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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

 

The Alchemist

The Alchemist (O Alquimista) is a novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho which was first published in 1988. Originally written in Portuguese, it became an international bestseller translated into some 70 languages and selling over 65 million copies to date.

Coelho wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks in 1987. He explained he was able to write at this pace because the story was “already written in [his] soul.” The book’s main theme is about finding one’s destiny. According to The New York TimesThe Alchemist is,

more self-help than literature.

The Advertiser, an Australian newspaper, reviewed the book in 1993 saying,

of books that I can recommend with the unshakeable confidence of having read them and been entranced, impressed, entertained or moved, the universal gift is perhaps a limpid little fable called The Alchemist… In hauntingly spare prose, translated from the Brazilian original in Portuguese, it follows a young Andalusian shepherd into the desert on his quest for a dream and the fulfilment of his destiny.

65 million copies does not lie. What then is so  appealing about this novel?

Andalusian Shepherd

An allegorical novel, The Alchemist follows the journey of an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago. Believing a recurring dream to be prophetic, he asks a Romani fortune-teller in a nearby town about its meaning. The woman interprets the dream as a prophecy telling the boy that he will discover a treasure at the Egyptian pyramids.

Early into his journey, Santiago meets an old king named Melchizedek or the king of Salem, who tells him to sell his sheep so as to travel to Egypt and introduces the idea of a Personal Legend, which,

“…is what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.”

He adds that,

…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

Along the way, the boy meets an Englishman who has come in search of an Alchemist and continues his travels with him. When they reach an oasis, Santiago meets and falls in love with an Arabian girl named Fatima, whom he asks to marry him. She promises to do so only after he completes his journey. He is frustrated by this, but later learns that true love will not stop nor must one sacrifice to it one’s personal destiny, since to do so robs it of truth.
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The boy then encounters a wise alchemist who also teaches him to realize his true self. Finally they risk a journey through the territory of warring tribes, where the boy is forced to demonstrate his oneness with “The Soul of the World” by turning himself into a simoom before he is allowed to proceed.

When he begins digging within sight of the pyramids, he is robbed but learns accidentally from the leader of the thieves that the treasure he seeks was all the time in the ruined church where he had his original dream.

This story can be traced to an Hasisdic folk tale earlier addressed in a Bear Skin post.  Coehlo used the frame of the story to construct the larger fable of Santiago’s journey.

The Alchemist

The enduring popularity of the Alchemist, a simple story written off as “a limpid tale” or “more self help than literature” and quite obviously based on an earlier folk tale shows how stories that resonating with audiences does not require originality, length, complexity or intellectual rigour.

Good stories strike at the heart and readers vote with their feet or rather, their wallet.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus [Ἡρόδοτος] was a Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus in the modern-day Turkey in the fifth century BC (c. 484–c. 425 BC). As a contemporary with Socrates, Euripedes and Aeschylus, he lived during what is known as the Golden Age of Greece.

He is often referred to as “The Father of History”, because he broke from Homeric tradition of mythologising events and treated his historical subjects with a method of investigation. The Histories, the record of his “inquiry” (ἱστορία historía)—was the result of  his collection of eye witness accounts and other materials and his systematic and critical arrangement of them into a historiographic narrative.

His work meditates on the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars which occurred one generation before his life. While prone to some fancies and inaccuracies, his work played a significant role in establishing a framework for later historical writings.

 

You can view this and other TED-Ed videos HERE.

Thales, the Father of Philosophy

Thales of Miletus,  c. 624 – c. 546 BC was a Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who influenced much of later classical Greek and western thought

He was one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who were concerned with “the essence of things. They were named physiologoi (φυσιολόγοι), physical or natural philosophers or physikoi (physicists) because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi (theologians), whose explanations looked to the supernatural.

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The pre-Socratic philosophers were asking:

  • From where does everything come?
  • From what is everything created?
  • How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
  • How might we describe nature mathematically?

Thales’ hypothesised that the originating principle of nature and matter was a single substance: water. Moreover, rather than assuming that earthquakes were the result of the whims of divine beings, Thales explained them by theorising that the Earth was a large disc which floated on water and that earthquakes occurred when the Earth was rocked by waves.

Thales used geometry to calculate the heights of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore.

Placing your stick at the end of the shadow of the pyramid, you made by the sun’s rays two triangles, and so proved that the pyramid[height] was to the stick [height] as the shadow of the pyramid to the shadow of the stick.

W. W. Rouse Ball, A Short Account of the History of Mathematics (1893, 1925)

He is the first known individual to use deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving the Thales’ theorem which observed that any triangle which sits along the diameter of a circle will by nature be a right angled triangle.

