Caedmon’s Dream: On the Politics of Style
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
– George Orwell
In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.
– Oscar Wilde
Okay, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what?
– Angela Carter
‘All Scripture,’ claims the Book of Timothy, ‘is God-breathed’.
This is not the first myth of divine inspiration of writing. The Sumerian god, Enki, was supposed to have gifted writing to humanity alongside metalwork and woodwork – a telling juxtaposition, that suggests that writing is one of the crafts. The word ‘hieroglyph’ literally translates as ‘writing of the gods’, a reference to the idea that the god Thoth invented script. What these myths suggest is that writing is an obtainment, not an attainment. That writing is sacred, and that there is something in it that goes beyond human purposes – an obverse, a nocturnal side, of the supposed and supposedly ordinary goal of conveying articulate speech in graphic form.
Ben Lerner, in The Hatred of Poetry, turns divine inspiration into a fable, recounting the story of Caedmon, the ‘illiterate cowherd who couldn’t sing’. Only in a dream does the gift come to him; he is visited by a figure who might be the Christian God, and urged to ‘sing the beginning of created things’. And so he does, and ‘gorgeous verses praising God pour forth’. But though Caedmon retains his poetic gift when he wakes, his verses are never as divine as those in his dreams.
Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical – the human world of violence and difference – and to reach the transcendent or divine. You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. In a dream your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (eg, the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic. Thus the poet is a tragic figure. The poem is always a record of failure.
If the poem is always a record of failure, it is because language is a record of failure. It is always getting at something that it never quite obtains. It signifies, but signification is always unstable; it will not stand still in the way that letters or inscriptions appear to. As the graphologist Barry Powell points out, writing can give a false impression of language as something simple and bounded. As a technology, a conventional system of markings backed by political power, it can appear to stabilise speech in the way that it cuts it up, homogenises it, and represses local differences. But there is always something unsaid, something that clings to the letters like a shadow.
In the beginning was the knot. Before text was textiles.
The ‘talking knots’, as the Inca called them, quipus, were a mnemonic system first devised in the late Stone Age, to record information about, for example, mercantile transactions and taxes. The knots on a length of string would encode a numerical value. One knot tied over above two knots tied over above seven knots would mean ‘127’. Some anthropologists claim that, using a binary system, they even recorded phonetic or logographic data – that is, some symbols representing vocal sounds, and others representing complete words.
There was an art to the knots. Quipus weren’t just utilitarian, but aesthetic, decorative and above all tactile items, using ordered rhythms of sensation and practiced hand motions much as Braille does today. They were text both in the modern sense and in the root, Latin sense, meaning ‘woven’. Other societies used notches arranged on bones at regular intervals, or tallies in wood, likely for similar numeration purposes. The first such appeared as early as 412,000 years ago, although only inference suggests that they are in fact graphic marks storing information. Later, there emerged pictographic forms of inscription, using images on clay tablets, cave walls, or papyrus to represent worldly objects. For example, Native American art included pictorial messages representing both numerical and ideational data (ideographs). Egyptian hieroglyphs combined pictographic, logographic and alphabetic elements in a single sign system.
A widely supported theory holds that writing with graphic symbols representing speech emerged just over six thousand years ago in Sumer, out of necessities imposed by the sheer scale of production, trade, surplus, duty and tribute. The old mnemonic systems could no longer cope. The decisive change occurred when graphic symbols were systematically phoneticised: that is, when the phonetic value of a symbol superseded its semantic value. A symbol was no longer likely to refer to an object like an eye, or a word like ‘eye’; it would refer to a sound, which might, depending on the context, mean ‘eye’, ‘aye’ or ‘I’. The writing historian Steven Roger Fischer explains how this transition was effected through the ‘rebus principle’, in which pictographic representation could depict an eye, a saw, and a bill, which might then together form the sentence, ‘I saw Bill’. Once graphic symbols could be used to represent phonetic elements, rather than words or objects, they could be flexibly combined to produce a much greater variety of statements.
Those scripts that had a direct phonetic value are often seen as being closer to ‘real’ writing than the systems of knots and notches. It is claimed that only when writing took an alphabetic form, using artificial graphic marks linked by convention to articulate speech, did ‘full’ writing emerge. This distinction, still common among linguists, philologists and epigraphers, once underpinned a progress myth of modernity: that civilisation depends on, and only appears where there is, written speech. But if this idea was ever tenable – and the anthropologist Franz Boas exposed problems with it early in the twentieth century – it no longer is. With digital technology, forms of advanced writing (scripting and programming languages) now exist that have no relationship whatsoever to phonetic sounds. In some cases, and increasingly, they are even removed from human agency, since computers can compose messages to one another, and write their own algorithms and scripts.
