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Saying nothing

Against the Orwell cult

George Packer at the New Yorker, whose writing I admire greatly, has had it up to here with the vocabulary of the current US election campaign:

When this is all over, certain half-dead words will need to be put out of their misery with a quick bullet to the back of the head. My candidates for a mercy verbicide: pivot, tank, cave, pushback, gravitas, message, game-changer, challenges, the entire litany of Palinesque nouns, attack dog, battleground, pork-barrel, earmark, impacting, and impactful. Other words that are too important to be executed will need to undergo a long and painful rehabilitation before they can be safely used again: change, experience, straight, truth, lie, victory, character, judgment, populist, and elite.

So far, so potentially interesting. But one’s heart sinks at what follows:

It was Orwell, of course, who first explained the relation between decadent language and corrupt politics.

Of course, it wasn’t. The relation had been explained previously by John Arbuthnot, Confucius, and Cicero, among many others, as I pointed out in the Introduction to Unspeak. Packer goes on:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” [Orwell] wrote in “Politics and the English Language.” “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” In our time, the corruption takes a different form. Instead of defending the Soviet purges with Latinate words like “liquidate,” politicians and journalists use clichés mainly borrowed from sports, war, and rural life in order to seem to be saying something tough-minded when in fact they’re saying nothing.

Saying nothing? I beg to differ: when George W. Bush assures the American public that prisoners are being “questioned by experts”, or when Condoleezza Rice refuses calls for a ceasefire on the grounds of seeking a “sustainable ceasefire”, or when Martin Amis complains that his society is unable to “pass judgment on any ethnicity”, they are definitely saying something. The task (heroically shouldered by this blog, among others) is to figure out what exactly that something is. Packer claims to be offering a different diagnosis than Orwell’s, but really they are making the same claim: that politicians are not worth listening to.

Such nihilism is, in my view, Orwell’s most malign influence. But there is another one, of which Packer reminds me when he goes on admiringly about Orwell’s other essays (having just edited a new two-volume edition of them). He draws our attention to “lesser-known gems” among Orwell’s essayistic output, among which is what he calls Orwell’s “brilliant takedown of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’”. I assume he means Orwell’s 1942 essay on Eliot that was published in Poetry magazine, which luckily is also included in my Everyman edition of Orwell’s essays. Whether you think it counts as a “brilliant takedown of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’” depends first on whether you accept that a discussion only of the first three Quartets1 should count as a “takedown” of all four; and then, I suppose, on what you think of Eliot, and of Orwell’s style of criticism.

The essay begins with Orwell’s lamenting the fact that, of Eliot’s recent poetry, he can only remember only four lines: “that is all that sticks in my head of its own accord”. Having been proven lately incapable of writing lines of poetry gluey enough to stick in Orwell’s head of their own accord, which is after all the acid test of the poetic art, Eliot is subsequently subjected to a dull-witted exegesis of the ideology that supposedly informs his poetry, and a distasteful narration of what the telepathic critic someknow knows the poet “feels”. The heart of the problem, of course, is Eliot’s religion, as Orwell generously explains:

In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree.2

That sounds excitingly relevant to modern times, doesn’t it? Of course, the easy criticism of others as “mentally unfree” oddly resembles a type of speech that would later come to be characterized as “Orwellian”.

At least it cannot be denied that this kind of thing was influential. Orwell’s clunking, faux-proletarian, I-don’t-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like mode of artistic criticism is these days much in vogue among many of those British Orwell-worshippers who were so much in favour of the Iraq war. Funny, that.

  1. In Orwell’s archly fatigued description, “these three poems, Burnt Norton and the rest”.
  2. “T. S. Eliot”, in Carey, John (ed.), George Orwell: Essays (London, 2002), pp.425-431.
49 comments
  1. 1  Peter  October 9, 2008, 5:02 am 

    I’m having trouble working out whether you are criticising George Orwell, George Packer, Christopher Hitchens, or all three :)

    Nice to see you blogging again Steven.

  2. 2  Dave Weeden  October 9, 2008, 7:33 am 

    I hadn’t come across Orwell’s essay on Four Quartets. Knowing that putting a slightly different light on Eliot’s rejection of ‘Animal Farm’. I’ll have to find it; it’s about time I reread the Quartets too.

