Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Orwell and Ideology

One of the best things about George Orwell is that both the right and the left disliked him. Conservative Maurice Cowling wrote that Orwell "had a nasty mind and a nasty body. It is one of the odder ironies of modern literature that a class-warrior or Swiftian sadist should for thousands of schoolchildren have become a hero of modern freedom." His cryptic comment on Orwell's body aside, Cowling disliked Orwell most for his lack of religion and his socialism. The Communists hated him for his anti-Communism after Spain ("Homage to Catalonia") and for "Animal Farm," a fable clearly modeled on the Russian Revolution. Orwell thought of himself as a socialist, but I think he would have outgrown that fantasy if he hadn't died at such an early age, a mere lad of 47. His generic, rather undefined socialism aside, Orwell is that rarity, someone relatively free of the contagion of ideology.

The other great thing about Orwell is the fine example he sets with his lucid prose, the perfect instrument for writing about politics and literature. Paul Krassner used to say that he read J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" every year as a tonic, a kind of annual spiritual tune-up. Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language," performs that function for me. In that essay, Orwell offers the best advice a writer can get:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell has equally sound advice for political writers:

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language---and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists---is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

This approach clearly doesn't work for all writers. Tim "Ideology" Redmond, executive editor of the SF Bay Guardian, uses simple language that still fails to free him from "the worst follies of orthodoxy."

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