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Thales was one of the seven sages of Greece, ho heptoi sophoi, (οἱ ἑπτὰ σοφοί) alongside Solon of Athens, and Periander of Corinth. These sages were known for pithy sayings including the inscription [attributed to Thales] at the Oracle of Delphi

Know thyself!

The Seven Sages of Greece were not only philosophers, scientists and teachers but also involved in political life. Thales political involvement had mainly to do with the involvement of his region, Ionia in the defense of Anatolia [Asia Minor] against the growing power of the Persians. The neighbouring king of Lydia, king Croesus, had conquered many of the coastal cities of the Ionians and he engaged Thales support in his war against the Medes. The war endured for five years, but in the sixth an eclipse of the Sun spontaneously halted a battle in progress (the Battle of Halys). It seems that Thales had predicted this solar eclipse and based on it the Lydians and Medes made peace immediately, swearing a blood oath.

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The Medes were vassals of the Persians under Cyrus. Croesus now sided with the Medes against the Persians and marched in the direction of Persia, stopping by the river Halys, then unbridged.  The king gave the problem to Thales who got the army across by digging a diversion upstream so as to reduce the flow, making it possible to ford the river.  When Croesus was unsuccessful against the Persian armies in Cappadocia, he marched home, and summoned his dependents and allies to send fresh troops to Sardis. The Persian army surrounded the armies of Croesus, trapping them within the walls of Sardis. This time, Thales fame as a counselor was to advise the Milesians not to engage in “fighting together”, with the Lydians against the Persians.

Croesus was defeated before the city of Sardis by Cyrus, and Miletus was subsequently spared because it had taken no action. Cyrus was so impressed by Croesus’ wisdom and his connection with the sages that he spared him and took his advice on various matters. The Ionians were now free and Miletus, received favorable terms from Cyrus including amnesty.

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It was Thales wisdom in science, philosophy and politics which led to the rise of the Milesian school of philosophy which was influenced by both Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics and astronomy. It was Anaxagoras  [c. 510 – c. 428 BC] of the Milesian school of philosophy who later brought its teaching to Athens, influencing Socrates and Pericles under the Golden Age of Greece.

Although Socrates born two centuries later [c. 470 – 399 BC], is more famously remembered to be the ‘father of western philosophy’, it is Thales earlier wisdom and scientific endeavours that have led to him being credited with fathering western philosophy.

Why Should You Read ‘Macbeth’?

There’s a play so powerful that an old superstition says its name should never be uttered in a theater. A play that begins with witchcraft and ends with a bloody, severed head. A play filled with riddles, prophecies, nightmare visions, and lots of brutal murder. But is it really all that good?

Brendan Pelsue and TED-Ed, explain why you should read (or revisit) “Macbeth.”

 

 

 

Tuck Everlasting

When Winnie Foster decides to run away, a rather curious set of adventures unfolds. The 10 year old is the rather lonely only child of the wealthiest family in Treegap, a small village on the edge of a rather mysterious wood.

One afternoon around twilight, Winnie and her grandmother hear mysterious music wafting from the wood and Grandma reports it is “fairy music” which she has heard throughout her life. Winnie’s curiosity is piqued as no one ventures into the private woods owned by her family; even the cows circle around the forest rather than passing through.

Winnie’s family are visited by a “man in a yellow suit” who is asking questions about families in the area. When Winnie shares about the fairy music from the wood the man questions her more closely, almost greedily.

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Despite her every move being monitored and scrutinsed by overbearing grandmother and mother, Winnie manages to escape her iron fenced yard one morning, to run away. She ventures into the forbidding wood only to discover a delightful grove and clearing with a giant tree and spring.

Here in the wood she meets 17 year old Jesse Tuck. What unfolds next is an adventure in which Winnie is “kidnapped” by the Tuck family for discovering their secret – a spring granting immortality.

The family share their story with Winnie of how they came across the the spring by mistake and have been frozen in time ever since, never ageing a day. They have kidnapped Winnie to protect the secret and intend to return her home once she agrees to protect their secret also.

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Little do they know that “man in a yellow suit” is following them and eavesdropping on their conversations. His intentions for the forest and the magical spring are less than pure and so Winnie, Jesse and the Tuck family must work together to thwart his plans to sell the spring water for profit.

Written in 1975 by Natalie Babbitt,  Tuck Everlasting has sold over 5 million copies and is listed as one of the “Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children”. The story wrestles with some big questions about life including mortality, morality, land ownership, and love.

The Tucks attain what is so enviable, eternal life. And yet in the words of Angus Tuck, to stop ageing naturally is to become like a rock on the stream of life, unmoving along with all the other elements in dynamic relationship with each other. It is a constant grief to the Tucks to see life pass on without them and to live forever. At any cost they must stop the “man in the yellow suit” from selling to the public what seems so desirable and yet what would wreak havoc on space and time.