    I also don’t think that Orwell was quite a blinkered as you suggest; he was primarily a book reviewer and literary journalist. And ‘faux-proletarian’ is unfair; I don’t think any of his literary characters (or poses for that matter) is proletarian.

    Oh, and I think GO was right about god-botherers and Stalinists. If I’m ever unfortunate to catch ‘Thought for the day’, it always seem to come to the same conclusion.

    Still, I largely agree with you about the “saying nothing” thing. But that’s why I read this blog. :)

  3. 3  Gregor  October 9, 2008, 8:33 am 

    ‘In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree.’

    Uh, is there any historical situation that anti-religious people do not view as a moral triumph of atheists against believers? Stalin employed someone who claimed that corn inherited Lamarkian genetic attributes, therefore he was religious. He also had strong beliefs so he was essentially religious. The fact that millions of people, including the Orthodox clergy who opposed the evils of Bolshevism, were killed by atheists only goes to show that religion is wrong.

    Christopher Hitchens also thinks that secularists came out best from the former Yugoslavia, when Patriarch Pavel II strongly opposed the nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic’s atheist government.

    As for ‘mentally unfree’, it reminds me of a comment by Frank Zappa. When someone wanted him to criticise ‘the uniforms’ (police) he said ‘everyone in this room is wearing a uniform’. As a Christian I am aware that not all of my beliefs are rational or flexible, but I also see very few people as ‘mentally free’. Look how easily some of the ‘new atheists’ have convinced themselves that the ‘war on terror’ is a righteous utilitarian conflict that will liberate the Islamic world.

    ‘Oh, and I think GO was right about god-botherers and Stalinists. If I’m ever unfortunate to catch ‘Thought for the day’, it always seem to come to the same conclusion.’

    You listen to thought for the day? Whoa nelly, looks like we’ve got a real expert here. It comes to the same conclusion… as what? Stalinism?

    Orwell is a bit like Aldous Huxley and not just because both wrote absurdly over-rated (and not very original) science fiction works. Both are quoted, I think, precisely because they are so sententious, and it gives one an opportunity to make a turgid comment and atribute it to someone else. eg: ‘All we have discovered from history is that we will never learn from it, as Huxley said’.

    ‘I’m having trouble working out whether you are criticising George Orwell, George Packer, Christopher Hitchens, or all three’

    Um, I think someone criticised Steven for exceeding his quota of Hitchens-related criticisms when he has still not completed his quota of attacks on John Pilger. (You know, just as Melanie Phillips and Simon Heffer attacked Richard Littlejohn for his comments on the Rwandan genocide, leftists have to show the same capacity for self-criticism).

  4. 4  Steven  October 9, 2008, 3:21 pm 

    I love “Thought for the Day”, in that its evangelical purpose is evidently to liberate one from the onerous obligation of having any other thoughts during the 24 hours that follow. It often seems that people who cite Orwell do so for the same reasons.

    PS Who said anything about Christopher Hitchens?

  5. 5  richard  October 9, 2008, 5:10 pm 

    In thought for the day mode, much as I detest NPR I thought you might enjoy this little rumination on the history of the rhetorical recourse to “Main Street.” Apparently it’s been deployed and reclaimed ever since the 20s.
    http://www.npr.org/templates/s.....d=95510510

  6. 6  Peter  October 9, 2008, 11:57 pm 

    Steven –

    You’re telling me “…much in vogue among many of those British Orwell-worshippers who were so much in favour of the Iraq war” wasn’t a jab at Christopher Hitchens? There must be quite the community of “Orwell-worshippers” who happen to be both British and have supported the Iraq war I wasn’t aware of!

    By the way, don’t you think your grouping of people under dismissive, pejorative neologisms – “Orwell-worshippers”, “nu-atheists” – is also similar to the speech which would “come to be characterized as ‘Orwellian’”? That’s not a gotcha by any means, I’m genuinely curious about where you make the distinction.

