Friday, January 21, 2011

Remembering... George Orwell

Although his was was a short life, it occurred in interesting enough times that by the time he died - of tuberculosis, aged 46, on this day in 1950 - George Orwell had managed to leave behind a body of work which blurred the lines between fiction, journalism, and social commentary; while such a phenomenon is de rigeur these days in the 1930s and 1940s it simply wasn't done, and was born out of Orwell's own chafing against authority, which he had shown even as a schoolboy at Eton.

PhotobucketYet despite all this, despite his having written such influential novels as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's his essays for which I am most grateful. One essay in particular - Politics and the English Language - provides the only rules I observe whenever I come to write:
  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
The sixth rule especially appeals to me, as it is a rule against rules, and especially the tyranny that rules represent... I don't know that I always (or ever) obey these rules, for in my insecurity I feel the need to write far fancier even than I ought in order to prove that I can, but that sixth rule I would follow to the ends of the Earth.

Whenever I feel badly about having not been able to attend university, a skim through Orwell is enough to cheer me up, for he was as financially unable as am I; yet of all the qualities that make him a good writer (compassion, sensitivity, insight) none of these can be taught in a classroom. Bright, rebellious, bloody-minded - these are the Orwellian qualities I have always sought to encourage in myself; I consider it a singular honour to have even a particle of Orwell's legacy alive in me.
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Mathias N Oz said...

I would have guessed a Masters or Phd in History or English Lit... never too late!

michael sean morris said...

Nope, but thanks! My goal is to get at least a BA in history from Columbia some day.