Twain - Calvino - Orwell - Smith
From Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain, 1883
A Wonderful Book
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me [a river pilot] without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot's eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?
Italo Calvino (1923-1985)
“The Farthest Channel” was first published in la Repubblica, January 31, 1984. I’ve numbered the paragraphs, and for three of the long paragraphs I’ve included lettered sub-sections. Trans. RYC]
The Farthest Channel
1 —- My thumb presses down independently from my will: from moment by moment, at irregular intervals, I feel the need to push, to press, to release an impulse sudden as a bullet. If this is what they meant when they conceded to me partial insanity, they got it right. But they’re mistaken if they believe that there was no design or clear intention in my actions. Only now, in the padded and varnished calm of this small hospital room, can I deny the strange things that I was forced to hear about me at the trial — spoken as much by the defence as by the prosecution. With this report, which I hope to send to the appeal magistrates (though my defence lawyers are determined at all costs to prevent me), I intend to reinstate the truth — the only truth, my own truth — if ever anyone is able to understand it.
2 —- The doctors also flounder in the dark, but at least they look with favour on my intention to write, and have given me this typewriter and this ream of paper. They think this represents an improvement, and that his is due to the fact that I now find myself confined to a room that doesn’t have a television. They attribute the cessation of the spasm that contracted my hand to their having deprived me of the small object that I was holding when I was arrested, and that I succeeded (the convulsions I threatened when they grabbed it from me were real) to keep with me throughout my detention, interrogation and trial. (How else could I have explained — albeit without convincing them — what I did and why I did it, if not by showing them that the instrument of my crime had become a part of my body?)
3 —- A —- The first wrong idea they fabricated about me is that my concentration can’t follow for more than a few minutes a coherent flow of images, and that my mind is only capable of grasping fragments of stories or arguments, as if they had no beginnings or endings. In brief, as if the thread in my mind that connected the fabric of the world had snapped. But that’s not true. The proof they gave to support their thesis — the way I sit frozen in front of the television for hours without following any one program, driven by an impulsive tic to jump from one channel to the next — can also be used to prove the opposite. —- B —- I’m convinced that there’s a meaning to the events of this world, that there’s a coherent story, justified in all of its series of causes and effects, taking place right now somewhere out there, not out of reach, and that this contains the key to judge and understand everything else. It’s this conviction that keeps me nailed to one spot, staring at the screen with dazzled eyes while the frenetic clicks of the remote control make things appear and disappear — interviews with ministers, the embrace of lovers, deodorant ads, rock concerts, people being arrested and hiding their faces, rocket launches into space, gunfights in the Wild West, pirouettes of dancers, boxing matches, quiz shows, Samurai duels. —- C —- If I don't stop to watch any of these programmes it's because the one I’m searching for is a different one. I’m sure it’s there, and I’m sure it’s none of these — which they transmit for the sole purpose of drawing us into deceit, or discouraging people like me who believe that it’s what’s on the other channel that counts. That’s why I continue to go from one channel to the next — not because my mind is no longer capable of concentrating for even the time it takes to follow a film, or a dialogue, or a horse race. —- D —-Quite the opposite: my attention is already completely directed on something that I absolutely can’t miss, something unique that’s happening in this moment — while at the same time my TV is being cluttered with superficial and interchangeable images, with a show that’s already started and of course I’ve therefore missed the beginning, and if I don’t hurry up I run the risk of missing the end. My finger jumps on the buttons, rejecting the wrappings of vain appearance like the superimposed layers of a many-coloured onion.
4 —- Meanwhile the real programme is travelling along the paths of the ether on a frequency I don't know, perhaps losing itself in space where I won’t be able to intercept it. There’s an unknown station that’s transmitting a story about me, my story, the only story that can explain to me who I am, where I come from, and where I’m going. The only relation that I can establish with my story is a negative one — to reject the other stories, to discard all the lying images they propose to me. The press of the button is the bridge I throw out to that other bridge that opens like a fan in the void, and that my harpoons still haven’t been able to hook onto — two unfinished bridges of electromagnetic pulses that don’t connect and that lose themselves in the dust of a fragmented world.
5 —- A —- It was when I understood this that I started brandishing the remote not at the TV but out the window — at the city, its lights, its neon signs, the façades of the skyscrapers, the pinnacles of the roofs, the legs of the cranes with their long iron beaks, the clouds. Then I went out in the streets with the remote control hidden under my coat, pointed like a weapon. At the trial they said I hated the city, that I wanted to make it disappear, that I was driven by an impulse of destructive. That's not true. I love, I’ve always loved our city, its two rivers, the precious little squares treed like lakes in the shade, the heart-rending miaows of its ambulances, the wind that threads into the avenues, the crumpled newspapers that flit along the ground like tired hens. —- B —- I know that our city could be the happiest in the world, I know that it already is — not here on the wavelength where I operate, but on another band of frequency. It's there that the city I've lived in all my life finally becomes my home. That's the channel I was trying to tune into when I was pointing the remote at the sparkling windows of the jewellers', at the majestic façades of the banks, at the awnings and revolving doors of the big hotels. Guiding my actions was the desire to save all the stories in one story that would also be mine — not the threatening and obsessive malevolence of which I’ve been accused.