  7. 7  Steven  October 10, 2008, 12:36 am 

    Some nu-atheists do actually call themselves “new atheists”: I’m just trying to help them sound cooler in a slightly dated way, y’know, like nu-metal?

    In answer to your question, I would probably adumbrate a distinction between a) open ridicule; and b) the deadly serious and pompous accusation that vast swathes of other people are “mentally unfree” because one disapproves of what they say.

  8. 8  Peter  October 10, 2008, 1:24 am 

    Some nu-atheists do actually call themselves “new atheists”: I’m just trying to help them sound cooler in a slightly dated way, y’know, like nu-metal.

    If you say so! If I detect any patronising dismissal in the term I shall be sure to ignore it.

    … a) open ridicule; and b) the deadly serious and pompous accusation that vast swathes of other people are “mentally unfree” because one disapproves of what they say.

    Fair enough, and I don’t like the term “mentally unfree” any more than you do so I won’t defend Orwell on that count. It does strike me though that dismissing not-so-vast-swathes of people as “Orwell-worshippers” because they happen to like an author you are less than enamored with isn’t so different in principle.

    But perhaps I’m parsing sentences and I’d hate to be one of those nu-parsers, deserving of contempt as they are!

  9. 9  RobWeaver  October 10, 2008, 4:46 am 

    Shorter version of post eaten by sodding browser:

    a) “vast swathes”? Orwell says “orthodox believers” not “anybody religious”. I think the problem with his construction “orthodox believers tend to be mentally unfree” isn’t that it’s a gross generalisation – Orwell’s usual tic – but that it’s a contentless tautology.

    b) “accusation that vast swathes of other people are “mentally unfree” because one disapproves of what they say” – please don’t do this. Cf the following popular right-wing whinges: “You’re just calling me an Islamo-phobic bigot because you disapprove of my opinions”; “you’re just calling me a racist because you’re a cultural Marxist who doesn’t understand genetics”; etc. Unless you have specific evidence to the contrary, someone who alleges certain people are mentally unfree does so because they believe certain people are mentally unfree. Let’s leave the mind-reading to John Edward.

    There I go again, being the German child.

  10. 10  Steven  October 10, 2008, 12:48 pm 

    someone who alleges certain people are mentally unfree does so because they believe certain people are mentally unfree.

    Since you want to rule out what those people say as grounds for such a belief, what other grounds do you propose? Or is it all right just to say it without offering any evidence? (I rather suspect that no grounds would be sufficient for such a claim and it is therefore bullshit.)

    Let’s leave the mind-reading to John Edward.

    I’d like to, but unfortunately Orwell’s essay on Eliot is very much an exercise in mind-reading.

  11. 11  Steven  October 10, 2008, 1:14 pm 

    It does strike me though that dismissing not-so-vast-swathes of people as “Orwell-worshippers” because they happen to like an author you are less than enamored with isn’t so different in principle.

    I greatly admire many things about Orwell, but I am reluctant to assume that he must have been right about everything, which assumption I leave to the Orwell-worshippers.

  12. 12  RobWeaver  October 10, 2008, 2:07 pm 

    Sorry, I thought the phrase “accusation that vast swathes of other people are ‘mentally unfree’ because one disapproves of what they say” was meant to indicate that the person making that accusation had no other reason for doing so than because they disagreed with the person they were labelling mentally unfree – in other words, they were motivated to slur their opponents as close-minded solely by the presence of a differing opinion, and not because they believed on some evidence or other, or line of reasoning, that the label was accurate in itself.

    I don’t know if Orwell ever spoke at greater length about why he thought the description “mentally unfree” might apply to the orthodox religious or Stalinists. It would certainly have gotten pretty tiresome if he explained why he used the phrase every time he used it – perhaps he usually did and the absence of such an explanation from the one sentence quote above was a momentary lapse – as it would be about any number of labels; “apple”, “Marxist”, “dumbass”, etc. One might argue – case-by-case – that terms are being used speciously, but that’s not the same thing as claiming that such usage is ulterior, a grift masking a lazy refusal to refute an opposing position.

