In my last post, I talked about the first half of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (affiliate link), in which he describes the working conditions of 1930’s Britain with a particular eye to the conditions in coal mining towns like Wigan.
The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a compilation of Orwell’s thoughts on the situation, and an overview of socialist theory with Orwell’s own interpretations as to both why socialism was not prevalent and what would have to be done to make it prevalent.
It’s worth noting that my own perspectives differ significantly from Orwell’s, and there were very few points on which I agreed with him. This is both due to my own political beliefs deviating from his, but also probably in no small part due to the fact that several decades later many of Orwell’s predictions have become false.
One of the most ironic things about Orwell’s general presentation is that while he possesses the ability to be brutally honest about himself and with regards to his situation, he winds up falling into many of the traps that he sets for himself.
Take, for consideration, the fact that he describes many British socialists as “cranks” during his overview of why people are not attracted to socialism. Orwell proceeds to be quite bitter, and perhaps even more so than the people he criticizes.
While Orwell does call for a toning down of rhetoric and going from a concept of proletariat and bourgeoisie to a concept of robbed and robbers to appeal to a broader audience, he overlooks the fact that what he endorses is itself no more palatable to most than traditional socialism, bound up as it is in its negativity toward many of the conventions of standard life.
Orwell fails to really provide any example of the “oppressors” in his society; and while he argues that socialists should define themselves by a pursuit of “freedom and justice” in many cases throughout this section of the book, he fails to ever define freedom or justice, much less to give clear examples of why the socialist utopia (or, perhaps, since he is more cynical than to call it a utopia, a socialist world order) would actually be more free or more just than any other way of living.
It also is worth noting that Orwell’s anti-religious sentiment tends to bleed into his arguments; he often says that socialism will replace religion, but seems blind to his own implication that this would only work on the basis of indoctrination and supplanting the spiritual with the political (e.g. creating the sort of Soviet-style commissars that he derides in a couple places throughout the passages).
Likewise, he often actually derides people who are working for justice, like the feminists of the 1930s and charitable workers, as failing to drop everything and accomplish this socialist ideal.
A False Dichotomy
Orwell presents the future as a conflict between socialism and fascism, with no room for a middle ground. However likely that may have seemed from his perch in the early 20th century, the reality that we got is two-fold:
First, capitalism, far from being inevitably destroyed by other factors, has remained alive and well as a dominant economic force, and perhaps even has more principled idealistic adherents than it had prior to the 20th century due to the works of figures like Hayek and Rand.
Second, neither socialism nor fascism has risen to the point of world domination. While Orwell was an outspoken objector to Russian Communism (at one point calling its adherents members of the “cult of Russia”), he predicts that either we would be living in an uniformly fascist or socialist world.
The Road to Wigan Pier is an interesting book, and certainly a lighter read than Ordinary Men, the last book that I read, but its first part is certainly much more interesting than its second part.
While Orwell is a fantastic writer, I don’t believe that the same can be said for him as a political theorist. While he is sensible enough to deride trite and hollow arguments, he fails to advance anything of meaningful depth and coherence of his own behalf, at least according to my perceptions of his arguments.
George Orwell was probably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and he had some great insights that make him an invaluable resource to the modern reader. However, despite the fame of his 1984, many people would be hard-pressed to mention anything else that he wrote, maybe discussing Burmese Days or some of his essays.
Outside of those works, however, The Road to Wigan Pier is one of his better known works, and probably his best known full-length nonfiction work. I’ve been listening to an audiobook (affiliate link) of it on my daily commute, though I’ve also read parts of it in digital format, and I’m about half-way through the book now.
I think that George Orwell’s prose has a particular timelessness to it, and not just because of the subject matter. He’s well known for his fiction writing because of the quality of his work, and there’s a certain tone to it that’s hard to emulate and easy to love.
