An inhabitant of thresholds: On George Orwell, reclusiveness and the merits of belonging between places as a journalist
The tyranny of numbers is all around us, in every sphere. How many website hits has the journalistic story got? It’s a good story if it has lots of hits. How many likes on Facebook and retweets on Twitter did the column get? It’s a fine column if it got plenty of those. How good is the television show? Well, it’s the best if it has the highest viewership. In other words, the measure of quality is quantity.
Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire
“Are you writing a book?” a friend asked the other day. It was a question that came in the course of a phone conversation on the lockdown, now approaching two months here, and on how we are spending our days. His assumption, reasonably enough, was that since I am locked up at home, I have ample time for undisturbed reading, writing and reflection. No, I replied uncomfortably, I should be writing a book – but I am not. I have a familiar excuse. Unfortunately, despite the lockdown, there are never enough hours in the day for rolling about in the rubbish heaps of WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, or the marvellously variegated filmscapes of Netflix.
I have been seduced into allowing those thieves to rob me of my free time and my me-time. Nothing could be more damaging for a writer.
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” Ernest Hemingway said – or rather, wrote — in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He did not go to collect the prize. He led the life his art demanded, the life of the loner. It was still possible then, in the first half of the 20th century, to be one, and to still be a celebrated author. The reclusive writer was a type; indeed, there were others, such as Harper Lee and JD Salinger, who were more reclusive than Hemingway.
Today, it is practically impossible for anyone creating work in their own names to be reclusive. For that, you have to be Banksy or Ellena Ferrante. Those of us less gifted have no choice but to be performers at whatever festivals, webinars, Instagram and Facebook Lives will have us, because one has to be noticed even to get published, and shameless self-promotion is the success mantra at every step before and after. And how do we know that the mantra has worked, and success achieved? Why, by sales figures, of course!
The tyranny of numbers is all around us, in every sphere. How many website hits has the journalistic story got? It’s a good story if it has lots of hits. How many likes on Facebook and retweets on Twitter did the column get? It’s a fine column if it got plenty of those. How good is the television show? Well, it’s the best if it has the highest viewership.
In other words, the measure of quality is quantity.
The worldwide slide in political culture and discourse is probably not unrelated to this tendency to measure quality through numbers. The loud and outrageous are always far more likely to draw wide attention than the quiet and sober.
A common mechanism for generating both loudness and outrage, used daily by the media, is to pit people from extreme ends of every argument against one another to create the verbal equivalent of a brawl. This is often justified in the name of balance. How do you get a “balanced” debate? Why, if you are an OpEd editor, you simply ask two extremists to contribute two opposing pieces, so that instead of one balanced piece, you now have two unbalanced ones. That’s “balance”.
The extreme position may on occasion deserve a hearing but it is one that journalists and writers, in my view, ought as far as possible to eschew. Championing such positions inevitably involves turning a blind eye to the faults and flaws of one’s own side. It is therefore fundamentally dishonest, and militates against good journalism and writing. The most honest position for a journalist or writer is the position of the dhobi’s (washerman) dog. In Hindi, there is a saying, “dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka, na ghat ka”. The dhobi’s dog, neither of home, nor of ghat. That is the ideal position for anyone who wishes to know what’s in the home and at the ghat, and everywhere in between. The dogs that belong at home only know the home. Those at the ghat know only the ghat.
The dhobi’s dog belongs between places. It is an inhabitant of thresholds. There are, however, times in history when the thresholds shrink, the in-between places and positions are erased, and the journalist and writer can no longer remain a dhobi’s dog. He is forced then to wrestle with the problem of choosing a side.
George Orwell was among those who grappled with this problem. He mentions it in his essay, Why I Write. In it, he noted that the writer’s subject-matter “will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own – but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape”.
Orwell listed sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose as the four great motives for writing prose. By nature, he wrote, he was a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. “In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.”
For him, it was the fourth motive for writing that eventually trumped the other three.
The Spanish Civil War and the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany forced him into what he called pamphleteering. Looking back through his work, he noted, “It is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”
Political purpose today lures writers into writing tweets and Facebook posts rather than Animal Farm. Few people have the time or inclination, despite the lockdowns, even to click on article links – unless they are sensationalistic — let alone read whole books.
To adapt Orwell for today’s India, a writer might thus lament, in less than 280 characters:
“I wasn’t born for an age like this;
Was Singh? Was Jain? Were you?”
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