Lawrence Wright is an author and screenwriter, and a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His most recent book is The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
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Most people these days think of George Orwell as a writer for high-school students, since his reputation rests mostly on two late novels — Animal Farm and 1984 — that are seldom read outside the classroom. But through most of his career, Orwell was known for his journalism and his rigorous, unsparing essays, which documented a time that seems in some ways so much like our own.
At the end of World War II, one form of totalitarianism — fascism — had been defeated; but another — communism — was spreading across Europe and Asia. Orwell's own country, England, was suffering through a political crisis, as it struggled to find the will to resist the new threat. It was then, in 1946, that Orwell wrote his great essay, "Politics and the English Language," which I first read as a freshman at Tulane University and immediately adopted as my guide. Over the years, I've gone back to it repeatedly, like a student visiting an old professor who always has something new to reveal.
Orwell's proposition is that modern English, especially written English, is so corrupted by bad habits that it has become impossible to think clearly. The main enemy, he believed, was insincerity, which hides behind the long words and empty phrases that stand between what is said and what is really meant.
A scrupulous writer, Orwell notes, will ask himself: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What fresh image will make it clearer? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? The alternative is simply "throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you — concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear."
Orwell was a supremely political writer himself, having waged a lifelong campaign against totalitarianism; and indeed, for him, all issues were political issues, "and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia."
Orwell's candor, his steadiness, his stern and scrupulous impartiality are qualities that make this essay still sound contemporary and urgent, at a time when the reputation of so many of his contemporaries has faded. I think the secret of Orwell's timelessness is that he doesn't seek to please or entertain; instead, he captures the reader with a style as intimate and frank as a handshake. It is that quality of common humanity that makes his essay so luminous and his voice so familiar.
Orwell optimistically sets forward six simple rules to improve the state of the English language: guidelines that anyone, not just professional writers, can follow.
But I'm not going to tell you what they are. You'll have to re-read the essay yourself. I'm only going to speak about Rule No. 1, which is never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
For me, that's the hardest rule and no doubt the reason that it's No. 1. Cliches, like cockroaches in the cupboard, quickly infest a careless mind. I constantly struggle with the prefabricated phrases that substitute for simple, clear prose. We are still plagued by toe the line, stand shoulder to shoulder with, no axe to grind — meaningless images that every reader subconsciously acknowledges represent the opposite of real thought — but it is dismaying to read that two exhausted metaphors, leave no stone unturned and explore every avenue, had been jeered out of common usage in Orwell's day by journalists who took the trouble to dismiss them.
"Political language," Orwell reminds us, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits."
Orwell wasn't interested in decorative writing, but his straightforward, declarative style has a snap in it that few other writers have ever approached. In a time when politics and the English language once again seem to be at odds, perhaps his essay can make us remember that clarity is the remedy.
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Frenchman: Excitable. Wears beard, gesticulates wildly.
Spaniard, Mexican, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
Arab, Afghan, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
Chinese: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail.
Italian: Excitable. Grinds barrel-organ or carries stiletto.
Swede, Dane, etc.: Kind-hearted, stupid.
Negro: Comic, very faithful.
How one longs for him to have lived long enough to be let loose on the lads' mags culture of the early twenty-first century.
Because something paradoxical has happened to us. The abundance of the mass media offers a greater choice than ever. We are adrift in a sea of newspapers, magazines, radio, television and limitless cyberspace. It is not merely that the more there is, the less any individual part of it matters. It is that so little seems intended to have any meaning.
You will find nothing much here about fashion, Westminster politics, gossip, relationships, must-have gadgets and holidays, not a mention of the hints dropped by payroll propagandists, nor a word from anonymous ''sources close to'' some soon-to-be forgotten minister, and nothing about television, pop music, or most of the other subjects which enable our increasingly feeble newspapers to trail their ink across page after page.
What you will find, instead, is an abundance of everything from the life of a book reviewer to how it is to watch a man hanged. The impeccable style is one thing. But if I had to sum up what makes Orwell's essays so remarkable it is that they always surprise you. Sometimes it is the choice of subject matter: how many journalists can write with any authority on what is like to queue to be let into an overnight shelter for the homeless?
