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Why I Write

Corbett ReportMay 31, 2021, 1:24:58 AM

by James Corbett
May 15, 2021

"From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."

—George Orwell, "Why I Write" (1946)

When I was seven years old I resolved to write a screenplay for a comedy/action television show (or was it a movie?) involving ninjas and talking cars. I only ever got a few sentences down on paper before my attention wandered, but I remember being particularly pleased with an idea for a scene involving two ninjas engaged in a sword fight next to a brick wall. After much clanging and tumult, the camera would cut from a tight close-up of the battling warriors to a wide shot revealing that all of that sword-clanging frenzy had resulted in the word "NINJA" being inadvertently slashed into the wall. (No, I cannot explain it now, but to six-year-old me this was incredibly funny.)

When I was eleven years old I responded to a Language Arts class writing assignment with a page about an axe-wielding fantasy hero returning from a battle and falling asleep in his bed, which, I imagined, might be the opening page of a novel. My friend, reading the page and not quite sharing my vision for the bigger story, simply asked why I'd written an entire page about someone coming home and falling asleep.

When I was thirteen, my class read George Orwell's Animal Farm and our Language Arts teacher tasked us with writing a sequel to the story. The best idea in my version of Animal Farm 2 (and the only one I remember) was that the space race was portrayed as an actual race between two of the animals, although, to be honest, that idea came straight from my teacher himself. Nevertheless, so impressed was he with my story that he made the rest of the class read it and answer a quiz about it. I remember sitting there with my head down on my desk doing my level best not to die of embarrassment as the entire class began reading my story and I especially remember the moment my crush rolled her eyes at her friend over the sheer tediousness of the exercise. Needless to say, we never dated.

When I arrived in Japan, fresh off the boat (so to speak) and looking to start a new chapter in my life, I decided to stop writing when the inspiration stuck—which had been my modus operandi up to that point—and to start a writing routine. Every morning, rain or shine, whether I felt like it or not, I would head to the local cafe and spend one hour writing over a cup of coffee. After two years of this routine I had amassed a journal, a dream journal, a completed manuscript of a novel and a half-completed manuscript of another one.

I guess I don't need to say that I knew from a very early age that I was going to be a writer. A novelist, to be precise, writing fiction in the style of Joyce and Faulkner and Proust and Conrad and my other favourite authors. It was what I did. It was who I was. There was no escaping it. But that was OK. I didn't want to.

But then something funny happened: I didn't become a writer. At least, not in the sense I was expecting. Instead I became a . . . podcaster? Talking about conspiracies? On the internet?

And, just like that, the life path I had been absolutely certain of since I was a child disappeared from underneath my feet.

I can even pinpoint the the precise date on which I realized my life was about to go in a very different direction than I had imagined: March 21, 2007. It's right there in my journal, where I found myself musing on the "conspiracy" information that was fast eclipsing my interest in literature.


And after all, how far will this new philosophy take me? It's funny how quickly this new way of seeing the world gave the lie to my old aspirations, self-involved, of being some jet-setting millionaire literary savant with a nifty pen name. Mere wankery and delusion, playing their own game as if winning is actually desirable. I say they can keep them, these holdover remnants of adolescent pinings, a child's view of the way the world works. The question then becomes how best to dedicate myself to that which really matters, the glamourless work to which our forefathers set themselves, the work of defending freedom and liberty? It is as a scribe, no doubt, that I will have the most utility. Now time to rise with anger, to sound the alarm, to rouse those around me from their slumbers. A Jonathan Swift against the New World Order? If it be so deemed. All I know is if he lived in the present day he'd have a website. And, perhaps, so must I. And to those running the game I say: "Beware! You never know what'll happen when we start leaving the table."

The process of falling down the rabbit hole that began in the fall of 2006 had ended up with me renouncing my literary aspirations in my own journal. Although the entire process that led me to discover this new path was bewildering and disorienting, it needn't have been surprising. It was all laid out half a century before by the author who I now reference more than any other, the one that had caused me such embarrassment in junior high: George Orwell.

In 1946, Eric Arthur Blair (better known by his pen name, George Orwell) penned an essay entitled "Why I Write." Although just 43 years old when the essay was published in the pages of the short-lived literary journal Gangrel, Orwell—who had already gained international renown for Animal Farm, published the year before, and who had just begun work on Nineteen Eighty-Four—had by then earned the right to reflect upon his life in letters.

Wrestling with the question of what compels him to put pen to paper, Orwell runs through what he identifies as the four great motives for writing, namely:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. [. . . ]

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. [. . .]

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. [. . .]

These four motives, he insists, "exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living." This was not mere theory on Blair's part. His own biography demonstrates exactly how a writer can be shaped by the "atmosphere in which he is living."

If one merely read the first half of a biography of Blair and tried to extrapolate the rest, it would be easy to imagine the type of writer he was going to become. As the great-grandson of a wealthy country gentlemen whose parents were desperately clinging on to what was left of the family fortune and (perhaps more importantly) social status, Blair grew up even more class conscious than the average Englishman. When he decided to join the Indian Imperial Police in Burma after graduating from the prestigious Eton College—an almost unthinkable move from a comfortable position in the inner sanctum of the upper class to a lowly position in the farthest-flung corner of a fading empire—it marked merely the first instance of a lifelong habit of eschewing privilege and comfort in favour of better knowing how the world really works.

