The Deal-Me-In Challenge for 2019 is here!

Deal Me In Challenge Classical Carousel

Yay!  The Deal Me In Challenge is here again!  Many thanks to Jay at Bibliophilopolis for hosting this challenge which has helped me to read many more Short Stories, Essays, Poetry and Children’s Books than I ever would have without it.

The rules are simple.  Choose short stories to correspond to each card in a deck of cards. Then draw one card each week and read the story that corresponds.

What do you need for this challenge?

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England Your England by George Orwell

“As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”

As we can tell from the first line, Orwell wrote England Your England during the conflict of World War II yet the essay turns out not to be about the war but about something very dear to Orwell’s heart: the British people.

Orwell states that the people in the planes trying to kill him must be very much like the British people; but patriotism and national loyalty trumps all, a fact that Hitler and Mussonlini were able to grasp.  Differences between nations are based on differences in outlook and the English are highly differentiated, distinctive and recognizable from their country terrain, to their visual appearance, to their manners.  Yet while these attributes can vary substantially from area to area, the English have a common national identity.  How is that possible among so many differences?  Orwell investigates.

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What I Demand of Life by Frank Swinnerton

My Deal-Me-In Challenge has been going the way of my other challenges this year, but I thought with a few months left in the year, I might try to resurrect it and at least finish well.  We’ll see …. In any case, I drew the queen of Spades, which gave me an essay entitled, What I Demand of Life by Frank Swinnerton.

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January 2018 and My Reading Challenges

Christmas at the Town Hall
© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

I’ve decided to include my reading challenges in this post because I’ve been doing so little reading lately that I’d have little to say otherwise.  Isn’t that pathetic?  Oh well, a new year is here and with it new resolutions, so here goes ……..

December went by so quickly.  My grandmother ended up passing away 4 days before Christmas.  It wasn’t unexpected but still it was sad to see her go.  We’ll certainly miss her but it was fun to remember her stories and the spunk she showed until the end. She had a long life, well lived.

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Tears, Idle Tears by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Well, I have proven very predictable.  Following my usual pattern for the Deal Me In Challenge of getting off to a great and very consistent start, I then quickly fell behind schedule.  Do I care?  Yes!  I’m usually a very consistent person — a loyal friend, a hard worker, a steady blogger (yes, this is important too!) —- so it really bothers me when I don’t stick to a challenge.  However, I have some very consistent blogger friends whom I won’t mention, whose dedication to challenges continually convicts me (oh okay, I will mention them —- O, I’m referring to you!), so with their gentle reminders, I’ve decided to pick up where I left off and hopefully get some momentum to finish this challenge well.

Finally, oh finally! I drew a poem, my first poem of the challenge so far in 11 choices. What are the odds of that?  Perhaps I should buy a lottery ticket!

Written in 1847 as a song from one of his longer poems The Princess, Tears, Idle Tears, a lyric poem, was composed in blank verse and is said to be one of the few poems where Tennyson conveys his personal sentiments in his works.  Tennyson claims he wrote it after a visit to Tintern Abbey, which was abandoned in 1536 and for him held “the passion of the past, abiding in the transient.”  He said, it was “full for me of its bygone memories ……”

Tintern Abbey
courtesy of Saffron Blaze
Source
Tears, Idle Tears by Alfred Lord Tennyson

     Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
      Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.
      Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
      Dear as remember’d kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

Wow! I remember really liking this poem when I was younger but now it seems all melancholy and sad and depressing.  But really, should have I expected more from Tennyson based on my familiarity with one of this other poems (and one of my absolute favourites!), The Lady of Shallot? —- lots of crying out and isolation and cracking and curses …… no, why am I at all surprised?

 

Tinturn Abbey (inside)
source Wikipedia

So, now for my rather amateur analysis ……. the first aspect of the poem that stood out for me was his initial confusion.  He doesn’t recognize the tears or connect them with anything at first.  They come from deep within him.  Does that highlight man’s propensity to live a rather shallow life?  — to live in the moment without ever doing any deeper self-examination?  And does it also highlight how capricious time is; that it slips away without us even noticing?

The autumn setting gives the poem a melancholy feel as summer has passed, and the passing of summer means less sunshine and happy times, and the death of leaves and greenery as the scenery turns from bright colours and greens to a burnished and faded scene.

