Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell

Quote of the Day

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George Orwell

[George Orwell] never abated his anger against the established order…[But he] clung with a kind of wry, grim pride to the old ways of the last class that had ruled the old order. He must sometimes have wondered how it came about that he should be praising sportsmanship and gentlemanliness and dutifulness and physical courage. He seems to have thought, and very likely he was right, that they might come in handy as revolutionary virtues…Certainly the virtues he praised were those of survival, and they had fallen into disrepute in a disordered world.

Lionel Trilling, “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth”

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

The first envoy

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The Left Hand of Darkness

And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of…and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai, the central character of The Left Hand of Darkness, is a lone envoy sent from Earth to convince the people of Gethen, an isolated planet of perpetual winter, to join the Ekumen, a confederation of eighty-three inhabited worlds. Genly’s mission is absurdly difficult, to the point where it often seems inherently impossible. He doesn’t carry any technology aside from an ansible, a communications device that can transmit messages instantaneously across the galaxy, and he’s set apart from the Gethenians in fundamental ways—the planet’s inhabitants are ambisexual, with no fixed gender, and the idea of being permanently male or female strikes many of them as a form of perversion. Not surprisingly, few believe his story. His spacecraft was confiscated on his arrival by the government, and although he could, in theory, call down a mother ship at any time, he refuses to do so until the Gethenians have agreed to join the coalition. (The situation is only complicated by a growing rivalry between the neighboring countries of Karhide and Orgoryen, which prompts one character to wonder: “How does one hate a country, or love one?…What is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”) Genly’s only option is to somehow persuade them on his own, which could take years, if it happens at all. In the past, envoys to other planets have been killed. When asked why the Ekumen takes this seemingly irrational approach, Genly explains: “I was sent alone, and remain here alone, in order to make it impossible of you to fear me.” Later, he expands upon this: “The First Envoy to a world always comes alone. One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion.”

At first, inevitably, it goes poorly. The only person in the kingdom of Karhide who seems to believe Genly, the prime minister Estraven, is abruptly exiled, and his place is taken by another politician, Tibe, who is hostile to the envoy’s mission, openly nationalistic, and eager to manipulate a vulnerable king. As Genly observes in his report:

Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn, vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the kingdom’s borders”…He talked much about pride of country and love of the parent land, but little about shifgrethor [mutual honor and respect], personal pride, or prestige…I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse elements of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

In this passage, Le Guin, writing in a novel that was first published in 1969, seems even more prescient than George Orwell. Genly continues: “It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer…hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness…Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.” And the situation in Karhide has obvious parallels to our own:

Slow as their material and technological advance had been, little as they valued “progress” in itself, they had finally, in the last five or ten or fifteen centuries, got a little ahead of Nature. They weren’t absolutely at the mercy of their merciless climate any longer; a bad harvest would not starve a whole province, or a bad winter isolate every city…Now Karhide was to pull herself together…and the way to make her do it was not by sparking her pride, or building up her trade, or improving her roads, farms, colleges, and so on; none of that; that’s all civilization, veneer, and Tibe dismissed it with scorn. He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make people into a nation: war.

But here’s the sentence that chills the blood my most: “[Tibe’s] ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound.”

Yet I think that Le Guin is in some ways greater than Orwell, whom I admire enormously, because she hints at a way forward—although it isn’t an easy one. It lies in Genly’s ultimate understanding of his mission, which he only realizes toward the end of the book:

I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou…[The Ekumen’s] doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones; rather as evolution does, which is in certain senses its model…So was I sent alone, for your sake? Or for my own? I don’t know.

Le Guin’s solution, which I won’t reveal, isn’t entirely satisfying, but the problem she poses is very real. The predicament that she describes is an extreme one, but on some level, we’re all in Genly’s position. We may acquire a few allies along the way, but we’re fundamentally alone, and we’re trying to deal with impersonal forces that seem too large for any one person to change. In all too many cases, they are. But it’s only on the individual level, and day by day, that true change ever happens. There have been envoys before us, of course. But whenever we reach out to make a connection with another human being, it’s as if it’s happening for the very first time.

