Tag Archives: Orwell

The War of the Wor(l)ds – II

“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

(George Orwell, Politics and the English Language)

A Struggle for Everyone

Welcome back,

In this second part of the series “The War of the Wor(l)ds” I would like to analyze more in depth one of the four points taken into consideration by George Orwell in his paper “Politics and the English Language” where he builds the theory that would influence his later works, and which I find extremely actual, as only a writer like him could be.

I will not start from the first point I listed in the previous article, but from the third, that is:

  • How the problem exposed is not a question of “Sentimentalism”, “Archaism” or “Linguistic Luddism”, which only affects academics, but a political question of primary importance;

The motivation behind this choice is simple: we have never been used to considering language as something relevant in our life, but as a mere communication tool. Its study, and its uses, have an esoteric fashion and the speeches on the language are considered “academic” at best. So the first criticism that will come to mind when reading this series of writings will be something that evokes the image of professors locked in their own “Ivory Tower” arguing how many toes God has.

Nothing could be more wrong. And dangerous.

Ten years after the writing of this pamphlet, and five after Orwell’s death, i.e. in the mid-50s, what became known as the “Cognitive Revolution” began: an interdisciplinary work of psychology, linguistics, neurology, anthropology and philosophy that has radically changed our way of conceiving the mind and its processes. Scholars like George Miller or Noam Chomsky, just to name two, certainly need no introduction: since then our approach to the study of the mind and human behavior has been completely reversed.

But we will talk about this in later articles.

Six or seven decades later, however, the problem of the decay of language and how it relates to the decay of our society is still there, both as a case study and as a concrete problem. This in my opinion is due to the fact that massive academic efforts are not matched by as many educational efforts, thus bringing us back to the “Ivory Tower”.

How was this possible?

This vicious circle has reasons that go beyond the “pure” scientific dimension, and that we can understand more clearly if we look at them from a historical point of view: language is related to politics and economics (and, we will see, vice-versa), which in turn are linked to the Rule of Law and to what was once called “Civic Sense”. In recent years, at least the last thirty, under this point of view we have definitely let ourselves go.

T. Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom. Russia, Europe, America (Penguin, 2018)

In one of the latest works by the American historian Timoty Snyder, there are two concepts that could help us better understand the question: the first is named “Politics of Inevitability” and the second “Politics of Eternity”. In my opinion, these are two very important concepts, which we do not, however, have the opportunity to analyze in the way they deserve (which perhaps can be done later. For the moment we are only interested in the first of the two, and the definition given by the author in his book:

“The sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done. In the American capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness.”

In this passage Snyder refers to what the Western world felt at the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thus to its victory at the end of the Cold War. If in 1945 Orwell described a world that was preparing itself for that confrontation, and for this the language “suffered” in the emergence of an ideological war, in this case we have the reverse process: language suffers from the lack of confrontation. If the future is predetermined, not only is there no need to do anything, but there is no longer need to think about anything.

If in Orwell’s book we find a critique of a language constructed in a complex, pretentious way, full of paraphrases, courtly metaphors and technical terminology out of context, aimed at hiding the ideas and intentions of those who write or speak, today we can say that the problem it is exactly reversed: the political discourse is made up for the most part of slogans, clichés and ambiguous statements which, in addition to hiding ideas and intentions in the same way, above all serve to hide the absolute emptiness that generated them.

In the same way, those who ask for a good use of the language, in 1945 were branded as an incurable romantic, one of those people who prefer candles to electric light, while today he is a “technocrat”, one of those who want to tangle and cheat the people with their “Latinorum”.

It is for this reason that, as stated at the beginning, the struggle for a correct use of language (and this too we will talk about later) is not a question that concerns only philologists or linguists, but is an integral part of the modern political struggle, one of the few ways in which we can really act, as citizens, towards the state, political and economic power.

If we are not able to preserve this, and we can only do it ourselves, we will never be able to stem the “bad atmosphere” that seems to have take control over our society. If we are not able, soon we will no longer be citizens, but subjects: the process of degradation has already been going on for a long, long time, and it is time to begin to climb the dangerous slope in which we are slipping.

The War of the Wor(l)ds

That was the ultimate subtlety:consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” (1984)

George Orwell’s legacy in the 21st Century

Who doesn’t know George Orwell (whose real name was actually Eric Arthur Blair)? Even just by hearsay, he is recognized as an author that had a primary role in the creation dystopian literature: his best known novel, “1984”, published in 1948, two years before his death, is perhaps the one that more than any other it is rooted in the collective imagination as a metaphor for the power, violence and control exercised by a totalitarian state.

