1984 Essays Power

But succinct as it might be, it fails to acknowledge that Orwell’s prose, for all its clarity, was rarely mere glass.At various times, particularly in his essays, language assumes all sorts of roles: scalpel; microscope; mirror; weapon.So long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

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“Political language,” he wrote in 1946, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Right now is as good a time as any — and better than most — to turn from Orwell’s novels to his essays, where language itself is held to account and the only wind the reader encounters is the bracing gale of a fearless mind at work.

, the English novelist George Orwell describes a dystopian world so disciplined that all vestiges of humanity and individuality are systematically subsumed under the control of the totalitarian state.

That both novels are suddenly on the radar of people who probably haven’t given Orwell a second thought in years is hardly surprising at a time when war refugees are painted as national security threats, white nationalists hold positions of power in the White House and an American president is openly involved in an abusive relationship with the English language.

Orwell, the pen name of the Indian-born Eric Arthur Blair, speaks to us in this moment not only because he understood that words have the power both to shackle and to liberate, but also because since high school have probably forgotten. It is a chronicle of a crushing, obliterating defeat.) The fact that Orwell was clear-eyed enough, meanwhile, to perceive the brute peril manifest in both Stalinism and in the fascism of a Mussolini or a Hitler provides commentators across the political divide with handy phrases to wield against their ideological foes: (Recent events suggest a tasseled loafer stamping on a human face forever might be a more likely scenario.) Regardless of how prescient Orwell’s novels might seem, his powerful, tightly argued essays remain far more relevant in our current batshit cuckoo political climate.

Those readers who pick up his fiction seeking to navigate today’s fraudulent, profoundly cynical rhetoric could well miss out on the best, most concise, most penetrating writings of a man whose constant intent was to interrogate his own beliefs, while holding those in power accountable for theirs.

As George Packer, the editor of two excellent editions of Orwell’s essays once put it: “In his best work, Orwell’s arguments are mostly with himself.” Orwell was an essayist first and last.

Take a passage like this one, from an essay exploring why H. Wells (one of Orwell’s boyhood heroes) could never grapple with the true nature of totalitarianism because he “was too sane to understand the modern world”: Because he belonged to the nineteenth century and to a non-military nation and class …

he was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity.

Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.

The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a Fascist streak in themselves.


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