Regret is an obvious theme and Tennyson takes us to the underworld, which I assume is really the memories of the dead whom he loved, yet these memories bring him sadness. He is not focusing on the happiness experienced during those times, but the loss of them.

These memories now seem very far away to him, so much so that the very experiences he participated in now appear strange to him.  The casement is shrinking in his vision, perhaps the approach of death?

At least, he feels the memories are dear and sweet, but he acknowledges the death of those times, a death that has happened before he himself has died.  There is nothing uplifting in his remembrance.

Farringford, Tennyson’s residence of the Isle of Wright
source Wikipedia

Good heavens!  Yes, lots of tears and despair and sinking and sadness and strangeness and dying.  It would be fascinating to travel back in time and find out just what was going on in Tennyson’s life and head when he wrote it.

Next up for my Deal Me In Challenge is a children’s classic called Teddy’s Button by Amy LeFeuvre.

 

Doodles in the Dictionary by Aldous Huxley

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
source Wikimedia Commons

Ah, my first essay by Aldous Huxley and I didn’t know what style to expect.  He first begins by lamenting the insufferable boredom experienced by having to learn Greek and Latin in school.  Even the mention of these subjects he still finds tedious and can only find one benefit of having been forced through hours of searching for words in his Lexicon:

“I hate to think of all that wasted time.  And yet, in view of the fact that most human beings are destined to pass most of their lives at jobs in which it is impossible for them to take the slightest interest, this old-fashioned training with the dictionary may have been extremely salutary.  At least it taught one to know and expect the worst of life.  Whereas the pupil in a progressive school, where everything is made to seem entertaining and significant, lives in a fool’s paradise.” 

When his bookseller friend requested his presence to view an item that he was extremely thrilled to purchase, Huxley was dismayed to find that it was a Latin dictionary. However, when he found it wasn’t just any Latin dictionary, but the one owned by the famous painter, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, his interest was piqued.

source Wikipedia

Toulouse-Lautrec created these “doodles in the dictionary” when he was sixteen years old, a mere two years after two accidents which would change his life forever.  First, he broke one leg, and then the other, and neither leg grew again, therefore upon adulthood, he had the legs of a fourteen year old and the body of a man.  Having to live as a “dwarfish monster”, Lautrec immersed himself in his drawing and painting.

Aristide Bruant on His Bicycle (1892)
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
source Wikiart

Huxley muses that up to the age of ten, the muse of genius is within every child, but with instruction that muse disintegrates until only one in four thousand people have any talent for art.  He calls this fact an “unsolved riddle” and hopes one day to learn the answer, whereupon education will be able to be transformed into a “social and individual reconstruction”.  Hmmm …….  who would decide what needed to be reconstructed and why?  Who would be doing the reconstructing and under what premise?  It’s all very vague and rather disturbing.

Artilleryman Saddling His Horse (1879)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
source Wikiart

In any case, early on it was evident that Toulouse-Lautrec had rare talent for drawing and he was also proficient in Latin, earning prizes for translation and composition.  While his drawings at sixteen showed a maturity and flair that was unsurpassed for his age, his first master Bonnat was lukewarm with his praise.  In a letter to his Uncle Charles, Toulouse-Lautrec communicated his teacher’s comments:  “Your painting isn’t bad; it’s clever, but still it isn’t bad.  But your drawing is simply atrocious.”  Judging from a comment from another student, Huxley believes Toulouse-Lautrec had a propensity to exaggerate his subjects, to “prettify” them in a way that was perhaps not pleasing.  Yet Huxley believes that facts are perhaps not so immutable as we perceive them, and that everyone can view each reality differently.  And facts can also cover a variety of disciplines: for example, he says, the H-bomb can at once be involved in physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, genetics, psychology, politics, economics, ethics and even be an aesthetic fact, as the cloud it makes is quite beautiful.  Toulouse-Lautrec simply chose to communicate in his art the aspects that preoccupied him and “found no incompatibility between truth to nature and distortion.” His exaggeration perhaps brought life to his art, which would align with Hsieh Ho, the fourth dynasty Chinese artist who stated that the First Principle of Chinese Painting “…. is that, through a vitalizing spirit, a painting should possess the movement of life,” and the sinologist, Osvald Siren agreed, “that the First Principle refers to something beyond the material form, call it character, soul, or expression. It depends on the operation of the spirit, or the myserious breath of life, by which the figures may become as though they were moving or breathing.”

