Friday, March 8, 2013

Clarity of Thought and Prose: Orwell and the English Language

“As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

                                                                                                                                  - George Orwell

Until today, I don’t think I’ve ever read Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language in its entirety, and his thesis hit home like a slap to the neocortex, both with respect to what I read every day in the media and what I write myself. His essay also ties in nicely to a post I’ve been meaning to write for weeks explaining why I blog so infrequently even though I have a lengthy and ever-growing list of ideas for posts. It's gotten to the point where once-meaningful jottings like "Ajahn Sumedho and principles" and "The simplicity of awakened awareness" no longer connect to anything in my brain--though I think the latter phrase could be an excellent title for a blank post.

Orwell argues that instead of writing each sentence to express exactly what we want to say, and using fresh imagery to make our ideas clearer, we often write in abstractions and string together a series of shopworn phrases (e.g., shopworn phrases) and unnecessary, superfluous, and infelicitous jargon. In doing this we not only muddy our meaning to the reader, but to ourselves.

This is a tendency I’ve noticed in my own writing for quite a long time. I’ll often write some statement that sounds very powerful and persuasive, but when I consider its truth in concrete terms, I realize that it’s an overgeneralization. Typically, my response is to further complicate the statement by throwing in some qualifiers. At other times, when I try to clarify the meaning of some abstract statement, I realize that I’m not entirely sure what I meant to say in the first place. This happens quite often when I try to write about Buddhism. I realize that I’m using some term, such as awareness, in a vague way, and even if I understand the meaning I’m trying to convey, I wonder whether my language is consistent with that of more learned students of Buddhism. As an example, is my experience of metta substantially similar to theirs? Is the common term “lovingkindness” really an apt representation of the experience? If I said “warmth and friendly good wishes” instead, would anyone understand what I was talking about? If I just stick with the Pali term so that people can choose their own preferred translation, will they think I’m being pretentious? How quickly I’ve moved from the sincere desire to write clearly and truthfully to a concern about the opinions of others, and all without having gotten down a single sentence.

I often find it even more difficult to express experiential phenomena or self-insights in clear language. What feels profound comes across as trite or banal on the page. Simple language is easy to overlook or dismiss as oversimplification. Orwell argues that employing fresh metaphors is a good way to clarify and concretize our ideas. There’s a reason a book like Animal Farm has such a deep and enduring impact on the mind, yet coming up with original metaphors is serious work, at least for someone like me who is not primarily a visual thinker. Oh well. As Boxer said in Animal Farm, “I will work harder.”

No comments:

Post a Comment