6 —- All of them floundered in the dark — the police, the magistrates, the psychiatric experts, the lawyers, and the journalists. “Conditioned by the compulsive need to change the channel continually, a maddened TV viewer goes crazy and tries to change the world with his remote” — that’s the characterization that with few variations served to define my case. But the psychological tests always ruled out that there was in me any aspiration to be subversive. Even my response to programmes presently transmitted is not far off average levels of acceptance. Maybe by changing channel I wasn't trying to disrupt all the other channels but looking for something that any programme could communicate if only it were not corroded within by the worm that perverts everything that surrounds my existence.
7 —- A —- So they contrived another theory, one that would bring me back to my senses, or so they say. They even claim that my having convincing myself created the unconscious brake that stopped me from committing the criminal acts they thought I was going to commit. This is the theory according to which it’s nice to change channels, but the programme is always the same — or it might as well be. Whether it’s a film or news or an ad that gets transmitted, the message from all the stations is the same because everything and everybody are part of the same system. Even outside the screen, the system invades everything and only leaves space for apparent change; so that whether I get restless with the remote or whether my hands stay in my pockets, it doesn’t make a difference, because I'll never escape from the system. —- B —- I don't know if those who support these ideas believe in them or if they only talk about them to get me involved; in any case, they never had any hold over me because they can’t even dent my conviction about the essence of things. For me, what counts in the world aren’t the similarities but the differences — differences that can be big or small, minuscule, even imperceptible — but what matters is to bring them out and compare them. I also know that going from channel to channel creates the impression that it's the same old story; and I know that the circumstances of life are narrowed by a necessity that doesn’t allow for much variety — but it’s in this gap that the secret lies, the spark that puts into motion the machine of consequences, and as a result the differences become noticeable, big, huge, even infinite. —- C —- I look at the things around me — all twisted — and think that the tiniest nothing would have made the difference. An error avoided at a certain moment, a yes or a no, would have led to a completely different outcome, even while it left intact the general frame of circumstances. Things so simple, so natural that I was constantly waiting for them to reveal themselves at any moment. Thinking this and pressing the buttons of the remote were the same.
8 —- With Volumnia I believed that I’d finally hit on the right channel. In fact, during the early days of our relationship, I gave the remote a rest. I liked everything about her — the tobacco-coloured bun, the deep voice, the baggy trousers and pointed boots, the passion she shared with me for bulldogs and cactuses. I found her parents equally pleasing — the places where they invested in real estate and where we spent invigorating vacations, as well as the insurance company in which Volumnia's father had promised me a creative job with profit-sharing after our marriage. All doubts, objections, and conjectures that didn’t lead in the right direction I tried to chase from my mind. Yet when I realized that they returned even stronger, I started to ask myself if the little cracks, misunderstandings, and embarrassments that had so far seemed vaguely momentary and marginal might not be interpreted as omens for our future prospects. Hidden within our happiness was perhaps the feeling of contrivance and boredom that’s like a bad TV serial. Yet this didn’t lessen my conviction that Volumnia and I were made for each other. Perhaps on another channel an identical couple — but to whom destiny had granted ever so slightly different gifts — was about to live a life a hundred times more attractive . . .
9 —- It was in this spirit that I raised my arm that morning, grasped the remote control, and pointed it at the basket of white camellias, at the bonnet garnished with blue grapes worn by Volumnia's mother, the pearl on her father's ascot tie, the stole of the priest, the veil embroidered with silver and worn by the bride … The gesture, at the moment in which the whole congregation awaited my 'yes', was misunderstood — first of all by Volumnia, who saw it as a rejection, an irreparable wound. But all I meant was that over there, on that other channel, the story of Volumnia and I was racing away from the jubilant notes of the organ and the flash of the photographers, and that it had many more things that made it resonate with the truth of her and I . . .
10 —- Perhaps on that farthest channel our story isn’t over. Volumnia continues to love me, while here in this world I can’t get her to understand my reasoning. She doesn't even want to see me any more. I never recovered from that violent rupture. Ever since then I started living the life that the newspapers describe as that of a homeless mental case who wanders the streets armed with his queer gadget… And yet my reasons were as clear as ever: I understood that I had to start at the top. If things go wrong on all the channels, there has to be a farthest channel that isn’t like the others, one on which the government isn’t so different from our own, yet on which it has within it a small difference in character, in mentality, in questions of conscience, and on which they could stop the cracks that creep into the foundations, and with these the mutual suspicion, the degradation of human relations …
11 —- But the police had me in their sights for some time now. I made room for myself among the crowds pressing in to see the Heads of State get out of their cars for the big meeting. I snuck through the glass doors of the building, and tried to get passed the security. I didn’t have time to raise my arm with the remote pointed, before they were on top of me and dragged me away, even though I protested that I didn’t want to interrupt the ceremony. I just wanted to see what was on the other channel, out of curiosity, just for a couple seconds.
