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This report is taken from PN Review 172, Volume 33 Number 2, November - December 2006.

Climb Every Montaigne William Germano

It could be a symptom of psychological disorder - 'making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons' - but that's how Orwell describes his own beginnings ('the lonely child's habit') in his nifty 1946 essay 'Why I Write'. Orwell settles on 'four great motives for writing' and names them: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. These four horses drove Eric Blair's prose.

A man for his season and ours, we admire Orwell in part because he saw his writing as steeped in politics and history, but he was enough of a head to declare for sheer egotism and enough of a dandy to pull for aesthetics, too. Nowhere in his catalogue of motives does he identify professional advancement, the requirements of guild membership, or the psychic battle with one's teachers. But those are the reasons that keep scholars up at night, most of us anyway, and that's a problem.

What really makes an academic write? If it's only a necessity of the education industry, no wonder one's fingers get tired. No human activity can sap the strength from body and life from spirit as much as writing in which one doesn't believe. Humanists and social scientists, who produce the lion's share of academia's narrative, would seem equally to be equipped with what Orwell saw as the writer's essential tools, 'a facility with words and the power to face unpleasant facts'. And make no mistake: you can't plot these twinned skills along ...


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