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 →