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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Eric, Idle

The Eric in question is Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell.

We go back a bit. I first read Orwell when I was around ten -I'd like to think it was out of precocity but it was really morbid curiosity. I was an avid Sunday Comics reader (I remember as a kid thinking my parents were nuts to prefer the New York Times,with its perplexing lack of daily and Sunday strips) and one Fourth of July, Gasoline Alley celebrated American Democracy by having one of the characters (I think it was Walt Wallet) have a nightmare about what it would be like to live in the universes imagined by Orwell in 1984 and Huxley in Brave New World.

I didn't really know or care all that much about totalitarianism or the erosion of individual freedoms by institutionalized hedonism, but I did have an interest in anything that smacked of something possibly off limits, and the result was that my Mom took me to the bookstore, after some pestering, and bought me a copy of each. 1984 had a dark cover, Brave New World was an anaesthetic white, and I read both over a week or so. Brave New World didn't have all that much resonance for me at the time -it felt closer in tone to a lot of the Golden Age science fiction I was also reading -but 1984 was a nasty shock. I had read a few books where, as William Goldman says in The Princess Bride, the wrong people die (most notably Charlotte's Web) but 1984 was much, much worse, because it didn't seem so much about the need to recognize some upsetting but fundamental realities (like everyone dies eventually and eating often means killing) but about the fact that the wrong people win. It was a perfectly plausible depiction of something that was horrifying, and not just horrifying, but in a very specific way. Orwell didn't leave me with any sense of hope at all, and it was the first book I'd ever read that had had that effect (and still one of the very few I can think of that's that unsparingly bleak; even the most pessimistic writers seem to need to let a little light in. To this day, the four words He loved Big Brother are the single most depressing sentence in English literature I can think of.

I didn't get around to the essays, though, until last month. A collection of Orwell's essays was on an airport bookstore shelf, and I bought it to read on a flight to Zurich and back, having had, recently, a talk about Orwell with my friend, the writer Jesse Larner. Of course they were wonderful, and (of course) they were beautifully written and (of course) one of the essays that struck home the hardest was Politics and the English Language. I couldn't understand how I'd gotten this far along in life without at least having been exposed to his rules for writers. (One of the other big surprises was a long, fascinating, very warm essay on Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer -I would have bet anything if anyone had asked that Orwell loathed Miller.)

Orwell himself allowed that his rules were inevitably going to be broken, but didn't talk much about why that might be the case. The essay made me feel much better about writing about luxury goods for a living than I had in a long time, because at the very least, I could try and keep these rules in mind, and writing well (or at least, trying to write well) would have some meaning in and of itself; I would be trying not to be a party to language that "does your thinking for you." I'm not, now, sure that that's really the case -I suppose it's perfectly possible to write well and originally in the service of triviality or worse, and maybe it actually makes matters worse to do so -but the feeling that one has standards seems an important psychological survival tool.

The subject of rules, and psychological survival (Well. Survival is a little strong. People in concentration camps and in combat are trying to survive) came up most recently when an editor I work with did something very common: used the expression begs the question to mean raises the question. That question begging is actually a specific kind of error in logic -the Latin name for it is petitio principii, a form of circular reasoning -is something lost on most who misuse the expression (there's a great little blog post on the subject from John McIntyre, copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, here) including, until a few years ago, me.

While I would like to think I share McIntyre's disposition towards usage (he describes himself as a "mild linguistic prescriptivist") and Orwell's devotion to precision, it's certainly true that I'm a bit of a know-it-all and there are few things more satisfying than a linguistically ubiquitous technical error to which you can, with an air of performing a community service, call your hapless interlocutor's attention. The fact that I can throw some Latin in there just sweetens the deal.

But should I? First of all, the usage of begs the question for raises the question is essentially ubiquitous, and ubiquity is a strong symptom of an idiosyncratic usage achieving sufficient universality to require that it be acknowledged as acceptable (a point McIntyre makes as well, though he clearly doesn't feel that begs the question is there yet.) Secondly, the real point of standards should be to facilitate communication, and surely most people who say begs the question when they mean raises the question are clearly understood.

It's bracing to fantasize that in taking exception to it, I'm saving untold legions of future Winston Smiths a bullet to the brain, but of course the attraction of prescriptivism is at least in part a sense of intellectual superiority -snobbery, in a word. I'm still going to object to it though. First of all, man does not live by bread alone (one is entitled to a few acts of self-indulgence, intellectual and otherwise -or if not entitled one should at least acknowledge they're inevitable) and secondly, I do think the (mis)use of begs the question obscures an interesting and fairly common error in logic -the substitution of an arbitrary assertion of the truthfulness of a statement for any actual proof or logical argument; linguistic authoritarianism for discourse.

Linguistic prescriptivism easily shades into self-indulgent intellectual snobbery, of course. Probably every prescriptivist at one time or another both enjoys a primitive, primate-hierarchy sense of superiority when the opportunity to correct someone presents itself, and even Eric Arthur Blair doesn't completely avoid sounding a touch smug when he dissects his examples of poor and incoherent writing (though they are, undeniably, good examples of poor and incoherent writing. It occurs to me just now that telling people George Orwell's real name was Eric Arthur Blair is another way to indulge my know-it-all tendencies. Also that Orwell probably would have had something to say about my tendency to be parenthetic, and overuse of semicolons. And digressiveness. Now where was I?) But at the same time, I just can't help but feel that his rules for writers are important -not as laws to be followed thoughtlessly (the very thing against which he spent much of his career as an essayist railing against) but as standards by which to judge one's own work. For the linguistic prescriptivist, snobbism is one extreme, and it's tempting to say that fear of being caught in a mistake is the other. But I think the real fear is much more fundamental: that of being a bad writer.