The matter-of-factness of Orwell’s style could perhaps best be compared to other contemporaries; I think of Chesterton’s Heretics (affiliate link; free ebook), though I am sure that Orwell would be offended by the comparison. He combines stereotypically dry, but personal, British writing with lucid and detailed descriptions of the scenes that he found in English mining towns to great effect. The prose reads like a conversation with a distinguished professor who is also an expert lecturer: formal, but never boring.
The first part of the book details almost exclusively the conditions in the mining towns (and, occasionally, other industrial and lower-class areas) in Britain. While it makes little effort to cater to a non-British audience (it was written for Britons by a Briton, and if you don’t have some passing familiarity of where things fall in England you’ll miss some minor elements), it’s still very understandable and clear.
One exception to this is found in the intolerable pre-decimal English currency, but from what I’ve heard about it having an explanation will not make the shilling and the tuppence comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t lived through them.
One place where the timelessness of Orwell’s study can be seen comes in the notions that Orwell has about the lifestyle of the impoverished. He decries the cheap–barely nutritious–processed food, the cheap luxuries, and the intolerable rents that his subjects face, and the daily wage work that they do with little recourse for injury or protection against job loss.
Orwell’s musings echo to this day in the statements that we often hear about our own society. I don’t agree with Orwell’s politics on all counts, but I have to say that I appreciate his honesty and the earnest presentation of his beliefs, and the rationale he gives for them.
In this sense, Orwell’s work is timeless.
Another place where Orwell’s writing shines is in the tremendous detail of the scenes and personages he portrays.
If you ever needed proof that Orwell is a masterful writer, the first full chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier–in which he describes the various inhabitants of a house that he rented a room in and the house itself–is a perfect example of how to give enough detail to create a near-perfect mental image: I suffer from partial aphantasia and even I’m able to get some picture of what Orwell describes.
It’s also clear that Orwell has a genuine interest in his subjects. He describes people in a way that personalizes them, scenes in a way that project both details and emotion, and events in a way that provides nuanced context.
I’d compare it to John Hersey’s Hiroshima (affiliate link),
There are places that Orwell’s writing doesn’t hold up so well. He is, by his own admission, judgmental, and honestly Orwell can be a bit of a jerk. Unfortunately, he wavers between being sardonic enough to make this humorous, and just plain rude. His attacks first against effeminate poets (it’s not entirely clear whether he detests the literary elite or homosexuals, or perhaps some conflation of the two) and later against temperate religious devotees, cement the notion that one feels he would be attacked by both sides if he were to make the same comments in the current day.
In addition, Orwell enjoys over-explaining to the reader. While his prose is good enough that it carries well, he has a tendency to give five or six times as many examples as would be required, then go into further detail, as if he expects his every statement to be scrutinized.
Of course, this could be a consequence of the fact that his work would be scrutinized, but in a day and age where Orwell’s work is sacrosanct, he does not need to build up his work to survive cross-examination. Sometimes the examples are good and varied, in other places they are tedious.
I’m looking forward to finishing The Road to Wigan Pier because it’s quite good. It’s a compelling listen or read, whichever format I’m going through it in, though it can be fairly heavy.
The first part of the book is primarily journalistic in nature (or, now, historical), but apparently Orwell makes some political and philosophical arguments near the end
I have a tendency to read books which make me deeply uncomfortable with the world. I’m not sure what impulse drives me to this, but Ordinary Men (affiliate link) is one of these books.
It would be both fair and unfair to call my thoughts on this book a review. I am not qualified to critique the historical methods, factual accuracy, or mass appeal of such a book, but I can say that it is a compelling, necessary read, in the vein of Solzhenitsyn’s work.
I don’t update this blog as often as I perhaps should; I’m trending toward a post on at least a bi-weekly basis, but I do update the Loreshaper Games blog for my company every day.
It’s something that requires a lot of discipline and time, but I think it’s worth it in the long run for the practice it gives in becoming a better writer and the social networking that it builds.
