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Orwell on politics and language,
This review is from: Shooting an Elephant: And Other Essays (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
Of course I read this collection many years ago as all self-respecting writers of my generation have. After all, Orwell was a mentor to all of us as well as one of our heroes, and this collection includes not only the title piece, which is as good a personal experience essay as has ever been written, but also "Politics and the English Language," an essay on how to write and how not to write that is without parallel.
But as I perused the "Contents" page a forgotten chapter title caught my eye,"Confessions of a Book Reviewer"! I immediately turned to page 171. Oh, what a delight I beheld! Orwell begins the essay with, "In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it." After some further dreary detail, Orwell continues, "Needless to say this person is a writer. He might be a poet, a novelist, or a writer of film scripts or radio features, for all literary people are very much alike, but let us say that he is a book reviewer."
Of course Orwell is writing (with some scant distance) about Orwell. How candid he is and how well he eschews any glamour or romance in the self-portrait! And yet, there is something heroic about Orwell's depiction of the literary "hack" that is agreeable. He goes on to say as "the menacing finger of the clock" moves toward the reviewer's deadline, "suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases--'a book that no one should miss,' 'something memorable on every page.' 'of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc., etc.' will jump into their places like iron fillings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go."
Orwell practiced a style that never called attention to itself (because the content was paramount), yet upon closer examination is characterized not only by precise diction and a rare clarity of expression but with the sort of metaphorical language that brings content to life. Note those "iron fillings"!
"Shooting an Elephant" begins with these famous words, "In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people--the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me." A few lines down he remarks, "I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it...With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny...; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official." Change a few words and the sentiments he expresses might very well apply to someone from the United States in Iraq in the 21st century.
"Politics and the English Language" begins "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. Our civilization is decadent and our language--so the argument runs--must inevitably share in the general collapse." Ah, the lament of prescriptive linguists everywhere! What is wonderful about this essay is how specific Orwell is in first giving examples of writing that is, as he terms it, "a little below average" (there are five selected paragraphs); and second in referring back to these paragraphs as he demonstrates just what is wrong with that way of writing. He condemns in turn, "Dying metaphors," e.g., "ride roughshod over," "no axe to grind, etc."; "Operators or verbal false limbs," "militate against," "make contact with..."; "Pretentious diction," "epoch-making," "unforgettable..."; "Meaningless words...," e.g., "democracy," about which he notes, "not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides."
In the examples from last category I was struck again by how topical Orwell is now sixty-some years after this essay was written. He notes that "In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning." Clearly he has been reading some of today's postmodern literature!
Some of the essays are no longer of much interest, I must admit--although I would say that the two mentioned prominently above are easily worth the purchase of the book. In particular the essay, "Books vs. Cigarettes" is largely irrelevant because of the price comparisons in the pounds and shillings of many years ago. However even here there is something worthwhile. Near the end of the essay Orwell notes that "the ordinary [English]man spends more on cigarettes than an Indian peasant has for his whole livelihood."
What is most striking about this book is again the clean, crisp, easy to read, but by no means in any way "dumbed down" prose. Orwell is the sort of writer that other writers greatly admire. His easy to read style is the result of hard work. Despite the decades that have gone by, these essays are for the most part still very much worth reading. If you have never read Orwell on language and politics, you are in for a special treat.