This pattern continued when, having resigned his post in Burma and vowing to become a writer, Blair once again eschewed the comfort of his home life to become a tramp, adopting the name "P.S. Burton" and working and living among the lowliest members of society in the East End of London and in the working-class district of Paris. These experiences gave rise to essays like "The Spike" and "How the Poor Die"—which provide his readers with an unflinching look at the squalor that the working classes of the era endured—and led to his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, published under the name "George Orwell" because he wanted to spare his class-conscious family the embarrassment of having their name associated with someone who had spent time as a vagrant.

From all of that and from his next handful of books—Burmese Days, A Clergyman's Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and The Road to Wigan Pier, all published in short order between 1934 and 1936—it's tempting to feel that one more or less already knows the trajectory of Orwell's career. Here is the prodigal son of a family of declining fortune, rejecting his own comfortable position in society to become a middling writer of ultimately forgettable socialist literature.

But, thankfully for us, this was not the end of Orwell's story.

As important as his early writing may have been in terms of the development of his no-nonsense, straightforward style of writing, Orwell was by 1936 still a relatively unknown and largely unheralded author who, had he continued down that path, would hardly be remembered today. It was not until the series of world events culminating in WWII began to crescendo in the late 1930s that we see Orwell take the first steps down the path that would lead to him becoming the world-renowned and still-remembered author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four

Horrified by the rise of fascism and—out of step with many of his English contemporaries—taking the threat of Hitler and the totalitarian ideology he represented very seriously, Orwell quickly realized that the overthrow of the Second Spanish Republic by the Nazi-backed Franco faction represented a pivotal historical moment. In late December of 1936, just six months after having married, Orwell was in Barcelona, telling John McNair—the man coordinating British volunteers for the Republican militia in Spain on behalf of the Independent Labour Party—that "I've come to fight against fascism."

His experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War culminated in the May Days of 1937, where the various factions on the Republican side of the conflict began engaging each other in a series of street battles in Catalonia. Orwell, fighting with the anti-Stalinist "Workers' Party of Marxist Unification" (POUM), found himself and many of his fellow fighters targeted by the Soviet-backed communist press as "fascist collaborators." Narrowly escaping the subsequent purge of POUM members, which claimed the lives of many of his friends, the incident left an indelible mark on Orwell. As he noted in his "Why I Write" essay:

"The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. 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."

Having narrowly escaped a Soviet-backed purge with his life, Orwell was uniquely situated among English socialists to understand the threat of totalitarianism, not just from fascism but communism as well. It was this sense of the real horrors of totalitarianism, garnered not from philosophical study but from actual lived experience, that set Orwell apart from so many of his contemporaries. And it was in the soil of this realization that the flower of Orwell's artistic expression was able to fully bloom.

"What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing."

The fruits of that effort "to make political writing into an art"—Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four—are, by now, known to all. But there can be little doubt that they would have never flowered at all had Orwell not lived through the tumultuous events of the 1930s.

And just as Orwell could observe that it is "nonsense" to think that any author of his era could avoid writing of the totalitarian threat that was at that time menacing the world, so, too, do I think that it is nonsense to believe that any writer of our era could not in one way or another address the totalitarian threat of our own age: the move toward a global technocratic biosecurity state predicated on complete control of every human down to the genomic level. Although, perhaps, a mere extension of the age-old quest for domination that has motivated every would-be tyrant throughout history, this iteration of the dream—fueled as it is by technologies that even Orwell could never have dreamed of—represents the greatest peril that the human species has ever faced.

So why do I write? That is the unanswerable question that even Orwell had to concede he could never fully answer:

Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there 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 on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

But why has my writing not taken the form of literary novels, as the younger incarnation of myself was so convinced would be my career trajectory? That is because, knowing what I know about the world as it is, I could not conceive of using my facility with language in any other way than in ringing the alarm bell as loudly as I can about the existential threat facing humanity.

Dear reader, please do not misunderstand my intentions. I am not in any way attempting to compare myself to Orwell or to put my amateur literary scribblings on the same pedestal as his truly important work. I merely offer this by way of explanation—as much for my own sake as for yours—of how I came to be here, a podcaster dedicating his life to fighting the New World Order rather than the (likely unpublished) author of (doubtless middling) novels.

But still, for whatever it is worth, I find some sort of comfort in the irony that my non-literary literary career has come full circle back to the man who inspired my earliest literary "success," Animal Farm 2. Far from waning in influence over myself or the world at large, Orwell's importance only grows with each passing year. He has, after all, provided the very vocabulary—from doublethink and thoughtcrime to memory hole and Big Brother—with which we describe the events taking place around us, and, as I am constantly at pains to note, it is nearly impossible to encounter yet another story of the encroaching technocratic police state without referring to it as "Orwellian."

Sadly, I think Orwell in his grave takes little solace in that fact. But perhaps he can appreciate that as long as there are those among us still heeding his warnings, we have not lost the fight.

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