Writing is the ur-technology, both the text and pre-text of civilisation. In its printed form, it is also imbricated with the emergence of the commodity form. As Marshall McLuhan has written, ‘the invention of typography’ produced ‘the first uniformly repeatable commodity, the first assembly line, and the first mass-production’. This created a particular type of division between reading and writing, which computing is now destabilising. Handwriting was far less widespread, before the first explosion of mass literacy, than reading. And where it was taught, as the historian Tamara Thornton points out, penmanship was linked to social class, gender and occupation, so that merchants, lawyers, women and upper-class men were taught distinct letterform styles. The very materiality of the shapes and spacing of letters, what ‘hand’ they were written in, was laden with meaning, allowing a reader to quickly understand its social significance. Even in the printed word, there emerged an association of letterform with social class: think, today, of the different fonts deployed by a Times leader column, as compared to The Sun Says. One of the things we do with writing, then, is inscribe hierarchies of significance and signification.
Print capitalism, with linear, alphabetic writing at its apex, has survived in some form for hundreds of years. In truth, well before digital technology, there were forms of complex writing that not only didn’t represent phonemes in the alphabetic sense (such as pictogrammatic writing), but also bore little or no relationship to articulate speech. Musical notation, for example, is an extremely complicated form of writing which contains both encoded information and decorative graphic elements, but often no phonetic elements. Seismic writing, which has its origins in ancient China, is neither alphabetic nor pictographic. There remain widely used forms of writing that use exclusively pictographic elements, such as electronic circuit diagrams, or which combine alphabetic and pictographic elements, such as knitting patterns. And many written works make use of sigla which have no phonetic value, but can nonetheless be read. However, these never displaced the dominance of the printed word.
Now that capitalism is being systematically re-written around numerical computational languages having little to do with speech, hierarchies of writing are being upended, with the digitus displacing the realm of sacred foundational texts, from bibles to constitutions. Texting and tweeting are activities which make free use of alphabetic, logographic and pictographic elements.
Ironically, speech is most closely approximated by using non-phonetic elements such as emojis. The term ‘emoji’ is taken from the Japanese, and transliterates as ‘picture-letter’. It resuscitates the pictogram familiar from Sumerian cuneiform, or medieval manuscript marginalia, in modern-day written language, allowing social media users to convey aspects of speech not included in the alphabet, such as register, mood and expression. Even the forms of writing that are most closely related to speech do not work according to its rules, but rather involve cutting up speech and re-organising it. So that, far from writing as we speak, we can end up speaking as we write; one way in which life imitates art.
The digital reorganisation of capitalism may be the biggest transformation of writing in its history. Being essentially conservative, depending on the preservation of conventional markings in order to enable comprehension, writing systems have evolved surprisingly little. But as the philosopher Brian Rotman suggests, the new digital order is going to revolutionise our conception of writing. Alphabetic writing has exerted a nearly unilateral command over our technological and cultural development for twenty-five hundred years. The dominance of the alphabet and the printed form has imposed a singularising, monadic and linear logic, coded within the dominant technology. From this logic has emerged gods and monsters.
Alphabetic writing posits a virtual user, says Rotman: a floating, disembodied and abstract reading/writing agency. One effect of this is a kind of philosophical idealism, the psyche separated from the soma. Another is that, since the written ‘I’ is immediately indeterminate, representing potentially any mind, real, fictional, existent or non-existent, present or absent, it makes possible such statements as, ‘I am the Lord thy God’. In the mythical origins of writing, God is the ultimate abstract reading/writing agency. But the development of writing permitted something else to take place, according to Near-Eastern archaeologist David Wengrow. Linked to the emergence of state forms, literate notation helped create, and was spurred by, a ‘modular logic of depiction’ given to breaking up and re-articulating existing realities into fantastical hybrids: monsters. And if the monadic, linear logic of the alphabet is now giving way to parallelist, distributed multiplicities, in which thinking and reasoning runs across parallel biological and non-biological processors, then digital writing is apt to give rise to new theologies. The emergence of posthuman singularity theory, according to which being is fundamentally computational and digital, and in which that natural order simply becomes more explicit and conscious over time, may be an example of this. Writing, then, is matter which matters; it exerts profound effects on human civilisations.
It should be clear by now that it is a mistake to assume that real writing is writing which derives from the spoken word. That theory betrays a suspicious embarrassment at the materiality of writing which, rather than being productive of meaning – of gods and monsters, for example – was seen to get in the way of ‘clear expression’ of the voice and, thus, of the logos. Now it is being superseded by the capitalist mode of production. Just as alphabetic writing was preceded by numerate notation, it is now being superseded by the numbers. We’re back to storing information in binary code, as with the knots. Knots and notches, noughts and ones.
In medieval English, ‘clarity’ meant ‘divine splendour’. Luminescence, rather than transparency; the presence of inspiration, rather than the absence of clutter. In this sense, clarity might be something you encounter in a dream, rather than in straightforward prose.
