Against the Orwell cult
October 8, 2008
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 Quartets ((In Orwell’s archly fatigued description, “these three poems, Burnt Norton and the rest”.)) 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. ((“T. S. Eliot”, in Carey, John (ed.), George Orwell: Essays (London, 2002), pp.425-431.))
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.