Essays (George Orwell)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Orwell, George. Essays ed. Carey, John. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002.

Eric Blair, otherwise known as George Orwell, was a victim of his own success. His two dystopian novels defined the genre for generations to come. Animal House is the most important book a student will read in high school. 1984, while nowhere near Animal House in terms of perfection, is the final word on dystopian literature. As a result, when people think of Orwell, they think of those two novels. They rarely read his essays, which is a shame. Orwell was a master of English prose and he didn’t flinch from hard topics, willing even to subject his fellow socialists to brutal criticism. These essays are organized chronologically, beginning in 1928 and ending in 1949.

Several themes emerge from this 1,300 page volume: Hitler, Pacifism, Socialism, and Literature. Regarding Hitler and Socialism, Orwell has strong opinions, but his conclusions might surprise you.

Hitler

Review of Mein Kampf

Orwell explains, no doubt in terms that will be unintelligible to today’s intelligentsia, Hitler’s rise to power. Like all demagogues, Hitler captured the sentiments against the prevailing world order, this one being the decadence of progressive living. If all one desires is comfort and ease, it’s hard to imagine a world of patriotism and virtue. As Orwell notes, “The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do” (251).

Pacifism

Orwell, rightly, has nothing but contempt for bourgeois pacifism. Leaving rhetoric and emotion aside, the position is ultimately incoherent. Pacifists know they do not really have an answer to the “Hitler problem.”

The pacifist will not resist Hitler. So far, he is consistent. If he lives in Germany he has a few choices: roll over and probably be arrested, or he can move to an Allied country. That seems logical. Here is where the problem is: in order for the pacifist to continue to believe in ideals like democracy, he has to hope that war-like countries can defeat Hitler. By force. If killing is a moral wrong, then for the pacifist it must be just as wrong for Churchill as for Hitler. In the following line, Orwell skewers the pacifist on the horns of a dilemma:

“You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. Whichever choice you choose you will not come out with clean hands” (389).

Socialism

Orwell’s socialism is simple: abolish private property. What he never connects, at least I have not seen him connect, is that such an abolition entails the statism he so eloquently condemns elsewhere. Orwell is quick to assure us, though, that the abolition of private property does not entail a stripping of private possessions (316). Technically, he is correct but if the State were to do so, it is hard to see on what grounds Orwell would oppose it.

It is actually refreshing to see a Socialist come to grips with the key problem of socialism. Orwell writes, “The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them” (316). I said Orwell wrestles with this problem. In fact, I do not think he does. As every serious free market economist has pointed out, “By what criteria does the State know what will be needed?” Even worse, at what price should these goods be charged? This question is unanswerable on socialist grounds.

Literature

Politics and the English Language

Orwell’s insights on modern literature pervade this volume and probably deserve their own review. His most important essay, moreover, is “Politics and the English Language.” He does two things in this piece: exposes garbled prose and shows how that such prose warps reality. The death sentence for any writer is “You sound like a textbook” or “You sound like a sociologist.” Orwell gives you pointers for avoiding this fate.

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes” (954).

Modern English prosody prefers catchy phrases than precise words (956ff). Verbs now become phrases. “Noun constructions are preferred to gerunds (‘by examination of’ instead of ‘by examining’)” (958).

A good writer, therefore, follows:
a) avoid pretentious diction
b) avoid meaningless words
c) prefer the concrete over the abstract.

A good writer asks the following questions:
a) What am I trying to say?
b) What words will express it?
c) What image or idiom will make it clear?
d) Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

Orwell suggests, though he understands its limits, the following maxim: use the fewest and shortest words to convey one’s meaning (965). There is a danger to this. If applied too strictly, the writing loses all elegance and begins to look like an outline in prose form.

Conclusion

Readers of all political and cultural backgrounds should read Orwell. He serves as a model for clarity in writing and in thinking. In politics he is brave enough to avoid the party line. He is a socialist, but socialists come under far worse criticism than nationalists or conservatives. These are the ideas that formed his more famous dystopian novels.
 
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