The True Purpose Of Writing
Orwell on the purpose behind art and artists
The Spanish Civil War broke out in the summer of 1936 and Orwell set out for Barcelona to join the Republican forces. He met with James McNair, a British socialist politician, in Barcelona to hear about the ongoing political crisis in Spain. McNair was confused as to why Orwell was so keen to fight in Spain. He quoted Orwell as saying, ‘I’ve come to fight against Fascism’ and that, ‘he would like to write about the situation and endeavour to stir working class opinion in Britain and France.’ Clearly, Orwell saw the war in Spain as a great adventure.
George Orwell was, rather hastily, assigned as a corporal and sent to the Aragon front. He saw snippets of intense action, but the front was relatively quiet. However, in mid-1937, Orwell was shot through the throat by a sniper, the bullet missing the major artery only by a whisker.
He wrote in ‘Homage to Catalonia’ that people would often tell him that a man who is hit through the neck and survives is the luckiest creature alive, but that he personally thought ‘it would be even luckier not to be hit at all.’
It was around this time that internal conflicts were heating up within the Republican side and the political situation became unpredictable. The Communists had, for many political reasons, outlawed all organisations that differed from their ideology. This made Orwell, who had joined a Trotskyist battalion, a fugitive and he was forced to flee.
Orwell served on the Aragon front for 115 days. It was not until the end of April 1937 that he was granted leave and was able to see his wife, Eileen, in Barcelona again. Eileen wrote on 1 May that she found her husband, ‘a little lousy, dark brown, and looking really very well.’
In 1946, George Orwell published an essay titled ‘Why I Write’, detailing his journey to becoming a writer. In the essay, Orwell wrote about how he became the political writer that people had come to know him for.
Orwell lists ‘four great motives for writing’ which he feels exist in every writer. He explains that all are present, but in different proportions, and that these proportions vary from time to time. And the varying weight of these motives often determines how meaningful the writer’s words are.
Orwell believed that a writer writes from a ‘desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood.’ This is a trait that the writer shares with scientists, artists, lawyers — ‘the whole top crust of humanity’. Indeed, after the age of thirty, the majority abandon individual ambition and work to serve those around them — family, friends, colleagues. But, a minority, artists mostly, remains keen ‘to live their own lives to the end’.
“I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in … but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.”
Likewise, writers are those who have fallen in love with the rhyme and fluidity of words, who have ‘pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.’ They want their writing to look beautiful, to sing like poetry and flow like music.
If it was not for the artistic experience, few people would choose to write at all. Orwell fell in love with the sound of words when he was just a child; he never abandoned this early worldview and continued to adore the tune of his sentences throughout his life.
Thirdly, writers desire, and indeed all artists too, to be remembered after death. They want to be known as someone who left behind something of value for the world, someone who revealed a truth, someone who expanded the universe and allowed the audience to see a reality they did not know existed before. This is the great attraction behind the written word for words stand firm against time while the author cannot.
But, most importantly, Orwell argued, artists are those who embrace a strong purpose, a desire ‘to push the world in a certain direction’.
Orwell considered himself a political writer, but he admitted that it is in his nature to be a person in whom the desire to appear clever and to write poetically outweighed the desire to write from purpose and clarity.
He may have even remained unaware of his political loyalties had he not lived during a period of great political turmoil. And he cited the Spanish Civil War as the defining event that moulded the political slant of his writing:
‘The Spanish war and other events in 1936–37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.’
The war in Spain showed Orwell his own purpose and truth that his works so far had only lightly skimmed against.
During the decade after the Spanish Civil War, Orwell felt compelled to turn ‘political writing into an art’. And, indeed, he fulfilled this purpose through the publication of both ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, his most famous works, after the Second World War.
The first three motives of the artist are wholly selfish. And rightly so. Because the artist is he who follows passion, all that which raptures and excites him. He acts on behalf of his true ‘self’ with few disturbances, hoping to discover his own kingdom, a place and time where his soul can be at peace.
But, the artist who balances the expressions of his heart with a purpose not only serves himself, but the entire world. By expressing his own authentic message, the lyrics of his quiet life, he nudges upon a universal truth that belongs with everyone. And it is the artist’s responsibility to guide this truth to brighten the dark corners of his city.
Here, Orwell showed how he balanced the seething energies within him that compelled him to write:
‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article if it were not also an aesthetic experience.’
Page 8, ‘Why I Write’.
He concluded the essay by explaining that ‘it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.’
No writer knows which of their motives are the strongest, but all should, Orwell argued, understand which of them deserve to be followed. Orwell believed that when his writing lacked a purpose or a passion, his words were bland and idle. And so, he decided after the war in Spain that his writing would now be wielded as a weapon against the greatest problem of his time — totalitarianism.
Orwell remained dedicated to the defence of democratic socialism throughout his life — he followed this purpose even when it was irrational and senseless to do so. It saw him explore the darkest streets of Paris and London, submerge himself into poverty in Northern England and fight fascism in Spain.
Indeed, Orwell was tough for an intellectual sort; he never feared a plunge into the cold, nor a long stare into the face of bitter truth. It is here, as Orwell discovered, steeped in mud, lost in the trenches and fighting for the truth, where all exceptional stories are born. This blood-thirsty persistence for uncomfortable facts is the reason the world continues to celebrate Orwell’s novels.
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