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2017 at 10:02 am

The gospel of nouns and verbs

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The Elements of Style

That’s not a Bible issue.

Franklin Graham, on the presidential refugee order

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White advise in The Elements of Style. It’s one of the first rules that many aspiring writers hear, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why it works. When you make a point of telling stories and expressing thoughts using tangible nouns and concrete verbs, you quickly find that the result is more vivid, clear, and memorable. It’s an exercise in clarity that amounts to a form of courtesy, not just to the reader, but to yourself. Not every idea can be conveyed in the form of images or actions, but by at least making the effort, you’re more likely to discover the areas where your own thinking is muddled or incomplete. The reverse also holds true. Just as a safety handbook becomes a sabotage manual when you just do the opposite of everything it says, The Elements of Style can be used to confuse and mislead, simply by inverting each of its rules into its own negation. By relying on the passive voice, vague language, and empty abstractions, you can make it harder for readers to understand what you’re really saying, or even to think for themselves. As George Orwell knew, such tactics can be used deliberately by governments to discourage critical thinking, and they can also be used unconsciously to avoid uncomfortable truths that we’d prefer not to confront. (My favorite illustration is Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” which is maybe the single best piece of online content I’ve seen in the last decade.)

And for an example of its potential consequences, you don’t need to look any further than an ongoing experiment that has been underway, in one form or another, for close to two thousand years. It’s called the New Testament. I’ve spoken before of my admiration for The Five Gospels, an ambitious attempt to use modern scholarly tools and consensus to uncover the original core of Jesus’s message. The Jesus Seminar takes a number of approaches to evaluating the authenticity of this material, but one of its most powerful methods comes down to an application of simple common sense. By definition, anything that Jesus said that survived to be written down in the latter half of the first century must have persisted for decades by word of mouth. We can get a rough sense of how that oral tradition might have looked by figuring out, almost from first principles, what kind of material is most likely to be passed down with a minimum of alteration. It tends to consist mostly of short, pithy, self-contained sayings or stories with distinctive ideas, memorable images, or apparent paradoxes. The resulting “database” of parables and aphorisms can be used as a baseline from which we can analyze the rest, and what we find, inevitably, is that the teachings that pass this initial test are concrete, rather than abstract—a gospel of nouns and verbs. You could even say that the whole point of Strunk and White’s rule is to make written prose approximate the vigor and power of spoken language. And the sayings of Jesus that have been transmitted to us intact exemplify a predominantly oral culture at its best.

The Five Gospels

As the scholars of the Jesus Seminar take pains to point out, identifying certain verses as more likely to have emerged from an oral tradition doesn’t mean that we should ignore the rest. But it’s no exaggeration to say that when we read the gospels with an eye to emphasizing what might plausibly have been recalled by Jesus’s original listeners, we end up with a picture that is startlingly different from what many of us hear in church. For one thing, it’s a message that consists largely of specific actions. Here are some of the sayings that seem most likely to be authentic:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies.

The Jesus Seminar also identifies verses in which the sentiment appears to have been modified over time to make it more palatable. Matthew, for instance, has “Give to the one who begs from you,” which feels like a softening of Luke’s impossible “Give to everyone who begs from you.” In addition, we end up losing many extended passages of theological exposition that seem unlikely to have been remembered by anyone. Most strikingly, this means giving up nearly all of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus does little else but make claims about himself or expound upon his own nature—a portrait that is inconsistent with both the mechanics of oral transmission and what little we know about Jesus himself.

