Orwell Can’t Communicate

Everyone who thinks at all has noticed that our language is practically useless for describing anything that goes on inside the brain. This is so generally recognised that writers of high skill (e.g. Trollope and Mark Twain) will start their autobiographies by saying that they do not intend to describe their inner life, because it is of its nature indescribable. So soon as we are dealing with anything that is not concrete or visible (and even there to a great extent—look at the difficulty of describing anyone’s appearance) we find that words whaare no liker to the reality than chessmen to living beings.

Every at all individual man has an inner life, and is aware of the practical impossibility of understanding others or being understood—in general, of the star-like isolation in which human beings live. Nearly all literature is an attempt to escape from this isolation by roundabout means, the direct means (words in their primary meanings) being almost useless.

“Imaginative” writing is as it were a flank-attack upon positions that are impregnable from the front. A writer attempting anything that is not coldly “intellectual” can do very little with words in their primary meanings. He gets his effect if at all by using words in a tricky roundabout way, relying on their cadences and so forth, as in speech he would rely upon tone and gesture.

The art of writing is in fact largely the perversion of words, and I would even say that the less obvious the perversion is, the more thoroughly it has been done. For a writer who seems to twist words out of their meanings (e.g. Gerard Manley Hopkins) is really, if one looks closely, making a desperate attempt to use them straightforwardly. Whereas a writer who seems to have no tricks whatever, for instance, the old ballad writers, is making an especially subtle flank-attack.

The weakness of the roundabout method, apart from its difficulty, is that it usually fails. For anyone who is not a considerable artist (possibly for them too) the lumpishness of words results in constant falsification. Is there anyone who has ever written so much as a love letter in which he felt that he had said exactly what he intended? A writer falsifies himself both intentionally and unintentionally. Intentionally, because the accidental qualities of words constantly tempt and frighten him away from his true meaning. He gets an idea, begins trying to express it, and then, in the frightful mess of words that generally results, a pattern begins to form itself more or less accidentally. It is not by any means the pattern he wants, but it is at any rate not vulgar or disagreeable; it is “good art.” He takes it, because “good art” is a more or less mysterious gift from heaven, and it seems a pity to waste it when it presents itself. Is not anyone with any degree of mental honesty conscious of telling lies all day long, both in talking and writing, simply because lies will fall into artistic shape when truth will not?

And in the mind of reader or hearer there are further falsifications, because, words not being a direct channel of thought, he constantly sees meanings which are not there. A good illustration of this is our supposed appreciation of foreign poetry. We know, from the “Vie Amoureuse du Docteur Watson” stuff of foreign critics, that true understanding of foreign literature is almost impossible; yet quite ignorant people profess to get, do get, vast pleasure out of poetry in foreign and even dead languages. Clearly the pleasure they derive may come from something the writer never intended, possibly from something that would make him squirm in the grave if he knew it was attributed to him. I say to myself Vixi puellis nuper idoneus, and I repeat this over and over for five minutes for the beauty of the word idoneus. Yet, considering the gulf of time and culture, and my ignorance of Latin, and the fact that no one even knows how Latin was pronounced, is it possible that the effect I am enjoying is the effect Horace was trying for? It is as though I were in ecstasies over the beauty of a picture, and all because of some splashes of paint which had accidentally got on to the canvas 200 years after it was painted. It seems to me that from the point of view of exactitude and expressiveness our language has remained in the Stone Age.

—George Orwell, “New Words”

2 Responses to “Orwell Can’t Communicate”

  1. 1 Miep January 12, 2014 at 1:03 am

    I was writing a book review the other day, which I ended by complimenting the author by saying she showed more than she told. Point being that there is never a shortage of people who want to tell us things, but being able to show us stuff is a more rare talent. It also leaves us up to our own devices as to deciding what the author intended to tell us.

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When I Worked

January 2014

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