One of the hardest parts of writing daily is just figuring out stuff to write. I keep Loreshaper Games on-brand as much as possible by sticking to gaming; not always our own products but always something that is industry-significant.
However, when worst comes to worst it’s just important to write every day. A lot of the posts that go up here are products of weeks of development, and writing so much tends to burn through all your inspiration quick.
You need a way to replenish that if you want to keep your creative juices flowing.
Be Creative On Demand
As I was reading the Harvard Business Review the other day, I came across an article that touched on some productivity techniques, and one of the quotes stuck with me.
Do things that don’t interest you. Early in my career, Will Marre, the founding president of the Stephen Covey’s training company, admonished me to subscribe to a handful of business journals he listed, then added, “And every time you read one, be sure to read at least one article that holds no interest for you.” I’ve been rewarded time and again for doing so. Many things that end of up in my shoebox have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things “boring” simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.
I try to keep up with a certain amount of news every day. I’m a subscriber to Foreign Policy, for instance, and I follow a couple video-based news outlets every day.
These, however, rarely give me any meaningful inspiration.
You find that a lot of things repeat. While news is great for having a conversation starter, it’s not great at giving us a whole ton of inspiration.
It’s also a matter of lacking an ability to comprehend things that you need to explore to move past your current stage of understanding. Being a good writer is part of an evolutionary process: every time you write you should reflect and improve, but you can’t do that if you’re not giving yourself fertile soil in which to plant roots.
Varied reading goes a lot further in giving that inspiration and opportunity
One of the things that I’ve been using a lot is the Recommended by Pocket function in Firefox (which I use both on my desktop and smartphone). It pops up some interesting stuff, and whenever I’m tempted to “waste time”, I go there and read. I think I’ve probably had more “eureka” moments as a result of little articles I’ve read in the past year than from any conscious attempts to seek out inspiration (and, probably, improved my writing style by osmosis).
However, I’m also an Audible (affiliate link) subscriber, and I get two credits each month. I use one for something that interests me or something that I’ve been recommended, and the other for something more or less “random”.
One of my best experiences last year came when I accidentally purchased a copy of Educated (affiliate link), Tara Westover’s memoir; a consequence of having too many tabs open and not enough attention. Amazon One-Click is the bane of my existence, apparently.
However, I decided that my penance for carelessness would be to read a book that I had actually ruled out of the running for a late-night book search, and I was really glad that I did (you can read my review of Educated here).
One of the advantages of this more hap-hazard selection of readings is that you have an opportunity to broaden your experiential horizons.
The brain is funny in the way it works: it’s not a computer with neatly categorized information in separate files. Everything that it experiences and records goes in a sort of soup, and while our consciousness is fairly good at putting the most important stuff at the forefront, anything learned can resurface at a later date in an unexpected way.
It’s also just good practice. I don’t think I put Educated down for more than a few hours to sleep from the time I purchased it to the time that I finished reading it, and that’s an experience I’ve had over and over again with these random things.
Learning new stuff is, frankly, fun, something that we’ve drilled out of ourselves with our industrialized education system and its love of meaningless tasks.
Improve yourself, broaden your horizons, and give yourself something to write about. Not everything that inspires me makes it to public view, but if you write even a little about something every day you’re more likely to write something that goes out to the public.
Right now I’ve got my Loreshaper Games blog, this blog, and freelance writing on the side, and having a little bit of everything in my literary diet makes doing all that writing (and maintaining a day job) a whole lot easier
It’s not a great secret that I’m a fan of the game Warframe, published by Digital Extremes. I haven’t played it very much, but I’ve been stuck listening to “We All Lift Together”, a song created to promote a large addition to the game, and as a result I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been playing Warframe on-and-off since it was in beta, and while I don’t consider it my favorite game, I think it has some of the best (if not the outright best) storytelling in a game with a single linear storyline, despite being very minimalist in how it develops that story.
