Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Orwell and clarity posted by Richard Seymour"If we return now to 'Politics and the English language' we find that whereas the demolition work is done with gusto, Orwell is curiously weak and negative about what needs to be done to promote the right kind of political language. He offers six rules, of which five are negatives, and the sixth is an admonition to break all the rules 'rather than say anything outright barbarous'. In the same essay, Orwell also writes: 'The great enemy of clear language is insincerity', the implication being that sincerity will of itself produce clarity and that lack of clarity reflects back on the credibility of the belief that is sought to be articulated. The thrust of all this - clarity, fluency, the banishment of all that is rough and 'barbarous' - is obvious enough, and implies a kind of cultural centrality which the 1930s Orwell did not feel.
"Orwell's first novel, Burmese Days, also touches on the problem of language within an oppressive social order. It is a crucial part of that oppression that the thoughts one can think are, in this case, prescribed by 'the pukka sahib's code'. Orwell's novel as a whole is an attempt, in fact, to think about the colonial situation without submitting to the constraints of that code. Yet the novel is also ... a significant record of the difficulty of thinking subversively with any consistency, let alone fluency or clarity. Flory's distinctive quality is precisely that he is endowed, by Orwell, with 'secret thoughts that could not be uttered'. Flory could only attain to ease of utterance, to an uncluttered, unself-conscious flow, like the 'louts' at the Club, by sacrificing that which makes him worthy of attention.
"Given Orwell's sensitivity to language, his insight into its nature, he should have been able to see, what in his conception of Winston he was able to sense, that the ruling, 'hegemonic' conceptions and perceptions of a given social order, and the language in which they are articulated, are bound to appear 'natural' and unforced - but also that they are no more 'natural' than those others, gauche and awkward, clumsy and cumbersome, which seek to criticise that order. Unfortunately, however, Orwell acquired his linguistic insight during the time that he was, as I have argued, making his peace with his 'given' society. But for that, he might have had a little more sympathy with his victims, all left-wing in 'Poliics and the English language'; he might have felt for them a little of the sympathy which he himself evokes for Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, struggling for speech against an oppressive order." (Alok Rai, Orwell and the Politics of Despair: A Critical Study of the Writings of George Orwell, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp 130-131).