Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fulford on Orwell

Here are the first two paragraphs of George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language”:

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. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

In a recent column for Canada’s National Post, Robert Fulford argues that, though “We cannot be reminded too often of Orwell's central thesis that slovenly writing produces slovenly thought and foolish thought leads to ugly prose,” Orwell nevertheless got it wrong:

That opening, coming down to us from just after the Second World War, seems, when you consider the historical context, thoughtless.

Can we still say that the English language in 1945-46 was in a particularly bad way? In retrospect, it seems to have been used in the mid-1940s by some remarkable stylists, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, among others. The funniest English writer, P. G. Wodehouse, was spinning out an endless series of books in never less than superb English. T. S. Eliot and W.H. Auden were hard at work.

Most important, at that moment the English language had just given the greatest political performance in its history, turning away from England's shores the most formidable of all military machines, Germany's.

In the hands of Winston Churchill, language rallied the British, sustained them through desperate years and led them to victory. It was the supreme political accomplishment of Britain in modern times.

How could Orwell, writing at precisely that moment, have ignored this central fact of his and England's existence? In an essay called "Politics and the English Language," how could he have failed to notice both the pre-eminent English politician of the century and his uniquely effective eloquence?

I think Orwell could have neglected the “central fact” of Churchill’s eloquence, and the perhaps equally central facts of all the other wonderful writers Fulford mentions, because they were not his concern. What worried Orwell was the state of English as practiced by the average relatively-well-educated person, and indeed by the average super-educated intellectual. If those people, several of whom he quotes to discomfiting effect in his essay, had learned from the examples of Churchill or Waugh or — O consummation devoutly to be wished! — the incomparable Wodehouse, Orwell would never have had to write his essay.

By Fulford’s logic, English in America couldn't possibly be in bad shape: just look around at Marilynne Robinson, Michael Chabon, the just-recently-deceased John Updike, et al. Alas, language don't work that there way.


  • Tony Comstock said...


    This is the second time I've read this word in as many days. I'd guess that years have gone by since the next prior occurrence.

    If I wasn't so busy chattering on blogs, I'd re-write Orwell's essay and make it about numbers.

  • yo la tengo said...

    Wodehouse is an interesting addition to this discussion, because his characters are often notably bad at both thinking and speaking.

    For example, Wodehouse's characters habitually use the wrong words to express significant ideas ("Very good," I said coldly. "In that case, tinkerty-tonk. And I meant it to sting."), or wonderfully expressive coinages to say what is entirely inconsequential ("And closing the door with the delicacy of one brushing flies from a sleeping Venus, he passed out of my life."), or words that don't mean anything to express things that can only be hinted at under strenuous exegesis ("They pointed out that friendship between the two artistes had always been a by-word, or whatever you called it. A well-read egg summed it up by saying that they were like. Thingummy and What's-his-name.")

    Thus, it seems to me as if the characters that made Wodehouse famous -- and by extension, his writings -- are part of the problem from Orwell's perspective, not couter-eviednce against the assertion that something has gone amiss.

    Of course, we could suggest that it is Wodehouse's ability to deploy this kind of stuff -- and not the actions of his fictional characters -- that makes him such a master of the written word. But even if that's true, there really is very little in the way of intellectual content that stands beind what Wodehouse is aiming at. ("There are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without the music and ignoring life altogether; the other is going right down deep into life and not caring a damn...") So, isn't he at least misusing his facility with the English language, at least by Orwell's lights, because he refuses to communicate real ideas, in a way that makes the world a better place?

    Before you say it, I agree: Reading Wodehouse does in some sense make the world a better place all by itself. But that doesn't really seem to have been what Orwell had in mind. He was thinking of moral questions, not aesthetic ones. No?

    In fact, Wodehouse seems to have been notably imperceptive about the moral implications of his own words, as his alleged collaboration with the Nazis during WWII suggests. Orwell himself -- who defended Wodehouse against the accusation of Nazi collaboration -- called Wodehouse 'foolish and naive' for what he had allowed to happen.

    So, I wonder if Orwell would really have welcomed the idea that Wodehouse is somehow an example of a writer who really understands why it is important to express ideas clearly. He didn't really express that many ideas, and he seems to have misunderstood the things that his words could be used to do.

    Might not Orwell have suggested that it was precisely Wodehouse's fuzziness about what words actually do that made him susceptible to misappropriation by evil people?

    Anyway, tinkerty-tonk. And I mean that kindly.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    YLT, It's primarily Bertie who is "notably bad at both thinking and speaking" — Bertie being the most prominent first-person narrator in the corpus — but do you realize the linguistic imagination and precision that is required in order to make a "mentally negligible" and frivolous character consistently interesting and entertaining? and to do so through his very language? Few others could have done it.

  • Heck no, I don't understand it. It took me an hour and a half to write that last post, and I'm not even sure that I was able to get you to read to the end of it.

    I mean, I did kind of anticipate the point that you're making here:

    I had that one paragraph that starts off, "Of course, we could suggest that it is Wodehouse's ability to deploy this kind of stuff -- and not the actions of his fictional characters -- that makes him such a master of the written word. Blah, blah..."

    And then I had that other paragraph that goes, "Before you say it, I agree: Reading Wodehouse does in some sense make the world a better place all by itself. Rattle, rattle, etc."

    I was only pointing out that I think it's interesting to use an author who is famous for writing about -- let's face it -- idiots, as a refutation of Orwell's point that people should learn to think and speak more carefully.

    But then, I kept on thinking about it, and I wondered if the use of Wodehouse as a counter-example doesn't kind of ignore Orwell's larger point.

    That is to say, Orwell seems to think of the precise use of language as having (at least) two benefits: Negatively, people who understand what words really mean will not be tricked or coerced into doing or morally questionable things; and positively, people who have grasped the true purpose of communication will use their speech to build a better society.

    (Am I wrong about that? I am too lazy to go back and re-read the essay, which I have only read once, about 15 years ago.)

    Anyway, if I'm right about that, then I think Orwell would not have regarded Wodehouse as an example of the kind of precision that he was looking for, because he seems to lack any sensitivity at all for the moral aspect of authorship.

    After all, Wodehouse's facility with words was not sufficient to keep him from being duped by the Nazis (whom he foolishly allowed to misppropriate his words during the second World War), and his own objectives as a novelist seem to have been definable in explicit opposition to the kind of writing that is really concerned with -- you know -- the Big Ideas and whatnot.

    That's not really the kind of guy that Orwell wanted on his team, I suspect.

    Now, if by "understand," you mean "appreciate," then the answer is "Yes." Wodehouse is worth George Orwell's weight in Henry David Thoreau. Easy.

    Anyway, I hope that you enjoy your trip. Bye for now!

  • "Realize." I meant "realize."

    "If by 'realize,' you mean 'appreciate...'"

    I am not even good at reading clearly. Writing clearly is altogether beyond my abilities. Obviously.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    YLT, I think I got what you were saying . . . but anyway, I don't believe Orwell was so moralistic that he would repudiate writers who write to entertain. I also don't think he would see any connection between Wodehouse's prose style and his naïvete about the Nazis. At least, he doesn't suggest anything like that in his essay.

    Obviously, there are many kinds of writers and many kinds of writing, and I think (as you do) that the kind of writing Wodehouse did is worthwhile, and that he did it with exceptional skill and care. "Whatever your hand finds to do" and all that. . . .

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