The way that it pulls this off is by managing to tell a story that combines deep psychology and mythical elements on a very fundamental level to make a narrative so compelling that player choices, generally absent except in the most superficial forms, are irrelevant.
There are practical considerations of this as well–much of the story takes place as flashbacks or responses to critical incidents–but this would be frustrating to the audience were it not tied to strong principles of storytelling.
Understanding Psycho-Mythic Storytelling
Psycho-mythic storytelling ties into Jungian notions of the subconscious and other elements of the human psyche, which is derived from while simultaneously informing stories that have emerged across the entire range of human society and experiences.
It is important to realize that many of these elements are archetypal; that is, that they do not have any single manifestation that can be pointed to as a source. Nonetheless, many of these factors are still universal.
As I work through examples of these events across Warframe’s storyline, I will introduce these as needed, however, an understanding of Jungian dichotomies is important.
Jungian dichotomies draw from the fundamental notion of paired elements (e.g. order and chaos, masculine and feminine, known and unknown) being represented both within and as an extension of all things.
Balance between the two extremes in a dichotomy reflects a more reasonable approach to the universe, one which is likely to meet with objective reality in such a manner that produces positive outcomes.
For instance, considering the very most basic of the possible responses, you have the conflict between known and unknown.
The known, generally, is not exciting. While there may be some contentment in the present, at some point the known gets boring; change is a natural state, and to remain in the known is to embrace stagnation.
However, the intrusion of the unknown is a terrible thing, because it represents the risk of loss, or more accurately the possibility that the subjective self will be harmed in some way.
The unknown is also the source of anything better than what is currently had, however. This makes it desirable; one who is able to frame an encounter with the unknown in such a way that they are able to approach it to their advantage is going to wind up having success in their endeavors, and their prize will be either what they desire or something that transcends that which they originally wanted.
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, from which the Hero’s Journey is derived, draws upon this relationship with the unknown: the Hero must find it within themselves to find a subjectively greater future by entering the unknown and confronting it. You can find more in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Amazon affiliate link).
Much of what I am applying to Warframe is also based on the mythological analyses modeled by Jordan Peterson in his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Amazon affiliate link). I’ve been listening to it on-and-off for the past few weeks, and I’ve been finding it incredibly interesting.
Tiers of Cosmogony
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I also want to talk about cosmogonic tiers.
There is a distinction in cosmogony based on the “depth” of experiences, and we can see this in classical myth as well. The concept of cosmogony centers around the idea that everything started as chaos, and then became more structured and ordered as things go along. Each generation overthrows its predecessors in a heroic revolution, although this eventually stops when we reach the current generation–the one in which humanity resides.
This can be distilled into tiers and generations. There’s not always a clear descent between generations (i.e. two generations may fit one cosmogonic tier in some places), but these figures can be generalized by category.
A good example from this comes from Greek myth, where we see Chaos, which is the first entity in existence.
At this point existence is beyond comprehension, and beyond anything that is relevant to our audience, and it is only through filtering down to further levels of experience that we reach anything that has relevance in human life.
Chaos’ cohorts and children (some of the distinctions here are blurred based on the telling) represent universal entities: Gaia, land; Tartarus, the underworld; Eros, the sexual drive; and so forth. These are primordial deities–they exist before the world that is known does.
These are personified entities (and, in some cases, Chaos is as well), but they are not directly interfaced with the human world. To humanity they are alien, and even when personified their motivations and drives are not necessarily comprehensible.
From this initial generation come the Titans, a second generation of the divine. These figures now have their own clear families, and by extension a clear role in the universe. More heavily personified, they are portrayed as the creators of humankind, but are themselves still more defined by their differences than their similarities.
The third generation, the traditional Greek gods as we would know them, represent archetypal figures. They have a particular divine domain, but otherwise they are human in motivation and depiction. They obey the rules which apply to humanity (albeit frequently with special privileges; these rules often apply only to their interactions with each other) and face consequences when they fail to do so.
