Circa 1945: British author George Orwell (1903 – 1950) the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
By Monte Bute
The “Great Ideas” series from Penguin Books has done fledgling intellectuals a huge favor by making great nonfiction authors available in accessible and reasonably priced chapbooks.
Ideas do matter: They lead to debate, dissent, destruction, death, and the divine. And true ideas matter most of all. George Orwell’s “Why I Write” is a worthy addition to this pantheon of influential sages.
Why Orwell? One biographer put it succinctly: “intellectual courage.” Having written two books on Orwell, John Rodden is frequently asked what attracted him to his subject. He answered this query in a letter he once wrote to Orwell: “The answer that I find myself giving is that you inspired me — because you lived what you wrote and you wrote out of the depths of your experience.”
Why Orwell? George Orwell had a single-minded devotion to truth, but he sought it without any of the high-falutin techniques of professional history and social science; rather, he pursued the truths of experience. “He did of course deploy a ‘subjective’ and unquantifiable tool,” writes Christopher Hitchens, “something that cannot be taught or inherited, but the old name for it is intellectual honesty.”
We get hints of his experiments with truth: As a colonial police officer in Burma, a dishwasher in Paris, a hobo in London, a chronicler of England’s industrial working class, and a leftist partisan in the Spanish Civil War. His biography, shaped by world history, led him “to make political writing into an art.”
Even though he knew that English prose was in a bad way, Orwell disagreed with what has become a postmodernist mantra: Language is a prison without parole — and “that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.” Instead, he argued that if we took the trouble to rid ourselves of bad writing habits, we might think more clearly, “and to think more clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.”
“Why I Write,” a short collection of his essays, is a good introduction to Orwell. The volume’s title essay is an autobiographical meditation upon the motives of writers. It recounts how a lonely and unpopular but imaginative young Eric Blair eventually became George Orwell, the courageous man of letters and an exemplar of 20th century English prose.
In “Why I Write,” Orwell lists what he sees as the four motives for writing prose:
- “Sheer egoism.” We write to see our mosaic of words in print.
- “Aesthetic enthusiasm.” It inspires us to write in an artistic and polished manner.
- “Historical impulse.” This is my rationale for reviewing an author who died in 1950.
- “Political purpose.” Why I am writing on behalf of the Ukrainian resistance.
Orwell manages to get all this, and more, into a 10-page essay. His credo is that “good prose is like a window pane.” If you want to think and write for yourself rather than relying on the thinking and writing of others, he suggests asking yourself six questions:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
“Why Orwell?” Timothy Garton Ash, historian and eyewitness to Eastern Europe’s Velvet Revolutions, asked this question at century’s end. “Anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century,” he answers, “will still have to read Orwell” – and, might I add, comprehend the twenty-first century as well.
“We need him still,” Ash concludes, “because Orwell’s work is never done.”
Monte Bute is a professor emeritus of sociology at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. He remains a gadfly. He wrote this piece for the Minnesota Reformer, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.
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