Fishing Boat (1880)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
source Wikiart

Huxley brings the subject of the horse into his essay, lamenting its passing into the history of transport and surmising that it was heading towards extinction.  It embodied the expression of life from its splendid grace, from the thoroughbred down to the old hack; in modern times we are only left with man who is a graceless uninteresting creature.  The advent of the automobile, and in fact all technology, detracts from life and therefore from our enjoyment of it.  Lautrec’s father had advocated for the health of the outdoors but sadly, Lautrec was not destined for such a life because of his accident and became, instead, fascinated by the race-track, Montmartre known for its public dancing and cabarets, alcohol and prostitutes.

“The drunks and tarts, the lecherous gentlemen in top hats, the sensation-hunting ladies in feather boas, the stable boys, the lesbians, the bearded surgeons performing operations with a horrifying disregard of the first principles of asepsis ……. these became the subject matter of most of Lautrec’s pictures, the environment in which he liked to live.  He portrayed them simply as curiosities, passing no moral judgment, but simply rendering the intrinsic oddity of what he saw around him.”

His interest in the theatre grew, of which sketches can be seen in the dictionary of jesters, actors and actresses.  He did not portray women in a sexual way nor with any discrimination, only executing them as he would any other subject, “from memory and with appropriate distortions, rendered their life-movement, now graceful, now grotesque, and the underlying rhythm of the mysterious spirit that manifests itself within that movement.”

And so concludes an essay that I thought would be an educational treatise and ended up being about the creation of art, and secondary the sad demise of a creative talent. Huxley did not reveal that Lautrec died from the effects of alcoholism and syphilis at the age of 36 years old.

Next up is classic children’s book, The Finn Family Moomintroll.  I absolutely love this book; it is tied for my all-time favourite children’s classic.  I can’t wait to read it again and share some unique Moomintroll adventures!

Week 9 – Deal Me In Challenge – Two of Spades

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

(Warning:  There are spoilers galore in this review, but the story itself is quite obvious, not to mention the title, so I spoiled away!)

A few decades ago, I read this short story as an elementary school student.  From what I can remember from a fuzzy recollection is that the tale creeped me completely out and the image of a beating heart under the floorboards thumped around in my consciousness for weeks after.  However, for some reason I remembered the heart being in a box, which is not in the story.  Why, I wonder?  Was it some illustration I’d seen that had left that impression or simply my mind supplying details?

The Tell Tale Heart (1919)
Harry Clarke
source Wikipedia

In any case, The Tell Tale Heart was first published in the literary journal, The Pioneer, in 1843.  It is told in a first person narrative, with the narrator describing a helpless old man whose rheumy blue eye drives him to contemplate the murder of this vulnerable creature.  Although he claims to love the man and have nothing personal against him, the filmy eye is his main focus.  Each night at midnight, he attempts to shine a light on the eye, but each night it does not open and therefore, he claims, he cannot complete his homicidal deed.  Every day, he is kinder to the old man, but on the eighth night, the man calls out before the narrator is able to shine the light, however with patience our murder awaits our terrified victim and when he is able light up the eye, a sense of rage grows within him and he snuffs out the man’s life.  Dismembering him, he hides the body parts beneath the floorboards.  Soon after, a knocking is heard and the narrator opens the door to the police who have heard reports of a shriek and have come to investigate.  Elated with his perceived clever deed, the narrator invites them in and they converse right in the room where the murder occurred, the evildoer supposing the police will never discover his crime.  However ……. ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump …… a noise begins ….. a noise that comes from directly under the floorboards.  The tell tale heart …….  The pounding echoes the pounding in the murder’s head until he is convinced that the police now know all, and bleats out a wild cry:  “Villains!  Dissemble no more!  I admit the deed! —- tear up the planks!  —- here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

The Veiled Heart (1932)
Salvador Dali
source Wikiart

Well, well!  And so I reveal the whole story.  Why?  Well, because at first, honestly, it was a huge disappointment.  It’s an interesting story, certainly, but a classic?  Bah!  It’s simply an implied scary story that is mildly shivery, and then soon forgotten.  What a disappointment! But not trusting my own judgement, I looked around to see what others had made of it.  It seemed like no one could draw any sort of deeper meaning from the tale.  There is talk of the unreliable narrator, who is obviously paranoid and psychotic right from the beginning. There is no explanation of the relationship of the narrator to the old man, or really even why he loves him but hates his eye.  So I let the story sit with me a day or two.  When I returned, I had a vague idea ……….. in the beginning the narrator is fixated on the eye of the man; we never are told why but it absorbs all his thoughts until it becomes an obsession.  He murders the old man because he’s convinced that he hates it.  Yet in the end, it is the heart of the man that gives the murderer away.  Could it be a commentary on the outside appearance of a person vs. their inner nature, the eye versus the heart?  We see and react to what is seen on the surface, yet is the heart of a person that is their true character, what will eventually “give them away” so to speak.

