Monday, 25 June 2018

Worlds on Orwell and Writing :
1 Introduction and Political Purpose (1)

There are various reasons one might write. George Orwell, in his essay, Why I Write (1946) suggested four reasons. These are the four. 

“(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
 (iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Each of Orwell’s reasons was the subject of a pair of provocations in the form of ten-minute thoughts or riffs offered for general discussion. Those discussions took the form of eight conversations, two on each of Orwell's reasons.   

‘Conversations’ seems the appropriate word because unlike, say, a formal enquiry or academic conference, conversations can range far and wide and the ostensible subject can develop in a variety of ways. Like a creature growing legs it may scamper off altogether elsewhere. But that’s the joy of conversation: it releases startling ideas and possibilities.

The conference was a sum of those provocations, possibilities, focusings and scamperings-off, with Jon Cook in the Chair and I as the recording less-than-angel. This is the record as a took it, editing it as best I can, trying to mark all the main points and hoping to be true to the character of the sessions.

The last shall be first it was decided and political purpose took precedence. There may be all kinds of reasons for this, including our heightened awareness of frightening political developments in many parts of the world at the same time.

First Provocation: Political Purpose 1

Since the first paper was given by me, it is hard to give a proper account of the discussion that followed but at the heart of the provocation was a practical question. How does the writer respond to worrying developments in a given political situation as a matter of urgency? 

Writers may of course lobby or collect signatures for petitions (as indeed I did) but one needn’t be a writer to do that. What does help, if one has access to the press, is the raising of issues through articles. 

For poets, however, the provocation suggested, quoting Auden and Keats, there may be a problem in the very nature of the medium, something that resists its utilisation for a set political purpose.  There were of course revolutionary anthems and, under repressive conditions, as in thirties Russia and in post-war Eastern Europe, poems of subtle and ironic political resistance. The provocation showed a certain distrust of the former. This was not to suggest that poetry should not deal with politics but that it should be wary of being used by specific groups as propaganda.

Political purpose, as Orwell defined it, consisted of the desire to push the world in a certain direction. Was poetry the right vehicle for that?


The discussion that followed did not focus on the specifics of poetry – there were few poets in the room - but concentrated on the ways different kinds of politics might be addressed by fiction and non-fiction, looking away from the urgency of the practical issue at hand (in the case of the provocation, as situated in Hungary) towards the deeper roots of what constituted the moral and political imagination and the fierce moral currents surging through contemporary literature.

There was talk of the relationship between art and propaganda. There was discussion of Orwell and gender. Who is the writer, the ‘I’ that makes the observations, that is at the centre of events. Does the figure that does the observing represent anyone else, some other group.  We considered revolutionary poetry in, say South America, the work of Shelley in The Masque of Anarchy as both a direct response to a political event but also as a disruption of a courtly form and its shifting onto a democratic sphere.


Gwil W said...

George Orwell is one of my favourite authors, George!

I'm pleased you are writing about him. His Road to Wigan Pier, Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and 1984 are my Orwell favourites.

Diane DeBell said...

I have been having some difficulty with your comment, "The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers".