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STEWART JUSTMAN Orwell's Plain Style Distinctions and oppositions order our thinking, but they are not for all that wholly hidden from view. With no more than a little introspection it is possible to turn up some of the pairings that are radically important to the conduct of one's thought - for example, fact vs fiction, object vs subject, action vs observation, word vs thing. We inherit each of these distinctions from what Northrop Frye (in his recent study of the Bible) calls the 'descriptive phase' of language, a period which 'attains cultural ascendancy in the eighteenth [century]. In English literature it begins theoretically with Frands Bacon, and effectively with Locke. Here we start with a clear separation of subject and object, in which the subject exposes itself, in sense experience, to the impact ofan objective world." The same period puts a high value on plain-speaking- on speech without pomp or artifice or illusion. The rise of descriptive writing, according to Frye, was signaled by the ideology of humanism, with its cult of plain sense and the use of ordinary language. A genuinely specialized subject cannot avoid technical language, but it is true that clarity and lucidity of style, where the author puts all his evidence before the reader, is a feature of the best and most honestly motivated [descriptive) writing.' Orwell's writing, for example. Arguably, Orwell's best writing is.descriptive (think of the descriptions in The Road to Wigan Pier or Homage to Catalonia or 'Shooting an Elephant' or 'A Hanging'), which adds force to the idea that Orwell 'belongs to' the descriptive period. Certainly Orwell exposed himself to experience. But the curious thing is that while he holds firm to the distinction between sense and nonsense, and to the belief in objective truth, Orwell does not honour rigid distinctions between fact and fiction, or observing and acting, or object and subject. (The question of where fact leaves off and fiction begins in Orwell's work is especially uncertain and vexing.)' This is to say that Orwell's writing everywhere speaks to us of persistence and passing, of repudiation and keeping. And this I think is why Orwell's voice is moving even in its plainness. Orwell's situation is our own: we too are inheritors of a tradition, a 'phase of language' whose assumptions must be doubted but which should not be despised. UNIVERSIIT OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 53, NUMBER 2, WINTER 1983/4 The plain style in English had its practitioners before Orwell. One associates the tradition with a claim of moral clarity; with the stamp of individual character and feeling; with the impression of direct utterance; finally perhaps with Englishness itself. Maugham (whose straightforward style Orwell admired) referred to 'the plain, honest English speech: I suppose in a general way the tradition 'speaks through' Orwell, although I doubt that, with the possible exception of Hazlitt, the plain style had ever been given so political a tum. As to Hazlitt, Orwell owes him nothing much. Orwell could in principle have been really influenced by Hazlitt (a radical who urged a familiar styleand used the term 'common sense' freely), but he wasn't. Perhaps the best place to begin looking into the origins of Orwell's ideas about plain language is outside literature altogether, in the experimental science of the seventeenth century. For the new science is in the subsoil of Orwell's thought and goes into its making. Like the scientists who struck a sharp distinction between word and thing, Orwell is convinced that things are what they are no matter what is said about them. On this point I think it fair to say that the weight of contemporary thought is against Orwell. There is by now a quite choral agreement that things do not exist by themselves' and present themselves to innocent observation. Orwell does not pretend to innocence, though; on the contrary, he often speaks both as participant and as observer; and no one ought to call that man innocent who experiences political realities most of us know about by report, if at all. The 'constitutivists' argue that language does not refer to things so much as it constitutes them, or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 195-203
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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