Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Iron Heel and 1984-Part Six

So, two families: London and Herron. Two books: The Iron Heel and 1984. Two writers: Jack London and George Orwell.

George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903, in Motihari, Bengal Presidency, British India. (Today is the 112th anniversary of his birth. Happy Birthday, Eric!) The facts of his life are well known. Suffice it to say that he was both a man of action and a man of words, like Jack London, whom he admired and may have emulated. Orwell even wrote about London, including an essay called "Prophecies of Fascism" (1940). Although he was a socialist, Orwell authored what is probably the most scathing and penetrating critique of statism and totalitarianism in all of literature. His book, 1984, came out in 1949. Eric Blair died the following year, on January 21, 1950, in London. He was forty-six, the same age, coincidentally, as H.P. Lovecraft at his death in 1937.

Reading 1984 is like entering a nightmare that is practically unrelieved by any humor, hope, redemption, or triumph. The only saving grace experienced by the two main characters, Winston Smith and Julia, is a loving and affectionate interlude which ends, predictably, in horror. The book no doubt came out of its author's own experiences and observations of life in Europe during the totalitarian era of the 1930s and '40s. In that way, Orwell had an advantage over Jack London, who wrote in what was, in retrospect, a far more innocent time. Here is something of what the former had to say about the latter in "Prophecies of Fascism":
The reprinting of Jack London's The Iron Heel brings within general reach a book which has been much sought after during the years of Fascist aggression. Like others of Jack London's books it has been widely read in Germany, and it has had the reputation of being an accurate forecast of the coming of Hitler. In reality it is not that. It is merely a tale of capitalist oppression, and it was written at a time when various things that have made Fascism possible--for instance, the tremendous revival of nationalism--were not easy to foresee.
 * * *
It is worth comparing The Iron Heel with another imaginative novel of the future which was written somewhat earlier and to which it owes something, H. G. Wells's The Sleeper Wakes [1899]. By doing so one can see both London's limitations and also the advantage to be enjoyed in not being, like Wells, a fully civilized man. As a book, The Iron Heel is hugely inferior. It is clumsily written, it shows no grasp of scientific possibilities, and the hero is the kind of human gramophone who is now disappearing even from Socialist tracts. But because of his own streak of savagery, London could grasp something that Wells apparently could not, and that is that hedonistic societies do not endure.
There are many among us who like to throw around the epithet Fascist, the way a toddler repeats a just-learned curse word. The Oligarchy in The Iron Heel has been called Fascist, as has anyone who has ever opposed the schemes of the Left. George Orwell, who ought to have known, saw that the Oligarchy in The Iron Heel is not Fascist. He didn't go into great detail as to why. I can offer a one-legged interpretation that the Oligarchy is not Fascist because it is--though statist--not socialist or nationalist. Fascism was both, as was Nazism. We should remember, after all, that Mussolini cut his teeth on socialism and that the word socialism itself is actually part of the full name of the Nazi party, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.

To be concluded . . .

1984 by George Orwell in the 1950s Signet edition with cover art by Alan Harmon.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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