Sunday, January 20, 2013

Why I Write by George Orwell

Why I Write is a collection of four essays, none of which has to do with HOW to write, which was why I bought the book.  Nevertheless, each essay was thought-provoking and had some interesting insights to give.

The first essay, Why I Write, is a miniature autobiography where Orwell describes his upbringing, his sense of social isolation and how that affected his writing. In fact how it made him a writer. I think that many writers are people who are on the outside looking in, which gives them an ability to describe the world around them and present it to the rest of us.

Most people are entrenched in daily routine and take much of what they do for granted. Writers, because they feel a detachment from the majority, can point out the things that make our way of life interesting and cultural and show to the reader things they would otherwise not have noticed.

The next essay is titled, The Lion and the Unicorn. Orwell wrote this essay during WWII, while bullets were flying over his head as he squatted in a trench. It’s important to read what he has to say in that context. A very angry Orwell wrote this essay.

Much of his anger is directed at his own countrymen. He waxes eloquent on the utter stupidity of the British upper class and those governing the country in particular. He is not very sympathetic to the “proles” either. They are described as little more than simple-minded buffoons.

His main gripe is what he sees as the unequal distribution of the country’s resources and wealth. I was surprised to discover that the author of Animal Farm and 1984 was pro socialist. He believed in a society of absolute equality and that this could only be accomplished through forcible redistribution of wealth and equal educational opportunities for all.

He spends some time listing all the other methods tried for a successful society throughout history and how they failed. Monarchy-failure. Religion-failure. Parliament-nix on that too. What is the solution? Socialism, of course. Orwell’s faith is in the State and it is a devout faith.

Now Orwell doesn’t mean Marxism or at least how it was applied in Russia or how Fascism was used in Germany. He admits that those efforts at equalizing a society were disastrous. What’s interesting are his conclusions.

The reason the socialistic system didn’t work in Germany or Russia was because the culture of those societies made it impossible to apply it. Naturally, tyranny and destruction ensued. Why? According to Orwell, it was because they were Germans and Russians.

So why will socialism work in England even though proven to be an abject failure in other countries? Orwell’s answer: Because we’re English, for gosh sakes!

After spending some time declaring to the reader the British aristocrats and commoners are nothing more than a pack of dummies, he then proceeds to take up several pages asserting that if Socialism were implemented, a classless, egalitarian society would take place and voila! Utopia on earth. Or at least in the British Isles.

What makes this essay valuable is that England did, in fact, socialize their businesses and such- as did the rest of Europe. Orwell’s attitude probably reflects the reigning attitude during a poverty-stricken, war sunk population. His book shows how the seeds of Europe’s present economic systems were germinated and today we have the fruition of that: A continent that is economically imploding.

Or, as I like to say, you can only take money from Peter to pay Paul for so long before Peter doesn’t have anymore money left to give.

The next essay, The Hanging is a brief account of the execution of a criminal in Burma. He doesn’t tell us what the man was guilty of; his focus is on the procedure and the callousness of the soldiers. This apparently left an indelible imprint on him.

The final essay, for me as a writer, is the most instructive. Politics and the English Language is a short lesson on rhetoric and how it can be manipulated to make even the most damaging blights to society sound like a good and necessary thing.

In our time political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible...(pg. 114)

He goes on to describe how, not only “corrupt thought can corrupt language” but how a “corrupt language can corrupt thought.” (pg. 116)

As I listen to the rhetoric of today’s politicians using the same hackneyed phrases that sound as though we, the general populace, will benefit from an ever growing government with it’s marching, invasive army of multiplying regulations, dictating more and more of our private life I consider this last essay to be the most relevant.

Maybe if Orwell were alive today, his faith in the state might not be so implicit.

I bought this book.


Brian Joseph said...

Based upon my limited knowledge of Orwell's life I think that he indeed went through several phases concerning his views on Socialism.

These essays sound like they indeed provide a unique prospective into different phases of his thinking.

Phyllis Winn said...

Thank you, Sharon, for reviewing this book. It is evident that he never knew hope, joy, and peace through faith in Jesus. He had not been taught, apparently, the good news of the gospel. If he had, he certainly would have included in his essays hope for the future.
If he had been told at some point in his life, then it is sad that he obviously chose to not believe. Maybe no one ever prayed for him. America is unique in that it was dedicated to God at it's founding. God has blessed us so much. We have taken that blessing for granted and now we think it happened due to our own devices and intelligence. We, too can turn our backs on God and go the way of Mr. Orwell and try to fix things in our own wisdom and strength, and we will fail, joining the rest of the countries of the world. If, however, we choose to continue to honor God in every corner of our country, repenting and reversing laws that have legalized immoralities, he will continue to bless and protect us. It is too bad Mr. Orwell did not understand and write about honoring God.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Amen and amen, Phyllis. It's interesting to me how some people discount Christianity but still acknowledge that the world is not how it should be. What framework do they use as a reference point? Evolution?
So, acknowledging that things are "awry" so to speak they try to come up with solutions that exclude God. This leaves a belief in man made institutions such as the state.
I know people will then claim that religion has caused a lot of chaos. My answer to that is that Christianity has not caused chaos, only the abusers of it.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Brian: They really do. I may not agree with everything he says but I do think that his writing-especially his essay on rhetoric and how it can be manipulated to serve agendas-possess unusual perspicuity. I guess because-as he said- writers are a lonely group who spend a lot of time studying the world around them.

Lucy said...

Thank you for this post! I read this book (small may it be) last year, I believe, and I remember underlining and annotating a great deal of it. I agree that Orwell does bring up controversial topics, but he speaks a lot of wisdom on the powerful nature of words. So often people write in convoluted ways, which never really gets anyone anywhere.

All the best :)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Lucy: I agree with you. His last essay on how words can be manipulated is as relevant today as when he wrote it. Take care!