My conclusion still seems rather elusive and I’m grasping at a possible meaning that is still out of my reach.  Does anyone else have any thoughts on this or any other interpretations that you’ve discovered?  If so I’d love to hear them!

There is also the theme of the psychosis of the murder, which is rather fascinating.  He continually emphasizes the fact he is NOT crazy, and incessantly accentuates his clever machinations.  And notice in his final words, he calls the police, “villains”. Everything is backwards in his twisted mind.

My next Deal Me In Challenge choice will be the essay, Doodles in the Dictionary by Aldous Huxley.

Week 9 – Deal Me In Challenge – Five of Clubs

A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is both predictable and unpredictable.  First, with any of her works she is not a writer that is easily deciphered or labelled, and conversely, one never knows when reading her works, precisely what one is going to discover.  In the short story, A Haunted House, Woolf delivers a narrative that is only 10 paragraphs long, yet manages not only to convey a story, but make it perplexingly obscure and delightfully poetic.

The story begins, “Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting.”  A rather conventional beginning for a ghost story, but Woolf soon begins to weave other nebulous possibilities into its framework.  Two old ghosts appear to be moving through this house, searching for something.  Hundreds of years ago, the woman had died and the husband had left the house only to return to it later.  A young couple sleeps while they hunt always for the treasure that appears either to be lost or just out of their grasp. The ghosts visit the narrator and her husband sleeping in their room and appear to find the treasure in their quiet repose, in their love, and all is “Safe, Safe, Safe.” ……..

The Haunted House
source ArtUK

Most analyses of this short story categorize it as juxtaposition between the dead and living couple, the dead couples’ loss of the “treasure” and their apparent finding of it again in the living couple, as the reader finally realizes the theme of love threaded throughout the story.  Well, yes, I’m certain that’s an accurate analysis, but I had another less discernible thought flit through my mind while I was reading:  some of the descriptions and tone reminded me of an author’s search for words or meaning to imbue their writing with a sense of life.  The ghostly couple could have represented the writer and the rooms of the house compartments in the mind.  Here’s an example:

“….. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.”

The allusions to reading, pencil, margin, and book, and the references to the house being empty and the doors open and the search, reminded me of a writer struggling to find the precise words to bring his/her story to vivid life, to make something living from something dead.  Am I crazy?  Perhaps, but with Woolf, the very act of writing always seems to be a part of the writing itself, so closely incorporated that it is difficult to separate the two.  In any case, it was an interesting story, as only Woolf could make a story a page long.  The complete text of the story can be found HERE.

Next week, I’ve drawn a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart.  I remember reading this one in elementary school and being quite scared by it.  We’ll see how effective it remains from an adult reading.

Week 8 – Deal Me In Challenge – Nine of Clubs

The Life You Save May Just Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor

Farmhouse and Car (1933)
Prudence Hayward
source Wikiart
Imagine a small town in the southern United States on a hot day.  An old woman and her daughter sit on the front porch of their house, the woman suddenly alert while the daughter plays vacantly with her fingers. Down the road, a man materializes, a young man but by his appearance obviously a drifter.  He has “a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.” The woman and man greet each other, each eyeing the other with a hesitant speculation and a mutually concealed distrust.  After an introduction, the woman tries to find out more about Mr. Shiftlet but the man adeptly avoids answering, speaking of cars, hearts, lying and the definition of man. With more talk, it becomes clearer that the man is interested in the old car in the yard that had belonged to the woman’s deceased husband, and the woman is interested in a suitor for her mentally disabled daughter. Agreeing to stay on for board and food, the man begins to spruce the place up and soon it looks much improved.

As time passes, the woman continues to subtly bargain for a husband for her daughter, as Shiftlet counters, bargaining for the car.  Finally a deal is struck, the two marry and the car becomes his. Yet the material desire of his heart is at war with the obligation to his new unwanted wife.  Shiftlet finds himself with a choice and the struggle within himself is powerfully displayed.