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Winnie too faces the decision to run away with the Tuck’s or to live on, a mortal life, and take with that the joys and sorrows of ageing and finally death. Natalie Babbitt’s story is a bitter-sweet meditation on the gift of life, the decisions of love and the mystery of nature including ageing and death.

Aesop

Aesop, a slave and storyteller is believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE; Herodotus refers to him only 100 years later in his Histories as “Aesop the fable writer” and a slave.

His stories were cleverly told, presenting human problems through the dilemmas of animal characters, a tradition present in the cultures of many different races.

Aesop

The mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.

Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young mouse got up and said: “I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”

All the mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old mouse arose and said: “I will say that the plan of the young mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the cat?”

The Moral Lesson: “It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.”

Aesop stories remain in popular culture among them “The Boy who Cried Wolf”, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and “The Goose that Laid Golden Eggs.”

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Philostrates writes best about the enduring power of Aesop’s stories, quoting the 1st century CE philosopher Apollonius, in  Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14:

…he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.

This is the mystery of story told well.

Stories can relate truer truths than history and fact and the simplest of stories can relate some of life’s most profound end enduring truths.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

An alternative title for this blog post is “Taste of Food and Drink in Hemingway.” However, the title of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel captures the essence much better.

Both writers’ works are characterised by lively accounts of sensory experiences  –  the taste of wine and good food, the experience of a sunset across a city, an encounter with a lover.

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Hemingway, in his  book A Moveable Feast, shares a meal:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

This literary technique brings their stories alive for the reader, painting taste and touch pictures with mere words.

In doing so, they articulate the ‘existentialist’ ethos of the 20th century. Against a backdrop of war, political regimes, and rapid social changes, the writers contrast simple sensory experiences to meditate on the mystery of being.

Unbearable Lightness of Being

Kundera writes:

The man hunched over his motorcycle can only focus on the present…. he is caught in a fragment of time, cut off from both the past and the future…. he has no fear because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

Existentialism posits that individuals are responsible for giving meaning to their lives. Those who do are termed “authentic”, showing courage to reject the meaning imposed upon them by tradition, religion or political regimes. Those who do not impose meaning into their lives, can easily drift into nihilism.

Both writers seek to ground their lives in the beauty of freedom, and sensual experiences.

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Set in Prague Spring of the 60s, Kundera’s novel explores the question of  whether any meaning or weight can be attributed to life, since humanity only has the opportunity to live once, a fleeting ephemeral existence.

The novel follows the life and loves of Tomas, a talented surgeon and an avowed philanderer, who though married to Tereza, cannot give up his mistresses. The novel explores his relationship to the various women in his life, and to his definition of love and meaning.

The novel intertwines their story with Sabrina, a talented painter and Franz, her lover all set against the backdrop of the invasion of Prague by the Russians.

Ultimately, Kundera argues, we cannot find meaning; where meaning should exist we find only an unbearable weightlessness.

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Similarly, Hemingway, writing in the 1920s, was part of the “Annes Folles” or “the Crazy Years” so called because of the fertile social, artistic, and cultural collaborations of the period after the First World War.

His generation was also nicknamed “the lost generation”, so named because their youth was grounded in the optimism of the late 19th century and their prime punctuated by World Wars, The Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Both writers turn their art to ‘meaning creation’, capturing the sweetness of life, through taste and touch, no matter how fleeting nor how uncertain.

Each writer, a poet to life, meditates on the lostness, the lightness, of being.

A Tale of Two Cities

Cited as one of the top 5 best selling books of all time, [not including the Bible or the Qu’ran], Charles Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ is a stand-out seller at over 200 million copies world wide. Though exact numbers of book sales is debated, it is interesting that Dickens’ 1859 novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, is his best-selling work.

‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ranks only slightly behind Miguel Cervantes ‘Don Quixote‘ and Mao Tze-Tung “Quotations From Chairman Mao” [or the Little Red Book], to beat out any individual Harry Potter book, The Lord of the Rings and  The Hobbit for all time popularity stakes of fiction novels.

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What makes this novel, of all Dickens’ novels, so great?

Born in 1812 and living until 1870, Dickens was within his own lifetime a legend. Best known for his comedy, unique characterisations, and social criticism, his writing style is so distinctive, that the term Dickensian has come to be used to describe stories featuring poor social conditions and comically repulsive characters.

His fiction was so effective he shifted Victorian public opinion in regard to class inequalities.

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Karl Marx wrote that Dickens:

…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.

A Tale of Two Cities, is unlike many of Dickens’ other works in that it is a work of historical fiction, less reliant upon comedy, satire, caricature and class idioms. He sides neither with the working class nor the aristocracy in his account of the bitter Revolution, telling the story of people on both sides caught up in the violence and turmoil.

