesn’t fear eloquent writers preaching freedom—he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold. His gravest concern is lest gaiety, or truth in sheep’s clothing, somewhere gain a foothold, lest joy in some unguarded moment be unconfined

I have no idea how E.B. White might react to the current debate about how much funding, if any, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities should receive, but I do know that his words pack more truth than most of the cant that turns up in sound bites.

III

For White—indeed, for any writer worth our attention—there was only one responsibility—namely, to write as well as he could. That was task enough, as anybody who has tried to write will tell you. One labors to find the precise word rather than its cousin, and always, always to tell the truth, however unfashionable that truth might be. Most of all, though, good writers want to be clear, if only to conduct their disagreements in plain, unvarnished English prose.

Does this mean that writers should have no discernible politics? Hardly, as Orwell made clear; but in an age which loudly insists that everything is political—the way I’ve chosen to dress this morning, the newspaper I read, the brand of coffee I drink—what chance would poor E.B. White have? How might he go about convincing people that if “everything” is politics, then nothing is. Even Charlotte’s Web, a book that delighted many and delighted them long, cannot entirely escape those who bring their hermeneutics of suspicion to his pastoral tale. Thus, Charlotte’s Web is, according to one critic, about the “valorization of women” as well as a novel that “depicts male protagonists who are outsiders” because they do not “assume productive roles within the power systems of the novel.” If this strikes many of you as preposterous, imagine what E.B. White might think?

Wouldn’t it be better, far better, to get some understanding of White’s politics from the words he actually wrote when he chose to write about politics? Here, for example, is a definition of “democracy” that will survive long after overly academic “takes” on Charlotte’s Web have been long forgotten:

Democracy is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in Don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the library, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is the letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea that hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad.

My hunch is that freshman composition teachers today care as little for White as they do for Orwell, but I’m glad that mine had me read large slabs of both. In the case of White on democracy, this strikes me as a shame of some magnitude—that is, until I think about the way his eloquent words would be handled by a composition teacher of the Richard Ohmann stripe, one absolutely convinced that nothing in his litany about the democratic spirit any longer rings true.

Because White is such a clear writer, he makes an easy target. All one need do is surround his name with inverted commas—”E.B. White” as social Construction rather than author—and then go on to insist that the text be decoded until democracy itself disappears like a vapor. By contrast, those who write jawbreakers can never be pinned down. What, for example, does the following paragraph mean, even if it could be translated into something approaching standard English?

We see in this rehearsal of “Foucault” that contemporary criticism cherishes the displacement both of dialectics by diacritics and of totalized organic representations of history by comprehensive graphs of affiliated disciples in the episteme.

I, for one, haven’t a clue about what, if anything, the passage means to say. I confess to a deep skepticism about coinages that end in—ize, but then, again, I’m not the type who prioritizes anything. When I first encountered such passages, I figured that the lit-crit parade had passed me by, and I could look forward to a life in which I would not only not be a contributor to Diacritics, but also one in which I would be turned down as a subscriber. That was a sobering moment indeed. In my nightmares, the letter went something like this: “Dear Professor Pinsker: While we welcome your interest in Diacritics, we regret to inform you that we cannot honor your request for a subscription at this time, and are thus returning your check. Should your reading habits alter significantly in the next months, please inform us; and if you can successfully deconstruct a sample passage from Derrida’s Glas, we will be happy to reconsider you as a possible subscriber.”

Then came the day when I was asked to be the outside reviewer for a book about humor, and found myself swimming upstream in a river of mud. If that’s a mixed metaphor, so be it: there are times when the niceties must be dropped. I was just on the edge of sending the manuscript back, with a letter outlining just how and why I was out of the loop, when a name caught my eye—namely, mine! It was the first familiar word I had encountered for 20 pages, and I began to read about me eagerly. It seems I had written an article that this writer much admired, and he went on to explain, in four clotted pages, just why what I had written was nearly seminal. Now, “nearly seminal” is, I realize, something of a left-handed compliment—and in some circles, a mighty un-PC one at that—but I was so desperate for any good news, or indeed, for any news at all in this manuscript I could understand, that I read, and then reread, those four pages with rapt attention. The rub, of course, is that I couldn’t follow his argument, or recognize anything in the analysis that sounded remotely like me. I figured there was a powerful lesson here, if I were only smart enough to decode it.

I had better luck with the following passage:

language is a code. But every decoding is another encoding. . . . It is the terpsichorean equivalent of the hermeneutic fallacy of recoupable meaning, which claims that if we remove the clothing of its rhetoric from a literary text we discover the bare facts it is trying to communicate. To read is to surrender oneself to an endless displacement of curiosity and desire from one sentence to another. The text unveils itself before us, but never allows itself to be possessed; and instead of striving to possess it we should take pleasure in its teasing.

Now, a confession; I had better luck with this passage because it was plucked from David Lodge’s Small World, a comic novel about literary theoreticians in general, and Stanley Fish in particular. Morris Zapp, the world-class professor who delivers a lecture/ performance entitled “Criticism as Strip Tease,” knows a good thing when he sees it. Confronted by such balderdash, the British—to their credit—write satiric novels; American academics, on the other hand, lobby their deans so that they can establish a Chair of Post-Structuralist Study and perhaps entice the likes of Zapp to join their faculty.

That some academic types write almost exclusively to each other or that they are given to flashy talks of the sort that Lodge satirizes so deliciously worries me less than what professors sometimes write to students in the form of syllabi. Here is an example from a graduate course in anthropology currently being taught at Stanford University:

This course attempts to sort out the significance and mobilization potential of a new jumble of cultural practices located in the terrain that calls for, yet paradoxically refuses, boundaries. This terrain is situated in the borderzone between identity-as-essence and identity-as-conjecture, and its practices challenge the ludic play with essence and conjuncture as yet another set of postmodernist binarisms.