Politics and the English Language
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to airplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are four specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.
These passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad — I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen — but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative samples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:
(1) I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.
—Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression).
(2) Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the basic put up with for tolerate or put at a loss for bewilder.
—Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa).
(3) On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?
(4) All the “best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of socialism and bestial horror of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.
Each of these passages has faults of its own, but quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing; as soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged:
Dying metaphors: A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.
Operators, Or verbal false limbs: These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un-formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, the fact that, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by such refunding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in thenear future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to asatisfactory conclusion, etc.
Pretentious diction: Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual basic, primary, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, trident, sword, shield, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, status quo, gleichschaltung, Weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g. and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, lackeys, flunkey, mad dog. White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words and phrases translated from Russian, German or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentatory) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
Meaningless words: In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far 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. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: Consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot. The Soviet Press is the freest in the world. The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with the intent to deceive. Others words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well known verse from “Ecclesiastes”:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit three, on page 872, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrase “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like “objective consideration of contemporary phenomena’’ — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash — 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.
Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in 53 words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the [printer’s] slip alien for akin, making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means. (3) if one takes an uncharitable attitude toward it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
From New Statesman, February 9, 2013
Don't Be Beguiled by Orwell: using plain and clear language is not always a moral virtue
Orwell season has led me back to his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, first published in 1946. It is written with enviable clarity. But is it true? Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”
I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.
We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible – just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than “charming”.
There is a new puritanism about the way we use words, as though someone with a broad vocabulary or the ability to sustain a complex sentence is innately untrustworthy. Out with mandarin obfuscation and donnish paradoxes, in with lists and bullet points. But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another. The political class now speaks as it dresses: in matt navy suits and open-necked white shirts. Elaborate adjectives have suffered the same fate as flowery ties. But this is not moral progress, it is just fashion.
The same techniques have infiltrated the literary world. Popular non-fiction has evolved using quotidian prose style to gloss over logical lacunae. The whole confessional genre relies on this technique. “Gladwellian”, properly defined, is the technique of using apparently natural, authentic and conversational style to lull readers into misplaced trust: disarmed, we miss the sleights of hand in the content.
As a professional cricketer, I learned the hard way that when a team-mate said, “Look mate, I’ll be straight with you because nobody else will”, he was about to be neither straight nor my mate. The most consistently dishonest player I encountered spent much of his career beginning conversations with engaging declarations of plain-spoken honesty. His confessional, transparent manner helped him get away with years of subtle back-stabbing. When another team-mate thanked him for sitting him down and saying, “Look mate, I’ll be straight with you because nobody else will”, I felt a horror of recognition: another one duped.
If I’d studied Shakespeare more closely, I wouldn’t have been so easily fooled. Othello’s tormentor, Iago, is seen as an honest and blunt man (though he does confess to the audience that “I am not what I am”). His public image derives from his affectation, his sharpness of speech. Iago is believed because he seems to talk in simple truths.
In King Lear, Cornwall and Kent argue about the correlation between directness and authenticity. Cornwall (wrong in this instance but right in general) argues that straightforwardness often masks the most serious frauds: “These kind of knaves I know, which in this plainness harbour more craft and corrupter end than twenty silly-ducking observants that stretch their duties nicely.”
Using plain and clear language is not a moral virtue, as Orwell hoped. Things aren’t that simple. In fact, giving the impression of clarity and straightforwardness is often a strategic game. The way we speak and the way we write are both forms of dress. We can, linguistically, dress ourselves up any way we like. We can affect plainness and directness just as much as we can affect sophistication and complexity. We can try to mislead or to impress, in either mode. Or we can use either register honestly.
Philip Collins, the speechwriter and columnist, has written a book about how to persuade an audience. The Art of Speeches and Presentations is a superb primer, full of erudition and practical wisdom. Collins holds up Orwell’s essay on politics and language as a model of sound advice. But deeper, more surprising truths – contra Orwell – emerge from his arguments. He explains how using simple, everyday speech is effective but he also quotes Thomas Macaulay’s argument that “the object of oratory is not truth, but persuasion”. Following this logic, there is, unavoidably, a distinction between ends and means. Whatever the moral merits of your argument, it is always best to present it in the clearest, most memorable style. Disarming linguistic simplicity is a technique that can be learned. But how you deploy that technical mastery – the authenticity of the argument – is quite a different matter.
There is a further irony about “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell argues that the sins of obfuscation and euphemism followed inevitably from the brutalities of his political era. In the age of the atom bomb and the Gulag, politicians reached for words that hid unpalatable truths. By contrast, our era of vague political muddle and unclear dividing lines has inspired a snappy, gritty style of political language: the no-nonsense, evidence-backed, bullet-pointed road to nowhere.
Orwell’s essay is rhetorically persuasive. And yet it makes little attempt to prove its central thesis. The reader, having nodded at a series of attractive and catchy stylistic observations, is tempted to accept the central thesis. In fact, Orwell’s combination of masterly style and under-examined logic is the perfect refutation of his own argument.