Self, Orwell and the English language

Will Self’s anti-Orwell tirade combines ignorance with a snobbish disdain for the public.

Bruno Waterfield

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‘This whole imbroglio is epiphenomenal.’ I wonder what George Orwell would have made of this statement of Will Self’s to describe the closure of the News of the World amid mounting hysteria against press freedom a few years ago.

It was easy to snigger, and many did, when Self, a self-styled sesquipedalian (look it up), recently launched an attack on Orwell as a mediocre bigot who sought to impose his own Big Brother authoritarianism on the use of the English language. After all, Self, the acclaimed author, journalist and television talking-head, was revealed as the most frequent visitor to Pseuds’ Corner when Private Eye celebrated its first 50 years in 2011. But Self’s diatribe against Orwell cannot easily be dismissed as the defensive posturing of Britain’s most pretentious media commentator. Unfortunately, though wildly inaccurate and downright dishonest, Self’s arguments about Orwell epitomise the evasions and malaise at the heart of contemporary liberal intellectual life.

Orwell fought against twentieth-century ideologies used to impel intellectuals and the state into direct confrontation with the everyday life of most people. His battles, usually for the freedom to think, to speak up for the space to exercise moral autonomy and to refuse the imposition of fate, drove him to make savage criticisms of the abuse of language in relation to politics. Famously, in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, Orwell set out rules for a style of writing he believed could help to counter the distortions and misrepresentation of reality by those who exercise political power.

Self particularly objects to Orwell’s opening words in this essay, which are apparently proof that he was ‘plain wrong’ and evidence that the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four wanted to control language and use it as a vessel for his own authoritarian ideology. Orwell wrote: ‘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 civilisation 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.’

To shape language, to struggle against its abuse, or the decadence of civilisation, for our own purposes seems to me a pretty straightforward, humanist defence of agency and linguistic clarity. For Self, though, it is ‘old-fashioned authoritarian’ tyranny. ‘As for most people who bother with the matter, admitting that English is in a bad way – hardly. Since 1946, when Orwell’s essay was published, English has continued to grow and mutate, a great voracious beast of a tongue, snaffling up vocabulary, locutions and syntactical forms from the other languages it feeds on. There are more ways of saying more things in English than ever, and it follows perfectly logically that more people are shaping this versatile instrument for their purposes’, Self argued.

He continued: ‘The trouble for the George Orwells of this world is that they don’t like the ways in which our tongue is being shaped. In this respect they’re indeed small “c” conservatives, who would rather peer at meaning by the guttering candlelight of a Standard English frozen in time, than have it brightly illumined by the high-wattage of the living, changing language.’

By making this argument, Self is being downright dishonest, perhaps assuming that today’s readers or listeners are too lazy to read Orwell’s essay, or other writing, for themselves. Between 1944 and 1946, when the question of plain, lucid English began to exercise Orwell, there is no evidence at all that he wanted to stifle the creativity of authors, or anyone else for that matter. To anyone who has read Orwell, who constantly defended difficult and experimental modernist writers (with whom Self would no doubt identify), such an idea is absurd. After all, Orwell makes it pretty clear that his polemic is targeted at politicians, pundits, bureaucrats, hack-academics posing as intellectuals and all others seeking to defend the status quo or to conceal truth. Above all, Orwell’s message is in the battle of ideas: words count. To be robbed of clarity and lucidity in the battle of ideas is to fight with one hand tied behind your back.

‘It has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a “standard English” which must never be departed from’, wrote Orwell. ‘On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a “good prose style”. On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.’

Could it be any clearer? Orwell did not blame the masses, or popular culture, for the crisis of language. He blamed those who were distorting and poisoning English in the cause of the elite project of shoring up intellectual, state or moral authority by ‘concealing or preventing thought’. In fact, as we will see later, it is Self who despises the masses for poisoning public life. Far from being so very twenty-first century and po-mo trendy, Self’s criticisms of Orwell (as well as being fabricated and unfounded) are more or less identical to attacks made on Orwell as far back as 1944. As Orwell ruefully observed, his efforts to write clearly resulted in claims that he was ‘an intellectual snob who wants to “talk down to” the masses or else suspected of plotting to “establish an English Gestapo”’.

Orwell’s rules are pretty clear and, as a matter of fact, not very prescriptive. ‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ It is hardly a recipe for tyranny.

Self goes further. In a bizarre attack, which can only be based on his own patronising assumption that today’s audience is so ignorant as to know nothing of Orwell and his lifetime of attacking colonialism and imperialism, Self implies that Orwell was a bigot and, quite possibly, a bit of a racist to boot.

‘Orwell and his supporters may say they’re objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself. Only homogenous groups of people all speak and write identically. People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!’, says Self.

