A Collection of Essays


A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, 316 pp., $1.65 paperback.

Even though George Orwell's 1984 has seemingly been ignored by many libertarians, and shunted aside in favor of lesser works such as Levin's This Perfect Day, and Rand's Anthem, most readers are probably familiar with it. Unfortunately, most readers' experience of Orwell begins and ends with 1984, and perhaps Animal Farm, although almost all of the ideas dramatized in 1984 he presented in greater detail in his nonfiction essays. The best of these are included in the present volume, A Collection of Essays.

The gem of this varied collection is "Politics and the English Language." It deals with what Thomas Szasz calls "semanticide": the murder of language (a subject later explored in 1984 through the invention of Newspeak). Orwell's theme is twofold: first, that political language has been corrupted by insincerity; and second, that the debasement is aided by honest writers who adopt corrupted language by default. In either case, one's meaning is blurred. Whether the fog is produced through ignorance or conscious deception, the result is a similar fog inside the reader's head.

Orwell begins his essay by mercilessly dissecting five specimens of bad political writing, pointing out various symptoms of the disease: dying metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. The "disease" itself stems from a failure to think clearly and precisely:

This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash—as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song; The jackboot is thrown into the melting pot—it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words, he is not really thinking.

Thus, instead of visualizing an idea and then constructing a sentence from scratch to express that idea, a writer will throw ready-made hunks of sentences together like prefabricated sections of a housing project, with equally inspiring results. At its worst, this transforms verbal communication into a mere spewing of overworked jargon and memorized phrases, like the disembodied fulminations of campus Trotskyists and streetcorner Jesus Freaks. In various degrees it infests nearly all current attempts at serious communication. The result is hardly inconsequential: corruption of language blunts the cutting edge of critical thought in favor of timid orthodoxy, a process necessary to both totalitarian ideology and religious dogma. As Orwell reminds us in 1984, to control language is to control people's thoughts—and ultimately to control people themselves.

Orwell doesn't attempt to give his own definitions to words such as freedom, justice, and democracy, since this would be diverting himself from the task at hand down the murky corridors of ideology. He is content to point out that such words have become almost meaningless, and to use them without defining in what sense they are being used is, at best, to foist that murkiness upon the reader; at worst it is to commit outright fraud. His message is clear: say it simply, and say it straight—and think before you express yourself. Libertarian readers—and particularly writers—could profit by Orwell's advice, not only in analyzing the communications of others, but in improving and perfecting their own.


Also of special interest is "The Prevention of Literature" (1946). Starting from the idea that literature is the author's personal statement about some aspect of life derived from his own experience, Orwell analyzes the effect of totalitarianism on literature. The key concept is honesty: The work must be an honest statement of what the author thinks and feels, or it is worthless. Yet it is impossible for a serious writer to be honest under totalitarian rule, because he is forced to falsify or suppress "incorrect" emotions and unpleasant facts if he wants to see his work published—or stay out of a concentration camp. Facts become silly putty in the hands of the ruling elite and their band of kept writers (whether at home or abroad), who follow the Orwellian maxim, "Whoever controls the past controls the future, and whoever controls the present controls the past" (1984). The writer is thus forced to parrot a constantly changing official line, and pay no heed to the "outmoded" concept of objective truth. Writers who accept this role as literary myna birds will find their creative faculties drying up; their imaginations, desiccated by the stale air of orthodoxy, will produce little of literary value.

Orwell returned to this theme many times, partly because he saw contradictions in his own ideology: democratic socialism. His conception of socialism was that the state would take charge of economic life, setting people free from poverty and unemployment, leaving the individual's intellectual life alone. But where the state had nationalized the factories, it had nationalized the intellectual life as well. To be an orthodox socialist was to ignore this—and become a dishonest writer.

The contradictions of the "official" leftist ideology circa 1948 and the various leftist ideological flip-flops since 1917 are summarized in the essay "Writers and Leviathan." Here Orwell broadens his claim that subservience to totalitarian ideology places the writer in an untenable position, including in his analysis subservience to all conventional doctrines: "To accept an orthodoxy is always to inherit unresolved contradictions." Yet with vital political conflicts raging over the surface of the globe, Orwell saw no wisdom in dropping out of politics for the sake of literary autonomy. In certain situations, he argued, it is of vital practical importance to commit oneself to a lesser of two evils—the Spanish Loyalists in 1937, for example, or the Allied governments in World War II—but if you must compromise yourself, do it as a common individual, not as a writer. Fight in the trenches for a dubious cause to put down a horrifying one; manufacture guns, tanks, and airplanes—but not lies. Dirty your hands, but keep your vision—and your writing—clean.

At first glance, many of the essays in this collection seem to deal with literature or popular culture rather than politics (e.g., "Charles Dickens" or "Boys' Weeklies"), but it is usually the political relevance of the subject that Orwell focuses on. Politics is the thread that ties together practically all of Orwell's work. In "Why I Write," he states: "Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 [when he fought against Franco in Spain] has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it." Some of the essays are straight political writing, such as "Antisemitism in Britain" and "Notes on Nationalism." Most of them, however, mix politics with analysis of literature or popular culture, as in "Arthur Koestler," "Wells, Hitler, and the World State," and "Politics vs. Literature: an Examination of Gulliver's Travels." Five of the essays are mainly accounts of personal experience, yet each has a political application: "Marrakech" and "Shooting an Elephant," for example, are both indictments of imperialism, and politics is never far below the surface in "Looking Back on the Spanish War." Indeed, it is for his two political novels that Orwell is best known; it would be no surprise if the reader finds his overtly political pieces the most interesting.

Even though Orwell remained a socialist until his death in 1950, his criticism is mainly directed at his fellow leftists, confronting armchair theorizers with the disturbing facts of reality. His emphasis of the political relevance of popular culture and straightforward language should be of special interest to libertarians interested in spreading their ideas more effectively, and his warnings against ideological orthodoxy on the left should keep libertarians on guard against the same error. Some readers will no doubt quibble with this last, as surely their ideology isn't contradicted by the facts—or is it? Is a moralizing isolationism really practical in a world of international price conspiracies and superstates armed to the teeth with H-bombs? Will the amusing schemes of the libertarian anarchists really work, or are they seeing human nature through an ideological screen? It is these sorts of questions that one thinks of after reading Orwell. If "doublethink" can apply to socialists, it can apply to us, too.

(Note: All of the pieces in A Collection of Essays are also contained in the vastly more comprehensive Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters of George Orwell, Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., published in four volumes by Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.)

Bruce Ramsey is a graduate of the University of Washington Business School and is currently doing graduate work in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.