My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Why I Write (2004) by George Orwell (1903-1950) is actually a collection of four short essays: “Why I Write” (1946); “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1940); “A Hanging” (1931); and “Politics of the English Language” (1946). The collection amounts to 120 pages and can be read in an afternoon or over four evenings. The title, however, is a bit deceptive and consists of very little of why Orwell writes, but one can directly gleam that from his extended discourse on Socialism that he writes for political motives.
The first section of the book is “Why I Write” and it’s only 10 pages long, but one can get a deeper insight into Orwell’s history as a writer.
“From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six,” writes Orwell, “I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books… I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life” (p 1).
Most writers can relate to childhood stories. When I was a small child, I would sit in my mother’s lap as my father drove us across the long, empty Texas landscapes and listen to her make up such wonderful stories that included talking telephone poles and a purple polka-dotted elephant that could move at the speed of light and zip from tree to tree.
I honestly believe I saw that nameless elephant at least three times in my life. Twice was when I was a child and once when I told the same story to my daughter.
And most writers can also relate to feeling undervalued and the lonely hours of isolation that comes so naturally to a writer. When I was in Grade 5, I was placed in isolation for fighting (okay, I had a thing for boxing and Rocky films). To be frank, much of this isolation over that year developed my desire for autonomous academic work that I still carry on today.
Back then the isolation room was my principal’s supply closet next to the secretary. I would do the entire day’s work in two or three hours, do some reading (I read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and loved it), take a small nap before lunch, have my lunch served to me, and then continue reading until I had to go home in the afternoon, and never once did I have to bother with the anxieties and frustrations that go along with school life.
I enjoyed this time to myself and it felt less like punishment and more like a reward. This is probably why I got into so many fights as a boy. But one day the secretary forgot to bring me lunch. It was a Friday and the school always served hamburgers for lunch and I was so looking forward to it. Around two o’clock the secretary came in and was upset that she forgot. None so more than I, one might argue. She pleaded to allow me to have her go to McDonald’s and bring me a Happy Meal. I’m a stubborn man at times and even then as a young boy I refused. After all, it was the principle of the issue. She should never have forgotten. But at times now that I am in my mid-thirties I sit alone, reading and writing, enjoying myself, and still feel that cold realization creep down my spine and think that someone has forgotten me yet again.
And like Orwell, I discovered the pleasure of reading Paradise Lost, although I did not do it until my early years in college.
“When I was about sixteen,” writes Orwell, “I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e., the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost,
So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee
“Which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling of ‘hee’ for ‘he’ was an added pleasure” (p 3).
If one has never read either Paradise Lost (1667) or Paradise Regained (1671), I highly recommend doing so. Both by John Milton are such a pleasure to the mind and ear.
at City University of Hong Kong
One can sense the sheer joy words must have given Orwell when he describes his history with reading and writing, and it makes this reader all the more glad that such poetry can live in the hearts of men and women.
By the end of the essay Orwell gives his four major reasons (pgs 4-5) as to why he writes, and he explains that these reasons are also shared by most other writers:
1) Sheer Egoism
2) Aesthetic Enthusiasm
3) Historical Impulse
4) Political Purpose
I will leave you to agree or disagree with Orwell’s assessment to the motivations of writers, but I do tend to agree with most of his comments on the subject. Moving on.
“The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” is 84 pages long and broken into three parts: Part I: England Your England; and Part II: Shopkeepers at War; and, Part III: The English Revolution. I do not share the taste for political discourse as Orwell does, but if you are interested in Socialism and the shaping of English politics and also Economic Inequality (which is a hot topic in the United States these days) then by all means take the time and read this essay. Orwell is very enlightening and I did enjoy his comments on how he would recommend reshaping an economy since he claims Capitalism has failed England. And to think that this essay was first published in 1940 and America is just now realizing the problems with Capitalism is impressive.
at City University of Hong Kong
“A Hanging” is approximately six pages long and is basically creative non-fiction, and involves Orwell’s account of witnessing an execution by hanging. I have read this piece in other formats over the course of ten years (this being the first time in print-book format) and the ending still haunts me as much as it did on the first reading. This short account of an execution inspired me to describe two important historical executions in the first and last chapters of my novel NO REVERENCE.
The last piece in the series is “Politics and the English Language” and is roughly 18 pages. As a writer this essay interested me the most and I continually pick up new tidbits of advice from Orwell upon each new reading. For example:
“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible” (p 102).
And Orwell explains how one can go about reversing the process of bastardizing the English language:
“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
“And he will probably ask himself two more:
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
“But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connexion between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear” (p 113).
This last statement is referring to Orwell’s belief of how politicians use obfuscation in language to intentionally mislead audiences/voters or disguise true intent from the public.
Orwell adds to this argument:
“A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself” (p 114).
A man who does not think for himself is a dangerous man. He is dangerous in the same way a driver-less car is dangerous as it speeds down the highway directly toward a group of school children. Charlie Chaplin said it best in The Great Dictator (1940) –one of my favorite movies:
Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.
(Entire speech in text and video are below)
Orwell concludes his ideas by arguing that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better” (p 116).
But this never-ending cycle of change in language is, regardless, fundamental and necessary for a society ever changing and evolving within itself.
Either way, Orwell makes some key points on what writers can do to improve not only their writing ability but also their speaking and thinking abilities as well.
Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech from The Great Dictator (1940)
“I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black men, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge as made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.
“Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say “Do not despair.” The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.
“Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it’s written “the kingdom of God is within man”, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power.
“Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
“Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”