The gods serve as representations of tradition and upright action.
It is in the fourth or later generations that we see mortals and demigods appear. These figures are defined by their vulnerability; where the earlier cosmogonic forces develop from existing outside the world to eventually become a mere part of it.
Onward to Warframe
The psycho-mythic nature of Warframe’s narrative contributes to its emotional power. It takes place in a universe where the players take on the role of the heroic individual–one born into the fourth generation of the cosmogony in the same place that humans would fall in the Greek mythosphere–but one which relies on symbolism and psychological establishment of the cosmogony that unfolds.
The reason why I define this as psycho-mythic, instead of simply psychological or symbolic storytelling, is that it relies both on the more modern storytelling methods and approaches while also building heavily (and not unintentionally) on the mythology of ancient times.
The layering of the cosmogonic process is a key part of this: the players’ characters (collectively known as the Tenno) are children of the old age, but living after its fall.
Children of the Unknown
The Tenno fit the role as the heroic individuals of the mythical saga very well; they are a sort of Horus figure (Peterson elaborates on this mythical type in his book Maps of Meaning) who must bear a sacrifice of themselves to make the world whole.
This sacrifice is not literal death, but it does entail suffering and pain. The Tenno are children who have known nothing but war, and while they have deific powers, they are also exiles.
Hunted by the Orokin, their own society playing the role of mythic progenitors, due to the threat that they posed, the Tenno are awakened by their protector, the Lotus, in the current time of the game.
They are hunted and hounded by forces that are generally their inferiors: as representations of the fourth-generation heroic individual (i.e. a cosmically significant figure that has been personified enough to lack a deific cosmological significance and instead adopt personal motives) they face the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested factions within the game, each of which represent monstrous figures that are themselves the product of the Orokin but also the inferiors of the Tenno.
The hallmark of the Tenno, however, is also their outward identity, the Warframe.
The Warframe as Protective Father
One step up the generational chain from the Tenno is the warframe. In-universe, the warframes were created for the Tenno, but when the Tenno awaken the warframes are out of their control–at least, most of them are.
Each warframe is based on a theme, and these themes often tie into great symbols. While they are not innately sentient (with the exception of the Excalibur Umbra, which was created by fusing an Orokin with the infestation that spawns every warframe), they are the first experience that the player has with the Tenno, and are defined by their impersonal relationship with the universe.
This is not to imply that the warframe has no personality unto itself, but rather that it has a role in the third generation of the cosmogonic structure. Each of the individual warframes is an example of something that has a deific role in the universe: the Excalibur represents mastery of the blade, the Volt represents power over lightning, and the Loki represents trickery and deception.
Each warframe plays a deific role, rather than a personal one, and while they are merely tools to an end they are simultaneously idols to concepts that play an important role in the life of the Tenno and in the universe of Warframe, assuming the role of protector gods among primitive civilizations that have begun to spring up in the ashes of the Orokin world.
In this sense, the warframe serves as a sort of archetypal father, who in a psychological sense is often thought of as a bringer of order.
The Titanic Lotus
It is the Lotus who searches for and awakens the warframe and the Tenno, however.
To draw a parallel to the Egyptian myth of Osiris, it is Osiris’ wife who finds the parts of Osiris after he is murdered by Set and reassembles them, giving birth to the mythical figure Horus, who is a fourth-generation cosmogonic figure representing humankind.
The Lotus fills this void in the psycho-mythic framework of Warframe; she is the one who awakens the Tenno, and also plays a key role in mentoring them and directing them toward solving the problems with their universe.
However, the Lotus’ origins are shrouded in mystery, and as the world is revealed through the storyline of the game it is clear that she is not necessarily who she seems.
At first, the Lotus is associated with Margulis, an Orokin woman who raised the Tenno after they encountered the void (both of these are first generational figures in the cosmogony), but it is later revealed that she is actually a Sentient, one of the creations of the Orokin.
