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.

 

Dystopia and the Power of Words

As the Hunger Games finale, “Mockingjay” is released to cinemas worldwide, we are reminded of the power of words and of the relationship of words to freedom.

It is President’s Snow’s rhetorical power and control of the media which holds him in place over Panem, and it is Katniss’ power to defy his propaganda and declare the truth that gains her momentum as rebel leader.

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Much of the Hunger Games’ world pays homage to George Orwell’s dystopian 1984.

Published soon after World War II, Orwell imagines a future run by a totalitarian state in which independence of thought and individualism were criminialised.

Thought-crime, as it was called,  was punished by the superstate, represented by Big Brother the ever watching eye. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth, Minitrue, responsible for propaganda.

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The Party controls everything in Oceania, even the people’s history and language. The Party is forcing the implementation of an invented language called Newspeak, which attempts to prevent political rebellion by eliminating all words related to it. Winston spends much of his daily work eliminating words from the dictionary and altering historical records to fit the needs of the Party.

Newspeak root words serve as both nouns and verbs reducing the total number of words; for example, “think” is both a noun and verb, so the word thought is not required and can be abolished. In addition, words with negative meanings are removed as redundant, so “bad” becomes “ungood”. Words with comparative and superlative meanings are also simplified, so “better” becomes “gooder”, and “best” becomes “goodest”.

 

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This ambiguity between comparative/superlative forms would, of course, not prevent heretical statements such as “Big Brother is ungood,” but not only would this statement sound absurd to the ears of the loyal masses, it would also be impossible to elaborate on or to specify exactly what the statement meant because all other concepts and words used to argue against Big Brother such as liberty, rights, freedom, etc. would be eradicated from the language.

The statement would thus be meaningless.

The party also intends that Newspeak be spoken in staccato rhythms to make speech more automatic and unconscious and to reduce the likelihood of thought.

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As Orwell further states (through the character of Syme, who is discussing his work on the latest edition of the Newspeak dictionary),

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they will only exist in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

What 1984  articulates so well [and Hunger Games in a somewhat inferior manner] is to emphasise the power of language, the power of free thought and free feeling and to equate freedom of speech to freedom of body, mind and spirit.

May we ever continue to express in language rich and true.

Animal Farm 

I have never fully understood the allegory of communism that George Orwell wrote in 1954. It seemed both childlike and conversely, overly pessimistic.

In the story, the farm animals led by two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball revolt against their human slave-masters and declare independence. Initial glory, success and freedom soon decays into bitter infighting, reconstructed ideals and a dictatorial leadership by lone pig Napoleon who behaves much like the humans he overthrew.

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However, visiting a communist nation like Vietnam recently illuminated a few things to me about the contradictions the short novella highlights.

Despite being a socialist state, there is almost nothing in the way of social security in Vietnam  – elementary education incurs a fee, as does basic health care and retirement benefits are rare.

When the average monthly salary is only USD $150 per month the problems these expenses cause families on the lower end of the wage spectrum, are immense. Disability and illness, exacerbated by after effects of the war include, unexploded munitions, chemical poisons and genetic deformities.

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While the people are industrious, gentle and hospitable and there is little begging or visible unrest, the country rests upon an ideology that is not clearly displayed in its social systems. The divide between the richest and poorest is immense.

It does seem that the unfortunate result of communist ideology is “some animals becoming more equal than others.”

Untranslatable

One of the most magical things about language is the element of “semantic range.” This is the realm of meaning for a word that gives language its depth and colour.

For example, in English the word “house” can mean “the building in which I live”. It can also be the verb “to house” meaning  “to keep under shelter”.  It however can also mean, “dynasty” such as the “House of Windsor” or it could mean a type of theatre –  “play house” or a toilet – “out house.” This doesn’t account for other usages such as idioms, “to bring the house down” or “to get on like a house on fire.”

Quickly we can see the richness of language and good writers pick up these nuances and play them to maximum effect, much like great musicians play with notes, chords and keys.

Words are simply human thoughts, and when words are lost, or whole languages die, unique thoughts are lost. George Orwell, in 1984, in his description of a dystopic future world ruled by “Big Brother”, describes the gradual elimination of words from the dictionary in an effort to curb thought.

So in celebration of the richness of language and the richness of thoughts, please enjoy this series of “untranslatable words from other languages”.

1. Fernweh (German)

2. Komorebi (Japanese)

3. Tingo (Pascuense)

4. Pochemuchka (Russian)

5. Gökotta (Swedish)

6. Bakku-shan (Japanese)

7. Backpfeifengesicht (German)

8. Aware (Japanese)

9. Tsundoku (Japanese)

10. Shlimazl (Yiddish)

11. Rire dans sa barbe (French)

12. Waldeinsamkeit (German)

13. Hanyauku (Rukwangali)

14. Gattara (Italian)

15. Prozvonit (Czech)

16. Iktsuarpok (Inuit)

17. Papakata (Cook Islands Maori)

18. Friolero (Spanish)

19. Schilderwald (German)

20. Utepils (Norwegian)

21. Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan)

22. Culaccino (Italian)

23. Ilunga (Tshiluba)

24. Kyoikumama (Japanese)

25. Age-otori (Japanese)

26. Chai-Pani (Hindi)

27. Won (Korean)

28. Tokka (Finnish)

29. Schadenfreude (German)

30. Wabi-Sabi (Japanese)

http://www.boredpanda.com/untranslatable-words-found-in-translation-anjana-iyer/