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February 24, 2008

I Love Orwell

I was talking to Tisa tonight and brought up Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant." After we got off the phone I looked it up on the web to send to her and found this website about him created for his 100th birthday (in 2003).

I went through some of the essays. It's been a few years since I engaged with Orwell at all. And I re-read "Why I Write," which I last read about five years ago, looking for something to give my students. I remember thinking it didn't suit my purpose exactly back then. Truth be told, I always read pieces from writers about why they write, looking for similarities to lovely ol' moi.

I remember the part in this essay where Orwell writes about writing a running description of his life in his head as it is happening. I did that, although at a much younger age: from 7 to about 10 or so.

But the stuff about politics and aesthetics didn't land with me last time. This time they did. Observe:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

  1. Sheer egoism. Desire to  seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen -- in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all -- and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
  3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  4. Political purpose -- using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

... Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one's political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one's aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, "I am going to produce a work of art." I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

... I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it. ... Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Sigh, it's hard to excerpt Orwell. Everything he writes has a purpose in the whole. But anyway ... what he said.

I don't know if ... well, actually I DO know. I know that this didn't land with me five years ago because I last read this BEFORE I started Da Nobble, which began as a desire to expose a lie: more specifically, I wanted to write a book with a shrewd Asian male protagonist who didn't know any martial arts and had stature for any other reason than being able to kick people's asses.

As I wrote, I discovered that there were more and more lies which could be addressed in the story: things about women and men, about sex, sexuality, and gender, about race and immigration and colonizing and expansion and exploitation, and on and on and on. And in the process I guess I really did become a political writer, although perhaps I wrote politically before then.

I used to say these things, hoping to believe them, but now they actually mean something.

I don't know that I have much more of a point than this. Stuff I'm thinking about. Orwell good.

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