The Sentients have a clear parallel to the Titans of Greek mythology; the first gods to have been purified and complicated to the extent that they can represent natural forces, rather than abstract spheres of existence, the Titans are often portrayed as rebelling against or usurping their precursors, only to be usurped in turn by the third-generation deities.
When the Sentients turn against their creators, the Orokin, the warframes are created to destroy them; the warframes skip to the third cosmogonic generation but it is the Lotus, a second-generation figure, who preserves them from both her fellow Sentients and the Orokin themselves, mimicking the myth of Zeus being given to Amalthea for safekeeping. The fact that both the Lotus and Amalthea are feminine figures is important in a Jungian psychoanalysis; the archetypal father can bring order but also tyranny, while the archetypal mother brings promise but also risk.
The Orokin and the Void
The Tenno gain their power from the Void, a sort of ur-chaos. The Void is an extradimensional space, one that requires special means to access.
The Void is the palace of the Orokin, the grand civilization that spawned the Tenno (again, we see the generational nature of mythology resurfacing), though they were unable to reach it without significant sacrifices and even for their technologically advanced civilization it was something of an outlier; when they fell, so did their dwellings in the Void, which exist in the current day of the game as either derelicts or uninhabited, but still active, stations.
The Void serves as a primordial first-generation figure in the cosmogony of Warframe; many ancient myths involve a later generation’s members returning to the originator of the world and slaying it, making its corpse into their home.
The Orokin serve as additional manifestations of this first level. Along with the Void, they are the ultimate progenitors of the Tenno, originally children who were lost in the Void following a failed expedition to that extra-dimensional space.
The fact that the Tenno, who ultimately are responsible in part for the eventual Orokin conquest of the Void, are able to draw power and shelter from the Void has mythic significance; it is common for a great heroic figure to slay a great threat and make use of its remains for sustenance, shelter, or both.
The Universe in Balance
The conflict that unfolds in Warframe is one of bringing the universe into balance. The Tenno, reawakened and representing humanity, face both other fourth-generation forces, like the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested and the Sentients.
The struggle against other “mortal” forces is not uncommon in mythology, and is a defining trait of some of the early mythic heroes like Odysseus, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh: their foes are not necessarily divine in nature, and they vanquish them using mortal might and cunning.
In this way, the Tenno are able to fight the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested with their own might. As joint members of the natural world, they are on the same playing field, though the Tenno as part-divine by nature of their connection to the primordial first-generation entity of the Void are at a distinct advantage, and as epic protagonists are therefore going to succeed in almost every challenge (even if doing so requires them to come to apotheosis first, something seen in the Second Dream and other storyline missions in Warframe).
It is worth noting that the Tenno is not automatically awoken fully to their abilities at the start of the game, but must instead acquire them during the storyline as they grow in knowledge of their true nature. Up until they achieve this divine apotheosis, it seems that the primary conflict is strictly between them and their worldly antagonists.
As the story progresses, the risks and dangers increase with it. The Tenno are not able to face the Sentients alone. While their warframes provide them with some divine power, the warframes are themselves very much natural; they have power drawn from the Void, but it has been distantly removed and is revealed to have always come from the energy flowing from the Tenno to a warframe, rather than being an intrinsic property of the warframe itself.
In the most recent story update, the Tenno encounters Ballas, an Orokin traitor who sided with the Sentients, but has been corrupted by them. He gives the Tenno a boon, a weapon with which to slay the Sentients, before the scene ends.
Warframe’s compelling story draws its weight from being designed with psychological and mythical archetypes that make every character and element more significant than it seems at first glance.
This powerful storytelling method means that although it has relatively little dialogue compared to many other games and almost no player choices, it manages to tell a story that is part of an epic cycle and put the player at the helm of a character who they can sympathize with.
The ensuing connection to the Hero’s Journey means that the player wants to do the same thing that their avatar does, without requiring coercion or massively branching narratives from the writing team.