Thanks to Katie Gallogly-Swann for posting this Orwell article on facebook (see link here). Today’s post – compares Orwell to the American author Norman Maclean (who has often been discussed on this blog). It aims to contrast the headmaster technical rational tone of Orwell with the more meaning orientated advice of Maclean, when considering the political narratives of the forthcoming UK election.
Orwell’s article critiques the rehashing of old narratives, In so doing, the article holds relevance for today’s politics and gives us insight into the key weakness of TMay’s repetitive, robotic and vacuous statements concerning Brexit negotiations, stable government and Scottish Independence. Orwell tells us that creative and evocative writing utilizes visual images to stimulate people’s thinking but that poor writing utilises tired or clumsy metaphors:
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed.
Just as metaphors get tired, so do sound bites. TMAY is a serial offender in relation to the over use of sound bites – in coming weeks UK audiencse will tire of hearing the phrases ‘strong and stable government’ and ‘coalition of chaos’. Occasionally TMAY comes up with a new sound bite, yet, the notable thing about TMAY’s terminological extravagances is that they age within seconds and are easily countered (e.g. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was soon exposed when it turned out there was no Brexit plan). See a how easy it is to explain how the Tories are the party of chaos and disunity in this video here.
What would Orwell have said of TMAY – he would have said she was a fascist who sought to concentrate power through the misuse of language, media and myth.
Orwell’s article had some very clear tips for how to avoid tired speaking, writing or thinking:
- 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.’
Contemporary writers have referred to Orwell as the headmaster of writing. The fee-paying school aspects of Orwell’s up-bringing, no doubt, influenced his ‘rules’ approach to writing. He regularly attacked other writers on issues of content, meaning and style. Ironically, for someone so opposed to fascism, he too easily imposed his ‘norms’ on other people’s writing. When so doing, he was guilty of reproducing the very unyielding behaviour he despised of other people.
Orwell’s letters and articles could lack generosity and often involved him acting as a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner. Orwell’s approach involved a nil sum game. For him to intellectually win, someone else had to loose. Yet, his work is extremely useful for those of us seeking to critiquing the class of people who populate (and have always populated) the Westminster Parliament.
Orwell’s work was concerned with explaining disunity rather than producing creative prose. Orwell’s straight forward (and some-what pessimistic) writing enabled us to understand the dangerous, absurd, inequitable, self-reproducing and unfair nature of power and politics. However, Orwell’s writing has been critiqued for lacking beauty, emotion and poetry.
Orwell sought to convey messages about the bleak recession hit world he lived in. In contrast to Orwell’s technical rational advice (that stemmed from Orwell being a journalist), the American author Norman Maclean promoted a more artistic style in his writing.
In a previous blog post, I explained that Maclean worked at the University of Chicago where the School of Literary Criticism emerged in the 1930s and argued, following Aristotle, that we should value the unity, structure and form that literature, poetry and art expressed (the way the parts of a work come together as a whole) rather than concentrate on analysing the nature of the language used within a piece of writing.
Maclean, like Orwell, believed that writing and storytelling could have winners and losers but Maclean had a less upper class approach to writing than Orwell. Maclean’s understandings concerning writing did not come from an expensive fee paying school education. Maclean’s advice came from home schooling (especially in the art of fly fishing) and from the bunk-rooms of the woods of Montana (where he worked in early adulthood).
Maclean suggests that if you want people to stay with your story it better have: high adventure, accuracy, and interest. He also argued that stories should: be speedy; depict what you know best; unpack the feeling of doing (performing); involve beauty; have a unifying structure and utilise the principles of design.
