David S. Cohen is the author of Screen Plays: How 25 Scripts Made It To A Theater Near You - For Better or Worse. He has covered entertainment, culture, science and technology as a journalist for more than 10 years for outlets around the world. He is an editor for Variety and the longtime writer of the popular 'From Script to Screen' column in Script magazine. David has also written for television and worked in show business for most of his adult life. Here he discusses George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language'.
David S. Cohen on 'Politics and the English Language' by George Orwell
When Norm wrote to me and asked me to write about a book I like or admire, I flashed on not a book but an essay. Certainly there are books I am in awe of - One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen come to mind. But nothing I have read has done as much to shape my thinking, my work and, finally, my choices as George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language'.
More than 30 years after I first read it, 'Politics and the English Language' remains the touchstone I return to when I feel a need to get 'back to basics' in my writing - and my thinking. Revisiting it, I decided to read many, though not all, of the essays in my Orwell collection, most of which I had not read recently, if at all. I found that while Orwell has always spoken to me, as over time I have become a different man, I hear him on a different level.
When I first read 'Politics and the English Language', I was a teenager with grand dreams and vague plans. Whatever designs for my future I had, I am sure of one thing: they did not include my writing anything more enduring than a college essay, much less becoming a writer or published author. My goals were in the theatre, as an actor or director, and the very ephemerality of a stage performance was part of its appeal. I didn't even want to write plays. I could see myself becoming an interpretative artist; I could not imagine myself conjuring something from nothing, as writers do.
Moreover, writing was too solitary for me; I was that common teenaged paradox, the social loner, emotionally guarded but drawn to the camaraderie of a stage play's cast and crew. The intense but fleeting intimacy shared by a theatrical company satisfied a craving to connect... just not too much, or for too long. To write was to be truly alone, and that did not suit me. Plus, to make matters worse, I doubted I could ever learn to type.
It was in an advanced high school class, 'Critical Reading and Writing', that I was assigned Orwell's essay for the first time. It struck a nerve, and no wonder. Firstly, I had read 1984 and Animal Farm, enjoyed them and was already an Orwell fan. Secondly, Watergate and Nixon's excesses were fresh memories. Orwell's insight, 'In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible', summoned so many fresh memories. The 'incursion' into Cambodia and Ronald Ziegler's wilting admission that his denials of Nixon's involvement in Watergate were 'inoperative' linger still. 'Such phraseology,' Orwell had warned presciently, 'is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.'
I found in Orwell a sage who had foreseen my times, named the rot creeping into politics and gifted the world a vaccine against it. But in this portion of the essay, Orwell went further, and forever changed my attitude about writing:
I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
This is a parody, but not a very gross one.
With this, he impressed upon me that modern 'technical' English, by dint of its blandness and vagueness, was limp and artless. The passage from Ecclesiastes not only said more in fewer syllables than the techno-jargon translation, it said it more beautifully - and, not coincidentally, more memorably.
Even then, with no notion in my head of ever applying his rules for good writing to anything like the craft he himself had practised, I decided that whatever I might write thereafter, I would be wise to refer to Orwell's wisdom:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Writing, I would later come to believe, is at some level an aggressive act. By writing, we compel others to see the world through our own eyes. If we set down our thoughts entertainingly enough, or interestingly enough, the reader may let our thoughts guide his own for as long as it takes to finish our words. That's a low hurdle for a short news article on something the reader finds of urgent interest, a higher one for a 3000-word magazine feature on a more obscure topic. For a book, fiction or non-fiction, it can be quite a height to leap.
Beauty in writing is, in that respect, part of the writer's seduction of the reader. If we write beautifully, our readers are more likely to continue, that they may be further dazzled. We may summon deep feelings in them, as music does. We can even drive them a bit mad, as Ursula K. LeGuinn observed in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness:
In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane - bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren't there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon.
Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.
When in time I did become a writer, it seemed to be more by fate than by choice, but I believe that whatever success I have achieved in it came by seeking the kind of clarity Orwell's rules demanded, and perhaps, in doing so, I have written just beautifully enough to carry readers along to the end.
I came to writing in my thirties and didn't make it a career until my forties. Today, I am still young as a writer but older than Orwell was when he died. Sizing myself up, I am no peer of his. When I compare my life and work with his I feel puny and sheltered. I travelled little as a young man and avoided facing the human misery he saw daily during his years in Asia. I was too timid to make such a journey, too focused on the obstacles around me. By contrast, my friend and prom date Lora, who sat next to me in that 'Critical Reading and Writing' class, made a naïve and idealistic trip to East Africa after college and returned a changed woman, determined to spend her life addressing poverty in the Third World.