It opens with famous lines describing its setting:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

The story recounts the release of Doctor Manette from 18 years of imprisonment in the Bastille, the infamous Parisian fortress prison beloved by french nobles. Manette an old man, much broken by his years in prison, is reunited with his now adult daughter Lucie, and with the help of friend Mr Lorry, immigrates to London.

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In London, they are befriended by Darnay, a man who unknown to them is the nephew and heir of a French Aristocrat, the Marquis of St. Evrémonde, the very man who imprisoned Doctor Manette years ago. Darnay, disgusted by the cruelty of his aristocratic family had taken the name of his mother and sought a new life in England.

Here however, Darnay is accused of treason to the British crown for leaking documents to the French in North America. He is acquitted on the grounds that his appearance is strikingly like a Barrister present in the court by the name of Sydney Carton and so therefore cannot be irrefutably linked to the crime.

Darnay and Carton, while copies of one another physically, are entirely unlike in nature. Carton is a drunkard while Darnay is a man of integrity and character. Both love Lucie and confess their love to her, however Carton knowing she will not love him in return, promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”

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As the years pass, Darnay and Lucie raise a young family and Carton is accepted as a close friend of the family becoming a favourite of their daughter, little Lucie. Across the channel however, as the French Revolution sparks into flame, and the Bastille is stormed, Doctor Manette’s former cell is searched. A detailed account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay’s uncle, the Marquis de Evremonde is found hidden in the cell.

Throughout the countryside, officials and representatives of the aristocracy are dragged from their homes to be killed, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground. Darnay is summoned to France to aid his uncle’s servants who have been imprisoned by the revolutionaries. They plead for him, the new Marquis to help secure their release. Once there, Darnay is caught and put on trial for the crimes against Doctor Manette.

Manette, Lucie and Mr Lorry travel to Paris to seek Darnay’s release, however Doctor Manette’s own testimony discovered in his cell in the Bastille is used to accuses Darnay, the now Marquis de Evremonde.

A Tale of Two Cities

Carton, true to his promise to Lucie, arranges a secret visit with Darnay in prison. There he drugs Darnay, and then trades clothes, arranging him to be carried out. Carton has given his own identification papers to Mr Lorry to present on Darnay’s behalf and urges them to flee to England. In London, Darnay can live out his life as Sydney Carton. Meanwhile, Carton walks to the guillotine as the Marquis de Evremonde.

Carton’s unspoken last thoughts speak of the life he sees beyond the horizon of his own death:

I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more….

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

The story reaches beyond social commentary and into heroic epic, touching on resonant symbols of sacrifice and redemption. Sydney Carton transforms from dissolute man to heroic saviour through his own death, and foresees the future lives of Lucie, Darnay and their children, yet unborn living free because of his sacrifice.

Carton, a scoundrel, goes to his rest a peaceful man.

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Recently, I completed the Gold Coast Half Marathon, slowly and rather painfully. It made me think of one of my favourite writers and his love for long distance running.

Haruki Murakami is a best selling Japanese writer whose works have been translated into 50 languages and sold millions of copies globally. He has completed over 20 marathons since the 1980s and one ultra marathon.

Haruki Murakam

Famous for his fiction works which blend fantasy with realism, it’s his non fiction work “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” [走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること Hashiru Koto ni Tsuite Kataru Toki ni Boku no Kataru Koto] which depicts his love of running so well.

The book’s title was inspired by Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Murakami sits within the tradition of post-modern writers such as Carver, Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger. Frequently featuring western pop culture, music and themes, Murakami’s works are a pastiche of impressions, often surrealistic, melancholic or fatalistic, characterised by post-modernist themes of alienation and loneliness.

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The reason he is one of my favourite writers is because he paints a world of magical realism; a world in which dream and reality intertwine curiously lending an otherwise inexplicable existence, something magical, something mythical, something akin to wonder.

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” recounts Murakami’s foray into long distance running in his early 30s, some five years after becoming a full time writer. 

He equates the process of setting out on a long run with writing, both methodical decisions to complete a journey, often pointless to everyone except the one undertaking it. Used as a metaphor for existence, the race and the novel are both grueling but beautiful endeavours, inexplicable yet sweet, painful yet redemptive, each in their own unique way.

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Through running, as with writing, Murakami has met many people, seen many strange and remote places, thought hours of his own thoughts and suffered great highs and great lows. It is the same methodical discipline that Murakami applies to writing and to life.

As with Carver’s original, what is talked about when talking about running is far more trivial and yet far more profound. By running and by writing about running, Murakami explores the sweetness and mystery of being and becoming. The sweetness and mystery of life.