The most admired and most quoted of George Orwell's essays, "Politics and the English Language," written in the winter of 1945-46, begins with a familiar opinion: "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way." Sixty-three years later, that remains a favourite complaint among those who believe the world is going to hell. It would be hard to find a period in modern history when no one has floated the same idea. It was already commonplace when Orwell was growing up, at the beginning of the 20th century. Language seems always to be declining, like politeness.
Since Orwell advised us to think critically about what we read, I was encouraged to entertain a few heretical thoughts about him last week when I encountered those opening words for perhaps the fiftieth time. "Politics and the English Language" appears in the first of two new collections of Orwell essays, both of them compiled with loving respect by George Packer and published by Harcourt -- All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays and Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays.
Beyond question, it remains a great essay. We cannot be reminded too often of Orwell's central thesis that slovenly writing produces slovenly thought and foolish thought leads to ugly prose. But that opening, coming down to us from just after the Second World War, seems, when you consider the historical context, thoughtless.
Can we still say that the English language in 1945-46 was in a particularly bad way? In retrospect, it seems to have been used in the mid-1940s by some remarkable stylists, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, among others. The funniest English writer, P. G. Wodehouse, was spinning out an endless series of books in never less than superb English. T. S. Eliot and W.H. Auden were hard at work.
Most important, at that moment the English language had just given the greatest political performance in its history, turning away from England's shores the most formidable of all military machines, Germany's.
In the hands of Winston Churchill, language rallied the British, sustained them through desperate years and led them to victory. It was the supreme political accomplishment of Britain in modern times.
How could Orwell, writing at precisely that moment, have ignored this central fact of his and England's existence? In an essay called "Politics and the English Language," how could he have failed to notice both the pre-eminent English politician of the century and his uniquely effective eloquence?
Orwell's politics, sad to say, stood in the way of the truth. He claimed the ability to face unpleasant facts, which often meant recognizing that many of his fellow leftists were apologists in the West for Stalinist mass murder. His willingness to state the harsh reality of communism, from a leftist position, scandalized and infuriated thousands of fellow socialists and marked him permanently as an honest man in a dishonest time, a heroic truth-teller who defied the liars who surrounded him.
He was also committed to a profoundly negative view of the upper classes, among whom Churchill (as a Tory with a noble ancestry) was included. "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism," Orwell wrote in 1946. He called England in the 1940s, "a family with the wrong members in control." He could not acknowledge that during the war the one family member with the talent to save Britain was the Conservative prime minister. But, as Orwell wrote in another connection, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."
In 1946, on this crucial point, that struggle proved too much for him. This was at the climax of his literary career, just after the appearance of Animal Farm, three years before the publication of his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and four years before his death from tuberculosis in 1950.
Although he's now admired by many conservatives, Orwell was a passionate socialist who hoped and believed the class system was on the way to extinction: "This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges. There are every day fewer people who wish them to continue." In his diary, he reported he was sickened by the advertising in the London Underground, "the silly staring faces and strident colours, the general frantic struggle to induce people to waste labour and material by consuming useless luxuries." He expected the war would sweep all that away.
The two new volumes from Harcourt remind us again and again that Orwell was at heart a teacher anxious to share his opinions on every subject. He wrote to his publisher that "I think [Jean-Paul] Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot." In these pages we find him telling us precisely the way tea should be made and fiercely defending the value of English cooking (against French!). Embarrassingly, he was a chronic and reflexive homophobe, an enemy of "the pansy left" and "nancy poets;" he proudly declared, "I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and [Stephen] Spender." Imagine what a Canadian human-rights commission would do to him today.
Orwell liked to compare honest, truthful writing to a window pane through which we can see the truth clearly. He believed that one can "write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality." But his self-created personality got in his way. The son of an imperial civil servant, he made every effort to declare his solidarity with the lower classes. He deified every aspect of working-class life, from pubs to pigeon fanciers. He was a rare example of a downstart, a bright Eton graduate who signed on first as an imperial policeman in Burma and then became a socialist, a hobo, a dishwasher, a soldier in the Spanish Civil War and an ill-paid freelance writer.
His chosen class consciousness blinded him when he sat down to write a definitive essay on the English language. Today, he remains an authority on the use of the English language and one of its great practitioners. But he missed the most startling development of his time in the subject that he famously made his own.