‘One does not,’ argued the late John Berger, ‘look through writing on to reality – as through a clean or dirty windowpane. Words are never transparent.’ Orwell favoured a ‘windowpane’ metaphysic, according to which language was something one should look through. But what if the pane was more like a stained-glass window? There, clarity would come, not through being able to ‘look through’ writing onto something else, but from the divine splendour created by the shape, texture and colour of the writing itself. Whatever clarity is available in writing, as Berger suggested, is not a property of meaning so much as of experience. Words ‘create their own space, the space of experience, not that of existence. … Clarity, in my view, is the gift of the way the space, created by words in a given text, is arranged.’
This cuts against the grain of common sense. As Adam Haslett has written, innumerable style guides since Strunk have reinforced a superego demand for minimalism, naturalism, ‘toughness’ in one form or other, resistance to decadent and flowery excess – a ‘vice’ of which Mark Twain once complained. As Haslett points out, common sense is non-sense, and ‘the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not.’ If we could separate meaning from sound, he adds, ‘we’d read plot summaries rather than novels.’ Or, in the domain of politics, listicles rather than the Communist Manifesto. But the fact that the common sense is what it is, indicates how much of the history of writing has been repressed: the idea of peering through a series of coloured knots onto reality would seem to be a profound misunderstanding of what the knots were for. Knots might illuminate, but they can’t get out of the way of their meaning. Yet we think we can use language as though it could be, and should aspire to be, as transparent as a windowpane. We expect language to get out of the way. We demand clarity.
The demand for clarity in its modern sense is ideologically suspect, rooted in an idealist metaphysics of meaning, but it is seductive because it appears to be inclusive and democratic in its approach to communication. Its apparent obverse, say, ‘obscurity’, is regarded as an elitist practice, akin to obfuscation. And the clamour for clarity also taps into a common sense that we have about writing, which is that it is derivative of the voice, which itself is a direct representative of consciousness. Thus, it is assumed, writing is ‘clear’ when it is most like articulate speech.
Political writers, especially radicals, are by the nature of their trade more susceptible to being seduced or blackmailed by such notions than are others. Nor is there any shortage of police on the Left, especially the Anglophone Left, to enforce the position. A brief flit through the reviews pages of several leading socialist journals elicits countless such finger-waggings. As long ago as 1901, the International Socialist Review was praising a book for being ‘written in a very clear and simple style, making it easily understood’, and in an almost unreconstructed echo 115 years later, in the modern journal of the same name, Vivek Chibber mourned the ‘simple and direct and clear presentation of ideas’. As though simplicity, directness and ‘clarity’ in this sense were coterminous.
Such, crucially, was not always the case. Ancient writers treated political language, rhetoric, as being something more like an art than a frank chat. It was poetry: and poetry, as Terry Eagleton argues, ‘is something which is done to us, not just said to us. The meaning of its words is closely bound up with the experience of them.’ The separation of truth from the materiality of language is a product of modernity, linguistic specialisation, and a specifically capitalist division of labour. But as a result of this division, a prejudice has emerged which regards any accentuation of the aesthetic, sensuous properties of language, outside the relatively harmless sphere of entertainment, as a frivolous obstacle to understanding. At best an indulgence, at worst manipulative. In its left-moralist iteration, this prejudice can take the form of the claim that ‘fancy’ prose is ‘elitist’, ‘exclusive’, evading comprehension by ‘real people’.
Ironically, this curiously patrician affectation often comes from educated ‘cadres’. When Hugh MacDiarmid railed against ‘ignorance and anti-intellectualism, and the incessant cry of stupid socialists and communists that nothing should be written save what is intelligible to the mass of the people’, his targets would likely have included owlish readers of Hegel and Kant. These days, such covert snobbery often comes from graduate students, guiltily devouring Baudrillard on the down-low while earnestly masticating gruel-thin versions of Marxism for the gratuitously patronised and underestimated readers of the revolutionary press: the negative ideographs of the TheoryBro.
There is, deposited in this ideology of ‘clarity’, a crude theory of pedagogy. According to this view, difficulty and obstacles to the most ‘straightforward’ comprehension are inevitably blocks which any normal human will simply find discouraging – rather than, perhaps, tantalising invitations to learn and grow. As though the ideal learner has no desire to be challenged, beyond the reading of an alphabetti-spaghetti version of any given issue. In many ways, obstacles are what pedagogy thrives on: the fact that something suggests a mystery but doesn’t immediately yield to understanding is what creates a desire to know more.
In fact, if the obstacle takes the form of a phobic reaction to a particular use of language, that itself is an opportunity to analyse and learn. Why, for example, should any reader in this day and age have upbraided the writer Eleanor Catton that her use of the word ‘crepuscular’ was ‘elitist’? Occurring in an essay that, as she pointed out, was ‘published online, with no restrictions of access or requirements of subscription’, and where it was ‘one click away from a vast number of comprehensive dictionaries’, who was really excluded by this term? The response might betray a suspicion of the sensuous excess of such a term: too many syllables, too many sounds.
