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The Politics of George Orwell Day
As well as, “officially”, the most depressing day of the year, today marks the 63rd anniversary of the death of George Orwell. With a sense of timing as bizarre as it is macabre, Penguin books have chosen this auspicious date for their inaugural “Orwell Day” (why not wait until the 25th of June, the 110th anniversary of Orwell’s birth?). With a sense of timing as opportunist as it is hubristic, the writer Steven Poole has seized upon this auspicious occasion by starting a beef with Orwell in the Guardian. Declaring “Politics and the English Language” “wildly overrated”, its “assault on political euphemism […] righteous but limited”, Poole seeks to draw a line in the sand before all this Orwell-sanctification gets out of hand—63 years is long enough, it seems.
Poole has written a book on political rhetoric himself (his piece includes a helpful hyperlink so you can purchase it from a well-known “order fulfillment service”), so you might suspect there to be some anxiety of influence at play here. You’d be canny in your suspicion; Poole’s excoriation is the latest in a long line of “prolier-than-thou” responses to Orwell’s work.
“Always”, in Michael Shelden’s words, “a hostile critic”, Orwell was the master of this type of criticism. As he explained to Stephen Spender in 1938: “I do not mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel I ought to.” Poole clearly feels that he “ought” to throw some brutality towards Orwell, which may be fair enough. Frothing that “most of” Orwell’s essay “is the kind of nonsense screed against linguistic pet hates that anyone today might compose in a green-text email to the newspapers”, it would seem that Poole has missed his target somewhat. I’m not entirely sure what a “green-text e-mail” is, but letters to the editor tend not to be celebrated for their inspiringly clear prose.
Poole’s essay leaks wider and wider of the mark. For example, he responds to Orwell’s remark that “there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language” by asking “Whither poetry?” Leaving aside the problematic notion that English poetry so obviously benefits from (or even depends on) foreign phrases—a certain je ne sais quoi perhaps—that a rhetorical question is sufficient rebuttal, this is a nonsense objection. Poets and poems are clearly not the target here: Orwell may not, as Poole (rather disingenuously) points out, have liked the Four Quartets, but he didn’t suggest that they would be improved had Eliot written them before a blown-up poster of the writing tips with which “Politics” ends.
Even if, as Poole argues, Orwell is little more than a bigoted linguistic pedant (and Poole, certainly, is one too), is this anything to be ashamed of, to decry? I think not. In his wonderful, 21st century version of “Politics”, “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage”, David Foster Wallace proudly announces himself a SNOOT: “Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance”. Descending from a rich lineage of SNOOTery, Wallace defines his kind “as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it”. Steven Poole knows what dysphemism means—he uses it in his book; so did Orwell. So, as it goes, do I. We are all closer together than our differences and, as such, I think we should stick together. After all, as Wallace warns, “we SNOOTs are just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd”. Amen, brother.
Calum Mechie is reading for a DPhil in English at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. He is a contributor to the sports website SB Nation.