Notes from George Orwell on Writing and Revolution

As I first re-read George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” I thought I was just stopping by for the delightful sketch of an unhappy childhood (and the triumphalist idea that I, by riding on George Orwell’s coattails, had also bested my unhappy years).

But then I reached this passage:

 “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.”

It is not unlike what (poet) Mahmoud Darwish has said about writing-while-Palestinian, that one “has to use the word to resist the military occupation, and has to resist – on behalf of the word – the danger of the banal and the repetitive. How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times? The questions are difficult.”

In his essay, Orwell lays out four reasons why the human writes: (i) Sheer egoism, (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm, (iii) Historical impulse, and (iv) Political purpose. If Orwell had lived in quieter times, he adds, he would have preferred to give free reign to the first three motives, purple prose and all. Of course, he did not — as we do not. Really, I have trouble imagining them: “quiet times.”

Orwell closes his essay…well, quietly:

 I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

This week, Nov. 13-15, Cairo University is hosting a “Creativity and Revolution” conference. If you’re going, well, it wouldn’t hurt to re-read Orwell’s essayIt probably also wouldn’t hurt to download the program.