Why I Write – George Orwell

In a short essay entitled, “Why I Write,” [1946] George Orwell outlines the four motivations that drive all writers.

First, he states, is ‘sheer egotism.’

Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown ups who snubbed you in childhood etc.

This condition is not limited to writers, he clarifies, and is shared by scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen etc.


Second is ‘aesthetic enthusiasm.’

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and out not to be missed.

Third, ‘historical impulse.’

Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

Fourth and finally, ‘political purpose.’

Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

In Orwell’s mind there is no such thing as a book genuinely free from political bias.  The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics, itself is itself a political attitude.


Orwell confesses that he is a person in which the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. However, for him personally, an unsuitable profession in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, followed by poverty and a sense of failure, increased his natural hatred of authority and made him fully aware of the working class.

Then came the Spanish Civil War and Hitler.

Orwell then confesses,

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.

He cannot believe anyone could live in his a period like his own, and avoid such topics. The challenge is to be aware of one’s political bias and to act politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.


Orwell continues,

My starting point is always … a sense of injustice… I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

He concludes, however, that he does not want the reader to think him selfless or his writing wholly public spirited. Oh no. All writers, himself included, are vain, selfish and lazy. Yet beyond motives, there lies a mystery.  Writing a novel is …

…a horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not drive on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

However, when Orwell wrote without political purpose, he claims he wrote lifeless books, and…

…was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

So influential has Orwell’s work been on the English language that the term Orwellian is now synonymous with a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past. 


Orwell’s novels, Animal Farm [1945] and 1984 [published 1949] are now classics of popular and political culture, selling over 50 million copies between them.


Chatham House Rule

Chatham House, or The Royal Institute for International Affairs, is a non-government global think-tank, based in London, whose mission is to analyse and promote the understanding of international issues and current affairs.

The Chatham House Rule, originated in June 1927 and outlines that anyone who attends a meeting held under the Chatham House Rule, be free to use information from the discussion, but not be allowed to reveal who made any comment.

It is designed to increase openness of discussion.

Chatham House

I attended a talk recently at Chatham House, on “Preventing Genocide” and while nothing inflammatory requiring protection of the Chatham House Rule was said from the panel of speakers, one can easily see how international diplomacy and political relations can be bound by many competing tensions:  on the one hand one can know that leaders,  governments or a regime may inflict violence upon their own people and yet one must stay out of the affairs of other nations and not meddle.

In many cases, international agencies and consortia such as the UN can only seek to entreat leaders to peaceful solutions and if ignored, place pressure on their leadership with trade embargos, vetos and exclusions from community. Even this is seen to be imperialistic and meddling. Military intervention is the line of last resort.

The tension between the Chatham House Rule to protect the freedom of opinion and speech and the need for political restraint and political correctness in the search for international peace, binds people who have seen and heard things too horrible for humans to consider, together.


This tension reminds me of another involving international relations.

The sweeping back drop of history, war, politics and economics have long been the canvas upon which epic narrative plays out. The Iliad is set against the events of the Trojan War, Herodotus recounts the Graeco-Persian wars and many of Shakespeare’s greatest works Julius Caesar, Henry IV, Henry V, Macbeth feature monarchs and their wars.  Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace recounts Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and  of course countless stories of the Great War and Second World War abound.

A favourite, The English Patient, recounts the North African/Italian Campaigns of World War II.


The story is asynchronous, moving between the events of the Second World War on the Italian front, and to events just prior to war among a British cartography group mapping the North African desert.

The ‘English Patient’ is an unrecognisably burnt man cared for by a Canadian nurse in an abandoned Italian villa and only carrying with him a tattered version of Herodotus’ ‘Histories.’ He tells Hana, his nurse, between morphine injections, the the story of his life.

He was an explorer and member of a British cartography group exploring the North African desert where he fell in love with Katherine Clifton, the wife of Geoffrey Clifton a team mate. Surrounded by sites of ancient significant including an eerie Cave of Swimmers, the ‘English Patient’ walks in the footsteps of characters of myth and legend.

