Why I Write
Earlier this week I stumbled across a gift given to me last year by Mr. Parabasis himself: George Orwell: A Collection of Essays. Inside I found Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write, and found it contained many compelling thoughts relevant to last week’s conversation about the intentions and motivations of artists.
As Orwell says, “I think there are four great motivations for writing… They exist in different degrees in every writer…”
Here is what they are:
1) Sheer egotism. As he explains it, the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood, ect.”
2) Esthetic enthusiasm. As he says, “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.”
3) Historical impulse. “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
4) Political purpose. As he says, “using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
Now, given Orwell’s body of work, one might assume that for him, number four was a prime motivator. However, he admits that “by nature… I am a person in whom the first three motives outweigh the fourth.” Totalitarianism forced him to become a political writer, as he says, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”
A survey of his artistic motivations reveals that he was not driven primarily by his virtues, but by his vices. As a child, he first turned to writing to seek egotistic redemption for his social failure. As he says, “at the start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued…” He felt he could create “a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” He continues, later, “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy…” – passages that support the arguments made by Rousseau in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences.
The “political purpose”, as Orwell puts it, is the only virtuous motivation he describes. He writes because “there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention…” This noble motivation is the only one he outlines that seemingly seriously contributes to the reduction of society’s suffering.
However, he says of writers, “at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that “every book is a failure,” as he says. Perhaps all men are struggle-seekers, addicted to striving after unachievable goals, believing in their hearts, as Kropotkin did, that “to struggle is to live, and the fiercer the struggle the intenser the life.”
Or perhaps it has more to do with the fact that, as Jean Anouilh said, “fiction gives form to life.” Orwell describes himself as a child “making up a continuous story about myself, a sort of diary existing only in my mind.” It seems only natural that narrative storytelling forms relaying tales of men suffering while striving for goals, would provide comfort to humans, being that we all create value in our lives by setting a goal and measuring meaning by our ability to achieve it.