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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004) ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004)
ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
George Orwell isafter Frederick Douglassour next really formidable, really first rate writer. And like Douglass, reading his words can be both inspiring and instructive-as long as we take our time and understand his meaning. Just like Douglass, Orwell is a political animal, deeply involved in the crises and movements of his day. Even his imaginative literary masterpieces, 1984 and Animal Farm, were politically motivated, powerful expressions of his deeply held belief in the evil of totalitarianism and his conviction that danger resides where people turn from clear thinking and blindly follow orthodoxies.
In "Politics and the English Language" we're asked to consider the connection between corrupted (and corruptive) language and political manipulation.
In "Politics and the English Language" we're asked to consider the connection between corrupted (and corruptive) language and political manipulation. Specifically, we are asked to consider whether "ugly" language (defined as staleness of imagery and lack of precision) contributes to muddy or "foolish" thinking. Orwell believes it does, although the process is anything but simple. Political and economic pressures produce ugly language, which then produces foolish thinking; but then, foolish thinking produces even uglier language, and the cycle continues. For Orwell, this was not a purely philosophical or academic problem; the essay moves towards a position which links the degeneration of language with the rise of totalitarianism.
Is the connection between "Politics and the English Language" and the previous material on propaganda fairly obvious, or just a little bit subtle? The previous material instructed you to recognize the tools of the propagandist, how he uses language-everything from name-calling and card-stacking and euphemisms, you name it-to manipulate and gain influence. While Orwell doesn't specifically discuss "propaganda" by that exact term, he makes the case that political writing (including speech writing) is "bad" because, like propaganda, it renders language practically meaningless, muddying thought and destroying rational decision-making. His essay analyzes the corrosive trends in the writing of his day, but decades later, we can still share his disgust and still find a million examples to prove that bad writing (or speaking) is a cause of the public's blindness.
Orwell explores the function of language in this essay; he analyzes how the corruption of language gives rise to massive political conformity, a consequence that makes the propagandists shiver all over in victory thrills. With Hitler a recent nightmare and Stalin beginning his purges, and others in the wings, the threats were real enough. The power of political propaganda was in the air. Bad writing was in the air. Muddy thinking was in the air.
For Orwell, "bad writing" is stale writing. He blames "stale imagery" for a host of writing ills. What exactly does he mean? What is a stale image? It's something you've heard before. In fact, the more you keep hearing it, the more you realize you've heard it maybe a thousand times. Maybe a million. You've heard it so many times, you don't even think about it anymore. That's it's special mission-to enable you not to think about it anymore. It does your thinking for you. All you have to do is register your attention for a nanosecond-that's all the thinking that's required.
It doesn't matter what these phrases mean. We've completely stopped thinking about them. They sound familiar, they sound pretty good. They're stale as hell, but that doesn't stop politicians from using them. In fact, they like to use stale language like this because it's so much less likely to require us to think.
Why is Orwell so against staleness of imagery and imprecision with words? It's not just the pain of empty language, although sometimes it is that. But more importantly, staleness and imprecision are odious because they lead to vagueness, which (especially in politics) can lead to anything. Meaning is sometimes deliberately manipulated. Rather than doing their real job which is to clarify meaning, slack or hack writers open channels through which "the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you-even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent-and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself."
These ready and endlessly repeated bromides are what permeate the air as we inch towards our presidential election. It'll be a good intellectual challenge for you to begin to identify them, expose them-on both sides.
Further along in his essay, Orwell catalogues a few of the more prominent vices:
He uses examples culled from professional writing to illustrate these mind-numbingly disastrous trends he's observed all around him. He really drives the point home when he translates Ecclesiastes into "ugly" modern prose.
Orwell insists that the corrosiveness of modern prose is in the air we breathe and when we need the "right" phrase, it just floats down to us ready-made, easy to assemble, euphonic and effortless. The only way to keep ourselves from becoming degenerates, part of the problem, is to consciously ask a few relatively simple questions:
And two more:
And then to follow some simple advice (p. 172):
If we follow Orwell's
advice, maybe we can rescue language from the power-grip of advertisers, propagandists,
politicians, and others who would subvert it as our primary instrument for creating
and expressing thought.
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