Indeed, that suspicion of the materiality of language, the fact that it always ‘goes too far’, has a tradition in reactionary thought. In 747, St Boniface complained about the text in the textile, to Cuthberg, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about the gorgeous ornamentation in clerical clothing. ‘Those ornaments shaped like worms, teeming on the borders of ecclesiastical vestments’, he said, announced and were inspired by the antichrist, and led, among other things, to depravity and shameful deeds. Twelve and a half centuries later, what Richard Sieburth has called Ezra Pound’s ‘puritanical suspicion of ornament’ is an iteration of a class loathing that is gendered – as in his call to abolish ‘pastry-cook gothic’ – and, with its abjection of sinuous and decadent ‘excess’, raced. The left-moralist version of this sentiment is expressed bracingly by Chibber, for whom academics use ‘impenetrable prose’, prose ‘so dense nobody can penetrate it’, as a ‘substitute for thought’.
It is obvious, to the point of being banal, that elaborate waffle can be a way of circling around and avoiding an unwelcome thought, or of saying little or nothing. Beyond the banal, however, Chibber offers a folksy populist theory of communication, of the sort beloved of certain Usonian left academics, wherein complexity and convolution are a kind of ideological hoax perpetuated on the unwary, protecting an oppressive system from scrutiny. (One might add that if prose is something to be ‘penetrated’, whereas its bushy ‘density’ can conceal and ‘substitute’ for a lack of thought, then here is vivid new expression of what is sometimes described by the term ‘phallogocentrism’.)
To demand clarity, in this sense, depends on repression. First, to make such a demand one has to deny the inherent excess in writing. It always goes beyond meaning, because it is matter: which is to say, it is sensuous, aesthetic. ‘Language is mysterious,’ writes the religious scholar Karen Armstrong. ‘When a word is spoken, the ethereal is made flesh; speech requires incarnation – respiration, muscle control, tongue and teeth.’ Writing does not simply store information but, through the hands, gives it an embodiment: it is the word made flesh. Artifice is written into writing – it is part of the script. The very idea of writing depends on craft, and graphic art. Calligraphers and fontographers take especial delight in this aspect of writing, but it is never entirely absent. Beyond graphic representation, there is an acoustic dimension, as when a writer is described as having a ‘tin ear’ for the language.
A demand for ‘clarity’ is also a denial of the unconscious. The most famous lapsus calami is perhaps found in the ‘Wicked Bible’ published in 1631, so-called because the compositors mistakenly rendered the seventh commandment as ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. This exquisite Freudian slip of the pen vividly illustrates something that ought to be uncontroversial: that it is possible to write more than one means, or intends to mean, and mean more than one intends to write. And while such slips will usually be caught in editing, they are evidence that thoughts other than those more obviously manifest in the text might have shaped its writing. Whenever we write, that is, there is always something going on that is unclear, even to ourselves. Denial of the unconscious, often registering as a phobic resistance to the very idea of the unconscious, flattens writing, making it seem less interesting than it is.
The demand denies, too, the intrinsic ambiguity of language itself. Saussure described the ‘arbitrary’ relationship between that signified (the mental concept) and the signifier (the acoustic image) representing it. The relationship is established solely by conventional usage. This means any signifier can slip from one signified to another. Any word or sequence of words has a slippery relationship to meaning. There is hardly a sentence in English that is not in some sense polysemic, with a range of possible interpretations. Even without slips of the pen, our sentences can make fools of us.
If a sentence can be taken in more than one way, still more so can a pamphlet, let alone a book. Not only can it convey different ideas to different people, it can be received at an entirely different register, depending on who is reading. The ‘organ of receiving’ any work of art, wrote Adorno in Minima Moralia, is ‘fantasy’. If writing, even at its most didactic, is an art, this would suggest something quite unsettling. It would imply that writers are, in part, at the mercy of the reader’s fantasy life, and the importance that certain words and ideas have in their fantasies. That once we have put our words out there, we lose control over their effects, because of the multitude of possible significances that they can have for readers. This does not mean every possible interpretation of a text is ‘equally valid’; since language is collective, and meaning is social, interpretation is primarily a public and social act. But even if the author is not ‘dead’, she is no longer authoritative.
The demand for clarity might then be an authoritarian reaction to the turbulent riotocracy, anarchy, or, potentially, democracy of reading, an attempt to foreclose the inherent polysemy of language. For a piece of writing to be perfectly ‘clear’ is for it to be impossible to read in any way other than that intended: itself an impossible ideal, predicated on a fallacious model of writing and of the mind. And if this type of clarity is impossible, then writing as if it were, is an affectation – just one literary style among others. It is a form of literary naturalism, which does as much to disguise its materials and its artifice as possible. There is nothing at all objectionable about that; only, to demand this pose, this model, of all writing, even all political writing, is to narrow the repertoire for no good reason.
‘In prose,’ George Orwell wrote, ‘the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.’ This remarkably suggestive and under-examined claim appears toward the end of his essay on ‘Politics and the English Language’ (hereafter ‘Politics’). On the face of it, this essay is a prospectus for no-frills, down-to-earth writing – for clarity, in brief – and is widely treated as such. On the Left, it is knowingly cited as though its mere invocation deals a mortal blow to ‘pretentiousness’. On its face, the essay repudiates ugly and laboured prose, distorted by orthodoxy and jargon. And yet it is a surprisingly eccentric, parochial essay, with a strange underground current of meaning in it.
