Friday, October 23, 2015

Today in deliberate misreadings: Politics And The English Language

 George "The Animal Steele" Orwell

Everyone knows George Orwell wrote a great essay on political language. Hipsters (edit: I don't mean to attack this person specifically. The was inspired by someone I know personally) know that the essay is bunk, claiming stupidly that we should all write beige, colorless prose and always avoid the passive voice. The fact that I called them hipsters tells you where I stand. Yes, it is strange that Orwell should make us want to write as dully as ... The King James Bible. Gosh, it's almost like such a reading doesn't make sense when you think of it like that. Well, that's because it doesn't! One would think that linguists would understand the idea of qualifying phrases! Imagine if I wrote such trash about fluid mechanics:

 I've always been fascinated by vortex dynamics

"How stupid is Helmholtz's essay on vortex dynamics? If he were right, wingtip vorticies couldn't end in a fluid, so they'd have to extend all the way back to where the plane started at the beginning of time. That's ridiculous. I can't imagine the damage done to fluid mechanics by this illogical essay."

All I have to do is ignore that Helmholtz ever said "velocity potential" and I make him sound ridiculous. Yes, it's easy to sound smart when you cut out half the sentence ("Never use the passive ..." rather than "Never use the passive where you can use the active."). Plus, it lets you get out of having to use real data! Since you've created a totally artificial theory that nobody ever proposed, nobody will call you on it if you reject it badly after all. Heck, why not go further? Let's claim Maxwell never discovered Maxwell's correction to Ampere's Law, just by leaving out those parts of his books! It's fun!

In ur noospapers, writin' ur propaganda

Okay, now they've got me doing it. These kinds of arguments are well documented in Schopenhauer, and it is more fun to attack hipsters and George Orwell than it is to sit around in your underwear. I should have a sense of humor about things. If you do something as simple as read the essay, you'll notice that Orwell's praise is always toward the visual and metaphorical and away from the beige and standard. Orwell didn't say "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms." but rather "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.". Read those two sentences and tell me there's no difference. Or how about this dull, image-less prose taken from something Orwell himself thinks is worth publishing:

"When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases ... one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them."

What's that from? Oh right, that's from the very essay you just read! Orwell is throughout the entire essay calling for more colorful, more illustrated, more metaphorical/simile-heavy prose. He uses images constantly throughout the essay, and indeed throughout his writing. I wouldn't go as far as to say Orwell was a frustrated artist, writing because he couldn't draw political cartoons. That's G.K. Chesterton you're thinking of. But Orwell always had his eye fixed on creating an image in the reader's mind.

I didn't say anything about Orwell's deeper concern that avoiding metaphor and imagery allows one to deflect from what one is really writing about. I don't know that if Laski had to write about the Soviet in the way Orwell said that it would force Laski to think about what the Soviet was really doing and he would find it in himself to criticize them before Czechoslovakia. I'd guess that Orwell has a point but the psychological issue needs to be studied empirically. Do such studies exist?

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