This story was perplexing, and although I haven’t read any of O’Connor’s other works, I have a feeling that she regularly creates confusion with readers.  While reading The Life You Save May Just Be Your Own, I was struck with impressions rather than feelings, as if I was following an incohesive story.  The story is there, but O’Connor inserts so many phrases that are pregnant with meaning, that you simply can’t help analyzing them, wondering if there is some sort of secondary communication.  Let’s see what I can make of it.

The Farmer’s Daughter (1945)
Prudence Heward
source Wikiart

First of all, does Mr. Shiftlet’s name imply that he is a “shifty” character, or does it indicate a possibility of shift or change within him?  Or both?  Initially, he is presented swinging “both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross.”  There is definitely religious connotations here, but notice the “crooked cross.”  There is certainly something very imperfect about this man.  He is also a carpenter, which was the profession of Jesus — does that mean anything or not?  When the woman tells him that he must sleep in the car, Shiftlet answers, “Lady, the monks of old slept in their coffins.”  Here is another allusion to religion and death (although monks slept in their coffins so they would get used to not fearing death, but that’s another story).

O’Connor also employs colour imagery in profusion, from the bright colours around Lucynell, the daughter, indicating innocence, purity and happiness, to the black, brown and grey colours worn by the man and woman, from the sun shining forth at the beginning of the story, only to be covered by a cloud at the end.

Portrait of a Man (1911)
Albert Bloch
source Wikiart

There is much speculation as to what O’Connor wanted to convey with this story, and there certainly appears to be deeply imbedded layered meaning.  When writing, O’Connor applied a type of analogical technique that allowed to reader “to see different levels of reality in one image or situation ….. (having) to do with the Divine life and our participation in it ….. was also an attitude towards all creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities and I think that it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is every going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature.”

For me, the impression that stood out was the subtle change in the man.  Initially, he is a tramp, someone who is disconnected to the material, content to wander and take odd jobs.  His exchange with the woman borders on the philosophical on his side and he is likened to a Christ-like figure.  Yet as soon as he espies the car, a possessive desire begins to simmer inside him, causing him to abandon his ideals, and he is satisfied to barter with the mother for Lucynell as if she were an animal or possession.  Because his attention is fixed on a worldly goal, Shiftlet becomes blind to simple pleasures and human empathy.

Portrait of a Boy
Albert Bloch
source Wikiart

If nothing else, O’Connor gives the reader a multitude of possibilities and honestly, this short story was a compelling and intriguing experience.

Next week, for my Deal Me In Challenge, I’ll be reading the short story by Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House.

Week 7 – Deal Me In Challenge – Six of Clubs

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

I haven’t yet read enough of Orwell’s works to decide whether I like him or not, but one thing I have learned in our short acquaintance is that he’s not one to prevaricate or candy-coat his ideas.  If you don’t want his opinions, don’t read him, and if you do, get ready to duck!

Orwell begins his essay, Politics and the English Language, by speculating on the impending collapse of the English Language. Is its demise a mirroring of society’s cultural suicide, simply an innocuous descent that is only natural given the state of our world?  Yet Orwell believes that there is not just a natural cause, but more pointedly, political and economic ones, and even the effects themselves can become causes that reinforce the original cause.  For example:

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to us to have foolish thoughts.”

There is a remedy though: if we clean up our bad habits when applying language to thoughts, our thoughts will become clearer.

A Song Without Words (1919)
John William Godward
source Wikiart

Orwell now gives five writing examples exemplifying problems with how people use language:

  1. an essay by Professor Harold Laski (who uses 5 negatives in 53 words)
  2. a paragraph from Interglossa by Professor Lancelot Hogben (mixed metaphors)
  3. an essay on psychology in Politics (meaninglessness)
  4. a Communist pamphlet (stale phrases)
  5. a letter in the Tribune (words and meaning part company)

The two main problems in all these examples are a “staleness of imagery” and a “lack of precision”.  Modern English prose is ripe with these issues, but they crop up continuously in political writing.   Instead of sticking with concrete thoughts, the abstract creepy in, melting away the valuable meaning of ideas, instead consisting of a stringing together of hackneyed phrases.  He then lists examples of the ways that the adequate construction of prose is habitually avoided.

