Star-like Isolation

[E]very individual man has an inner life, and is aware of the practical impossibility of understanding others or being understood – in general, of the star-like isolation in which human beings live.  Nearly all literature is an attempt to escape from this isolation by roundabout means, the direct means (words in their primary meaning) being almost useless… “Imaginative” writing is as it were a flank-attack upon positions that are impregnable from the front… The art of writing is in fact largely the perversion of language.

That from a 1940 essay by George Orwell titled ‘New Words.’

Only art, according to Orwell, manages to bridge the chasms between persons and effectively deliver the inner reality of one to another.  Music is an obvious example, and Orwell has some nice things to say about film.  But the art of writing – poetry, the novel, etc. – is paradoxical: it can only achieve its goal by stretching and calculatedly misusing language in such a way as to force upon words a labor for which they are basically unfit. 

I once stumbled on the helpful suggestion (it might have been in Barfield’s Poetic Diction) that a poem, any poem, is best understood when read as if it were a word unto itself, a single word made up of specific component words in a specific order – unutterable any other way.  The same might be said of a novel or a story.  Successful literature makes new words out of the bones of old words.  It manages by calculated accumulation and oblique methods (cadence, music, association and dissociation), to communicate something of the inner reality of a particular human subjectivity which would otherwise be incommunicable.  I suppose this gets at what Orwell had in mind.

But what, then, is the act of reading according to Orwell?  Is it just the consumption of the subjective realities of others?  A cheap ticket to self-transcendence?  Maybe not so cheap: books can be costly and leisure time sparse, and we all need a sense of assurance that we’re not utterly alone in this life.

And what is the act of writing?  The assertion and exploration of the self, yes; but also a terrible devouring thirst to be known, a method of speculative astronomy that strives by means of guessed-at wormholes and gravitational vortices to bridge the gaps between distant suns.


Filed under Literature

4 responses to “Star-like Isolation

  1. elberry

    Splendid stuff, sir.

  2. Ian Woolcott

    Thanks, Elberry. I’m looking forward to your December return.

  3. Great post that reminds me of our latest “burden’ upon the word: hypertext!

  4. Ian Woolcott

    Alas, the irony! O for the days of illiterate peasants and monk-filled scriptoria, when simply being able to read and write legibly was enough to secure your employment with some ring-fingered lord or bishop.

    Drving in to work this morning and listening to Henry Paulson drone away on the radio, I realized that I hate, with a perfect hatred, the two words “impactful” and “illiquid.”

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