Monday, May 20, 2013

Words To Live By

Four years ago on this blog, I collected a number of quotes from the essays of George Orwell in a post I called George Orwell's Ready Reckoner. It was the first of what I intended to be a series. But, as way led on to way, I never got around to a second installment. I hope this makes up for my negligence.

As the following quotes demonstrate, he was, aside from a superb prose stylist, a sensitive literary critic, a political thinker of genius, and a fearless observer of the world around him. As Orwell wrote of Shakespeare, "If one has once read [him] with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic but illuminating way." Orwell could have said as much of himself.

Here is the latest batch, in no particular order.


It is difficult to think of any politician who has lived to be eighty and still been regarded as a success. What we call a 'great' statesman normally means one who dies before his policy has had time to take effect. If Cromwell had lived a few years longer he would probably have fallen from power, in which case we should now regard him as a failure. If Pétain had died in 1930, France would have venerated him as a hero and patriot. Napoleon remarked once that if only a cannon ball had happened to hit him when he was riding into Moscow, he would have gone down in history as the greatest man who ever lived. (James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution, 1946)


When one thinks of the cruelty, squalor, and futility of war - and in this particular case of the intrigues, the persecutions, the lies and the misunderstandings - there is always the temptation to say: "One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral." In practice, however, one cannot be neutral, and there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. (Looking Back on the Spanish War, 1942)


You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character as you can with, say, Peter Bezukhov. And this is not merely because of Tolstoy's greater seriousness, for there are also comic characters that you can imagine yourself talking to - Bloom, for instance, or Pécuchet, or even Wells's Mr Polly. It is because Dickens's characters have no mental life. (Charles Dickens, 1940)


There is always a temptation to claim that any book whose tendency one disagrees with must be a bad book from a literary point of view. (Notes on Nationalism, 1945)


"Raffles" is a good book, and so is "The Island of Dr. Moreau," and so is "La Chartreuse de Parme,: and so is "Macbeth"; but they are "good" at very different levels. Similarly, "If Winter Comes" and "The Well-Beloved" and "An Unsocial Socialist" and "Sir Lancelot Greaves" are all bad books, but at different levels of "badness." This is the fact that the hack-reviewer has made it his special business to obscure. (In Defense of the Novel, 1936)


Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later - some time within the next hundred years, say, and not some time within the next ten thousand years. (Looking Back on the Spanish War, 1942)


Philosophers, writers, artists, even scientists, not only need encouragement and an audience, they need constant stimulation from other people. It is almost impossible to think without talking. If Defoe had really lived on a desert island he could not have written Robinson Crusoe, nor would he have wanted to. (As I Please 22, 1944)


What is the special quality in modern life that makes a major human motive out of the impulse to bully others? (As I Please 63, 1946)


A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. (Charles Dickens, 1940)


When we gorge ourselves this Christmas, if we do get the chance to gorge ourselves, it is worth giving a thought to the thousand million human beings, or thereabouts, who will be doing no such thing. For in the long run our Christmas dinners would be safer if we could make sure that everyone else had a Christmas dinner as well. (As I Please 66, 1946)


... the ancient boneheap of Europe, where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies. (Inside the Whale, 1940)



The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. (Politics and the English Language, 1946)


Art and propaganda are never quite separable, and ... what are supposed to be purely aesthetic judgements are always corrupted to some extent by moral or political or religious loyalties. (Tolstoy and Shakespeare, 1941)


If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. (The Freedom of the Press, 1946)


The theory that civilisation moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality. (Review of The Development of William Butler Yeats by V.K. Narayana Menon, 1943))



All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand. (Why I Write, 1946)


Much of the literature that comes to us out of the past is permeated by and in fact founded on beliefs (the belief in the immortality of the soul, for example) which now seem to us false and in some cases contemptibly silly. (Inside the Whale, 1940)


What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once. Any writer who not is utterly lifeless moves upon a kind of parabola, and the downward curve is implied in the upward one. (Charles Dickens, 1940)


Nearly all Western thought since the last war, certainly all "progressive" thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. (Review of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, 1940)


Every piece of writing has its propaganda aspect, and yet in any book or play or poem or what-not that is to endure there has to be a residuum of something we can only call art. (Tolstoy and Shakespeare, 1941)


Nourished for hundreds of years on a literature in which Right invariably triumphs in the last chapter, we believe half-instinctively that evil always defeats itself in the long run. Pacifism, for instance, is founded largely on this belief. Don't resist evil, and it will somehow destroy itself. But why should it? What evidence is there that it does? And what instance is there of a modern industrialized state collapsing unless conquered from the outside by military force? (Looking Back on the Spanish War, 1942)


War is of its nature barbarous, it is better to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savages we are, some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable. (As I Please 25, 1944)


All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure. (Arthur Koestler, 1944)


The worst crimes are not always the punishable ones. (Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali, 1944)




The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory. (James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution, 1946)


The creative impulse seems to last for about 15 years: in a prose writer these 15 years would probably be between the ages of 30 and 45, or thereabouts ... Many writers, perhaps most, ought simply to stop writing when they reach middle age. Unfortunately our society will not let them stop. Most of them know no other way of earning a living, and writing, with all that goes with it - quarrels, rivalries, flattery, the sense of being a semi-public figure - is habit-forming. (As I Please 64, 1946)


It is obvious that any economic system would work equitably if men could be trusted to behave themselves but long experience has shown that in matters of property only a tiny minority of men will behave any better than they are compelled to do. (Review of Communism and Man by F.J. Sheed, 1939)


All through the Christian ages, and especially since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted by the idea of freedom and equality; it is only an idea, but it has penetrated to all ranks of society ... Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. (Charles Dickens, 1940)


The art of writing is in fact largely the perversion of words, and I would even say that the less obvious this perversion is, the more thoroughly it has been done. For a writer who seems to twist words out of their meanings (e.g. Gerard Manley Hopkins) is really, if one looks closely, making a desperate attempt to use them straightforwardly. (New Words, 1940)


When sexual frankness ceased to be possible, picaresque literature was robbed of perhaps half of its subject matter. The eighteenth-century inn where it was almost abnormal to go into the right bedroom was a lost dominion. (Tobias Smollett: Scotland's Best Novelist, 1944)  

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