On Orwell

I don’t know if you know or don’t know but I’m currently living and, ostensibly, working in Germany as part of my Year Abroad from the University of Edinburgh. Hence weird gushing praise of Burns, hence the invocation of glorious Viking ancestry, hence emotional responses to public infrastructure. I’m missing home, or well, I’m missing the feeling of deep-seated, innate connection to the banal minutiae of daily life. Its strange how one feels the irretractablity of one’s culture and upbringing when living with people whose frame of reference is just so slightly shifted.

I’m also missing low-stakes interaction. Just going for a coffee with someone spontaneously of an afternoon or having a pint or two to share minds over. Most conversations I have contain a purpose, an end goal with the object of reaching said endpoint in as short a time as possible. The scenario explained above cannot be obtained through Skype, where the objective is too direct and there is no room to gaze absentmindedly in contemplative silence, absorbing an atmosphere that continues to chatter regardless of your presence; the venue a third partner in the verbal exchange.

Anyway, one subject I turn inescapably towards to regain a reassuring foothold in life is literature. Ok, I know what you might say – literature should be shocking, outrageous and discomforting. Yes, I agree, but it can be both, and the type that helps me now is the former even if only affirming for “systemis[ing] the knowledge […] possessed already”, as Winston Smith remarks of Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism in Orwell’s 1984. Or, if I may employ a relevant cliché, Pope’s “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”.

I refer to the dystopia that politicians and commentators feel very clever about when they invoke in using the word Orwellian because it’s a text that has, not that I have had much choice in the matter, been occupying me these past couple of months due to its being studied by final year pupils at the Gymnasium (German secondary school) where I work.

Unlike so many of these pundits and participants in public life, I’m not at all eager to hail in the reign of the thought police. Yet the value of Orwell goes beyond drawing tenuous parallels between our world and Oceania. We can learn much from his unwavering commitment to the truth, his warning against the lies of propaganda, his historical allegory, his advocacy and practice of a clear, concise writing style and most importantly, his faith in the proles.

The pursuit of the truth is the single most important thing in Orwell’s philosophy. Of course, this is an admirable end in itself, but what’s more to the point is what we do with that knowledge. Orwell made an excellent diagnosis of the ills of his age, but he leaves us in the dark when it comes to the treatment. At least, this is the case when we read 1984 in isolation…

Teaching the novel in the context of German school adds another layer of complexity, and this is especially apparent in the author’s attitude to language. For all Orwell’s contempt for the florid, inaccessible prose of the contemporary intellectual elite, he himself was a huge language snob. In 1984, he undermines the idea of avoiding fancy foreign terminology and expressing things in as few words as possible by equating a smaller vocabulary with a smaller “range of consciousness” a la Newspeak (and that was deliberate!) This does not translate to multilingual German pupils, especially when this fictional language seems to implicitly attack compound words as somehow inferior relative to Anglo-Saxon monosyllabism (again I’m being silly!)

1984 to me is a bit like some people’s Dickens or Austen, although far from a cosy book, it remains pleasure to come back to because it reminds me of the power of the literary prophecy. As much as it irks me to constantly here casual accusations of Orwellian behaviour levelled at parties, governments and institutions, it’s probably a good thing that such shorthand exists.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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1 Response to On Orwell

  1. Pingback: Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Flett | Flett-cetera

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