George Orwell – “Shooting an Elephant”, “Politics and the English Language”, “Reflections on Gandhi”, “Marrakech”, “Looking Back on the Spanish War”, & “Why I Write”

Shooting an Elephant

Reflecting on an incident in which he was compelled to shoot an elephant out of embarrassment (or the evasion of such) while working as a police officer in Burma, George Orwell describes the ambivalence inherent in working for an evil empire against a population of unruly citizens.

I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.    (149)

Orwell describes the incident itself as “tiny” (149) and very simple: a rogue elephant had been delivered too early while its handler and master were diverted to a different town and it was ravaging the bazaar.  After being called, Orwell takes his rifle that he knows is too small to bring down the elephant purely with the intention of shooing it away with the noise if the occasion to do such presents itself.  But upon seeing the police officer with a gun following the elephant’s path of destruction, the citizens become excited at the possibility of violence.  “They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot,” (151).

Finding the elephant peacefully grazing in a field, the young Orwell considers his options and with a crowd of “two thousand at the least” (152) watching, Orwell finds he has no option.  “The people expected [the shooting] of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly,” (152).  Orwell feels like a puppet, the alleged “leader” white man armed in a sea of brown, unarmed faces, compelled to do the bidding of the empire’s tyranny.

Orwell shoots the elephant and it eventually dies, resulting in some controversy.  Orwell reflects that it is fortunate that the elephant had killed a man on its rampage, meaning he was in some way justified in ending the animal’s life.  Some police officers agree with Orwell’s decision, others do not, but none realize his true motives.  “I often wondered any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool,” (156).

Also of note:

  • As to disrespect and abuse from natives towards police officers: “The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all.”  (148)
  • Should he not have shot the elephant: “The crowd would laugh at me.  And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”  (153)
  • “The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.”  (156)

Politics and the English Language

What I expected would be rather like David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” turned out to instead be a prescriptive tract something like what I may have written as a college sophomore.

Orwell justly criticizes academic and political sources for fluffing up their language so much that eventually, their words cease to have meaning.  Five especially bad passages are quoted and bad practices like dying metaphors, verbal false limbs (like “render inoperative” or “have the effect of”), and pretentious diction are identified as being causes of killing the English language.

The six questions that Orwell’s scrupulous writer should ask himself after every sentence are:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?   (165)

The uses of English that Orwell sees as killing the language he claims are political in cause because vague uses of paper and ink sound authoritative at first but functions to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” (171).  Euphemisms like “pacification” for bombings and raids of villages are “needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them,” (167).  The use of political euphemism to disguise crimes and political passive writing to disguise ignorance and lake of originality work together in Orwell’s view of political discourse to effectively say nothing while appearing to have meaning.

Anticipating Vonnegut, Orwell closes with more rules for writing:

  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.   (170)

Reflections on Gandhi

It was surprising to me that Orwell dislikes Gandhi, though he begrudgingly admits some victories the little Indian man undeniably won in his lifetime, until I realized the extent to which Gandhi was in fact an idealist, a characteristic Orwell seems to judge as unforgivable.  An example of this sort of contempt can be seen when Orwell discusses how Gandhi’s limitations on diet and medicine caused health problems for his wife and child:

[Gandhi’s autobiography] makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor.  It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi—with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction—always gave the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of commiting a sin: still if the decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risk might be.    (176)

The essay appears to have been written as a response to a new printing of Gandhi’s autobiography and Orwell’s interest seems to lie in how Ganghi’s pacifism could be applied as an answer to avoiding a third, all-destructing world war: “it is at least thinkable that the way out lies through non-violence,” (179).

Also of note:

  • “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent…” (171)
  • On Gandhi’s ubiquity: “It was also apparent that the British were making use of him, or thought they were making use of him.” (172)
  • “Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous because ‘friends react on one another’ and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing.” (175)
  • “There must, [Gandhi] says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive…” (176)
  • No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.” (176)
  • “Gandhi’s view was that German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which ‘would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.’ … If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way.” (178)
  • “Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist of becomes appeasement.” (179)

Marrakech

One of the more vivid, storytelling-heavy essays in this collection, “Marrakech” opens with a description of a pauper’s utilitarian burial and funeral procession through the Morocco city’s street, out into the wilderness, concluding with a reminder that when you walk in the jungle, occasionally “you are walking over skeletons,” (181).

Here Orwell ponders both poverty and race, deciding that “[i]n a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything except the human beings,” (184).  Moroccan’s brown skin makes them invisible, which to a certain extent they interpellate for themselves:

As [a group of Moroccans] went past a tall, very young Negro turned and caught my eye.  But the look he gave me was not in the least the kind of look you might expect.  Not hostile, not contemptuous, not sullen, not even inquisitive. … This wretched boy, who is a French citizen and has therefore been dragged from the forest to scrub floors and catch syphilis in garrison towns, actually has feelings of reverence before white skin.  He has been taught that the white race are his masters, and he still believes it.    (187)

Also of note:

  • “None of these people, I suppose, works less than twelve hours a day, and every one of them looks on a cigarette as more or less impossible luxury.” (183)
  • “ ‘Yes, mon vieux, they took my job away from me and gave it to a Jew.  The Jews!  They’re the real rulers of this country, you know.  They’ve got all the money.  The control the banks, finance—everything.’ / ‘But,’ I said, ‘isn’t it a fact that the average Jew is a labourer working for about a penny an hour?’ / ‘Ah, that’s only for show!  They’re all moneylenders really.  They’re cunning, the Jews.’ ” (183)
  • “It is only because of this that the starved countries of Asia and Africa are accepted as tourist resorts.  No one would think of running cheap trips to the Distressed areas.  But where the human beings have brown skins their poverty is simply not noticed.” (184)
  • After seeing overloaded donkeys being overworked: “This kind of thing makes one’s blood boil, whereas—on the whole—the plight of the human beings does not.” (186)

Looking Back on the Spanish War

Starts off with some descriptions of the atmosphere in an underfunded, hodge-podge rebel army’s camp and then a discussion of war atrocities: “The truth is that they happen,” (192).  Then Orwell discusses how history is remembered and expresses some sentiments that anticipate Nineteen Eighty-Four.

  • “I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to out own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.” (199)
  • “There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’ [in Nazi Germany].  There is only ‘German Science,’ ‘Jewish Science,’ etc.” (199)
  • “But is it perhaps childish or morbid to terrify oneself with visions of a totalitarian future? Before writing off the totalitarian world as a nightmare that can’t come true, just remember that in 1925 the world of today would have seemed a nightmare that couldn’t come true. Against that
    shifting phantasmagoric world in which black may be white tomorrow and yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree, there are in reality only two safeguards. One is that however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back, and you consequently can’t violate it in ways that impair military efficiency. The other is that so long as some parts of the earth remain unconquered, the liberal tradition can be kept alive.” (200)
  • “The struggle of the working class is like the growth of a plant.  The plant is blind and stupid, but it knows enough to keep pushing upwards towards the light, and it will do this in the face of endless discouragements.” (202)

Why I Write

Orwell’s four great motives for writers:

  1. Sheer egoism – the desire to be discussed and remembered after your death, to get back at detractors
  2. Esthetic enthusiasm – the desire to share an experience or image
  3. Historical impulse – the desire to discover true facts and store them for the future
  4. Political purpose – the desire to push the world in a certain direction           (312)
  • “The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish.  After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition…. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class.” (312)
  • “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 like I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” (315)
  • “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” (316)
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