George Orwell's Language Still Politically Relevant

In 1944, a young British writer named Eric Blair sent the publisher Jonathan Cape a manuscript for a novel-length parable about the rise of Stalin. The book had already been rejected by one editor for its inflammatory content. Cape also declined. While he personally enjoyed the manuscript, he wrote, he believed it was "highly ill-advised to publish at the present time." Perhaps Blair might have better luck were he to change the identity of the main characters? "It would be less offensive if the predominate caste in the fable were not pigs," he wrote. Blair finally found a publisher, and the book, "Animal Farm," released under Blair's pseudonym, George Orwell, became a bestseller. But the experience proved instructive. The next year, in the essay "Politics and the English Language," he wrote that degraded, unclear language was both symptom and cause of the decline of contemporary culture and political thought. "One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end," he wrote. In other words, it's important to call a pig a pig.

Since its publication in 1945, "Animal Farm" has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and become a standard text for schoolchildren, along with Orwell's other dystopian vision of the future, "1984." But it is the writer's essays on the importance of clear language and independent thought that make him relevant. Consider this, from "Politics and the English Language": "The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies 'something not desirable.' The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another … Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way." Substitute "anti-American" for "Fascism," and you've summarized the tenor of much of the public conversation regarding the current election and the war in Iraq. "We're so saturated in media today that anyone who is following it is bound to think, 'This is terrible language; what are the effects of these clichés on my mind?' " says George Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker who has edited two new collections of Orwell's essays, "Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays" and "All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays." "God knows, I've wanted to use that essay as a purgative. Orwell tells you how to cut through the vapor and get the truth and write about it in a way that is vigorous and clear. Those skills are particularly necessary right now."

Eric Blair was born into what he described as "the lower-upper-middle class" in 1903 in Motohari, India, and spent most of his adult life trying to undo the comforts and privileges his station afforded him. He attended St. Cyprian's prep school in Eastbourne, England, where, he wrote in the essay "Such, Such Were the Joys," he learned "life was more terrible, and I was more wicked, than I had imagined." As a writer, his greatest aim was to ameliorate the conditions that made life terrible; as a man, he lived as though forever attempting to atone for his own wickedness, real or imagined.

After prep school he attended Eton, but instead of going on to university, he joined the Imperial Police, requesting the remote post of Burma. As David Lebedoff writes in his new dual biography, "The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War," "it was a desperately lonely life. Some of his colleagues committed suicide and others went mad … he was in a far-off land whose people did not want him there." It was in Burma where Orwell would learn to hate all forms of imperialism. "In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters," he wrote in the essay "Shooting an Elephant." Pressured by an excited mob to kill an elephant, he perceives "that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys." After five years in Burma he returned to England, where he slept in homeless shelters and scrounged for work in restaurant kitchens to experience how the poor lived, then went to the dreary, economically depressed north of England to document the condition of the miners. A self-described democratic socialist and fervent anticommunist, he volunteered to fight with the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, where he stood up in the trenches to light a cigarette and promptly was shot through the throat.

All this time he was writing, or trying to. According to Lebedoff, Orwell was not a naturally gifted stylist: "One young lady to whom he showed his first efforts thought they were 'like a cow with a musket'." He persisted, and began publishing regularly during World War II. In addition to his war reporting, he wrote reviews, essays, memoirs, novels and a regular newspaper column, "As I Please." He also was a faithful diarist. Since August his entries have been published as a blog (orwell on the same date they were written 70 years ago. (So far, his subject matter runs to the weather and the doings of his livestock—"Another hen bad in the legs this evening. Examined & found enormous black lice"—but the action should pick up once the war gets underway.) The publication of "Animal Farm" brought financial security, but again he sought out misery, moving to the remote, rain-plagued Scottish island of Jura. He died of tuberculosis soon after completing "1984," at the age of 46.

Orwell's lifelong inclination toward deprivation and asceticism may seem an appealing corrective to the pleasure principle of our times. "It might have been absurd for him to live like an unemployed laborer when he was an Eton graduate, but his obvious disregard for materialism or hedonism is attractive today, when there's an extraordinary emphasis on making a lot of money, having expensive toys and having fun," says Lebedoff. "Orwell's life, because it was so monkish, shows you can have a life of value without those things." But his miserliness was offset by a generosity toward the victims of the systems he despised. In the essays "Clink" and "Spike," about his stints in jail and a homeless shelter, he describes his fellow unfortunates without condescension or caricature.

He was extraordinarily tough-minded, most of all toward himself, vigilant against sentimentality or self-aggrandizement. In "A Hanging," about an execution he witnessed in Burma, he allows himself a few grace notes ("the Indians had gone grey like bad coffee") but never at the expense of brutal honesty: after the hanging, the Indians regain their color, Orwell finds himself "laughing quite loudly" at a joke, and soon thereafter "we all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was one hundred yards away."

Though many of Orwell's essays describe single incidents, his concerns are political, in the largest sense: the way human dignity is corrupted by false phrases. He was less interested in what motivates people to act without integrity than in the words they use to camouflage and perpetuate their dishonesty: for Orwell, bad language and bad politics were one and the same. Yet for all his penury and despair, his faith in the power of clear, strong language can only be read as optimistic.

Today, the writer's name is invoked to describe anything involving surveillance, paranoia or even books about animals. Orwell's ideas have been bastardized and simplified over time, so that "Big Brother," the totalitarian, state-run citizen-control mechanism of "1984," is now the name of a reality-TV show that bears little resemblance to the book, except for the fact that contestants are watched by cameras. "When writers use the word 'Orwellian,' you can be pretty sure they've read very little of him," says Packer. Rather than describing surveillance devices, or pig farms, a more accurate application of the adjective would mean something that aspires to the lucidity and integrity of Orwell's writing. In that case, it would be the highest praise.