‘If you want to expose the Orwellian language police for the old-fashioned authoritarian elitists they really are’, he continues, ‘you simply ask them which variant of English is more grammatically complex – Standard English or what the dialect linguists call African American Vernacular English. The answer is, of course, it’s the latter that offers its speakers more ways of saying more things – you feel me?

‘Orwell’s ideology is ineffably English, a belief in the inherent reasonableness, impartiality and common sense of a certain kind of clear-thinking, public-school-educated but widely experienced middle-class Englishman – an Englishman such as himself. It’s by no means as pernicious an ideology as Ingsoc and its attendant newspeak, but it’s an ideology all the same.’

This is ludicrous. Orwell, who spoke French as well as Hindustani and Burmese, including the Shaw-Karen dialect of Burma’s hill tribes, celebrated Indian English as ‘the best bridge between Europe and Asia’ at a time when he was fighting a wartime battle of ideas in support of the independence of India from British imperial rule.

‘The growth of an English-language Indian literature is a strange phenomenon, and it will have its effect on the postwar world, if not on the outcome of the war itself’, wrote Orwell in 1942. Does this sound like a man who wanted to defend ‘Standard English’ from the vernacular of black or brown people?

Later, in 1943, Orwell urged his friend Mulk Raj Anand, the Indian author, not to abandon English ‘even if it sometimes leads you to be called a “babu” (as you were recently at one end of the map and renegade at the other)’. Orwell saw the power of Indian writers as a living argument for equality between white and black and the independence of colonies, a message made all the more powerful for being made in English. He was excited by the emergence of English as a lingua franca, a true world language, and rejected those who attacked Anand for using the conquerors’ language. Orwell did not see English as the property of the English – he saw it as a powerful tool, an instrument, which, when used carefully, precisely and lucidly, could expose inequality and the cant of racism.

As Christopher Hitchens noted in his perceptive 2002 book, Orwell’s Victory, ‘his rooted opposition to imperialism is a strong and consistent theme throughout all his writings’. ‘He insisted that the whole “colonial racket” was corrupting to the British and degrading to the colonised’, he wrote. ‘Even during the years of the Second World War, when there was a dominant don’t-rock-the-boat mentality and a great pressure to close ranks against the common foe, Orwell upheld the view that the war should involve decolonisation.’

In 1942, racism, the idea that peoples such as the Indians were incapable of self-rule, was the orthodoxy, just as multiculturalism and difference are today. In contrast both to contemporary multiculturalists, who deny any common humanity, and yesterday’s racists, Orwell believed in the universality of human spirit, its struggle to be free and to understand the world according to its own lights rather than those of official ideology. He believed that to take a stand for freedom meant convincing others through the power of argument, through words as they are used by people themselves. For Self to brand Orwell with the taint of racial and elitist bigotry is the worst sort of cant and is self-evidently untrue.

Take ‘Ingsoc and its attendant newspeak’, the imaginary official state language in Orwell’s greatest novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ingsoc is not an attempt to create a system of rules and style for English. It is an attempt to make certain ideas – freedom, autonomy, even independent thought itself – actually unthinkable. It is a project that flourishes in Big Brother’s Britain because intellectuals, swallowed into a totalitarian party-state (an amalgam of Nazism and Stalinism), have given up on freedom.

This was Orwell’s true fear. Writing in ‘The Prevention of Literature’ (usefully read alongside ‘Politics and the English Language’, which it predates by three months), Orwell warned that the biggest danger to free speech and thought was not mere censorship but, in the longer term, the turning away from freedom by intellectuals. Interestingly, his concerns were triggered by a 1944 meeting of the anti-censorship English PEN organisation, held during wartime, to mark the three-hundredth anniversary of Milton’s Areopagitica, the famous 1644 speech making the case for the ‘Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing’. Orwell was concerned that many present at the meeting, unwilling to criticise Stalin’s Soviet Russia or wartime censorship, were indifferent to the question of political liberty and press freedom.

‘In England, the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats, but that on a long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all’, he wrote.

This brings us back to the ‘epiphenomenal imbroglio’ (a confusing sideshow, more or less, in vernacular English) of the closure of a newspaper amid a witch-hunt against tabloids and a free, raucous press. Self used those words in reply to a question on the BBC’s Newsnight, in July 2011, concerning whether the shutdown of NotW following the phone-hacking scandal represented a ‘sea change’ in public life, or not.

‘I suspect not’, Self drawled.

‘I blame the people actually. A lot of energy is concentrated on looking for the bad apples, for the agency [in the phone-hacking scandal], but the fact is that there is a ubiquitous appetite for what the gutter press have peddled.’

Or as he said later in the discussion: ‘This whole imbroglio is epiphenomenal.’ This came just days before the beginning of the Leveson Inquiry and amid ever-mounting calls for a state-regulated press. A few months later, when it was clear what was at stake even to him, Self appeared on the BBC again to explain that the real problem was that the British public was not fit for press freedom.

