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Why Write?

I am not, as I once was, a fool for George Orwell. He was a very good, very solid prose writer, courageous when it counted, and honest – though I would now say only “reasonably honest” – in his published oeuvre. He genuinely “believed” in politics, and lacked spiritual depth. Curiously, this is what kept him honest: a raw sense of justice whose underpinnings he never examined.

A wonderful product of elite British schools and far-flung Empire, I have often thought he only pretended to be a “democratic socialist;” that at heart he was neither democratic nor socialist. Once he even admitted how his heart raced at the sight of the Union Jack. His socialist suggestions are, invariably, throwaway.

I have even imagined he devised – perhaps washing dishes in Paris, while playing the deadbeat in early life – a magnificent conceit. He would pose as a socialist to get an audience among the self-styled “intellectuals” and thus be able to tell them things they would otherwise never willingly hear.

This would not make him the first writer able to maintain a conceit through his whole working life. After a few years the pose becomes ingrained.

For only a reactionary could form such useful concepts as those with which Orwell seeded the English language: “Big Brother,” “thoughtcrime,” “Thought Police,” “memory hole,” “Newspeak,” “doublethink,”  “unperson,” and the unadorable “proles.”

His relatively famous essay, “Why I write,” is about as informative as the memoir of his secret soul mate Kipling’s Something of Myself. That is, it tells us nothing. It operates on a plane of plausibility that is carefully studied: not a pose, but a literary pose of a pose. He says that he became a political writer, a kind of pamphleteer, in response to violent times; that his focus was compelled by the Spanish Civil War. His earlier writings are dismissed as egoism and purple prose.

Whereas, he was a political artist from the start. He simply got good at it after 1936. As pamphleteer, he reached his height in Nineteen Eighty-Four (I think his Animal Farm fairytale too smug). It is his worst novel; I prefer all the others. But for the express purpose of opposing totalitarianism, in its primary socialist form, Nineteen Eighty-Four was an act of genius.

It was an invasion of the progressive mind, which seeded it with doubt. I can think of no other tract that so effectively tilted the political balance of English-reading literati in the post-War West. Joe McCarthy was an amateur; George Orwell was a pro.

Orwell on the Beeb

And he was wise to die soon after, at this height of his career, for he had, and could have had, nothing more to say. There could be nothing positive in his message, and had he lived on, he might well have degenerated into a talking head on the BBC, or worse if that is possible.

Notwithstanding, the idea of reflecting at intervals on “why I write” is an example to everyone in the rag trade. To Orwell’s four reasons (sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical recording, political purpose) one might add an overlooked fifth, which I will call graphomania. I see it clearest at the tables in old-fashioned libraries, where the poor old bums come in for winter warmth, to cover scrap paper with their blunt pencil marks. Or in the cleaner fingernails tapping upon their little keyboards.

There is the sensual desire to be doing something with one’s hands, or mouth, sometimes with nostrils or ears. The invention of writing was a godsend to the fidgetter; more yet the invention of cheap paper. And now, with electronic devices, we can fill the fleeting world with our own meaningless effusions. Without this, we would have to amuse ourselves with mime and rude noises.

Yes, “literacy” has contributed something to the silence of the world, at a time when any more industrious activity might involve power tools. Quiet is a blessing. Another motive could be cash. For those who lack household names, or steady unionized employment, the cash motive must necessarily be a modest one. But for the “free lance,” otherwise bankrupt, even twenty dollars goes a long way; a few hundred gets one in sight of rent payment. As a rich man of my acquaintance, who has retired from publishing, often said, “Never underestimate the power of very small amounts of money to motivate people.”

Whether or not one writes about it, there is value in asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” It will contribute at least slightly to self-understanding. For the Catholic, it might even serve as prod towards making a good Confession.

I started writing seriously myself from the moment I realized that I could no longer make a living as an editor. I had always written things, when required, but seldom with enthusiasm. I’d always rather read. But at a nickel a word, or sometimes a dime, there were places that would still have me.

Poetry appealed to me in youth (and does still); the mimetic impulse led me to write poems, for no better reason than to inform the verbal music in my own head. The translation of poems from languages I hardly understood had a particular appeal. I suppose that corresponds to Orwell’s “aesthetic enthusiasm” – the desire actually to know what something will sound like in English. But the market for poetry is such, that only tenured university professors indulge it as a hobby.

In the end one comes down to an embarrassing truth. Hide it though one will, one wants to influence the world. To make a political difference is, for some, boring; alas those not essentially bored by politics tend to be a danger to their fellow man.

But consider Beauty, Goodness, Truth – the same old, same old Platonic transcendentals. One wants more of these apparent than the world seems to see, and to this end one might engage in writing.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.