And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this gospel is very different from the one that I associate with going to church, which sometimes seems to consist of nothing but metaphysical claims and confessions of belief. This is partially a statistical artifact: the original words of Jesus, whatever they were, account for a very small percentage of the verses in the New Testament. But I think there’s also something more insidious at work. Organized religion embraces abstract language for the same reason that it was incorporated into the gospels in the first place: it makes it easier to live with the underlying message by diluting it beyond recognition, and it excludes outsiders while smoothing over inconvenient issues that might divide the congregation. It’s far easier to meditate on the nature of Christ than to consider the true implications of the words “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” (One of the first notable schisms within the church, revealingly, was over a choice of adjectives.) Like many forms of institutionalized abstraction, it has real implications for the inner lives of its believers. It makes it possible for millions of Christians to convince themselves that the recent presidential order on refugees is consistent with the values that Jesus explicitly expressed toward the poor, the vulnerable, and the homeless. Franklin Graham, whose own charity is named for the parable that tells us that compassion goes beyond borders, says that it isn’t a biblical issue. Maybe it isn’t, at least not in the subset of the Bible that he has chosen to take to heart. But Orwell had a word for it—doublethink. And Graham would do well to remember the verse that reads: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

A father’s case for physical books

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The Book Table in Oak Park

Over the weekend, I brought my daughter Beatrix to her first bookstore, the Book Table in Oak Park, which is arguably the best independent bookshop in the Chicago area. I love it, first of all, because they keep plenty of my own novels in stock, but also because their selection is fascinating and thoughtfully curated. Every table is covered in modestly discounted copies of new releases, many of which I’d never seen before, with an emphasis on art, design, and books from speciality publishers like Taschen and NYRB Classics. I never leave without making a few wonderful discoveries—or at least adding some potential items to my holiday wish list—and I always emerge with a newfound appreciation of the social importance of independent bookstores. Jason, the owner, has been a good friend and supporter, and I was perfectly honest when I told him that I expect to bring Beatrix back for years to come.

Yet the visit also got me thinking about the role that books will play both in my daughter’s life and in the lives of other children the same age. Bookstores, as we all know, are disappearing across the country; so, too, are bookshelves in private homes, as readers increasingly begin to rely on devices like the Kindle. I’m not against electronic books in any way, and they’re clearly a great option for a lot of adult readers. But I think there’s a risk here. As I’ve said elsewhere, I owe much of my education and my love of reading to scrounging for books on my own parents’ bookshelves. These weren’t books that I was asked, or even permitted, to read; they were simply there, lined up alluringly, and it was only a matter of time before I was reading well over my head. Now, however, we’re looking at the prospect of a generation of children raised in the households of parents who may love reading, but lack an environment of physical books that kids can discover on their own. And I’m concerned about this.

The Amazon Kindle

I’ve spoken before about the end of browsing, in which astonishing online resources can give us instant access to the exact book we want, but aren’t nearly as good at giving us books we never knew we needed. For adults, recommendations and social networks go part of the way toward solving the problem, but they aren’t a perfect answer. Time and again, they tend to return to the same handful of established classics or recent books—nearly every reading thread on Reddit seems to center on Vonnegut, Infinite Jest, or House of Leaves—and they rarely find time for the neglected, the unfairly forgotten, or the out of print. It’s an even greater problem for children, who tend to be steered toward approved or required reading, and lack the resources to seek out other books on their own. The tricky thing about buying books for kids is that you never quite know when they’ll make the next big leap. Usually, it happens on its own. And the first step, at least for me, was rummaging unsupervised through an adult bookshelf.

In my case, I’m not too worried about Beatrix, who will inevitably grow up in a house crammed with books, and who has a father who will probably be delighted the first time he catches her reading George Orwell or Stephen King. But I’m still of the mind that the decline of printed books in many homes has consequences that can’t be entirely addressed by reading aloud or stocking the house with books for kids. A Kindle is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t evoke the same kind of curiosity—or access to randomness—that a fully stocked bookshelf can, and it can’t compete with other kinds of screens. One solution, of course, is to bring children to bookstores or libraries and just let them wander: the moment I first ventured into the grownup section of my hometown library is still one of my most exciting memories. But the best answer is also the simplest one: to keep buying physical books, not for your children, but for yourself.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2013 at 9:45 am