Orwell had an enduring concern with the relationship between politics and prose style. His novel 1984reflected, through the crude metaphor of ‘doublethink’, on the distorting effect that power exerts on language. Burmese Days alluded to the ‘secret thoughts’ that any colonial officer must never utter. In ‘Politics’, though, his focus was different: it was left-wing writers, ranging from Harold Laski to an anonymous letter writer in Tribune, whom he took to task for debasing the language. Orthodoxy, ‘of whatever colour,’ produced a ‘lifeless, imitative style’.
Orwell was sensitive to the ways in which euphemism, ready-made phrases, stale metaphors, jargon, abstraction, and obscurity could be used as defence mechanisms. Thus we can say ‘pacification’ rather than ‘airborne massacre’; ‘transfer’ rather than ‘ethnic cleansing’; ‘coercive interrogation’ rather than ‘torture’; ‘collateral damage’ rather than ‘mass murder’. But here he went much further, asserting that, due to some obscure source of civilizational decadence, the English language was in decline – a decline that could be arrested by a marshalling of efforts to, among other things, ‘drive out foreign words and phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable’.
Looking back on it, even the most solemn Orwellian must find it somewhat strange to be warned against the dangers of what he deems ‘pretentious diction’, including terms such as ‘categorical’, ‘effective’, ‘basic’, and ‘primary’, as well as ‘foreign words and expressions’ like ‘status quo’ or ‘cul de sac’, and non-Anglo-Saxon words such as ‘predict’, ‘clandestine’ and ‘expedite’. Even some more recondite terms of which Orwell complained, such as ‘ameliorate’, ‘extraneous’ and ‘deracinated’, seem to have found their place as English expressions. Complaining about foreign words occupying space previously conquered by ‘their Anglo-Saxon numbers’ seems at best arbitrary and self-parodyingly quaint; at worst, it is the literary equivalent of Trumpism.
Orwell’s complaint about ‘meaningless words’ which ‘do not point to any discoverable object’ – such as the use of terms like ‘natural’, ‘human’, ‘romantic’ and ‘dead’ in art criticism – is no less bewildering. It is as if Orwell was pained by the idea of evocation, even or especially in a domain where discovery occurs as much by evocation as description. More plausible is Orwell’s protestation against the disingenuous use of words such as ‘class’, ‘totalitarian’, ‘science’, ‘democracy’, and so on. Again, however, it is as if he wanted to disavow just how contested and value-laden such terms necessarily are. No purely objective use is possible.
Orwell’s argument, leading to his ‘six rules’ for writing, seems to be aimed against excess. The bulk of his rules worry about too many words, too many syllables, too much extravagance. The bigger, the fancier and more foreign terms, the more likely he was to cavil. To ‘pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry’ is unpardonable affectation. Even the anxiety about ‘pretentiousness’ indicates an aversion to excessive ambition, getting ideas above one’s linguistic station (as in, pretention to the throne). But amid all this is a strange reticence, with a great deal left unsaid. What was the civilizational decay that Orwell sensed in language? What is so terrible about ‘primary’ and ‘predict’? Why is shorter necessarily better? Why ‘always’ cut out a word that can be cut out? Do writers really ‘think wordlessly’ about any object, as Orwell thought they should try to do? Does anyone?
A more pressing problem is how this approach fits with Orwell’s understanding of power and language. Alok Rai, in his study of Orwell’s writings, suggests that Burmese Days is, in part, a ‘record of the difficulty of thinking subversively with any consistency, let alone fluency or clarity.’ Winston Smith, in 1984, is constrained by a language which is entirely artificial. But, Rai notes, because it reinforces the precepts of Big Brother’s rule, which is almost total, it is ‘bound to appear ‘natural’ and unforced’ compared to ‘gauche and awkward, clumsy and cumbersome’ dissident language. Granted that those examples of left-wing writing which Orwell mocks are indeed needlessly ugly, why should clarity necessarily be an alibi of political insight? Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are ‘clear’ writers. And why shouldn’t radical writers struggle to express obscure truths with language that is self-consciously artificial? The linguistically gamesome, literarily ludic, neologising Marx arguably invented a whole dialect the better to theorise.
Even prizing sincerity as the condition for clarity is politically polyvalent. ‘Sincerity’, with its etymological root in ‘unadulterated, pure’ meaning, is hardly an end in itself, as numerous examples of sincere and clear fascist exhortation illustrate. ‘Gas the yids’, commonly heard from fascist football fans, is simple, direct and, at least for some, sincere – and also utterly repulsive.
