Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ponder: Enough of a common world for disagreement to be worthwhile

"And this, I suppose, helps to make sense of Orwell’s conclusion to the essay on Swift – a conclusion that is not as simple as he makes it sound. ‘One can imagine a good book being written by a Catholic, a Communist, a Fascist, a Pacifist, an Anarchist, perhaps by an old-style Liberal or an ordinary Conservative: one cannot imagine a good book being written by a spiritualist, a Buchmanite or a member of the Ku Klux Klan.’… The argument is still a provocative one.  There are systems of belief that are intrinsically not capable of generating serious writing; presumably because they are not really capable of seeing specific truths in a way that can renew or reshape the reader’s world.  They may be simply dogmatic schemes without intellectual curiosity; they may be infinitely more lethal varieties of terror and bigotry.  They begin with the sort of denials that guarantee dead and self-referring language.  They give us nothing to recognise; or perhaps they fail to create in us the sense of a serious question because they are so confident of having a final answer.  Orwell grants, in other words, that even a comprehensive ideology like Catholicism or Communism will be arguing about its answers, in ways that engage the outsider: we know why they think these questions matter, even if we have no time for their answers.  The trouble with the systems Orwell writes off is that they fail to let us sense why the issues that they are worried about should matter to anyone.  Not a wholly clear argument, but it gives us some interesting criteria, once again, for identifying serious writing.  Serious writing points to enough of a common world for disagreement to be worthwhile.  Stale ideological writing never moves outside its comfort zone; bureaucratic and pseudo-technical language is indifferent to replies.  You can’t disagree; but the systems Orwell thinks are capable of producing something worthwhile are precisely systems that begin with recognisable human questions – not puzzles to which an esoteric philosophy provides solutions but themes that human beings as such characteristically worry about."

Rowan Williams, The Orwell Lecture, 2015.

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