The Power Of Language


“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?  …Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now? …The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think.”

With these chilling words, George Orwell introduced a novel and revolutionary concept into our collective cultural consciousness — namely, that the way to hasten the immolation of any society is to destroy its ability to communicate. (Ray Bradbury, may he rest in peace, would later re-echo this sentiment in Fahrenheit 451 – “Remember the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord.”)

Within the context of Orwell’s dystopian tour de force, 1984, this societal Götterdämmerung is brought about by undermining the very foundation of Oceania’s language, slowly and systematically, with an intricate web of machinations so subtle that the duped masses do not even realize the full import of what is happening until it is far too late. We, as readers, see in lurid living detail how the human person, robbed of his ability to communicate, is effectively stripped of his ability to influence society. For ideas, as Orwell would have us know, are of no use to anyone who lacks the means to articulate them.

Within the pages of his compelling tale, however, an equal but opposite truth emerges to the more discerning reader: that as a corollary, he who possesses the ability to communicate possesses the means to transform culture. The ultimate purpose of language is not destructive but creative, and it is this very power of language which is a fundamental reality upon which any civilized society pivots. It is this reality, so self-evident and yet so fraught with implications, which attracted many of us to the study of words in the first place.

In the course of my own history, I was fascinated by the power of words from a very young age. I was all but nocturnal in my childhood years, reading under the covers with a flashlight and ruining my eyes, spending long and sleepless nights poring over Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Poe, Jane Austen and the Brontës, Dickens and Shakespeare, Chesterton and Lewis. I was a self-avowed bookworm — to other, less kind observers, a nerd — but somewhere in the midst of those mad midnight encounters, I learned to love literature, free from pedantry and pretension, apart from any utilitarian value it might hold, but simply for its own sake.

Next I was drawn to the possibility of co-creation intrinsic to the art form. The very fact that storytelling was not a dead art at all, but rather, a vibrant, living one, fascinated me and inexplicably took hold of my consciousness from the outside in. I was dictating stories at three before I had mastered the motor skills to compose them. At seven, I had moved on to scribbling poetry I hope to God my biographers never exhume, Full-House-inspired scripts and screenplays that I forced my friends to perform, and brief sketches about a friendly rabbit named Harles; at ten, I completed a series of short stories about a chubby and precocious prepubescent detective, based on myself, of course; at eleven, a maudlin full-length novella followed about the poor boy I was unrequitedly in love with at the time (and since he’s getting ordained as a priest this weekend, that’s another early work I hope my biographers overlook); at 15, I published my first article.  Throughout this period, I was fortunate enough to find myself surrounded by friends and teachers who fostered my interests and encouraged these earliest literary ventures, sub-stellar though they may have been.

At 16, I graduated from high school, and the following fall, I began six years of undergraduate and graduate work in English, studying a vast array of authors from a smorgasbord of eras, from Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare to F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.R.R. Tolkien, from pre-civilized ancient Greece to medieval Europe to twentieth-century America and Great Britain. I was in ecstasies at the possibilities which surrounded me, and constantly found myself concocting new and inventive ways to expand my literary horizons. I directed Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream for the theater department, supplemented my literary overload with courses in philosophy, history, and poli-sci, wrote the odd article for the school newspaper, studied Ovid, Livy, and the Italian Renaissance on a semester abroad in Rome, and researched and wrote a pretentious thesis that makes me cringe on the Shakespearean authorship controversy and the 17th Earl of Oxford (or whatever the hip topic amongst the intelligentsia was at the time).

But it was during that period that I found my life’s passion: the use of language to effect the transformation of culture. If truisms are true and the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, then it is the writers of our generation who bear the greatest burden of responsibility for using their gifts to inspire and influence others, to convey truths of eternal cosmic significance in the teeth of public opinion, to capture the hearts of humanity and help them achieve clarity of vision.

I think every writer ultimately wants to write great works that will enable others to delve into themselves and uncover their own untapped potential. Through fiction, the human person can indirectly come to know about his own nature, about his own inner workings, about man in the context of his interpersonal relationships, about man and his place in the cosmos; through nonfiction, these same themes may be explored in a more direct manner. The common underlying theme of all writing, however, must always be the discovery and recovery of what it means to be human. Socrates’ wise old dictum, a challenge to contemporary culture with its overmedicated neuroses and its nebulous sense of identity, was “know thyself.” The Bard reiterated this exhortation in Hamlet (if a bit facetiously), penning the immortal words, “This above all/ To thine own self be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Writing thus becomes a hallowed endeavor, an apostolate of mercy, an ennobled mission to “reveal man to himself and make his supreme calling clear.”

We need to heed the Cassandra-like croakings of Orwell in 1984, and undertake not only to make use of what we personally have been given, but to ensure that the gift of literacy is placed in the protection of future generations as well. The written word is a thing of mysterious permanence, and the very future of society, the preservation of its history, the continuation of its purpose, belongs to those who not only know how to think, but know how to put into words what they think. Modern education is standing in desperate need of a resurgence of interest in literature, rhetoric, composition, and the fine arts. We are an increasingly technical and technological era, an era of transient realities and disposable values, of instant gratification and laissez-faire morality. The short-lived nature of our collective societal attention span and the jaded ennui with which we view the things that are truly important (“the real horror,” Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “is that there is no horror”) bear witness to the fact that we desperately need a renaissance of art and literature, for only through these venues can we hope to explore the eternal questions of who we are, why we are here, where we came from, and where we are going.

So while 1984 provided society with a devastating and soul-wrenching depiction of the power of illiteracy, in the final analysis, Orwell’s lesson is an incomplete one. As lovers of the English language, we must rally doggedly behind the converse but coequal tenet: that the power of literacy to prevail is much stronger still. Let us each embark on a personal quest to revive the art of storytelling and to instill new appreciation of the significance of the written word and its redemptive power in those around us.

When I was three, I wanted to write the books that would change the world. It was a dream well worth pursuing.

It still is.

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image – 1984