The Enduring Orwell

March 4, 2023
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George Orwell died in 1950 after having written a number of enduring political novels.

One of them, Animal Farm, was rejected by a publisher because “We don’t print children’s books.”

While writing 1984, a dystopian novel that gave full treatment to the logical outcome of a society well soaked in the brine of totalitarianism, Orwell, then suffering a fatal bout of tuberculosis, retired to the remote island of Jura. He was -- among a slew of writers clamoring for public notice, the better to sell books -- a modern version of the Desert Monks of the 3rd century AD. One needs a certain amount of solitude and focus to turn the fables of modernity on their ears.

The book, published in June 1949, was Orwell’s ninth completed in his lifetime. Orwell was a pre-postmodern democratic socialist, and 1984 centers on the ravages of an authoritarian state modeled on Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Beneath the surface, all models of the totalistic-state are the same, never mind that Hitler and Stalin, following Hitler’s attack on Russia later in World War II, made the two best-buddy world conquerors irreconcilable enemies at war’s end.

Orwell described 1984 as a satire and a display of the "perversions to which a centralized economy is liable… What it is really meant to do is to discuss the implications of dividing the world up into 'Zones of Influence’ (I thought of it in 1944 as a result of the Tehran Conference), and in addition to indicate by parodying them the intellectual implications of totalitarianism."

Politics and the English Language, published in (1946), is a late production.

Orwell is concerned in the essay with the political uses of language: “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase – some jackbootAchilles’ heelhotbedmelting potacid testveritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse – into the dustbin where it belongs.”

To use a term he would be the first to condemn as meaningless and feeble, Orwell “pulls no punches” when he condemns political speech as non-visual imprecision: “… 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. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

Postmodern journalists should pay attention. Politically charged words are instruments designed to portray falsely the reality that lies “right under our noses,” as Orwell said in a different context. And the most difficult thing journalists are called upon to do is first to see the reality that lies right under their noses and then to cast it into words that adequately portray the living reality of the images before them, the realities, that dance before their senses.

This is not an easy task because, once you have accepted a meaningless political word-salad or a reality defying hyperbole or a politically charged half-truth, your commitment to a false representation actually distorts any related future reality. False reality travels on a fictional highway to which there is no exit. A lie, Mark Twain is said to have said, “can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.”

Those who believe Orwell does not speak to the postmodern progressive world should busy themselves counting the ‘verbal refuse” in this New Yorker interview with John Mearsheimer --  Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in UkraineFor years, the political scientist has claimed that Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine is caused by Western intervention. Have recent events changed his mind?

Don Pesci is a political columnist of long standing, about 40 years, who has written for various state newspapers, among them The Journal Inquirer, the Waterbury Republican American, the New London Day, the Litchfield County Times, the Torrington Register Citizen and other Register Citizen papers. He maintains a blog, among the oldest of its kind in Connecticut, which serves as a repository and archive, for his columns; there are approximately 3,000 entrees in Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State, virtually all of them political columns stretching back to 2004. He also appears once a week Wednesdays on 1080 WTIC Newstalk radio with Will Marotti.


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