Much work on resistance has been response-oriented, reacting to the Eurocenter by occupying either the essence pole or the hybrid pole. The course stakes out this new terrain, where opposition is not only responsive, but creative. It is a guerrilla warfare of the interstices, where minorities rupture categories of race, gender, sexuality, and class in the center as well as on the margins, and where such ruptures intersect with and challenge the late 20th century murky overlap between nationalism(s) and imperialism(s).

The course examines the strategies of theorizing this hodge-podge of everyday experience and its textual representations. It scrutinizes new units of analysis that transcend and resist national boundaries through their creative articulations of practices which demonstrate possible modes of corroding the Eurocenter by actively Third Worlding it. It explores the processes through which identity and place become multiple as they are actively forced into constantly shifting configurations of partial overlap.

IV

Does my admittedly lighthearted bashing of the postmodernist temperament mean that I shy away from demanding reads? Hardly. Nor do I think that regularly calling attention to what we do as teachers and critics of literature always constitutes a bad thing. Indeed, now that a good deal of the dust kicked up by the postmodernist assault has settled, I think that all of us—enthusiasts and skeptics alike—are in a better position to assess the gains and losses of the last decades. Orwell is, I would argue, a significant part of this discussion because undermining his influence is akin to destabilizing the pillars of the Western canon. Here, one can reasonably ask how consigning Spencer, Milton, and even Shakespeare (dead white European males, all) to the trash heap of history has helped us to better understand the ways in which works of literature are, in fact, made; and how the wholesale dismissal of value words such as courage and honor, pity and compassion, pride and humility—the very terms that William Faulkner peppered throughout his Nobel Prize acceptance speech—has helped to make contemporary readers better prepared to become good persons and wise citizens. And, finally, what is the relationship, if any, between those who rattle on about the “social construction of reality” and reality itself?

Admittedly, these are tough questions and I don’t pretend that I have their answers. Unlike many of my colleagues I pursue the truth, believing on one hand that it exists and that the quest to find it is worth a lifetime of reading and thought; while on the other hand, I realize full well that we are not likely to arrive at the truth at the end of our long collective march. Perhaps this defines the human predicament as well as anything else: to want to know, knowing that our truth is likely to be partial and to be overturned a generation later. Philosophy shares in this dilemma, as does history and even science, but I think that, for better or worse, literary study now occupies a position at the very center of this exciting, often exasperating Hot Center—for it is the capacity of words to have clear meanings all of us understand, and can argue about, that is presumably up for grabs. So, I have no particular quarrel with—and, indeed, a good deal of interest in—what might be called our current cultural debates about language. I also think Hemingway had it right when he counseled that only a ten-dollar idea warrants a ten-dollar word. Strip away the pretentious jargon, and much of the stuff being churned out in academe these days ain’t worth a plugged nickel.

What concerns me, though, are the ideological agendas that lie just beneath the thick layers of much fashionable, high-falutin’ talk. For what gets sacrificed first is the very notion of the individual, and then the society that makes individual freedoms possible. As with so many things that writers hold dear, Orwell probably said it best:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. . . . Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes; it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, but then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

If the squabbles about language were confined to classroom blackboards and to journals such as Diacritics, there would be no need to raise alarms. After all, a good deal of ponderous thought that makes a certain sense inside the academy’s walls has no reach beyond them. But citizens, more than ever before, must be able to recognize when somebody is speaking rot. During the Gulf War, we were regularly treated to accounts of “collateral damage,” but never to an official spokesperson who said: “Oops! We aimed at a military installation, but hit the hospital next door, killing 200 innocent civilians”; and who has not wondered what, exactly, a term like “revenue enhancement” means—that is, until the tax bill turned up in the mail slot.

So, while the heated battle about the indeterminacy of meaning rages on, we are graduating far too many students who cannot think—and therefore cannot write—clearly. Orwell argued that the two activities were inextricably related, and that when writing devolved to “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug,” politics would also suffer. That disagreements about public policy will continue is as certain as are death and taxes; what is not certain, however, is if these discussions will be conducted by an electorate that knows the difference between plain sense and pure bull.

Language mavens are often written off as snobs, the sort of people who flinch when somebody launches a sentence with “Hopefully” or isn’t quite sure when the correct spelling is “its” and when “it’s.” But Orwell was not that sort of prig, nor is his essay a 911-call to the language police. Rather, what he had in mind—and what continues to matter—is a realization that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

One of the more foolish thoughts currently making the circuit is the insistence that everything is reducible to identity politics, that we are only the sum of our race, class, or gender. In such a world, precision matters a good deal less than advocacy, and reparations count for more than accomplishment. This brand of politics continues to exert enormous influence on our campuses, but it has little to do with politics as Orwell understood the word, and even less to do with the clear writing his essay championed.

Fifty years after “Politics and the English Language” first appeared in the pages of Horizon magazine, I can think of no better antidote for much of the pretentious prose and threadbare argumentation being churned out on our campuses than this: anybody teaching a section of freshman composition should be required to read each of Orwell’s paragraphs and to understand the essential difference between the verbally quick and the linguistically dead. That many teachers will continue to disagree about which books are finally important, or how best to read a passage from Hamlet is a given; but if they can at least agree about the principles that separate clear writing from willful obfuscation, the literary enterprise will have made considerable progress. Even more important, their students (most of whom will end up as citizens rather than professors) may yet come to understand why clear writing is not only important for its own sake, but also for the writer’s very soul. Orwell’s essay remains the best introduction I know to the issues of language and politics, individuality, and genuine liberation. In its anniversary year, I can only hope that students by the thousands—and maybe even a handful of my colleagues—come to share my view.

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