Maclean depicted writing as an inexact craft, as a journey, as process of discovery and as an artistic endeavour. Maclean’s work sought not to judge others (though at times it was judgemental). Maclean sought to understand, represent and give feeling to life’s core meanings. Where Orwell mercilessly taunted his opponent, Maclean sought to mystically enchant his reader, employing the magic of words to kindle, convey and convince:
‘… Writing is painfully difficult at times, and other times I feel like I have a mastery over what I’m trying to do, and of course there’s no greater pleasure than that. But when you feel that words still stand between you and what you want to say, then it’s a very unhappy business…. …When I was young in the West, most of us thought we were storytellers. And of course we all worshipped Charlie Russell, partly for his painting, but also because he was a wonderful storyteller. I feel I learned as much about storytelling from him as I did from Mark Twain or Wordsworth or any professional writer. The tradition behind that of course was the old cowboy tradition—coming into town with a pay check, putting up in a hotel, and sitting around with a half a dozen other guys trying to out tell each other in stories. Whoever was voted as telling the best story had all his expenses paid for the weekend.’ http://www.thewritersworkshopreview.net/article.cgi?article_id=14
Both Orwell and Maclean understood the importance of history, experience and structures. But, they were not similar people. Orwell, at his worst, was a snobby grumpy headmaster. Orwell employed his anger as a fuel from which to ignite his political criticism of societal disharmony, exploitation and injustice. Yet, Orwell could be very prejudiced. For example, did not hold a great view of Scots people. He did not like Scotland (some writers say he ‘hated’ Scotland) and he did not like his original surname (Blair) because it sounded too Scottish.
Maclean, loved his Scottish ancestry, loved matriarchal Scottish women, associated Scottishness with using your hands (as well as issues of migration, strength and faith) and yet also promoted a somewhat simplistic caricature of Scottishness.
When representing women, Orwell was ahead of his time. Some feminist writers have valued Orwell’s ability to differentiate between sex and love in ways that did not blame, chastise or castigate female characters (e.g. in the book 1984). In contrast, Maclean could often represent women as saints or sinners. His Presbyterian upbringing leading him to make humour at the expense of sexually overt female characters whether they be prostitutes or the wives of the wealthy. Maclean celebrated strong Scots women but he did not celebrate all women.
Orwell and Maclean were men of their time, they held in common the fact that they wrote about lived experiences; that they could get to the heart of an issue; and that they could represent a specific issue in ways that other authors could not. Yet, neither Orwell nor Maclean was perfect; and when imposing textual or moral codes their work could be equally thoughtless.
Maclean’s sought to convey an artistic impression of the rural world that he inhabited. Maclean’s strength was that he utilised connections, movement and time when seeking to invent a convincing narrative. Maclean also sought to stimulate the reader’s senses, invoking sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste to produce a text of great beauty.
As identified by John G. Cawelti in this article (see link here) Maclean set up complex relationships between layers of action and themes running through his stories. Cawelti provides the quote below as evidence of the way Maclean connects symbols (such as water and words), plays with different meanings, yet seeks a form of resolution that is both powerful (because it overcomes false dichotomies) and beautiful (because it uses metaphor, movement and rhythm to convey feeling):
“As the heat mirages on the river in front of me danced with and through each other, I could feel patterns from my own life joining with them. It was here, while waiting for my brother, that I started this story, although, of course, at the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books. But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water, and I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness’
Here, Maclean connects ‘life story’ and ‘rivers’ but underneath and in his final words he gets to the essence of and expresses a notion of the concept of ‘life-time’ (with all its twist and turns). Maclean is a master of making bed fellows of difference and similarity – he seeks to create unity not division. Maclean’s narrative has power and beauty that Orwell might see as frivolous and that no current Tory spin doctor is likely to appreciate.
Both Maclean and Orwell understood the importance of history. For Orwell every injustice had a historical beginning. For Maclean every meaning and feeling had a historical starting point. These authors are the opposite of today’s right wing politicians who (without a care for their polluting effects) seek to crudely reinvent, manipulate and manufacture historical truths in ways that seek to wash their own hands of any responsibility for the cruelty that such narratives instigate. The Tory party supporting media keeps up a constant flow of divisive stories in an effort to divert us from realising that we are surrounded by a politics of oligarchy, environmental destruction and mass exploitation.
It is important for the writer, politician and voter to recognise: that things playout in specific ways because of the histories that bring us to where we are now. Water always moves downhill and it can create havoc on its way or we can work together to creatively and constructively channel its course. As the anthropologist Merleau-Ponty might have said – thought, meaning and culture always have a prior context.
