Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

I wasn't born for an age like this. Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?

These recent thoughts of mine are pulled from an old George Orwell poem. The full text of it is:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;

But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven,
For the hair has grown on my upper lip
And the clergy are all clean-shaven.

And later still the times were good,
We were so easy to please,
We rocked our troubled thoughts to sleep
On the bosoms of the trees.

All ignorant we dared to own
The joys we now dissemble;
The greenfinch on the apple bough
Could make my enemies tremble.

But girl's bellies and apricots,
Roach in a shaded stream,
Horses, ducks in flight at dawn,
All these are a dream.

It is forbidden to dream again;
We maim our joys or hide them:
Horses are made of chromium steel
And little fat men shall ride them.

I am the worm who never turned,
The eunuch without a harem;
Between the priest and the commissar
I walk like Eugene Aram;

And the commissar is telling my fortune
While the radio plays,
But the priest has promised an Austin Seven,
For Duggie always pays.

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
And woke to find it true;
I wasn't born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?
(1935)

If you haven't read much George Orwell, you ought to. Particularly, of course, the immensely well-known Ninteen Eighty-Four, and to a lesser extent Animal Farm, but specifically a few of his essays on 'Why I Write,' and 'Language and politics.'

Language is more than communication, cold and impartial. Language is a tool. It is a weapon. When people think of the power of language in politics, they may think of large-scale changes in terminology. Changing reference from "Soldiers" to "terrorists," from "freedom fighters" to "insurgents," clearly has an impact. But consider the more insidious, subtle differences in the use of passive voice and anonymous agents.

American soldiers recaptured Basra today. There were three casualties.

Basra was recaptured today. Snipers killed three US soldiers.

INFORMATION IS NOT KNOWLEDGE
KNOWLEDGE IS NOT WISDOM

Orwell's perspective, highlighted by the Party's creation and enforcement of 'Newspeak,' is that by changing the way people SPEAK about a subject, you can alter the way they THINK about it. Try it.

I'll be the first to admit that Ninteen Eighty-Four is a heady read, even though it's not terribly long. In particular, the massive political essay occupying the middle section of the book can be a struggle to wade through.

If you want to read a light-hearted, fun little book that teases the same subject matter, check out "Ella Minnow Pea" by Mark Dunn. This cute novel is more powerful than its playfulness belies. You've certainly heard the sentence "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," the often-used font test that includes all twenty-six letters in the modern English alphabet. What if someone decided to eliminate the letter "Z?" What would happen if every Z, in every book and every paper in the entire world, was excised, and it even became forbidden to speak? How do you EXPRESS a letter that may not be depicted or uttered? How long would it take before you would no longer be able to recall its use or existence? If I were a high school teacher of any social science, this would be the first thing I would assign to read.

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