By Patrick Vecchio
This semester probably was my most satisfying in the 10 years I’ve been teaching, but even so, I faltered down the stretch.
During a class last week, students and I discussed George Orwell and his essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell wrote in 1946:
“[a] mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”
As an example, he presents readers with this sentence:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
What Orwell has gummed up in his example of the concrete melting into the abstract is a verse from the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
We had a good discussion, but then my train of thought derailed, spectacularly. I asked the students if they could name any books Orwell had written. The first response, the predictable response, was 1984. Then, surprisingly, the class balked.
When I realized no one else was going to answer the question, I decided I would, but my brain misfired, much to the delight of the students, because instead of the title I meant to say, I said something that was, in the words of my friend Billy G, “the same thing but different.”
I told the students Orwell had written Animal House.
It’s a good thing classes ended last week.