In any case, to expect sincerity as a rule might be far too optimistic about the circumstances in which writing takes place. There are political positions which can only be defended ‘by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face’, as Orwell claimed, and then there are those which can only be defended by arguments which are illegal, or widely deemed immoral, or likely to result in death threats, or costly to one’s career, or just incompatible with a reactionary common sense. Wildean paradox, the games played with truth and masks, the guileful confounding of common sense, are all ways of being insincere to a political purpose: all strategies for making the unsayable sayable. The love that dare not speak its name could be defended more directly, but only by arguments which most people could not bear to hear. As follows from this, even the defence of political repression which Orwell sensed in the equivocations of some left-wing writers, can come in a seemingly unequivocal form. ‘Hang Mandela’ was once easier to say without equivocation than, for example, ‘Victory to the IRA’. Ultimately, the demand for sincerity often betrays the authoritarian impulse of the inquisitor. It was the exiled Czech writer and former Prague Spring activist who, at the denouement of the Cold War, summarised the regime’s demand for sincerity from its subjects. ‘“Don’t lie!” “Tell the truth!”,’ Kundera wrote, ‘are words which we must never say to another person in so far as we consider him our equal.’
So why, then, was Orwell so downright in his attempt to limit what could be done with language? A clue was given in Orwell’s caveat that he was not referring to ‘the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought’. Orwell, in referring to ‘the literary use of language’, most likely had in mind that which deals in truths rather than facts, experience rather than data, or which is particularly heightened, mannered or figurative, exploiting the material properties of language to have an aesthetic, emotional impact. But it would be impossible to find any example of his own writing, including ‘Politics’, which did not include elements thereof. Orwell’s writing is often regarded as a highly effective form of political literature, journalism raised to the level of art.
There is a closeted aestheticism in ‘Politics’, echoed in Orwell’s choice phrase for his fear of what badly chosen words do: they ‘anaesthetise’ the brain. Between aesthetics and anaesthetics, Orwell found the materiality of language, its soothing euphonies and symmetries, threatening, even invasive. Of a bad pamphleteer, he wrote, ‘his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern’. This was an ‘invasion’ of the mind, against which one had to be ‘constantly on guard’ if one was to secure language to meaning.
For Orwell, the worst thing he could do with words was surrender to them: as if he might end up saying something more than he had meant to. This suggests a phobic relationship to the excesses of language. And ‘Politics’ is itself a demonstration of the very economy he exhorts, with not an excess verb, nor a foreign word, nor a stray scientific term, and certainly not a stale metaphor – until, finally, he surrenders in his closing sentence to a rousing call to chuck verbal refuse ‘into the dustbin where it belongs’. The great virtue of ‘Politics’ is that, in its calm, deceptively unforced way, under the guise of straight talking and seemingly logical argument, it presents a quite extravagant and eccentric argument for making Orwell’s somewhat provincial tastes and phobias mandatory, for conferring on them a law-like, universal dignity in the form of six strange rules. This is a matchless act of linguistic seduction, but it is not clear whether it is Orwell or his acolytes who surrendered to it.
In Caedmon’s dream, he learns how to sing; he becomes a poet. In Orwell’s ‘Politics’, another sort of dream, we learn how to write; how to be prose stylists. The link between writing and dreams is as old as prophesy, but it has been secularised and made systematic by psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud’s breakthrough work, The Interpretation of Dreams, is both the foundation of a new way of knowing, and a stylistic masterpiece in its own right.
Freud often described the unconscious as a form of writing (as with his thoughts on the child’s toy, the ‘Mystic Writing Pad’), comparable to a rebus puzzle and, reflecting his fascination with archaeology, to hieroglyphs. The ‘dream book’, as he often described it, was written ‘as if in a dream’. He had to ‘write the dream in order to come out of it’. The spell was such that at the beginning of each paragraph, he ‘did not know where it would end up’. This implies, of course, that the dream was in control, that he had ceded executive control to it. Freud was, he wrote, ‘entirely the dream’. His astonishing advice, in correspondence to Sandor Ferenczi, was that one must, in order to get anywhere, surrender to the words. ‘You should not theorise. Theories should come to you unexpectedly, like an uninvited stranger.’
This seems like a counterintuitive position for an authoritarian like Freud to adopt. One would expect him, of all people, to want to subjugate the text, to favour repression. However, the foundational gesture of psychoanalysis precisely involves a relaxation of editorial control. Freud placed truth on the side of the unconscious, so that it might take us by surprise, an uninvited stranger. For Freud, the dream has much in common with a literary creation, in that it relies on the poetic mechanisms of displacement (metonymy) and overdetermination (metaphor) in order to represent forbidden desires: human beings who can dream can’t help being poets. The literary process uses similar techniques of disguise in the process of sublimating the unacceptable into the irresistible. And if there is always, for Freud, what he calls ‘the navel of the dream’, the point where interpretation fails because it has disappeared into senseless sensuality (the navel evoking the severed connection to the maternal body), the same might be true of a piece of writing.
