If George Orwell’s none too good, you better say why.

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I recently came across an article posted over at Reddit (link to discussion), re: George Orwell, and it immediately struck me as one of those faux ‘bad-boy’ envious types. This is not because the writer, Will Self, argues that Orwell was a literary mediocrity– in fact, I’d agree with this claim, even if I might be a little more charitable. The issue, really, is Self’s argument, in one of those moments wherein a person comes to the right conclusion about something, but seems to have little to no clue as to why it’s right. This always get me dismissive, because what good is a good opinion if its trajectory is unknown, and its origin dubious? In fact, it means that as the thinker hits upon new phenomena, he’ll be unable to analyze it, ill-equipped as he is for such tasks, and dependent on luck. Such is the case, here, and Will Self’s argument, after a series of overdone digressions, can be broken down as follows:

Orwell isn’t very good because he is too ‘unadorned’. In fact, he’s not simply a mediocrity, but– and after hundreds of potential examples, Self settles on Orwell– the ‘Supreme Mediocrity’ of recent English memory, mostly because he is too plain. In fact, Self goes on to blame his ‘prose style’, as if style, in and of itself, can be good or bad, rather than what is DONE within this style. He then points to the following Orwell quote as an explanation of the writer’s mediocrity:

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 aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Not exactly groundbreaking literary analysis, what with the invocations of ‘general collapse’, ‘decadence’, and other alarums that have been bandied about since the dawn of civilization, but not necessarily wrong, either. Language DOES go through periods of atrophy and decay, language IS abused via poor understanding of terms and definitions, categories, the mis-use of cliches, the non-belief in language, as a whole. And, of course, Orwell’s claim that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes” is 100% correct, and is, in a very real sense, a good explanation for art as a whole: that art is a means of higher communication, and that standard English, ghetto-talk, curse words, holy words, Latinisms, neologisms, derivations, non-derivations, etc., are not preferable to one another. They are simply ONE means to the same goal: establishing meaning, whether that involves the use of a French borrowing, Continue reading →

Greek And Latin In An Age Of Better Things

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Not having Googled my name in a number of years, I was surprised to find that the top search result for my own name (there are, I’ve learned, many ‘Alex Sheremets’, and multiple variations thereof) was an Amazon review all the way from June 2008, of a Latin textbook, of all things, that had been the standard intro to the subject ever since it was published in 1956. It was (and still is, despite a new edition) the most popular review of Wheelock’s Latin on Amazon, garnering close to 400 ‘helpful’ votes, and a couple of dozen comments ranging from agreement to abject dissent.

I’d not a chance to respond, partly because I didn’t realize what was going on, and partly because I’d grown up – or rather, had grown into myself, over time. Now, I’m an artist, see, and perhaps even thought of myself as an artist then. But, back in June 2008, I was stuck at home, messing around with Latin conversations non-stop, listening to hours of Latin recordings, and trying – really, really trying – to get fluent in the language. I know, now, that part of the attraction to ancient lingoes was their sheer mystery, as well as the fact that, unlike the more academic types, I was treating the language with genuine respect by putting it on par with any other modern tongue, instead of merely ‘decoding’ it like some jigsaw puzzle. Most professors couldn’t speak it. Hell, most can’t even WRITE it, and I – a young kid interested in so many things already – was gonna show ’em (baby!), and leave the shit-kickers in the dirt!

Of course, that’s not what I told myself. At least, not exactly. I told myself that I ‘NEEDED’ Greek and Latin to really understand poetry (my true aim), and therefore write it better than anyone before me, for I’d know the true origin of language, in the metaphysical sense, by being able to strip it down to its more primitive manifestations in a way that academics could not. So, I’d spend much time practicing conversation every day, dipping every once in a while into Virgil and Catullus, just to see where I was at, technically speaking, but not realizing that, as a budding poet, I was in fact wasting time – and that everything I needed, everything that’s worthy of the term ‘art’, had already been provided by modernity, if only I’d learn to look a little more wisely.

Now, allow a digression. Getting fluent in multiple languages is, too often, a kind of bargaining chip – a social token. Just think of people’s utter GREED for travel, the way they post photos all over social media, not knowing the true import of such places, obsess over food and architecture, and merely pretend to engage with these peoples and lands. Of course, they tell themselves that they’re ‘cultured’, and somehow benefiting from such meaningless activity. But, realistically, the limits of their engagement is – well, … Continue reading →