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Whilst walking the dog this rainy evening, I happened upon an illuminated, inflatable lawn ornament of the Halloween variety.

These decorations are an easy, relatively inexpensive way to acknowledge the holiday. They require little or no thought beyond which one to buy and where to buy it. The set-up is easy, so is the clean up and off-season storage.

Easy is good.

The unfortunate trade-off is that most inflatables are hollow caricatures of tradition and a lousy representation of the individuals upon whose lawn they are displayed.

I took three classes in college with a professor who made every class read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

The essay warrants contemplation. The criticisms he makes of modern writing can be made of most modern pursuits. Holiday decorating for example.

He writes:

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. […] If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.

When you use ready-made decorations, you don’t have to untangle lights, build scarecrows or hang bats from trees. Just “gum together” a ghost and pumpkin that’s “already set in order by someone else” and you’re good to go. The result is cute, maybe. Mostly it’s uninspired and unremarkable.

The trouble with such thoughtlessness, Orwell writes, is that it feeds on itself:

[…] an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

It is rather the same thing that is happening to all arenas of our life. The more we choose to rely on the convenience of prefabricated expressions (of thought, holidays or anything else), the less effort we put into all aspects of our lives, and the more we become generic caricatures of ourselves.

Look at what passes for political discourse these days. The majority of people are vehemently arguing about which inflatable lawn ornament is better for the country – your goofy-grinned liberal scarecrow or my fat conservative, Disney witch.

The good news is that the condition is reversible – without taking a BB gun to the neighbors yard:

One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase […] into the dustbin, where it belongs.

I suppose that means I’ll go outside and make a scarecrow.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I doubt it, I don’t think GWB ever read orwell. I think orwell had some valid social fears, but he was a crap writer.

  2. In case it was not clear, my response was satiric.

    I was intentionally choosing to rely on the convenience of a prefabricated expressions (ie, it’s George Bush’s fault), and in so doing became generic caricatures of a left wing nut job.

    It was particularly inspired given some of the right wing nut jobs around here think I am a left wing nut job.

  3. Good post. As for Orwell’s being a crap writer, I disagree. Down and Out in Paris and London is wonderfully descriptive. 1984 is one of the few examples of speculative fiction to be rightly considered literature. I’m a fairly harsh critic and I’d say he was clearly a gifted writer.

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