Homage to catatonia

By Benjamin Massey · January 28th, 2017 · 1 comment

The Americans had an election, meaning four more years of badly-microwaved Nineteen Eighty-Four metaphors. Colby Cosh just dealt with this (probably helping spur the Twitter reply that jogged this post), but the Donald can console himself knowing that Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton got this treatment too. If you could persevere through enough Noam Chomsky, and I cannot, you could probably find examples going back to Lyndon Johnson. It’s an easy political trope because Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the only overtly political story whose plot every English-speaker broadly knows, in the same sense as Hamlet, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. (Incidentally this is not because of its wisdom: plenty of anti-totalitarians had that. It’s because Nineteen Eighty-Four is, secretly, a very good novel.)

Orwell, who died seven sickly months after completing Nineteen Eighty-Four, never got to see it so mistreated. But he would have known how to deal with it if he had. His “Politics and the English Language” probably holds more insight per hundred words than any other work of English prose, and along with important political thoughts offers plenty of sound stylistic advice, the sort that takes conscious effort to apply and is therefore often ignored by people who should know better. One of his nemeses is the use of metaphors that are worthless for illustrating concepts but arise out of laziness. These are “dying metaphors;” he adds more under the heading of “pretentious diction” but his criticism of the former applies equally to the latter. How many of us actually know what makes a boot into a jackboot, and how few of us avoid the metaphor as a result?

This essay is more than seventy years old and most of those dying metaphors still hang on despite Orwell’s do-not-resuscitate order. Google any of them along with the word “Trump,” even Britishisms like “ring the changes,” and enjoy recent results from professional writers. Try it yourself. “Fishing in troubled waters,” which may actually be dead in most of the Anglosphere, appears only as a quote in a Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial but the writer likes it for the Trump campaign, so it counts. Perhaps it is a resurrected metaphor, breathing tubes shoved down its windpipe even as the doctors insist on its total brain death.

The entire essay could be aimed at modern political writing with a precision as far from Nostradamus as jackboots from tridents. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’;” bloody hell, that’s on the nose. “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” Well, quite. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Apply that to whichever politician you hate most; it’s just as true for all of them.

Today, as in 1946, none of his critiques should offend your own politics. Orwell was a devout Socialist, with the capital “S,” for all his adult life, and his uninterest in the United States is infamous. It is impossible to imagine him having a millisecond for Donald Trump the celebrity/businessman, let alone Donald Trump the head of state1, but a Socialist who can be evenhanded with both Soviet Russia and Oswald Mosley would have been big enough to handle him. Orwell hated fascists enough to go to Spain and get shot through the throat by one, and by the way if you haven’t read Homage to Catalonia put your computer in the fridge and go do that. But he also had the maybe the most remarkable sense of perspective ever used in the service of literature, which is why he can survive, not only as a stylist but as a polemicist, decades after every man and every creed he inveigled against has turned to ash.

And so Nineteen Eighty-Four itself has become a dying metaphor. Big Brother in the novel is a specific kind of evil, but in your newspaper he’s anything vaguely authoritarian covering not only Trump and Obama but Google and Apple. Any metaphor that means so much really means very little. The fact that alt-rightists aren’t using Emmanuel Goldstein as a metaphor for controlled opposition must prove the book is no longer consciously mined for ideas but rather jabbed to out of reflex, the same as Orwell’s other bugbears. (What, incidentally, is a bugbear? Christ, sorry, George.) The number of people who use Nineteen Eighty-Four to make a contemporary political point and display fresh insight may actually be zero. There are writers who, perhaps, have the originality and the knowledge of Orwell to do it, but they also have the wisdom not to try.

If the rest of Orwell’s dying metaphors are any sign, this process will not get better in our lifetimes. Therefore Cosh is tilting at a windmill. Come to think of it, Don Quixote is 400 years old and that literary jousting metaphor is still dying. So Orwell isn’t special, but unlike Cervantes at least he left instructions on what to do with a metaphorical invalid.