Lacking such righteous fire, I never measured my courage or commitment on a battlefield, or faced death in a doomed fight against fascism, as Orwell did in Spain. Even my personal struggles seem tame measured against his. I have been through hard times, but he fell further down and farther out.
As for what I've written, if all the words published in English over the last century could be condensed to a single story, the sum of what I've written, every article and my single book, might rate a tiny footnote in agate type, where Orwell's work would be a vital chapter with a banner headline.
Moreover, while I admire Orwell and have been guided by him, I do not see him as a kindred spirit. When I read him, I do not sense a man who might have been my friend. When I play the old parlour game, 'If you could have three people from history over for dinner, which three would you choose?' I'm anglophile enough to have Shakespeare on my list and maybe Winston Churchill, but never Orwell. When I picture our meeting, and I prefer not to, I envision him threadbare and emaciated, uncomfortable in my presence, tolerating our interview as long as commerce so demanded, then relieved afterward to be out of the company of this rather bourgeois American Jew who had risked so little and spent so much of his time chronicling something as trivial as the entertainment industry.
Yet in those thoughts I recognize a paradoxical similarity to the man himself. I find it hard to read 'Shooting an Elephant' or even 'Why I Write' without spotting a certain self-loathing in Orwell. He'd lived in squalor at times, and during some of his most productive years he was chronically ill with the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. My own asthma and other middle-aged maladies have taught me how a man can be dismayed and disgusted by his own body. Now I relate on a different level to the scene in 1984 where O'Brien yanks Winston's tooth from his skull with his bare hands. Surely Orwell felt his body fail in ways I can hardly imagine - another area where he has exceeded me! - but I understand what it is to feel betrayed and repulsed by one's own flesh.
Perhaps worse, Orwell had disappointed himself, acting badly for reasons he could not rationalize away. I think it revealing that when Winston Smith is taken to Room 101 to face his greatest fear, O'Brien terrifies him into betraying his love, Julia. I think that by betraying Julia, Winston also betrays himself, and the memory of those betrayals forever diminishes him.
Yet I believe this is an inescapable part of life - if one lives long enough. Aside perhaps from saints (who lack error) or sociopaths (who lack remorse), to be human is to at some day, in some way, act appallingly - and, in time, to be appalled by the memory. As a result, the young, believing they would never do such things, seem to their elders to be rigid and judgemental, while conversely the middle-aged, having committed their crimes and granted themselves uneasy absolution, seem to the young so cynical and jaded. This lesson generally can be learned by living but not by reading, and so is out of reach for adolescents who, like me, enjoyed uncalamitous childhoods.
I have no idea whether Orwell had a Winston Smith moment, but 'Shooting an Elephant' recounts how he killed a great animal simply to avoid looking ridiculous. It's a petty failing, but the kind of moment that diminishes a man in his own mind. How many others of those he went through, be it on the battlefield or in the rest of his life, who can say? But whether we label it modesty, self-awareness or self-disgust, Orwell does not strike me as impressed with his own person.
Yet despite (or, perhaps, because of) whatever squalor he has experienced and the decay of his own body, he seems quite sure of the superiority of his ideas and insights, So he engages with the world at any level he chooses. Orwell's essays address an expanse of people and ideas: Boys' magazines; English cooking; Gandhi; Dickens. Dickens! He deconstructs the great novelist without fear, and if today that deconstruction seems to quaintly embody the worldview of a 1930s English socialist, it is no less brave for it. His deconstruction of Gandhi today seems just as daring, though it was probably less so at the time, as today Gandhi is the subject of pious movies, where at the time he was a controversial rebel. In both cases, after seeming to eviscerate his subjects, he comes around at the end to pay them compliments. But it is that courage to do that evisceration, that willingness to put aside any notion of 'Who am I to say such things?' and engage with his culture, which inspires me more now than ever before.
That inspiration remains necessary. Today we see language twisted to defend the indefensible on many fronts, from the ecstatic bloodlust of suicide bombers to the deracinated legalisms that would call torture by almost any other name. The insights of 'Politics and the English Language', it seems, lack an expiration date.
More personally, though, Orwell's example and that essay showed me a path and gave me a map to guide me on it. I may lack wealth or beauty or the status they convey, I may be flawed and sometimes ridiculous, but if my thinking is clear and my words precise, there is no subject I dare not write about.
An empty page. On one side, me. On the other, all else.