Jacques Lacan, reinterpreting Freud through structural linguistics, reinterpreted the navel as the point at which sense disappears into something else. The law-governed order of language and meaning disappears into pure enjoyment, or jouissance. The other side of language that has nothing to do with law, Lacan called lalangue. This other side is where syllables are enjoyed for their own sake, much as a baby enjoys the babble fed to him by his mother: where nonsense delights just because of the sensuous properties of phonetic elements of speech.
This might be compared to a form of synaesthesia, the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway involuntarily prompting others. And, indeed, what is writing if not the opening of virtual pathways? We write ourselves a second body, our letters somatic extensions along which psychic energy might be cathected. The artist Hans Bellmer gives us the example of someone with a toothache, clenching their fist tight in order to create a ‘virtual tooth’, an artificial focus of excitation, and thus momentarily redistribute the pain. With writing, we can scratch a virtual tooth onto the written page, or hammer it out into a comments field. Or, in the example of Julian of Norwich, we can write to create a body of love, wherein the letters in a sense bleed and yearn after the organism dies. Once understood – once eaten, in other words, like the body of Christ, the ultimate act of erotic identification – the letters travel down strange and unpredictable pathways, stirring up who knows what?
Lalangue is woven into language – think of the way the eponymous hero of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape savours the word ‘spool’ – and thus also into text. Writing incorporates jouissance in the way that it cuts up speech and rearranges it according to its own architecture. This can be more or less explicit. Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Jabberwocky’ exploits and exults in these delights: ‘brillig … slithy toves … gyre and gimble … frabjous’. Some time after its early appearance in Through The Looking Glass, Carroll stages a dialogue between Alice and Humpty Dumpty about the poem, in which the latter ‘explains’ the words: ‘“toves” are something like badgers – they’re something like lizards – and they’re something like corkscrews’. Lalangue is not exactly meaningless, but rather bursting with meaning: something like this, something like that, something like something else. And it is not only Carroll who exults in this: so, in a different way, does poetry more generally, with its organisation of sounds and silences, symbols and spaces, its rhyme, assonance, metre, and alliteration.
Literary writing need not use any of these formal techniques, but it will manipulate other sensuous properties of language to organise the pace, narrative structure, imagery and rhythm of the text. Lacan’s own late seminars focused on the way in which Joyce’s writing is structured, quilted, by bits of lalangue recovered from the other side. It would be at best vainglorious for a political writer to suppose herself exempt from this, that her rhetorics of demonstration and persuasion had nothing to do with these jouissances. At worst, it would be both politically inefficacious and bad writing.
Orwell recommends that writers should begin by thinking ‘wordlessly’ about objects. But if that were possible, it could only be so if you already know what your object is. It implies that you already know what you think before you have written it down. Writers who aren’t omniscient about their own thoughts might start out differently, by thinking meaninglessly about language. They might begin by journeying to that other, nocturnal side of language, and retrieving bits and pieces that are saturated with jouissance. They might begin to write them down, to weave them into a text which decides their meaning. Only then, after what the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy called ‘the senseless adventure of sense,’ might they discover what their object really was all along.
Writing, whatever else it is doing, is always getting at something that it never quite obtains. There is always something unsaid, something that clings to writing like a shadow.
‘Being natural is simply a pose,’ Oscar Wilde wrote, ‘and the most irritating pose I know.’
It would be merely cute to double down on this provocation, since naturalism is also one of the most interesting and fecund poses available to a writer. Orwell was at times a compelling naturalist. But there is, beyond this, a more troubling philistinism of the Left. This often takes the form of pseudo-naturalism: naturalism that doesn’t even know it’s a literary form. It treats language as a vehicle, a politically neutral instrument through which to convey information and exhortation, and style as superfluous to political meaning.
There is no Philistine Manifesto outlining this very British school of thought, because it is so pervasive, so commonsensical, that no one bothers to try to defend it. In part, it derives from the habitus of some professional writers, journalists, who are trained to report by learning what the composition scholar Nancy Welch called the ‘real-tight structure’. This allows one to write up a motorway pile-up, or gruesome multiple murder, as if it made sense. Suppressing dissonance and disturbance in the text is part of the way it achieves authority, conveying the impression of objectivity. Likewise, many students who are trained to write academic essays are encouraged to expunge themselves from their writing – excepting cursory gestures to ‘reflexivity’ – and are rebuked if they don’t. The resulting ‘unaffected’, ‘clinical’ style establishes authority. It is a rhetorical technique, a means of persuasion. This, of course, teaches people a certain discipline, but it also teaches them to hate writing. It makes it dull and uninteresting, and turns writing into a guilt function: as something you have to do but can never quite bring yourself to do. By making people into bad writers, it makes them believe they can’t write.