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed exhibited 1830 by William Etty 1787-1849

The English Patient, we learn is an Austro-Hungarian Count, Laszlo de Almasy.  One evening in the desert before a campfire, Katherine recounts the doomed tale of King of Gyges who looks upon the nakedness of the wife of Candaules, the King of Lydia, and who later kills the king and usurps the throne.

The story taken from Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ forebodes the tragedy of Laszlo and Katherine’s love affair and giving it an epic fatality.

The Gyges story is set within the narrative by Herodotus to establish reason for the fall of the Lydian kingdom and the later rise of the Persian Empire. Similarly, Almasy and Katherine’s love affair can only end badly.  Katherine cuts their love affair short when she fears her husband will lose his mind should he find out. As war breaks out, Almasy finds Hungary on the wrong side of geo-political lines, in alliance with Nazi Germany, while he himself supports the British.


The expedition breaks up with the coming war and Geoffrey offers to return Almásy to Cairo on his plane. However, the small bi-plane crashes in the desert killing Geoffrey and badly injuring Katherine.  Almásy leaves her in the Cave of Swimmers and treks for three days to British controlled El Taj for help.  However, when he arrives, he is detained as a spy because of his name, despite telling them about Katharine’s predicament.

In grief and utter desperation, he trades confidential maps of the desert with German spies in exchange for release and he returns to retrieve Katherine’s body from the cave.  Later team leader Maddock commits suicide thinking that Almasy all a long was a Hungarian spy.

It is while flying back that he is shot down over the desert, leaving him burned and unrecognisable in a British field hospital and later cared for by Hana.

The English Patient

What makes war, the complex interplay of history, geography, politics and economics both so tragic and yet a canvas for the epic events of great narrative? Tension is the fuel of stories, and the deeper the tension, the greater the epic.

Perhaps, just as international relations needs the twin poles of political correctness and moderation to work towards peace, but also requires The Chatham House Rule to allow the freedom of speech without recourse, so too narrative needs the twin fuels of epic levels of tension with the freedom to speak of the wonder and poetry that moves there as humans live and love within a crucible of life.

Realism and The Lack of Sight

A set of  8 Claude Monet’s ‘Nympheas’ or ‘Water Lilies‘ murals are currently housed at the La Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris, a gallery which was designed in 1927, with large oval rooms particularly to display his works. Many more of the works are held in galleries around the world and are part of Monet’s largest and most famous series.

Monet painted ‘The Water Lilies‘ over a 30 year span, between 1899 to 1927 and number approximately 250 oil paintings in total. His method of painting the same scene many times grew from his desire to capture the changing of light and the passing of the seasons.


The wall murals at La Musee de l’Orangerie are so large that one should stand back several meters from the work to gain a full view and to allow the eyes to adjust to the taches of paint which up close cause the vision to blur.

The name of the era, Impressionism, is derived from the title of a Claude Monet’s early work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) [below] which was exhibited in 1874 and which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term as part of a satirical review. He declared the work as nothing more than a sketch.  The Impressionists indeed faced harsh opposition from the conventional art community in France who at the time championed traditional and historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits. The Académie des Beaux-Arts, preferred carefully finished images that looked realistic when examined closely, with precise brush strokes carefully blended and with muted colours. 


However, as art was becoming almost photographic the invention of photography challenged the role of the artist.  The development of Impressionism can be considered partly as a reaction by artists to the challenge presented by photography.

Photography encouraged painters to exploit aspects of the painting medium, like colour, which photography then lacked:

The Impressionists were the first to consciously offer a subjective alternative to the photograph.

It was painters such as Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille in the 1860s who ventured into the countryside together to paint in the open air, in sunlight, taking subjects direct from nature, and making bold use of the vivid synthetic pigments.


Photography inspired artists to pursue other means of creative expression, and rather than compete with photography to emulate reality, artists focused,

…on the one thing they could inevitably do better than the photograph—by further developing into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image, the very subjectivity that photography eliminated.

These artists showed that the more we see with the eye, the less we see with the heart. To them, art was never about producing a representation of reality but of carrying on a conversation with reality, through the lens of the eye via the heart and into a form which will then create an impression in another persons eye and body and heart.