Prose Like A Window Pane

And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

(Paul Simon, “Graceland”)

On Twitter recently, I was surprised to see Julia Molinari take the implication of Orwell’s trope about “prose like a window pane” to be that language can (and should) “capture reality”. Many years ago, on my other blog, I wrote a post about “Politics and the English Language”, in which I drew attention to this passage:

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.

In that post, I was trying to remind us that Orwell did actually care about what the reader thinks. But the much more important thing in this passage is the role that imagination plays. When Orwell suggests that our prose should be like a window pane, he’s not suggesting that it should capture reality. He’s not saying that your writing should give the reader a clear view of the the world or the facts that constitute it. He is saying that it should present clearly what you have in mind. Language can’t be asked to “capture reality” but it can be tasked with expressing thought. Indeed, Orwell (unlike Bertrand Russell and the early Wittgenstein) isn’t even going to limit us to using language to express thought or describing facts. He’s happy to let you begin with “pictures and sensations”.

This is very important in my approach to academic writing. I do sometimes say, often invoking Wittgenstein, that a paragraph is “a picture of the facts”. But it’s not a picture of the facts themselves. It’s not so much a photograph as a drawing. It’s a picture of the facts as you imagine them, a representation, in words, of your image of the facts. When writing, you are trying to evoke the same image in the mind of the reader as you have in your own. Your prose should be like a window in your mind.

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