Thus, from the perspective of many educated political people, writing is something that one despises: an onerous task, a sacrifice one makes for the greater good. It results in left-wing writers becoming aggressively boring, in an unconscious attempt to punish the reader: I’ve suffered for my writing, now it’s your turn. Any writer who seems to be having a good time, revelling in the jouissances of writing, enjoying with rococo swagger the ornate sensuousness of language, is self-indulgent, a source of resentment. When the philistine dogma actually surfaces on the left, it is usually in the form of a barely coherent reflex: the adenoidal workerist sneer, the offhand reference to Orwellian clarity, or Chomskyist simplicity. The misappropriation of Einstein’s quip that, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough yourself.’ Or, Wittgenstein’s enigmatic, antiphilosophical epigram at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.’
There is a sense in which every philistine is a snob. With some notable exceptions, few people on the Left claim that the writing they object to is beyond their comprehension. Rather, it is other people, ‘most people’, who would find it difficult and alienating. It is never clear exactly who they are patronising in this fashion: but they are to this generation what vulgar Marxists once were to the working-class autodidacts whose literary and intellectual lives Jonathan Rose has written about so well. This dreary inverted pretentiousness could be cynically conceded if its results were not frequently drab, ugly and alienating in their own ways. If it worked, either as explanation or advice, all bets would be off. There is little evidence that it does.
The literature of the left, is literary. Marx, Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, Louis Althusser, Audre Lorde, Simone Yoyotte, Pierre Yoyotte, J H Prynne, Jules Monnerot, Simone de Beauvoir, Christopher Caudwell, Claudia Jones, Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, CLR James, Leon Trotsky, John Berger, the prelapsarian Christopher Hitchens and Rosa Luxemburg are all notable for being, not just theorists, journalists, historians, philosophers, poets and intellectuals who opened up new worlds to their readers but, precisely on that account, great stylists. Historical materialism, at its inception, stressed the artifice – the art – in living, and goes on doing so. We make history, even if not in circumstances or with materials of our choosing. Nothing has to be taken as it is given, not even our written language.
Marx’s writings are among the most influential in history, and blend romantic irony, nineteenth-century gothic, extravagant flights of philosophical abstraction, political economy, dense historical and journalistic writing, soaring sarcasm and demotic humour. They are richly studded with the sorts of polysyllabic words, jargon, excesses and obscure continental phrases that revolted Orwell. The Communist Manifesto flits nimbly between grand abstractions, newly minted concepts, epigrams and, in one of its most famous points, condensed an entire theoretical perspective into a breathless rush of parataxes and inversions: ‘Constant revolutionising of production … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’. Even the major work, Capital, often regarded as terribly difficult, dry theory, is rightly described by Marx’s biographer, Francis Wheen, as ‘an unfinished literary masterpiece which, with its multi-layered structure,’ could be ‘read as a Gothic novel, a Victorian melodrama, a Greek tragedy or a Swiftian satire’.
These literary jouissances are, far from being incidental trappings, often essential to the persuasive power of the ‘ruthless criticism’ of all that exists, and to the new concepts to which it gives birth. They are part of the meaning of the work, which is something that is done to you, not just said to you. One way of putting this is that radical writing is an attempt at, among other things, conversion. We don’t write just to pass on information, as honest brokers, but to change people: to shake them up, to make them laugh, pray, blush, worry, cry, and yearn. We aim to help make revolutionary subjects, people who are capable of waging the kinds of difficult, and often unrewarding struggles that are the lot of any radical. A political writer who was not in the business of conversion may as well be out of business.
This is hardly to say that all writing should be in the interests of conversion, or that all jouissance-laden, ‘flashy’ writing is good writing, let alone politically efficacious. Quite a lot of it is terrible. Contrariwise, a great deal of simple, spare writing is the more beautiful, elegant and persuasive for it. There is, moreover, a case for recognising in politics that, depending on the situation, different styles are called for to achieve different ends. It would be wrong, silly and elitist, however, to think that this must mean a hierarchy of complexity, wherein only the readers of theory journals are expected, or want, to be challenged. And the critical point is that while there may be useful rules of thumb to think with and against, there is and can be no Platonic ideal of ‘good writing’ to aspire to, whether for political or other objectives.
Yet if writing does have, as one of its goals, the goal of changing readers, of stirring them up in the heart and the head, how is it possible, for simple graphic marks on a surface to do this? How does it happen that millions can pick up the Communist Manifesto, or the Qu’ran or the King James Bible, or a great novel for that matter, and find their life utterly transformed by the end? The description of the convert’s experience, in Psalm 40, verse 3, is remarkably similar to what happens to Caedmon in his dream: ‘He put a new song in my mouth.’
What is this mysterious thing that writing does to us? When we receive it with the organ of fantasy, it prompts us to dream. It makes the unthinkable thinkable. It puts something new in our mouths.
With enormous thanks to Rosie Warren, who, in addition to suggesting numerous lines of thought, suggested the piece in the first place, and to China Miéville and Davinia Hamilton for a generous windfall of edits, notes, clues, examples and ideas.
Richard Seymour is a founding editor of Salvage, an author and a broadcaster. He is the author of The Twittering Machine (2019), Corbyn(2016, 2017) and others. His writing appears, among many others, in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and Al Jazeera.