    Myself, I don’t go around explaining why I refer to, say, Mark Steyn as a bigot every time I do so; perhaps I should. Generally I hope my usual audience can fill in the blanks themselves, at least to the extent of not assuming “well, he only says that because he disagrees with Mr Steyn’s reasonable and nuanced positions”, just as I can make my own assumptions as to why Orwell might think adherents to doctrines that insist on orthodox agreement with certain tenets and threaten to punish, in this life or the next, deviation from those positions and, indeed, frown on independent truth-seeking in general, might deserve the term “mentally unfree”. But, as I say, this explanation is immediately implied by the term “orthodox” making Orwell’s observation somewhat circular. Which is to say, off the top of my head I can conceive of probable evidence that Orwell actually believed the orthodox religious or Stalinists were “mentally unfree” – and I don’t need George pointing out why for me because the line of thought is self-evident – rather than was just saying so because he merely disapproved of their opinions. And I can do so even if I disagree with the assumed reasoning. Did Orwell call everyone of whose opinions he disapproved “mentally unfree”? – that might be a clue.

    Just to be clear – it’s the little phrase I quoted that I have a problem with – as I suspect you do when encountering it in its other forms, of which I gave an example or two. On the larger issue of tarnishing the lustre of Saint George, you have my full approval.

  13. 13  RobWeaver  October 10, 2008, 2:08 pm 

    What a ludicrously overlong rejoinder.

  14. 14  Steven  October 10, 2008, 2:18 pm 

    Not overlong at all. Actually, I take your point: I have not, each time I have referred to “Melanie Phillips” on this blog, explained why she is a spurting bigot and fantasist, which has indeed prompted some to argue that I only criticize her because I disagree with her position on the Iraq war etc.

    I accept that the sentence of mine at #7 above to which you take issue was over-extended, and I ought to have limited myself to the claim that an accusation that other people are “mentally unfree” is bullshit and unjustifiable in principle.

    With regards to your tautology point, I think there is a difference between “orthodox” and “mentally unfree”. One may freely choose to believe the “correct” doctrine.

  15. 15  RobWeaver  October 10, 2008, 2:48 pm 

    Ah, well, there you go. To me “orthodox” means “conforming to an orthodoxy”, and I don’t see a contradiction between freely choosing to do so, and then becoming “mentally unfree” as a result of doing so. But perhaps I’m not interpreting “mentally unfree” (I take it to be synonymous with “closed-minded” or “doctrinaire”) as intended to be as harsh – suggesting an innate mental defect? – as you see it.

  16. 16  dsquared  October 10, 2008, 3:37 pm 

    throw off your mental chains, whoo hoo hoo.

    I’m not so sure about “mentally unfree”, particularly in the context of Orwell’s work. The idea of being in a political context which requires you to maintain party lines and to use language in particular ways, and the effect of this use of language on the kinds of concepts one can use is a pretty major theme of his and one that was very thoroughly worked out. Although he does seem to be chucking it about a bit, that’s not an uncommon intellectual vice for someone who’s invented a useful and interesting concept and I think a venial rather than mortal sin.

    “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery”, I think, is talking about a different concept of being mentally unfree, but I mention it here because it’s such a great line.

    By the way, surely “Chinese Democracy” is ontopic!?

  17. 17  Steven  October 10, 2008, 5:58 pm 

    All very fair points. I suppose I would give a free pass to Blake’s mind-forg’d manacles, for instance, because I am a sucker for lines of poetry that stick in my head. Also, of course, “Free your mind”, if uttered by Lawrence Fishburne or Keanu Reeves.

    I can’t think of any album title that has improved with age so well as Chinese Democracy. I am sure it will be a masterpiece.

  18. 18  richard  October 10, 2008, 7:30 pm 

    “Free your mind”, if uttered by… Keanu Reeves.

    You’re fishing now, aren’t you?
    I guess if it doesn’t come back to you, it was never yours to begin with.

  19. 19  hey zeus  October 10, 2008, 8:56 pm 

    if i read the Guardian does that make me an Orwell-worshipper? If so, does that stand if i skip the editorial?

  20. 20  Tom  October 12, 2008, 10:32 am 

    Steven, dig this.

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/4724555a11.html

    “Puberty Crisis”? We’re in the throes of a Financial Crisis, it’s threatening our ability to cope with our Obesity Crisis, and they’re hitting us with a Puberty Crisis?!

