Preface: This piece went out to my newsletter in July 2022 while I was in Barcelona. If you enjoy this piece, then you’ll my monthly newsletter where I reflect on one or two key lessons or top-of-mind ideas from the previous month. Subscribe here. This piece was the foundation for what would become my essay on Defensive Propaganda: How Orwell Deconstructs Word Choice.
I was sitting on the floor of a metro car traveling from Barcelona to a town 30 minutes away.
“Qué lees?” A woman with blonde highlights and a flower tattoo on her shoulder asked me, distracting me from my book.
My knees were scrunched up near the book in my hands, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
The Barcelona trains have their faults, but unlike New York, they are clean enough to plant your butt on the floor when the seats are full.
(For example, Spain is infected with an aptitude for lack of punctuality, and this translates to the trains. As a general rule, trains come too late. But sometimes, enough so that you can’t depend on it being late, it comes early. In theory, I rather admire the Spaniards for not sharing our time-neurosis; but unfortunately I share it myself.)
I had noticed she, also planted on the train floor and about five feet away from me, had looked over a few times before asking me what I was reading. While I was prepared to answer in Catalan, I was rather relieved she asked in Spanish.
I didn’t know whether to say “Orwell” with my American accent or with a Spanish accent. I’ve made the mistake of not pronouncing “Wi-fi” like “Wee-fee,” and had learned that if you want people to understand English words, you have to say them with Spanish accents.
What came out of my mouth was in between, and it revealed I was a foreigner.
I continued in Spanish, embracing opportunities, as I do, to talk about books.
“It’s a book about the Spanish Civil War, specifically in Catalonia. It has helped me understand some of the history of Catalonia, dating back to an important era.”
“Muy bien,” she responded, slightly nodding her head and opening her eyes wide in surprise, clearly taken aback and unprepared for a conversation about the Spanish Civil War.”
“You’re reading it in Spanish?” She replied.
Then, she asked a question that prompted a conversation that I have about five times a day.
“How do you speak Spanish so well?”
I responded with my typical story, and then, switching to Catalan (a foreigner even attempting Catalan, I’ve learned, also impresses Catalans) I said, “But my Catalan is not as good.”
She continued with another predictable counterpoint, after her even greater shock that my Catalan is respectable.
“You look like Rafael Nadal,” she said.
“The people here always tell me that. I think he’s quite good-looking, so thank you.”
In the crowded train, several people laughed, and I realized that a handful of others had listened to our whole conversation, perhaps invested in where it was going.
“What stop are you getting off at?” I asked.
Her stop was next. We were about to part ways.
The New Yorker in me felt so out of place flirting with a stranger on public transit — which is an unspoken no-no — that I didn’t dare ask for her number.
I knew this would be our only moment.
The train stopped, she stood up to leave and I said goodbye to her in the short-hand Catalan, “deu,” complete with the extended final “oo” sound which echoed throughout the train car. She said “deu” in turn, and continued on her journey.
I returned back to the same place where the train continued: Catalonia, but back in 1937 during the heat of the Spanish Civil War.
George Orwell to me is one of the most important writers of the 20th century. I have read and reread all of his major books, and even read his collection of journals, letters, and journalism in its entirety.
I’m extremely interested in Orwell for reasons that I suspect will fill feature essays.
In particular, though, his book Homage to Catalonia holds a special place for me.
I will try to save my personal attachments for another day. My relation to Catalonia, and its capital, Barcelona, make it easy for me to love this book.
For today, I will focus on aspects of the craft.
Here are a few lessons we can learn from Orwell and his nonfiction book, Homage to Catalonia.
One man’s truth, as it happened
As a writer, Orwell inspires me because nothing he says or writes makes me feel like I couldn’t what he does.
His genius is in telling the truth, his truth, as it happened in front of his eyes.
In a political landscape full of lies and propaganda, somebody like Orwell saying, “this is what I saw,” can change how the world views a conflict.
That was the case with the Spanish Civil War.