I still remember that rainy night, in the bunk of a train while everyone else was sleeping, finishing that book in the light of a small flashlight. Looking back on that day, i can say it was, together with a few others, one of the few really significant books in my life. From that day on, there was no turn back.

The 117th anniversary of the writer’s birth occurred on June 25, and the following quote was popping up everywhere: “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act“.

The fact is, that quote is not from Orwell, but is only attributed to him.

This made me think. Of all the production of an intelligent, far-sighted and sagacious author, nearly everyone goes to get an “attributed” quote to pay him omage. Strange? Yes and no.

The next day I went to look for another of Orwell’s work in my library, a small pamphlet entitled Politics and the English Language, first published in 1945. Rediscovering this little book was a real pleasure, no doubt about it: in just twenty pages the writer’s pen traces what will become the theoretical framework behind his novels, and that today, 75 years after its writing, still shows the true problem of our society.

If you are thinking about surveillance cameras everywere, high-tech control instruments, spy smartphones, and all that “Big Brother Is Watching You” kind of imagery, you are out of the way. As the title says, the author’s reflection is on Language (in this case English, but anyone can safely think of their language and the reasoning will not change), what we do with (and to) it and what it does to us.

For anyone who assimilated the concepts Orwell wanted to express in his writings, the question was already glaring. For many others, however, the writer’s imagination has turned exactly into what he fought against: banal metaphors, sloppy writing, “imitative style”.

Considering all the time that has passed, obviously we will have to “rethink” some statements, which could seem “out of date”. The fundamental point is another, or how much Orwell’s sharp thinking has managed to grasp a mechanism that has accompanied the development of society (not only the British one, on which the writer dwells, but the world one, given the diffusion and development increasingly immediate and sophisticated communication systems, and the spread of the English language as a “Lingua Franca” over the course of seven decades.

Before introducing the fundamental concept, I would like to illustrate the four points that the writer takes into consideration to elaborate his theory:

  • How language and thought influence each other, creating an “organic” system and not a simple communication system;
  • How, already in the period in which the book was written, there was a phenomenon of “Automatic Construction” of the sentences and what this implies in relation to the previous point;
  • How the problem exposed is not a question of “Sentimentalism”, “Archaism” or “Linguistic Luddism”, which only affects academics, but a political question of primary importance;
  • What “Defending Language” means (and what it does not mean), and how (and if) it is possible to do so;

The four points listed above will be analyzed in detail in as many weekly articles: if it is true that everything is well expressed by the writer in a few pages, it is equally true that the issues deserve a more in-depth analysis, and also a “historical” look: as mentioned previously, almost eighty years have passed and, however “actual” it turns out to be analysis, Orwell was not a seer and certainly could not imagine any change that occurred within our way of expressing ourselves and any developement our society.

For my part, I believe that the focal point of this particular paper (and of Orwell’s subsequent production, up to “1984”) is that through language all of us, as a society, are fighting a War. A war which, like the others, is political, economic and social, and which even involves victims. Each one of us is, consciously or unconsciously, involved. And that if, as the author says, the fundamental goal of a “Good Writing” is to obtain “clarity and comprehensibility”, I can safely say that over the course of these decades we have lost many battles.

With this statement it is not my intention to instill a sense of depression or to declare surrender: only the point is made of a situation that is very compromised, and whose borders have grown larger and larger over the years: in some ways “fossilizing” and for others progressing at a staggering speed (in particular from a “technological” point of view). What I mean is that not only must we act, but we must do it critically, with strategy. To do this we must take back the legacy left to us by Orwell, and start from where he left us: observing and analyzing the language and its relationship with our reality.

The War is not over. We can still reverse the process.

I have a hard time imagining who and how he can take up such an appeal, or what idea he can make of it. But after all, I would like to reiterate that this is not a place to make “Proclamations”. I hope that as I have explained the different issues, everything becomes clearer. I believe that for now, obtaining intellectual contributions and observations on the phenomenon may already be a great step in itself and a way to resume observing a question which, I repeat, is not the prerogative of only the academics who deal with the “branch”, but it is something that concerns us very closely, from how we behave, express (or do not express), communicate and write every day.

Take this writing and those that follow not as a decadent criticism, but as an idea for a new beginning.

Nay, come, let’s go together.