Was George Orwell a Clear-Headed Critic of Literature, or Was He Hopelessly Confused About It?

Perhaps something in between.

At the New Statesman website, New Yorker staff writer, Keith Gessen, discusses the tensions and contradictions in George Orwell’s writings on literature and the arts. One of the examples that he offers is Orwell’s evaluation of poetry:

In his essay on T S Eliot, he writes that it is “fashionable to say that in verse only the words count and ‘meaning’ is irrelevant, but in fact every poem contains a prose-meaning, and when the poem is any good it is a meaning which the poet urgently wishes to express. All art is to some extent propaganda.” Several years later, in “The Prevention of Literature”, in arguing for the idea that poetry might survive totalitarianism while prose would not, he writes that “what the poet is saying – that is, what his poem ‘means’ if translated into prose – is relatively unimportant even to himself”.

What is particularly frustrating about these contradictions is that at each successive moment Orwell presents them in his great style, his wonderful sharp-edged plain-spoken style, which makes you feel that there is no way on earth you could possibly disagree with him, unless you’re part of the pansy left, or a sandal-wearer and fruit-juice drinker, or maybe just a crank.

Gessen’s essay on Orwell can also be found as the introduction to a new anthology of Orwell’s essays here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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