Dying Metaphors:  These are metaphors between the good and bad, a garbage dump of metaphors that have lost all expressive power and are used only to avoid the trouble of creating new evocative phrases.  Whenever inconsistent phrases are mixed or the original meaning is convoluted, it is evidence that the person is not particularly interested in what they are saying.

Operators of Verbal False Limbs:  Used to avoid choosing correct verbs and nouns but give the appearance of a harmony by expanding the sentence with the use of extra syllables.  Examples of such are: make itself felt, exhibit a tendency to, etc.  In addition, the passive voice is preferred instead of the active, noun constructions are employed instead of gerunds (by examination instead of by examining), verbs are cut down by -ize and de- formations, clichéd statements are presented as intelligent by the not un- formation, clean conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by phrases such as, with respect to, the fact that, etc, and sentence completions are made to sound mundane by such phrases as deserving serious consideration, etc.

Pretentious Diction:  Catch words are used to adorn simple statements to give biased judgements an appearance of scientific authority.  He goes on to describe specific words used in political writings, claiming the result is slovenliness and vagueness, to obscure the real issues.

Meaningless Words:  Passages with a complete dearth of meaning abound in many areas of writing, but principally in art and literary criticism.  Orwell gives a few examples, such as:

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far it signifies ‘something not desirable.’  The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.  In the case of democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.  It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.  Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.  That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

In an attempt to show that modern writing does not choose words for meaning nor does it evoke powerful images for clarity, Orwell gives first an example from Ecclesiastes, and then his own modern translation.  His experiment is quite fascinating:

Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, or yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Modern English:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

He then analyzes them to show the weakness of the translation and claims modern writing is lazy, borrowing ideas and phrases and “gumming” them together in order to use minimal mental effort; also there is often an attempt to convey emotional meaning without attention to detail nor the actual point.

Language is Not Transparent
Mel Bochner
source Wikiart

A responsible writer will ask himself the following questions when writing:

What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

However, Orwell says, most writers are contend to string together cliches, obscuring their meaning even to themselves.

In politics, the writing is particularly dreadful, all the literary mistakes converging and causing the viewers to feel that “one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy,” who is being transformed into a machine by the very words he speaks.  By the constant bombardment of meaningless jargon, people’s consciousness becomes sleepy and allows atrocities to be labelled as pacification, or transfer of population, or elimination of unreliable elements.  This particular phraseology has no metaphor content and therefore images are lacking, allowing the reader/listener to easily dismiss the human connection and thus controlling our emotional response to it.  Inflated euphemisms are used to justify cruelty.

The Treachery of Images (1948)
Rene Magritte
source Wikiart

Yet while thoughts are able to corrupt language, the reverse is also true.  You can catch this impoverished writing, like a disease, and have your mind affected by it.  Orwell admits that in his essay he has committed some of the literary crimes he is attempting to reveal.  The only way to avoid these faults is to continually be on guard against them. We can start by eradicating worn-out phrases and metaphors, but the change must go deeper.  He goes on to explain what these changes do not imply, then gives the reader rules to follow when intuition fails:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

By applying these rules, one could still write badly, but one could not write the drivel of which he has been speaking or using as examples.  His goal with his essay is not to consider “the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

For:

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Young Girl Learning to Write
Camille Corot
source Wikiart

A very powerful essay by Orwell and one that requires time and deep thought to digest. On most points, I agree with him wholeheartedly, but there are a few minor claims that poke at my passion for words.  To use less words that have Greek or Latin roots, seems overly particular.  These words have been in use for centuries and add to the language instead of detracting from it.  And while Orwell didn’t directly say that he takes offence at larger more complex words, the appearance in his examples was to severely diminish them (sorry, if I misread you, George, but that was my impression).  While I certainly do not advocate using complex words to diminish meaning or cloak intent, I do think that they are valuable for enjoyment in reading.  Would one rather have a French seven course dinner, or MacDonald’s?  If one is discerning in the culinary arts, certainly the former.  However, just as the ingredients for the seven course dinner would have to be used with style and attention, so must complex words be, when writing.

My next choice for my Deal Me In Challenge is suppposed to be a children’s classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aitken, but I’m having some trouble finding it (yes, those of you who know of my “issue” of losing my DMI choices can laugh at me), so next week might find a different post appearing.  Time shall reveal!

Week 5 – Deal Me In Challenge – Eight of Spades