January 7th, 2018

So, in the interest of changing my routine for 2018, I’m adding the reading of one essay by George Orwell to my Sunday mornings. I’ll be reading then in the order that they were were published—or at least as close to that order as I can ascertain since publication dates are not always readily available. Orwell’s Why I Write, however, breaks that pattern.

Somewhere among my books on writing I have a pamphlet copy of George Orwell’s Why I Write. While he wrote this in 1946, I’ve chosen to follow the lead of Sonia Mary Brownell, Orwell’s wife of 14 weeks at the end of his life and known as Sonia Orwell, in considering this essay first. In A Note On The Editing, she writes that the essay: [H]as been placed at the beginning of Volume I, as it seems a suitable introduction to the whole collection.

Orwell wrote:

Putting aside the need to earn a living [see Samuel Johnson on blockheads, JH], I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen—in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all—and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

2. 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 ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

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

4. Political purpose—Using the word political in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

First, I was surprised that among Orwell’s four reasons, there does not appear what I think is the most important: the need to understand myself. Perhaps this is a factor of the—overly?—introspective time I live in.

Second, on Sheer Egoism: I don’t think anyone can be writer who is not vain and self-centered. I have long been fond of the notion that to be a writer you must to be willing to walk down Main Street starkers. You can’t do that if you are timid and selfless.

Third, on Aesthetic Enthusiasm: This has been beneath the surface for me across most of my writing. Only recently—in the last five, or so, years, have I begun to think along these lines. This is one of the reasons I’ve become so fascinated with Deliberate Practice.

Fourth, on Historical Impulse: This may touch on my idea of writers writing to understand themselves, but I think what Orwell is writing about is related to a desire for immortality. If I capture a moment, an event, an era, then I live, in a sense, beyond my death. (I am also puzzling over Orwell’s use of true facts. This is a writer who advised that If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. In our age of fake news and truthiness, the word true may be necessary, but I would have thought Orwell would have considered this redundant.)

Finally, on Political Purpose: I am in total agreement with Orwell’s position here. All writing is objective and all writing—beyond his proverbial railway guide—is meant to further a point of view.

For Orwell, of course, Political Purpose was the purpose that would shape the last dozen or so years of his life. We wrote:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. 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. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.

Remember, the Spanish war was personal for Orwell. He didn’t report on the war, he didn’t write about the war, he fought in the war. As a volunteer. No writer can be objective about a conflict in which the writer fired bullets at an enemy. He continues:

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” 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.

These were the emotions that brought Animal Farm and 1984 out of Orwell’s imagination, not, however, as journalism, but as literature.

But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

This was true for Orwell in 1946 and this is true for any writer worth a damn in 2018.

Coming next week: The Spike…

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