Straight Talking

In an effort to improve our writing, I’ve been interrogating the art of using plain English with my journalism students. We first of all read Orwell’s treatise on the written word, Politics and the English Language, before considering the manner in which many of our political and literary masters mangle or obscure the language to serve their own interests.

Written in 1946, Orwell’s essay should be required reading for anyone interested in writing and communicating in the English language and is as relevant today as ever. I wince, for example, in uncomfortable recognition when he discusses how naturally writers fall into using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, aware that I have surely done so under deadline pressure – or maybe not even – to finish a theatre review or other writing work.

In the essay, Orwell is rigorous in his dissection of the meaningless words and phrases commonly used in art and literary criticism. He writes: “Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.”

Oh dear, I’m sure I have used those meaningless words in my time. And I am indebted to Orwell for reminding me as a writer to be scrupulous in seeking out clarity in my words and phrases.

Interestingly, the essay also reminds me that, as a reader, it is not necessarily my fault, or the fault of any other reader, that I often find wading through art criticism, in particular, a tedious exercise. It is, instead, the failing of the writer, who has engaged in what Orwell describes as “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug”.

Writer Fintan O’Toole more or less reiterated this point as part of a super column on artist James Coleman, recently the subject of a major exhibition across three Dublin galleries, when he noted that Coleman’s work is often funny and accessible, despite the fact that it is written about in “the obtuse argot of critical theory”, which makes it “sound difficult, utterly abstract, up itself”. I remember John Berger saying something similar in a public interview in Cork some years ago, when he told the audience that he wrote Ways of Seeing because all the other art criticism around at the time was “crap”. Indeed, the distinction between the writing style of Ways of Seeing and the language used by so many contemporary art critics is as stark today as ever.

Consider this paragraph from the Berger book: “Let us examine an exceptional painted image of nakedness. It is a painting by Rubens of his young second wife whom he married when he himself was relatively old. We see her in the act of turning, her fur about to slip off her shoulders. Clearly she will not remain as she is for more than a second. In a superficial sense her image is as instantaneous as a photograph’s. …Her body confronts us, not as an immediate sight, but as an experience – the painter’s experience. Why?…the profound reason is a formal one. Her appearance has been literally recast by the painter’s subjectivity.”

Setting aside the fact that Berger is discussing a 17th century painting, and not a post-modern artwork, note the clarity and precision of the language. Berger’s sentences are short, focused. His words are simple, almost everyday, yet they do not seek to ‘dumb down’ the information. And he eschews the ready-made phrases and lazy metaphors that so infuriated Orwell and are so much a feature of the art criticism many of us are used to reading.

My students and I also analysed a range of political writing. In his essay, Orwell writes that “in our time, it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing”. This is also true of contemporary political writing, which has coined meaningless – and dangerous – phrases such as ‘going forward’, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘axis of evil’. What do we picture in our heads, I asked my students, when we consider the phrase ‘collateral damage’? Bits of shrapnel, they replied. Certainly not the human beings the term is supposed to be describing. This kind of language, says Orwell, is used to defend the indefensible. Other phrases, such as Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known knowns and unknown unknowns” blur and obscure reality. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” writes Orwell in his essay.

But insincerity is the powder that fuels the words and phrases of the politicians who govern this country. Writer Joe O’Connor, in a recent radio diary for RTE Radio 1, captured the befuddlement we all feel – or at least should be feeling – as we listen to Brian Cowen tell us that people need to “internalise precisely the lightning-rod issue in the way which respects the broad parameters of the budget arithmetic”. Excuse me?

“Have you noticed,” wrote O’Connor in his diary, “that the minute we started saying going forward was the minute we started going backward with a vengeance so going forward if it means anything which I personally doubt actually seems to mean going sideways or going arseways or going pear shaped very quickly but we don’t want to admit that to the public because they’d string us up from the lampposts if we did going forward.”

Dead right. But O’Connor is merely following in the footsteps of Orwell, who wrote, more than half a century ago, that: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” What has changed since then? Not much, it appears.

So what can one possibly do, save throw one’s hands up in despair? Start small, advises Orwell. “At least one can change one’s own habits,” he writes, “and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase – some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refused – into the dustbin where it belongs.”