    Tell me, do you have anywhere near as many Crises in the Motherland as we down here in New Zealand? Because it truly would be a worry if you did.

  21. 21  KB Player  October 12, 2008, 9:00 pm 

    Glad to see you back, though I would be gladder if you didn’t use the “Funny that” phrase, which is the idlest, commonest bit of sarcasm in existence and much loved by bloggers and commenters.

    As far as the faux-proletarian stuff is concerned, Orwell was over fond of that and of the ordinary people, who are invoked when they are on your side and ignored when not. A venial fault and more often he wrote with extraordinary observation and insight, though in a plain style.

    However, I think memorability – what you dismiss as “lines of poetry gluey enough to stick in Orwell’s head” may not be the acid test for a poem, but no poet would appreciate being told “your poetry is good but unmemorable”.

  22. 22  Steven  October 13, 2008, 12:00 am 

    I apologise for “Funny, that” — it is rubbish, isn’t it?

    more often he wrote with extraordinary observation and insight, though in a plain style

    I can’t quite tell what your “though” is doing there, though that might be because I am not sure either what a “plain style” is. Certainly Orwell’s style did not adhere to his own lunatic strictures in the second part of “Politics and the English Language”, which was just as well.

    He wrote many brilliant things, but they were not mainly in the field of criticism, which is the area of his writing I was discussing specifically.

  23. 23  Steven  October 13, 2008, 3:15 pm 

    As regards modern-day Orwell-worshippers: I have not yet read the new Roth, but am encouraged by the opening of Christopher Hitchens’s messily vitriolic review of it:

    Before he decided to dispense entirely with the respect of his readership—which must have been, oh, some years ago now [...]

    Would that be around the same time Hitchens decided to dispense with the respect of his readership? Perhaps all criticism really is autobiography.

  24. 24  KB Player  October 15, 2008, 12:12 pm 

    The “though” is rubbish. It should be “and”.

    A plain style – the opposite of Martin Amis’s showing off riffery.

    I would disagree about the literary criticism. Orwell’s early death prevented him completing projected works on Gissing and Waugh, which I think is a great loss. His notes on Brideshead Revisited (its anti-humanism) hit the mark, and that was when the novel was first published. It’s hard to be a good judge of fresh novels.

    “Perhaps all criticism really is autobiography.”

    Good criticism is an attempt to be an honest judge and jury on someone you suspect may be planning to burgle your house.

  25. 25  Steve (not the main one)  October 15, 2008, 3:46 pm 

    Heya,

    I know this is OT, but I felt it was my duty to let you know that the “Melanie Phillips” robot has now not only malfunctioned, but exploded everywhere, sending bits of circuitry flying around the room (in particular the last paragraph, and even more particularly the last line):
    http://www.spectator.co.uk/mel.....self.thtml

    I’m not sure there’s much Unspeak in it – don’t you have to be in control of your own words to be speaking Unspeak? Madspeak might be more appropriate. ‘Marxisant’ indeed.

  26. 26  Gregor  October 15, 2008, 8:33 pm 

    Steve
    Not entirely off topic: Ms Phillips won an ‘Orwell Award’ (an idiotic routine which seems to be allocated for ‘balance’ more than any skill with writing or interesting thought). I knew I shouldn’t have, but I did follow the link to her article. Perhaps she’s been talking to William Shatner(sad trekkie joke).

    Sometimes I wonder if Ms Phillips and AC Grayling are the same person. Yes, their politics are different, but they would compete with each other for ‘worst prose writer’ status and they both like to smother their enemies with cliches.

    Above all, they both use my least favourite cliche, and possibly the most lame and stupid bit of unspeak: ‘canard’. This means a duck’s leg, or so I read, and it seems like a way for intellectually lazy people to say ‘something that’s not worth arguing with’.

    Also, why does she always wear a polo neck or have her hand in front of her throat in photos? Could it be that ‘she’ is hiding something?

  27. 27  Steven  October 15, 2008, 11:12 pm 

    I agree that ducks are for eating, not arguing with.