More often, it's the unexpected insight. He can write a 60-page essay on Charles Dickens which frequently seems to be tending to a conclusion that he was a sentimental old fool, but then come to an unexpectedly affectionate final judgment. You have travelled with him on his journey and are rather startled, and pleased, to discover where you have ended up.
The Dickens essay was an attempt to worry away at why he was such a successful writer and is the longest in this collection. But it is infused with the same spirit of personal engagement as everything else. It is that amazing ability to make you believe that you would have felt as he felt that is his genius.
Take Shooting an Elephant, which recounts an incident during his time as a policeman in Burma. It is a remarkable piece. There is, firstly, the language. When he first sees the elephant, which is said to have run amok, it is standing, beating a bunch of grass against its knees, ''with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have". In the seconds after pulling the trigger the beast remains standing, but ''a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant... every line of his body altered... He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old". Then the elephant sags to its knees, its mouth slobbering. And, the utterly perfect sentence: ''An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him.''
Being Orwell, of course, the event is put to political purpose, demonstrating the futility of the imperial project. He has already told us that ''every white man's life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at''. Then he reveals in the last sentence that he had killed the elephant ''solely to avoid looking a fool". Yes, you think, that makes perfect sense.
It is hard to imagine many people less suited to the job of an imperial policeman than Orwell. Yet, while he hated imperialism, he could still remark that the British empire was ''a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it". In another essay, My Country Right or Left, he admits to finding it childish that he feels it faintly sacrilegious not to stand to attention during ''God Save the King", but that he would sooner have that instinct "than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so 'enlightened' that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions".
There is something very striking about his patriotism. It was laid out most obviously in his manifesto for a post-war revolution, The Lion and The Unicorn, but his love of England informs just about everything he wrote. It is there like a defiant bugle call rallying us to appreciate kippers, crumpets, marmalade and stilton cheese in In Defence of English Cooking. It is there like a comforting cup of tea in Decline of the English Murder. Both belong to a time when – seen from this distance – English life appears to have been more settled, less commercial, more neighbourly and less racked by uncertainty of purpose. You cannot read a piece like Bookshop Memories without immediately conjuring up the bad suits and rank smell of dead cigarettes. They could not have been written about any other country on earth.
It is, of course, as a ''political'' writer that he is now best-known. Sixty years after publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the greatest fictional demolition of totalitarianism, and any decently educated 12-year-old can explain what Animal Farm is about. But, in truth, there is almost none of his successful work, either fiction or non-fiction, that is not political. His work is always about that basic question – why do we live like this?
What marks it out from other political writing is not merely the quality of the prose, but its moral authority. Where does this come from? Would he have produced such luminescent work had he not had his first unsuitable job? If he had not suffered at the hands of oafs at his ghastly prep school? If he had not had the years of failure? I think the answer to all these questions is ''no".
George Orwell BBC
But he also had the paradoxical good fortune to live in evil times. There could be no accommodation with fascism – it was either resistance or capitulation, and everything he wrote from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War until his death was infused with the same urgent imperative to resist totalitarianism. Of course, some of it is absurdly overstated. Can he really have believed that "only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years... I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood," in 1940? But evil times force harsh judgments.
Orwell could toss off sentences like that with greater authority than most because of the quality not merely of his writing but of his experience. When he spoke of life at the bottom of the heap he did so as someone who had lived as a scullion and a tramp. When he talked of war and death he did so as someone who had fought in war and seen people die. The experiences had translated a natural hatred of authority into a political manifesto of sorts.
What Orwell's experiences – both as figure of authority and as scullion – had given him was a lived understanding of the human condition. It was this grounding in reality that bestowed a more profound political instinct than would be available to some sloganeering zealot. He had acquired a capacity to empathise with the foot-soldiers of history, the put-upon people generally taken for granted, ignored or squashed by the great isms of one sort or another. It conferred upon him the remarkable ability to achieve what every journalist and essayist seeks.
He could tell the truth.
Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell with a new introduction by Jeremy Paxman, Penguin Classics, £9.99. This article was first published in 2009