Why You Write
In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell claimed that “no book is genuinely free from political bias.” Orwell, a widely known British journalist and author, has a moderate and at the same time honest political-leaning paragon of intellectuality, which a lot of people still follow as a role model today. “Why I Write,” published in 1946, suggests a certain theorem about politics and art, and is especially notable. Here, the essay will be thoroughly reviewed.
During Victorian times, or even before then, individuals could focus on developing their skills in literature or philosophy, which enabled varied literary works to be published. That is to say, personal disciplines and individuality were highly regarded and also were meant to be showcased. Of course, it is unknown how many people had access to books, as literature and philosophy were the exclusive property of nobility. Yet, such concern is comparably less critical to the situation of art (which refers to any form of art) during Orwell’s era, since it is veritable that the majority of writings back in the time sincerely reflected the author’s ritual belief, not corrupted by any political ideologies.
There is, of course, a reason why Orwell said so. Art (i.e., movies, books, and any other art form) during the World War often included political motives, propagating one’s supporting ideology or party. Such movements of literature and art were dangerous because politics occupied a massive portion of the public’s lives, and at the same time, their accessibility to art increased — due to the distribution of culture and news regardless of social class. Orwell tells us in his essay to be aware of this factor, whether the writings “as an author” belong to oneself or a certain political party.
As claimed by Orwell, it is unavoidable to not write for political purposes, since it has become a large part of people’s lives. Yet, as an author, a person should be very conscious of one’s political bias and be open-minded. That is to say, one’s thinking should not be corrupted by politics but should have the autonomy to understand and control one’s own political thoughts. Orwell might have wanted to encourage other writers to embrace these values, as a follower of liberalism who lived in a time of extreme conflict between political ideologies and when national censorship of the press was prevalent.
“It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects [writing for political purposes]. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.” — Orwell
What is paradoxical, on the other hand, is that a lot of people perceive George Orwell as “anti-communist” and his showpiece Animal Farm (1945) is utilized as a subject matter to educate on anti-totalitarianism, actively led by national governments. Animal Farm, commonly school reading material, is an anthropomorphic story using animals to express social tensions and ideals. Indeed, it has specific political ideas that the author wants to state. However, it is perceived differently whether one is reading it individually or through how a certain agency is explaining it to multiple people. A nation should certainly be conscientious when art — such as literary works — is used for educational purposes because its impact is not limited to an individual but to the masses. This influence can result in a certain ideology that one nation believes naturally and subconsciously, impressing profoundly on people’s minds through the form of literature, which is an assimilation of political ideologies into collectives.
Nevertheless, nations commonly use artworks to educate people, as literature is an effective tool to convince the masses without complicated theories or terminologies. Besides, in fact, I think assimilation is an essential part of the educational process. Preventing a large number of people from being misled by extremist ideologies is a great potential only public education has. Still, this framework has a critical side effect of room for misunderstanding. Despite the nation’s effort to keep a neutral political position towards the literature they teach, they can still be misinterpreted due to many factors: a nation’s implicit political ideal, educators’ political bias, a social convention of political ideologies, etc. Indeed, George Orwell is widely misunderstood as an anti-communist, when, in fact, he was an active socialist and even possibly communist.
Then, would it be the author’s job to ascertain the genuine interpretation of the work? I do not think so, simply because it is often not possible to do so. For example, Animal Farm is used as a public educational source in a wide range of countries, nevertheless what the author actually tried to convey is a mystery — since he cannot answer anymore. Therefore, the readers themselves are the subject who should be open-minded on its interpretation, not the nation nor the educator. Furthermore, if you are a person who creates your own artwork, it is even more important to rethink if your work (or writing) is truly reflective of yourself. It is a very different matter of making an artwork to reveal your ritual thoughts or ideas influenced by a specific political party or ideology.
Likewise, being open-minded and conscious of one’s political ideology — in a word, metacognition — is a fundamental ability that people should be equipped with if they are coping with the politics in art. Politics and art are now something inevitable throughout modern society, and the most important factor is to not lose oneself and one’s subjectivity in such a vulnerable area.
“Why I Write” includes several more motives and viewpoints that George Orwell has towards writing worth exploring. I highly recommend you, particularly writers and thinkers, to read it. Read his other essays also, such as “Politics and the English Language” and “The Prevention of Literature.” Orwell delves into how the characterized formal English expressions confuse and deceive the public and the importance of the freedom of the press. His essays are an opportunity to learn who he is and broaden the view of positionality as a writer.
According to Orwell, “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Certainly, art is always interconnected with politics. It is dangerous to go alone! Take this essay, “Why I Write,” which will serve as a precious guidebook to your pilgrimage to modern society, where art and politics are omnipresent.
Michael Han is a man who dreams to be a writer, to review literature and art that are related to social issues.