In previous blogs, I have utilised a quote for Maclean’s book, ‘A River Runs Through It’, that states he is haunted by waters. I have connected this quote to problems at Standing Rock, countless (and sadly on going) deaths in the Mediterranean and the gulf between the present president of the USA and other countries. In so doing, I have argued that our current politics is haunted by waters. It is worth restating Maclean’s quote here so that we consider its beauty at the same time as reconsidering it’s meaning for our current political times:
“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters”
In essence we are haunted by waters and by words (especially divisive sound bites). TMAY and DTRUMP are insipid weak people – who don’t care who they hurt in their attempts to project themselves as powerful. TMAY calls for stronger government but her words hold no water. Our current Brexit induced elections do not require strong authoritarian government, they require Scotland to remember the Tory history of ‘strong government’ that destroyed our jobs, towns and economic infrastructures.
We are haunted by the times in Scotland’s recent (and past) history when Tory political tidal waves have overcome the sandbags of Labour opposition and wiped out our communities, persecuted disabled people, diminished our pensions, attacked women’s incomes, forced children into poverty and required our citizens to use foodbanks.
Maclean, like Orwell, would have little time for Tory sound bites because those sound bites have been over used and because, at their essence, those sound bites point to a lack of unity. The Tory ‘give us the power of stable government’ narrative (for this election) implores voters to ignore the fact that the Tories have created disunity. As such, it lacks a structure and history that is unifying.
TMAY’s ‘stability’ story lacks authenticity (and should easily be exposed) because the Tory party are the party of ‘No Brexit Plan Chaos’, ‘Red, White and Blue Brexit Chaos’ and ‘Brexit Chaos means Brexit Chaos’. The simple truth of the current political situation is that TMAY called the election to hide her own weak and chaotic political situation.
TMAY’s project fear narrative may work in England (because of Labour weakness) but it will be unlikely to work (again) in Scotland, nor overcome the liberationist narratives of Scotland’s independence parties. Scotland has imaginative politicians and citizens who are ready to turn back the tide of Tory oppression. Such liberation narratives are not open to the Tories because they have created the pain, discomfort and anxiety that Brexit induces.
The reason TMAY needs to stay away from debates is that her position will not survive scrutiny, it will be swamped by more contemporary positions. Rushed by events, (not least the fleet footwork of Nicola Sturgeon) the Tories have made an important mistake, they are fighting the current campaign using the narratives of the last election. Their mistake is that they are addicted to the late 1960’s narratives of Nixon that contrasted stability with danger.
Their narrative is stale and weak because it was previously employed by discredited politicians (not just Nixon but Cameron and Brown) and it can be reworked to remind voters of who actually called the election, who actually caused the pain of austerity and who actually put a time bomb under the flood barrier of lies that were told in 2014 (when Scottish Independence last threatened to wash away the failed state that we call the UK).
The flood gates that were put in place the last time the union was at risk (in 2014) are now under extreme pressure and many commentators believe that Scottish Independence and a united Ireland is inevitable.
In contrast to the Tories’ negative English Nationalism, independence supporters in Scotland and Ireland have a stronger liberationist script at their disposal. The Tories are promoting an anti-EU, pro English nationalism without realising that it makes them look desperate to go back to a time before the 2nd Word War. Contrast Tory desperation to hide in the past with the youthful independence of Scotland and Ireland.
When attempting to poke holes in TMAY’s flood defences, the independence parties have many more narratives open to them than are open to TMAY. Scottish political parties can choose from more contemporary, creative and convincing narratives about independence because independence has always been their specialist subject (they are the Olympic swimmers of independence) – the Tory party can not win a race to independence against Scottish opposition (The Tories still have their arm-bands on when participating in this new found event).