    I am trying to keep to a resolution, on the other hand, not to read anything signalled as written by “Melanie Phillips” or “Oliver Kamm” or other made-up internet personalities who just make me weep at the universe’s immanent stupidity.

    But what will I blog about in that case? It’s a difficult problem.

  28. 28  Alex Higgins  October 16, 2008, 12:12 am 

    Steven – you need to keep at it until everyone sees the inverted commas round the name automatically.

    Melanie’s article is one of the worst things that has ever been written by anyone in any context. I’ve listened to Hutu Power broadcasts with more nuance, less hysteria and better sourcing.

    I’m trying to find the Peter Strawson quote for her piece, I think it’s this:

    It makes no sense to ask whether this sentence is true or false. …an utterance of this form is simply inappropriate, outside the norms of normal linguistic behaviour.

  29. 29  Steven  October 16, 2008, 12:16 am 

    Ah! To avail oneself of a Strawson against a “Phillips” is really to bring a thermonuclear bomb to a stick fight. Thank you.

  30. 30  Gregor  October 16, 2008, 8:16 pm 

    Whilst Orwell spoke of ‘orthodox’ religious beliefs, he should see his disciple Christopher Hitchens:
    http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/15143

    Considering that Hitch is a ‘new atheist’ he makes claims of psychic ability (he gets out of difficult arguments by mind reading his opponents and when told that nine out of ten liberals supported the Afghanistan war, he replies ‘they may think they did’). Furthermore, he even knows exactly what would have happened if it were not for the Iraq war. Uri Gellar would blush at his claims of paranormal insight.

  31. 31  Gareth Rees  October 18, 2008, 10:10 pm 

    I think your mockery of Orwell’s review by misleading summarization is very unfair.

    “It is obvious that when you are summarizing King Lear for the benefit of someone who has not read it, you are not really being impartial if you introduce an important speech (Lear’s speech when Cordelia is dead in his arms) in this manner: ‘Again begin Lear’s awful ravings, at which one feels ashamed, as at unsuccessful jokes’.”

    Orwell’s review of Eliot’s poems is a piece of psychological critcism. Orwell’s thesis is that there is a contrast in manner and subject matter between Eliot’s early poems (“glowing despair”) and later poems (“melancholy hope”) which does not favour the later work, and that this is a consequence of Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism, which is “not really felt at all, but merely accepted against the emotional grain”. He illustrates this with evidence from the memorability of Eliot’s poetry (the bit you quote about his being only able to remember four lines from the later work is in contrast to “I know a respectable quantity of Eliot’s earlier work by heart”) and the vigour of the language, shown by a contrast between two passages about death from “The Dry Salvages” (1941) and “Whispers of Immortality” (1920).

    You might disagree with this thesis (a matter of fact: let’s see your evidence!); you might agree with it but disagree with the conclusion that this means that Eliot’s earlier work is better (a matter of taste, and certainly the reputation of the Four Quartets has hardly suffered). Or you might reject the idea that it’s part of a critic’s job to try to trace the relationship between a writer’s beliefs and his work (a matter of fashion in literary theory). Or, I suppose, you could dismiss the whole thing as “clunking, faux-proletarian, I-don’t-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like”. But I think one of the other responses would have been fairer, perhaps along these lines:

    “He turned all his powers of denunciation against [Eliot], like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later [Eliot] is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if [Orwell] had not also been the author of [Animal Farm] and [1984]”

    (Incidentally, the claim that Orwell’s review amounts to a “takedown” is a pretty ugly piece of triumphalism, so I can see exactly what annoyed you about it.)

  32. 32  Steven  October 21, 2008, 12:27 pm 

    Orwell’s review of Eliot’s poems is a piece of psychological critcism.

    Quite.

    You might disagree with this thesis (a matter of fact: let’s see your evidence!)

    I don’t need any evidence to assert that pretending to know what a writer “truly” or otherwise feels at one time or another, on the basis of a handful of cherry-picked extracts from his poetry, is just as bullshit as pretending to know that he is “mentally unfree”.

  33. 33  Gareth Rees  October 21, 2008, 12:56 pm 

    It’s a normal aspect of book reviewing and criticism to deduce things about the feelings and beliefs of authors from what they write.