‘There are those who say any restrictions on the media’s freedom to deem what is in the public interest would herald a terrible new regime of Puritanism, repression and litigation’, he wrote. ‘In some ways I agree. A free people does indeed require a free press, one that is continually evolving to fit HL Mencken’s definitions of the role of responsible journalism – that it should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”.’

He continued: ‘The trouble is that we are no longer a free people. Instead, addicted to prurient titillation and apathetic to the point of nihilism, the entire sweep of our recent history proclaims us to be a nation that knows the price of everything – especially our houses – and the value of nothing.’

Self’s commitment to freedom is not just weak; it is non-existent. As Mick Hume has noted here on spiked: ‘Hatred of the “popular” press and the “mass” media has always been a thinly veiled code for expressing an elitist fear and loathing of the populace/masses who consume them… The ostensible target might be Big Media, but the real one is the Big Public.’

Behind the smokescreen of railing against Orwell’s ‘authoritarianism’, it is clear that it is Self who is the true elitist. He might patronise the users of African American Vernacular English (‘you feel me?’) as being funky, but his true view of the public’s capacity to exercise freedom for itself is clear. Self further gives the game away with his attack on Orwell as ‘mediocre’, revealing his dislike of a writer who sought popular appeal, to win people over because he believed in their own capacities to think and contest. It is Orwell’s lack of literary genius, a journalist and polemic writer first, his vulgarity in attempting to win people over, that really horrifies Self and his ilk. If only Orwell was more difficult, more modernist, and ideally only comprehensible to the literary priesthood of people like Self.

‘It was Orwell’s own particular genius to possess a prose style that stated a small number of things with painful clarity’, argued Self. ‘Reading Orwell at his most lucid you can have the distinct impression he’s saying these things, in precisely this way, because he knows that you – and you alone – are exactly the sort of person who’s sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the very essence of what he’s trying to communicate. It’s this the mediocrity-loving English masses respond to – the talented dog-whistler calling them to chow down on a big bowl of conformity.’

It is this hated quality that represents Orwell’s virtue. Lionel Trilling, the American public intellectual and critic, also understood this well, but as a virtue, not a vice: ‘[Orwell] communicates to us the sense that what he has done any one of us could do. Or could do if we but made up our mind to do it, if we but surrendered a little of the cant that comforts us, if for a few weeks we paid no attention to the little group with which we habitually exchange opinions, if we took our chance of being wrong or inadequate, if we looked at things simply and directly, having only in mind our intention of finding out what they really are, not the prestige of our great intellectual act of looking at them.’

‘[Orwell] liberates us’, Trilling continues. ‘He tells us that we can understand our political and social life merely by looking around us, he frees us from the need for the inside dope. He implies that our job is not to be intellectual, certainly not to be intellectual in this fashion or that, but merely to be intelligent according to our lights – he restores the old sense of the democracy of the mind, releasing us from the belief that the mind can work only in a technical, professional way and that it must work competitively. He has the effect of making us believe that we may become full members of the society of thinking men. That is why he is a figure for us.’

In ‘The Prevention of Literature’, Orwell pondered the fate of prose literature in the age of totalitarianism. ‘To write in plain vigorous language one has to think fearlessly’, he wrote. He was worried about the continued possibility of thinking fearlessly, but his optimism in rescuing, preserving and extending this facility is embodied in his work. He believed in the public as much he believed in himself. Self’s loss of belief in the supposedly prurient, titillation-seeking public is manifest in his own despair over the future of the novel.

In a recent lecture, the text of which was published in the Guardian last May, Self complained that the ‘novel is dead (this time it’s for real)’. In a world defined by impersonal forces, the commodification of life and the cooption of ‘creative writing’ into academia, we are faced with the ‘midwifery of stillborn novels’, he argued.

He continued: ‘I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an artform on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse. The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the form is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed at them. As a practising novelist, do I feel depressed about this? No, not particularly, except on those occasions when I breathe in too deeply and choke on my own decadence.’

Self and those who attack Orwell for fighting for clarity and the truth betray their lack of belief and commitment to ideas and the public, epitomised in the weakness of their commitment to, or even their hostility to, freedom. Self’s sesquipedalia, or delight in long words, is not, as he would have it, a mark of ‘difficulty’, but rather of conformity. His self-conscious obfuscation in the face of attacks on press freedom and hostility to Orwell’s ‘talented dog whistling’ is a surrender to a narrow, crabbed world without a public realm.

Self’s defeatism, his loss of faith in the future of literature and in the audience, is truly depressing when it comes from a gifted author. It is at odds with Orwell’s more robust – and personal – motivation for writing, set out in Why I Write (1946): ‘Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.’

Bruno Waterfield is Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and author of E-Who? Politics Behind Closed Doors, published by the Manifesto Club.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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