Orwell declared that there are “four great motives” for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. As for the rest of us...
As I write this column, two stories are predominating national news coverage: the devastation in Haiti and the debacle at NBC.
Tied for second place is the behind-the-scenes Election ’08 gossip from the Beltway book Game Change, and the Golden Globes Awards. Oh, how I long to weigh in on the Leno/O’Brien imbroglio, with the simple suggestion of giving Jon Stewart The Tonight Show slot, followed by a late-late night show with Stephen Colbert.
Or defend Elizabeth Edwards, who was characterized in Game Change as “cranky” and “[flying] into a rage”—descriptions that are very rarely applied to men. And, to point out the obvious: a woman who has lost a child in a car accident, has undergone treatment for breast cancer, and is dealing with terminal cancer, her husband’s notorious affair, and the existence of a love child by said husband with the other woman, is allowed to be a little cranky now and then.
Or wonder why Julia Roberts got to sit next to Paul McCartney at the Golden Globes. After all, did she watch them on the Ed Sullivan Show? Or play the Beatles board game with her sister? Or freak out that Paul was dead because he wore a black carnation on the Magical Mystery Tour album and crossed Abbey Road barefoot? Or go with her friends to the Wings Over America Tour and shout nasty things at Linda McCartney because she’d stolen the world’s most eligible bachelor from us? I didn’t think so.
I’d like to write about these things today but I can’t because of George Orwell.
Damn Orwell! It’s not enough that he wrote not just one, but two books that are included on every American high school required reading list, Animal Farm and 1984. Or that the term “Orwellian” is so much a part of the vernacular that Googling it produces an astonishing 1,060,000 hits.
He also has the gall to call into question the very notion of writing about pop culture during times of strife, which is to say, at all times."How," he taunts me from the grave, "can you spend precious time, creativity, and column inches on such trivial matters when as many as 200,000 people have died in Haiti, unknown numbers of the dead aren’t properly buried, and many of the living are without sufficient food or fresh water and are at serious risk of getting cholera, tuberculosis, and other diseases?" How, indeed.
Orwell made the case for why he felt compelled to write with what he called “political purpose” in his classic 1946 essay “Why I Write”. I’m on very familiar terms with this essay, having taught it in two courses at Emerson College: The Artist as Activist and Creativity in Context (yes, academia is fond of alliteration). The questions it raises never fail to unnerve me.
After taking the reader on a brief visit to his early days as a writer, told in the sort of humble, self-deprecating manner that only a high-achieving person can afford to adopt, Orwell arrives at the crux of the matter, the “four great motives” for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.
Sheer egoism is the “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.”
Aesthetic enthusiasm is the “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.”
Historical impulse is the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
And, finally, political purpose is the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
Orwell acknowledges that, by nature, he was driven by the first three motives, but given the times he was living in—British imperialism, Nazism, Fascism—he had to write politically and to turn political writing into an art. As he states, “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.”
Moreover, “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.”
How about my brief defense of Elizabeth Edwards? Aren’t I striving to “push the world in a certain direction” by getting people to see how women in the public eye are sometimes treated unfairly? Or that not even come close reaching the bar set by Orwell for political purpose?
As Meryl Streep said in her acceptance speech for her winning role in Julie & Julia, "I come to Golden Globes weekend and I am conflicted how to have my happy movie self in the face of everything I'm aware of in the real world.” I’m with Meryl. It would be wonderful to have the clear sense of right and wrong that Orwell brings to the discussion of the duty of the writer. But for now, I’m going to have to settle for being conflicted.