2004

1984_6.jpg

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” – George Orwell.

Ken poses the question of why there seem to be so few writers tackling big issues of the stature of George Orwell. Maybe Orwell himself had the answer in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:

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.

ELSEWHERE: The Currency Lad unsurprisingly has a different take on Orwell. One of the many things I like about C.L.’s blog – despite our very different politics – is a fondness he shares with me for quoting Latin tags. Now he’s expanded his linguistic repertoire with a post entitled “Die Perversion des Krieges”…

Orwell also writes:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Don Watson is one Australian writer who agrees that the degradation of our language has political consequences and political causes.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

As Orwell makes clear, both in this essay and in 1984, the degradation of language is all too frequently deliberate. Unfortunately since he wrote, this practice has become all but universal. Don Watson should know – he was a spin doctor once.

Phil
2022 years ago

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.

Yep, just like the white Australia policy.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Defending the indefensible has been part of political life since at least Greek times.

My guess is that the increasing blurring of the language is a reaction against participatory democracy. Consider, for example, Sir Humphry Appleby’s long winded answers to Jim Hacker. Is this not the case of part of a ruling caste using language as a defence against democratic ursupers?

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Bullseye, Scott.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

I must admit I don’t think “1984” is a great work of art. I know in certain journalistic circles if I said this I’d have to adopt the “duck and cover” position. Orwell may have been an excellent essayist but I just don’t think his work with the exception of “Homage to Catalunya” has the execution of great art (I also lived the Ken Loach film was it ‘Hope and Freedom’).

Umberto Eco has an essay in “Apocalypse Postponed” which I think nails it. He suggests that Orwell had a certain perspecacity in examining how people could be moulded drawing upon his war-time experiences. And that while Orwell’s work was particularly prophetic it had too many gaps in its construction to be considered a work of great art.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

That should be “loved” not “lived”, but the film was some experience. One day I’ll actually use the preview function when I’m not as time-poor.

TimT
2022 years ago

Bullseye, Stephen. Maybe the admiration for the work amongst journalistic circles is partially owing to the fact that Orwell’s craft in many ways was closer to journalism than literature?

Reading 1984 was one of the most depressing experiences of my life. I generally don’t think books can ‘change’ a person, but if any book changed me, it was this one.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

How did it change you, TimT, if I may ask?

TimT
2022 years ago

Oh … I guess that it alerted me to the tactics of Totalitarianism, made me more interested/passionate about politics than I would otherwise have been. I still occasionally have 1984-style nightmares (that’s how much the book depressed me). And I remember being ribbed at school for ages after waving a book in the face of another student, demanding that they ‘Read this! Read this!’

But I think that at that time I was becoming more interested in politics and current affairs anyway, and the book only helped to bring these interests to the surface.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, TimT. I think I got a copy of 1984 as the Senior English prize, appropriate since I finished school in 1984! I wasn’t entranced by it – I much preferred Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.

Film was very good though – I watched it again on video recently.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Orwell’s novels are not as great as his literary and political writings, but three of them – Coming Up for Air, Animal Farm and 1984 – are nonetheless among the great English novels. I finished 1984 on New Year’s Eve 1983, and my experience was the opposite of Stephen’s and Mark’s. I found it deadly accurate, devastating, depressing, brilliantly crafted like the nonfiction works, and overwhelmingly powerful in its simple language. And that’s just in its own right, i.e. not to mention the transformation it brought about in our understanding of the connections bewteen language and political oppression, or the swathe of chilling and indispensible terms he brought to the language: newspeak, dounblethink, Big Brother, Room 101. Where would we be, for that matter, without the word Orwellian? There’s more than one kind of great literary art.

Brave New World is a fabulous book as well, but its themes are so different that a comparison does injustice to both.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I don’t disagree, James, about the political and cultural influence of 1984. And my literary perceptions now may not be the same as they were when I was 16! I guess my point of comparison at the time was that both 1984 and ‘Brave New World’ were dystopias.