    For example, this review of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is happy to make the psychological deductions that Truss is “outraged” and has an “obsession” on the basis of what Truss wrote in her book and on the style in which she wrote.

    Cherry-picking extracts would be a more serious charge against Orwell’s argument, if proven.

  34. 34  Steven  October 21, 2008, 1:25 pm 

    Er, Truss’s is a non-fiction book in which she explicitly describes her own feelings of outrage on seeing poor punctuation. Eliot, as I recall, was writing poetry.

    Cherry-picking extracts would be a more serious charge against Orwell’s argument, if proven.

    Orwell: “These two extracts are both, like, sort of about death? So they’re comparable as evidence of what Eliot was, like, feeling in each period, yeah?”

    If you want proof, though, I’m afraid you’re hanging around the wrong blog.

  35. 35  Paperhouse Style: On Orwell « Paperhouse  October 21, 2008, 2:07 pm 

    [...] Steven Poole, style guides, Unspeak, Writing Unspeak, which is one of my favourite blogs, posted not-very-approvingly about one of my favourite essays and reminded me that I’d been meaning [...]

  36. 36  Gareth Rees  October 21, 2008, 2:35 pm 

    Eliot, as I recall, was writing poetry.

    Poetry which combines autobiography and religious philosophy.

    Orwell was not making this up: it’s the conventional wisdom about Eliot that he converted to Anglicanism in the 1920s and then wrote poetry based on his new religious and philosophical views that showed a change of style from his earlier work. It’s just that most critics, contra Orwell, think that the post-conversion works, Ash Wednesday and the Four Quartets, are Eliot’s masterpieces.

    Your phrase “cherry-picking” implies that Orwell chose an unrepresentative pair of extracts to compare, and that a fairer set of comparisons would show no systematic change in style, or a change contrary to that which Orwell is arguing for. Which is certainly something that could be “proven”. (In the legal sense, obviously, not the mathematical sense.)

  37. 37  Steven  October 21, 2008, 2:41 pm 

    I am adequately familiar with things conventionally said about earlier vs later Eliot, thank you. None of it makes Orwell’s essay any less bad.

  38. 38  richard  October 22, 2008, 1:54 pm 

    I don’t really want to wade into this one, but I have to confess I’m completely confused by this:
    (a matter of fact: let’s see your evidence!)

    If I understand this conversation correctly, the “fact” under discussion is that Eliot’s early poems possess “glowing despair” while his later ones show “melancholy hope,” that the first is “better,” and that the deficiency of the later poems, which proves their inferiority, is that Orwell finds it hard to remember them. I count 5 subjective quality judgments here and but nothing that would stand up to Popper’s test of falsifiability. Further, the blame for any reduction in the (despairing/glowing) quality of Eliot’s poesy is attributed to his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism [his own invented hybrid of Anglicanism and Catholicism?], about which he felt rather uncomfortable. How is this attested?

    I realise I don’t really speak the language of literary criticism, and perhaps “fact” and “evidence” have different meanings within that discipline from the ones I usually deal with as a historian. If so, is there some source from which I could get the appropriate definitions?

  39. 39  Steven  October 22, 2008, 2:00 pm 

    “There’s no evidence for it, but it’s a scientific fact!”

  40. 40  Gareth Rees  October 22, 2008, 2:48 pm 

    Literary criticism starts with observations (author A wrote words W about subject S at time T) and makes deductions from them. It’s not a natural science: no-one expects precise repeatability of experiment, mathematical expressions of laws, or parsimonious theory-building. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t facts of the matter about which the overwhelming majority of critics would agree. You can unwrap many things that look like judgements to make them look more sciencey: for example you can count the number of concrete nouns versus abstract nouns in ‘Whispers of Immortality’ and compare the counts with those for ‘The Dry Salvages’. Or you could poll 100 critics and ask them to rate the two poems on a ten-point scale from ‘despair’ to ‘hope’ and see if the distribution of answers differed significantly.

