Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Collection of Essays. George Orwell.

New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1945-1953.

Why read it? Mainly for two essays, “Shooting an Elephant,” in which the white man is a slave to colonial native expectations and “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell admits that readers will easily find in his own writing examples of the same mistakes he has criticized. For instance, he rails against use of the passive voice in a sentence that is, itself, in the passive voice.

Other topics:
Crossgates School where he was not the "right" kind of boy.
Dickens’s criticism of institutions: change the spirit, not the institution.
Kipling: a jingo who wrote in platitudes.
Gandhi: self-aggrandizement?
The Spanish Civil War: the horrors of real war.

Orwell concludes by saying that throughout all of his life his writing was directly or indirectly against totalitarianism.

Some sample quotes:

“I have never been back to Crossgates [School]…. And if I went inside and smelt again the inky, dusty smell of the big school room, the rosiny smell of the chapel, the stagnant smell of the swimming bath and the cold reek of the lavatories, I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself.” p. 47. ………. “When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested, generation after generation, have left behind them no record whatever.” p. 201. ………. “Words of this kind [democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic] are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” p. 162.

“No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens.” p. 60. ………. “In Gandhi’s case the question…one feels inclined to ask is: To what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity—by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power.” p. 171. ………. “...before one can even speak about Kipling one has to clear away a legend that has been created by two sets of people who have not read his works…. It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life…can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person…. Kipling is a jingo imperialist…. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives….” p. 116.

“The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political re-generation….” p. 157. ………. Ecclesiastes in the original: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” [The same in modern English]: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account. [Ray’s attempt: Regardless of talent, people need to be lucky in order to succeed.] p. 163. ………. “People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in arctic lumber camps: this is called 'elimination of unreliable elements.' Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” p. 167.

To see vivid examples of such euphemistic phrases, simply read the history of the Nazis. RayS.

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