Skip to main content

Phillips on Orwell and Plain Speech

The misappropriation of ‘Orwell’ (the mythical version of Eric Blair) by different factions has gone on for much of the six decades since his death. During the Cold War, and the years running up to the actual 1984 in particular, his last great fictional dystopia was routinely misinterpreted as a frontal assault on all forms of socialism and, in some cases, a defence of the individual libertarianism favoured, at the time, by Margaret Thatcher. Such distortions of both 1984 itself and Orwell’s ‘position’ generally were promulgated by right and left alike, the latter resorting to some quite peculiar means to ‘prove’ that the man who’d committed the fundamental leftist sin of criticising the Soviet Union in the 1930s was a reactionary. In Inside The Myth, for example, a collection of ‘views from the left’ edited by Christopher Norris and published in 1984 (of course), you’ll find Alaric Jacob’s ‘Sharing Orwell’s ‘Joys’ - But Not His Fears’, an essay which, in attacking Orwell’s depiction of preparatory school life in ‘Such, Such Were The Joys’ for being unduly negative, effectively defends private education. Orwell, it’s implied, was a greater enemy to progressive thinking than an entire nation’s socially unjust education system.

Post-Cold War, of course, there have been some more sober reappraisals but two serious misapprehensions persist. The first is that 1984's pessimism is the product of Orwell’s ill-health. Only the other week, on the 60th anniversary of the 1949 publication of the novel, the Observer’s Robert McCrum directly linked Orwell’s TB diagnosis with the grimness of the tale. No doubt, illness made typing up the manuscript difficult but, as anyone who’s read ‘Homage to Catalonia’ will have noticed, the experience of Winston Smith is noticeably similar to that of a certain Eric Blair, member of the Trotskyite POUM in Spanish Civil War Barcelona when the Stalinists turned on their former allies. It’s probably fair to say that 1984 owes more to Stalin’s paranoid intervention in Spain than it does to the novelist’s chest X-rays.

The second misapprehension is to do with language and form. Orwell, after all, made some seemingly unequivocal statements about the need for clarity, for language like a window pane. He also seemed to attack the avant garde (most noticeably in his essay on Salvador Dali and the more wide-ranging ‘Inside the Whale’). On the face of it, he was an opponent of experimentation, a champion of plain-speaking, one of Al Alvarez’s famously ‘negative feedbacks’ on post-war English writing.

It seems hard to refute this. And yet Orwell also championed the likes of Joyce and Henry Miller and, in his own fiction, proved a tireless experimenter. After the Forster-esque Burmese Days (arguably his least successful novel), there was the decidedly Joycean stylistic mixed bag of ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter’ (complete with playlet echoing the ‘Nighttown’ episode in ‘Ulysses’), the bitter streams of consciousness in Keep The Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air (a blunt parody of Proust, with a watery sausage standing in for the famous Madeleine) and then, of course, the fables, Animal Farm and 1984 (which draw on European traditions as much as the legacy of Swift). Equally, all three of his full-length (so-say) ‘documentaries’ play with convention, pushing at the boundaries of the relatively new genre of reportage, The Road To Wigan Pier in particular throwing journalism and polemic up against autobiography and satires. This is not a literary conservative’s body of work. Opacity and self-indulgence were his enemies, not modernism and experiment.

Tom Phillips is a Bristol-based poet and writer. He reviews for Eyewear.
1 comment

Popular posts from this blog

DANGER, MAN

Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or all of these) by Donald Trump, we cannot claim to be rid of him just yet. He bestrides the world stage like a silverback gorilla (according to one British thug), or a bad analogy, but he is there, a figure, no longer of fun, but grave concern.

There has long been a history of misogynistic behaviour in American gangster culture - one thinks of the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy, or Sinatra throwing a woman out of his hotel room and later commenting he didn't realise there was a pool below to break her fall, or the polluted womb in Pacino'sScarface... and of course, some gangsta rap is also sexist.  American culture has a difficult way with handling the combined aspects of male power, and male privilege, that, especially in heteronormative capitalist enclaves, where money/pussy both become grabbable, reified objects and objectives (The Wolf of Wall Street for instance), an ugly fus…

AMERICA PSYCHO

According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile odds of 66% to 33% and change. But the current popular vote is much closer, probably tied with the error of margin, around 44% each. Trump has to win more key battleground states to win, and may not - but he is ahead in Florida...

We will all know, in a week, whether we live in a world gone madder, or just relatively mad.

While it seems likely calmer heads will prevail, the recent Brexit win shows that polls can mislead, especially when one of the options is considered a bit embarrassing, rude or even racist - and Trump qualifies for these, at least.

If 42-45% of Americans admit they would vote for Trump, what does that say about the ones not so vocal? For surely, they must be there, as well. Some of the undecided will slide, and more likely they will slide to the wilder and more exciting fringe candidate. As may the libertarians.

Eyewear predicts that Trump will just about manage to win th…

SEXTON SHORTLIST!

Announcing the Shortlist for the 2016 Sexton PrizeSeptember 13, 2016 / By Kelly Davio
Eyewear Publishing is pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2016 Sexton Prize. The finalists are, in no particular order, as follows:


THE BARBAROUS CENTURY, Leah Umansky
HISTORY OF GONE, Lynn Schmeidler
SEVERE CLEAR, Maya Catherine Popa
GIMME THAT. DON’T SMITE ME, Steve Kronen
SCHEHERAZADE AND OTHER REDEPLOYMENTS, David McAleavey
AN AMERICAN PURGATORY, Rebecca Gayle Howell
SIT IN THE DARK WITH ME, Jesse Lee Kercheval

The shortlist was selected by Eyewear’s Director Todd Swift with Senior Editor Kelly Davio. Don Share of Poetry Magazine will select the winning manuscript, which will be released at the 2017 AWP conference in Washington, D.C. The winner will be announced in October. 
Congratulations to our finalists!