    This kind of approach would seem rather scientistic if actually carried out, but it shows how you could ground these apparent judgements in observations. The more normal approach would be for a dissenting critic to offer evidence (i.e. extracts of text together with deductions based on them) that the original claim was wrong. For example, Stephen Poole suggested that Orwell had “cherry-picked” the two extracts he compared. He could substantiate this charge by showing that there are sufficiently many instances which point the other way (abstract language in early Eliot and concrete language in later Eliot) that Orwell chose an unrepresentative pair of extracts. This is certainly a kind of falsifiability.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that the conclusion that the language of ‘Whispers of Immortality’ makes it “better” than ‘The Dry Salvages’ is a fact in this sense. I called it “a matter of taste” in comment 31 above; sorry if this distinction was unclear.

    What I was trying to do in my comment 31 was to get Mr Poole to pin down where his disagreement with Orwell was (over the style of the poems, over the judgement about their relative worth, or about the legitimacy of making psychological inferences).

    I’m not sure what point you are making about “Anglo-Catholicism”. Eliot described himself as “anglo-catholic in religion” following his conversion so I didn’t think this was controversial.

  41. 41  Gareth Rees  October 22, 2008, 3:09 pm 

    It strikes me that if we have to settle the legitimacy of the practice of literary criticism from first principles before we can start to discuss the particulars of Orwell’s argument about Eliot’s style and beliefs we may be here for a very long time…

  42. 42  Steven  October 22, 2008, 3:11 pm 

    I for one consider the practice of literary criticism disgustingly illegitimate in all its manifestations.

  43. 43  richard  October 23, 2008, 4:39 pm 

    make them look more sciencey
    I don’t think that would be an improvement. It sounds like a short road to unspeak, actually.

    I’m not sure what point you are making about “Anglo-Catholicism”
    Regarding this, I was hazarding a guess, not making a point.

    I for one consider the practice of literary criticism disgustingly illegitimate in all its manifestations.
    I quite agree. I’d say the same about history, too: anyone who trots out the old “those who fail to study history” line has never peeked behind the curtain to see how historical knowledge is produced.

  44. 44  Gregor  October 23, 2008, 7:47 pm 

    ‘I for one consider the practice of literary criticism disgustingly illegitimate in all its manifestations.’

    Though some manifestations are more disgustingly illegitimate than other manifestations. I can remember reading a book by Borges (I forget which) that kept referring to a supposedly wonderful work on Borges with the sublime title ‘The fecal dialectic’ (no, I’m not parodying).

    I suppose after reading Borges, its the question of doodoo that lingers in the mind, long after one has forgotten about the Babylonian Lottery and the Garden of Forking Paths.

  45. 45  KB Player  October 23, 2008, 9:54 pm 

    ‘I for one consider the practice of literary criticism disgustingly illegitimate in all its manifestations.’

    So novels, plays and poems are okay, I take it, but writing about them is not?

  46. 46  Steven  October 23, 2008, 11:14 pm 

    For me, the question that lingers in the mind after reading Borges is: “Why bother writing books, when Borges can imagine books so brilliant and beautiful that he doesn’t even need to bother writing them himself?”

  47. 47  richard  October 24, 2008, 1:46 am 

    because yours will be slightly elongated, and untainted by the smell of roses.

  48. 48  Gregor  October 24, 2008, 9:26 am 

    Uh, the way I should have phrased it was that the translator’s introduction kept referring to the masterwork ‘The fecal dialectic’. Apparently (despite the fact that Borges was married) some academic discovered Borges was gay. I don’t know if that psychoanalytical thing is still on the go.

  49. 49  Gregor  October 24, 2008, 6:41 pm 

    For me, the question that lingers in the mind after reading Borges is: “Why bother writing books, when Borges can imagine books so brilliant and beautiful that he doesn’t even need to bother writing them himself?”

    I think that Italo Calvino fulfilled the promise that Borges hinted at. Whilst Borges had an excellent imagination and a great way with what Eco calls ‘the music of ideas’, his style was a bit sugary and I suspect if he wrote a novel it would soon get tiresome. Of course, if he wrote a novel and the manuscript was found, I’d buy it. If it got published that is. What with Jordan and David Beckham the bookshops might not have much room for Latin-American philosophical fiction.



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