And Orwell knows this. He writes at the end of Homage…
“It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously, everybody writes as a partisan.”
Orwell empowers me to act and engage in politics because, as he did, I believe we can understand politics simply by looking around us.
He frees me from the need to have an inside scoop or a high-brow academic perspective to wrestle with the political challenges of our time and the countless (all biased) media sources coated in deceptive rhetoric.
Instead, he used his own eyes. And we can all do it too.
The power of nonfiction
This is partly why I believe his nonfiction, while less popular than his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, are more effective.
There’s no guessing what the metaphor is or what it applies to. Often, this clear context helps me relate the ideas to modern situations more effectively.
In Homage, we can see Orwell developing his ideas like “Newspeak” in real-life situations. For example, throughout the book he critiques that way imperial democracies like France and the UK covered the Spanish Civil War.
He writes, “The thing that happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure.”
Plainly, Orwell tells us why and how antifascist newspapers covered up one of the principal questions of the war.
From this, it’s clear where Newspeak came from, and it wasn’t the Fascists.
Orwell is actually hilarious.
Orwell’s writing centers on deep political critiques.
But in his nonfiction, like Homage, I find myself laughing even in the darkest of scenes.
Here are a few of my favorites, all related to his time volunteering to fight against Spanish fascists:
“One evening when it was barely even dusk a sentry let fly at me from a distance of twenty yards; but he missed me by a yard — goodness knows how many times the Spanish standard of marksmanship has saved my life.”
“Months earlier, when Sietamo was taken, the general commanding the Government troops had said gaily: ‘Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca.” It turned out that he was mistaken… ‘Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca’ had become a standing joke throughout the army. If I ever go back to Spain, I shall make a point of having a cup of coffee in Huesca.”
“Firewood was the one thing that really mattered… The eagerness of our search for firewood turned us all into botanists” (30).
Even in the serious, darkest of situations, Orwell allows his personality to shine through.
While serving in the Spanish War, Orwell got shot in the neck and survived. He reflects on it here:
“No one I met at this time failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all.”
Examining Propaganda and Word Choice
The term “Orwellian” is used by all political sides, and as an Orwell fanboy, I feel protective of my deceased favorite author because I know that he would be appalled by many of the uses.
In fact, “Orwellian” has become a term thrown around for the sake of rhetoric, which is exactly what Orwell critiques in Homage and other works.
Homage contains tons of these real-world examples that show how words and catchphrases often spin out of rhetorical control and take on lives of their own (much like the term “Orwellian.”)
One example that Orwell highlights is the difference between “democratic” and “revolutionary.”
He writes, “If they had appealed to the workers of the world not in the name of ‘democratic Spain’ but of ‘revolutionary Spain,’ it is hard to believe that they would not have got a response.”
The strongest example in the book is the use of the word “Trotskyism,” which Orwell dissects at length.
Behind the guise of the vague term “Trotskyism,” the Soviet-backed Spanish government threw Spanish revolutionaries in jail. (Even though they were all on the “same side” fighting against Fascism!)
They did this under the guise of “Trotskyism.”
Orwell writes, “I was not guilty of any definite act, but I was guilty of ‘Trotskyism.’”
This is one of dozens of impactful examples of rhetoric that I highlighted. And this form of rhetoric is perhaps even more pervasive today…
whether it’s crying out “Antifa!” or “Radical Left!” or a number of, in reality, completely meaningless terms.
(All sides do this, but the current rhetoric on the right is particularly dangerous.)
As a current example, in the wake of the horrendous, tragic overturning of Roe v. Wade, I examined how we can shift our word choice to reflect reality.
Homage, like almost all of Orwell’s writing, is a treasure trove on how to think about rhetoric, propaganda, and word choice in the modern political age.
I’ll end with a quick Catalan lesson. “Good-bye” in Catalan is “adéu,” but it’s almost always shortened to “déu.” The longer the ooooo sound you make, the more Catalan you will sound.
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