A reader’s family tree

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A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

When we think of our favorite books, we tend to picture a tidy shelf or a ranked list, but they’re really more like a family tree, with authors sprouting haphazardly from those who came before. In my case, the first books I remember loving with a fanboy’s passion were the works of Charles Schulz. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house filled with vintage Peanuts paperbacks, which meant that even as the strip was starting its long daily decline, I was reading one of the great extended works of art of the twentieth century. What caught me was its tone: it was immediately appealing to kids, but written for adults, with storylines that were a complicated mix of psychology, whimsy, and despair. (I remember surprising my mother when I complained, at the age of nine, that I was suffering from a post-Christmas letdown.) In some ways, Peanuts set the stage for all that followed: it taught me that even as you’re caught up in the lives of fictional but maddeningly persuasive human beings, you can feel your mind expanding. The best years of the strip still make me feel that way, which is why I plan on introducing them to my own daughter as soon as she’s old enough to read on her own.

The next big branch consisted of a handful of authors who would be shelved these days in the young adult section: Madeleine L’Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Ellen Raskin, E.L. Konigsburg, and others, most of them women. L’Engle caught my attention first, and looking back, I think it’s because A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels were my introduction to serious science fiction, with astrophysics and relativity interwoven with ethics, theology, and family drama. I moved from there to fantasy—I don’t think any book has ever moved me as much as The High King—and the usual string of Hardy Boys adventures. (Oddly, I also read two authors who didn’t affect me nearly as much then as they did later. The Phantom Tollbooth only became my favorite children’s novel after I was already an adult and could appreciate how much wisdom it contained, and although I loved Sherlock Holmes, I didn’t become obsessed with him until I was about to go to college, and discovered William S. Baring-Gould’s incredible annotations.) And the writer who took me to the next level, as he has for so many others, was George Orwell: after Animal Farm and 1984, I knew there was no going back.

Stephen King's It

Next comes an author whose influence I’ve only recently begun to acknowledge, although he’s been a big part of my life for a long time. I read The Talisman somewhere at the beginning of middle school, and over the next year or so, I devoured most of the books from Stephen King’s classic period. These are still the novels I’d recommend to someone who wanted to get into the habit of reading for the first time: they still grab me as they did then, and they’ve aged far better than most popular fiction. King also marked a turning point in another important respect. Until then, I’d been reading the books that most teens my age or slightly older were reading, though perhaps with greater intensity, but now that my destiny had locked into place—I knew I wanted to be a writer—I found myself faced with many possible paths. It’s really only by chance that I stumbled next onto Umberto Eco: it could have been any number of other writers, and I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I’d been drawn to, say, Hemingway or Updike. In any case, I read The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum right when I was most vulnerable to being deeply influenced, and I’m still feeling the effects.

Later, in high school, I fell under the spell of Norman Mailer, as much for the life he seemed to embody as for the books he wrote. (I still haven’t read The Naked and the Dead, and the Mailer novels that made the biggest impression on me were those weird, monumental outliers Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost.) Borges came slightly later. Since then, the family tree seems to have smoothed itself out: there are many leaves, but fewer branches. Most of the books I now call my favorites are ones that I read during or after college, but although I’ll occasionally go through a period when I want to read everything an author has written—McEwan, Forsyth, Updike finally—the sense of a reading life that grows unchecked has mostly fallen away. It used to be a jungle; now it’s more like a garden, as I search out the great books that I’ve missed before and check off them off my list. I used to read like a child, and now I read like a grownup, or, worse, a writer. And that’s something of a loss. I still find books that excite me tremendously, even if I’ve been putting them off for years, but if I want to recover that early sense of contentment, I often pick up Conan Doyle, or King, or even Peanuts. But I’m always secretly hopeful that I’ll get that feeling again. The tree still has room to grow.

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2013 at 9:50 am

A few simple rules from George Orwell

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1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2012 at 10:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2011 at 11:36 pm

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