‘Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing… What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.’
The above extract is taken from George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, it comes after he quotes from 5 examples of English usage that he found, for different reasons, somewhat vexing. This particular Note From Xi’an will break from a recent pattern of Notes and will exist in the category (if there was one) of note-to-self. This will be where I give myself a bit of time to dwell upon thoughts articulated by an historical great, Orwell, as well as ideas expressed by a contemporary man of precise political thought and concern, Timothy Garton-Ash.
The subject matter of this Note was brought on in-part from rediscovering Orwell’s above article over at the marvelous site Arts & Letters Daily; in-part from re-watching a lecture given by Garton-Ash about his book ‘Facts are Subversive’, and in-part from reading Garton-Ash’s own article Orwell’s List, as well as a consequence of briefly reflecting on my own reading, some time ago, of Orwell’s disturbing text, Nineteen Eighty-Four, after a friend of mine was discussing his reading of it with me recently.
It was from reflection upon these sources that the two main themes of this Note were thrown up, the first; the need to both harness and continually challenge one’s language skills so to be able to develop a personal strain of writing that can do some justice to the intentions that exist behind the pen, and second; the need to keep one’s eyes open to the edges of our reality, seeing what, for differing reasons, is not always that easy to see, while checking that what we have seen or read is indeed actually what happened. In other words a twinned vigilance, where we are, one, vigilant in terms of what words we choose to write, and two, vigilant in how we interpret the world around us, or, more narrowly, the words written or spoken about the world around us.
But, before we continue, let me just remind myself a little of where Orwell himself was at one point coming from. It is many years since I read Nineteen Eight-Four but when I cast my mind back to reading it I am able to feel, creeping up on me, the oppressiveness that is contained within its pages and also sense the sickening paranoia that can grip the reader.
For anyone reading this with no experience of contemporary China and its present day realities but who may feel it must be somewhat similar to the state of affairs that Orwell was back then writing about, I must just emphasize that these are certainly not feelings I have living an everyday life here. Though, that is not to say it is not how some people ( here & here) might experience it.
If we consider that Orwell was writing predominantly as a counter-point to the totalitarian Russian State and its State-directed Communism, which was rolling across Europe at the time of his writing, and also consider his statement, as is quoted here by Garton-Ash: “[T]hat the destruction of the Soviet myth [is] essential if we want to revive the Socialist movement”, then we can allow ourselves a fresh look at our own picture.
And by this I mean, that just in the way that some Socialists and communists had to distance themselves from the form of Russian State Communism that stood aggressively before them in the 1950s, so to be able to defend their own sense of what the socialist movement was, then we can also look more sharply at what is being done by our own governments today; in the name of choice, democracy, development, freedom and law and order. Opening the door for improvements, alternatives and honesty.
Even for those of us who don’t permanently keep a light shone on the darker and more silent currents that move in and around our realities, there is still a need to be vigilant in keeping our minds at once open to and critical of the differing mindsets and beliefs that do surround us – whether they are political, economic, religious, cultural, social or a mixture of all. We can add to this open and critical mind a responsibility, necessary in the reporting and reading processes, to look for the facts and check them.
It is this attitude or practice that Garton-Ash clearly defines as being the most important and sacred amongst any in the writer’s repertoire. But this is also often the most difficult to muster and master. Particularly within this fast moving world, with its desire for the story as the story unfolds – or, these days, even before it unfolds. The environment that most concerns Garton-Ash is one where the facts are fixed to the story and not the other way round.
Add to this the fact that, as Garton-Ash observes, there is “less and less serious verified foreign news” being brought to us, serious concerns begin to become apparent. This is especially true if we consider how much of all the information that swirls around us and effects us, does actually come from places and sources beyond our own borders, and that needs verifying. Here we have Orwell and Garton-Ash saying the same thing: be careful, be vigilant about how and what you write, whether fiction or report, but also, by association, about how you read.
I have failed numerous times with regard to the degree of vigilance required to choose a word to express a thought, and in terms of keeping the mind sharp to all the information, misinformation and trivial information that surrounds us, and I am sure I will continue to fail to do so. I will, I am sure, also find myself continuing to fall into exploitative and wasteful practices that my own life choices frequently lead me to. But, the introduction here to this theme is at least a reminder – a note-to-self – that can hopefully help me keep my eyes open a little more.
I will continue to delve into these issues a little over the next week or so, but here is a final note from Orwell to finish off for now:
‘When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.’