The Tories have forgotten Maclean’s advice to create narratives about what you know best. Granted, many a good book has been written about a topic an author is seeking to comprehend (like Maclean’s book on the Mann Gulch Fire), but, Scottish voters are aware that TMAY’s Tories have no in-depth understanding of independence and that only 2 years ago the Tories were scathing of the concept (their hypocrisy concerning the English nationalism of Brexit knows no bounds). First past the post UK politics is a nil some game and when elections become about English nationalism – Scotland/Ireland win and England/Wales lose.
Strong political narratives can also be created when authors seek to better understand, to be released from, or to overcome a historically painful issue. Social justice narratives will be important in this election, many independence supporters have experienced the worst excesses of austerity and/or feel they were conned in 2014. Recognition of past political injury is an important aspect of social justice. This aspect of social justice is something that even David Cameron (in relation to Hillsborough) and Tony Blair (in relation to Northern Ireland) understood.
Yet, TMAY cannot understand why she should recognise the emotional history of those who do not agree with her. You only have to read about the experiences of Tory members in TMAYs constituency to understand that she doesn’t care about, listen to or respect other people’s feelings. TMAY lacks empathy and is far too willing to inflict injury on those she sees as enemies (e.g. Gove, Osborne and Hammond)..
Gender politics will be very prevalent in this election. The contemporary, buoyant and internationalist gender politics of Nicola Sturgeon will be contrasted with the Stepford wives politics of TMAY.
Both Maclean and Orwell had their failings and were just as flawed human beings as the rest of us. Yet, Maclean found it easier (than Orwell) to come to terms with his imperfections and to use his self-awareness as a tool from which to celebrate the imperfections of himself and other human beings. Sturgeon has this ability – recognising and making light of your imperfections is a core value of working class Scots. This is an aspect of Nicola Sturgeons personality that is very appealing, she is very happy talking straight to the public in the street and answering direct questions from pundits.
In contrast to Sturgeon, TMAY and Ruth-D seem incapable of accepting their flaws as politicians, answer direct questions with pre-prepared meaningless phrases and seem unable to countenance opposing views. Trying to hide your imperfections by not engaging in discussions (e.g. on Tory welfare policy) is what Ruth-D and the Tories did very badly last week.
The Tories are appalling on the issue of gender. Their sexist welfare reform is a very serious issue that will hurt the Tory vote in Scotland (particularly when coupled with the removal of women’s pension rights at age 60). Rather than apologising for Westminster dodgy policies on welfare, Ruth-D has fracked her way into deep political hot waters.
The Tories (as is the way of that class of people) connect imperfection with self-loathing and anger. The Tories currently point the finger at everyone else rather than accept that it is they who spread division, they who sickeningly use rape as a political game and they who are breaking up the United Kingdom.
Jobs is the other political topic that will scald the Tories. Maclean’s writing teaches us that there is strength in being able to work with your hands, voice or text; and therefore, that no single ability should be privileged over another. The Tories of the Thatcher era created an economy the destroyed the lively hood of those who worked with their hands in factories, shipyards, steal works and mines across Scotland. More recently, George Osborne and David Cameron put the bullet into Scotland’s oil industry (they also greatly inhibited the growth of green technologies). TMAY’s Brexit legacy will destroy the livelihood of countless others who currently work with their hands in Whiskey, Food, Agriculture and Fisheries.
The audacity of TMAY is that she has adopted a headmistress tone (that chastises the Scottish people for having the impudence to discuss independence), at the very time when English nationalism is so arrogantly espoused in her own political party and English nationalism has been given life at Westminster (economically through Brexit and politically through EVEL – English votes for English laws). It is English nationalism that will break up the United Kingdom and lead to an independent Scotland and united Ireland.
TMAY is likely to pay a toll for seeking to give lessons to Scots on the morality of independence (a toll that might well signal the death of the UK). At some point the ferryman from the underworld will require TMAY to pay his price and a silver coin will be placed in the mouth of the UK state as it is taken from this world and transported down to the bottom of the sea to be laid to rest next to the shipwrecks of all the other failed empires.
On that day, a rejuvenated Scottish nation will spring forth – and a raft of positive political policies will come to the aid of the people, including: land rights, pensions, banking, childcare, renewables, citizen’s income, currency, citizenship, welfare, housing, etc., .