Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Orwell: alive and well

In saying that George Orwell is alive and well, I don't refer to the dark element of Trumpism (Steve Bannon, et al.) today or the fears it has unleashed; I am not thinking of the novel 1984 with its theme of a totalitarian future with Big Brother watching us. It's too late for that.

Rather, I'm thinking of the classic essay from 1946, "Politics and the English Language," which once was required reading in my writing courses, even if some of the examples are, by now, dated and obscure.

No one has better captured the modern tendency toward abstraction and pretentious jargon than this essay.  And I am sorry to say my colleagues in the academic world of the humanities, especially English, are still committing the sins Orwell singled out.

Consider this sentence from a book recently published by the University of Michigan Press (its subject is Middlemarch, the classic novel by George Eliot, who would be appalled or amused by what passes here as literary criticism):

"The grammatical concatenation of subject and action is straightforward, even in the self-constitutive modality of the middle voice; but is the subject that is effected in the middle voice in any way phenomenalizable?"

This may mean something to a fellow academic forced to read such pretentious writing in order for the author (whose name I omit) to get promoted or tenured: who else would bother to read such prose, which is all too typical of academic writing with its abstract, jargon-filled language designed to impress one's colleagues?

And that was Orwell's point: too often words are chosen not for their meaning but writing is made from ready-made phrases, made fashionable by someone else.  The result is unclear, unoriginal, and often meaningless.  Concrete terms melt into the abstract, he said, and writers rely on clich├ęs, vagueness, and jargon that fails to do what language is meant to do: communicate clearly to another human being.

If you don't know Orwell's essay, which shows how careless thought corrupts language and how careless language corrupts thought, you might find it on line. It remains timeless as an indictment of what passes for a great deal of literary criticism today, which I find impossible to read.

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