Thursday, September 8, 2016

Brief Thoughts 17

The Iron Heel by Jack London

Before Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984, there was The Iron Heel. This is widely regarded as the first dystopian novel. Released in 1908, it proved to be rather prescient in hindsight.

The book is framed as manuscript that was discovered in the far future. It's annotated with footnotes by the historian that discovered if (I wonder if Ann Sterzinger read this before she wrote The Talkative Corpse). Written in the 1910s, it traces the rise of the fascist regime known as the Iron Heel that conquered much of the world and ruled for several centuries.

Avis was a girl of privilege and wealth. One day, her father invited a man named Ernest Everhard to a dinner party. With his passion and eloquence, she fell in love with him and joined him in his activism against the rising oligarchy in America. The oligarchy, however, takes over the government much faster than anyone anticipated.  Eventually, Avis and her new husband are forced into bloody revolution.

Like Jack London's other books, this is an exciting page turner. For the most part anyway. It drags a lot at the beginning. Ernest makes a lot of speeches, including one that's two chapters long on Karl Marx's theory of value. It feels like reading an Ayn Rand novel. It especially feels sloppy because London's novel The Sea Wolf has just as much philosophical discussion but never feels like a lecture.

Still, the book picks up a lot after the first few chapters. The rise of the Iron Heel feels pretty improbable at times, but some of London's predictions were surprisingly spot on. For instance, he predicated Japan gaining military dominance over Asia as they would later almost succeed in during WWII. He predicted WWI which in this novel is a war between Germany and the United States, though here the war is called off due to a general strike. In the climax of the book, there are even bloody battle scenes and mass murders that foreshadowed the battles of WWI and the atrocities committed in WWII.

This is a flawed book for sure, but it's well worth reading. London knew how rational his fear of tyranny was.

Read it for free here.
or
Buy The Iron Heel by Jack London here. 

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus 

"The Myth of Sisyphus" is probably Camus's most famous work besides his novel The Stranger. Camus posits that only serious philosophical question is that of suicide. Is life worth living?

Upon examination, life seems to be absurd and meaningless. According to Camus, there are three ways to respond to life's absurdity. Committing suicide is one option, of course. There is also the possibility of committing what he calls "philosophical suicide." That is, believing in religion or ideologies that give us ready-made answers to life's questions, appeals to higher purposes to give life meaning. What Camus advocates is the third option, living life without appeal and facing the absurdity head on.

Camus uses the Greek myth of Sisyphus to illustrate. Condemned by the gods for his arrogance, Sisyphus is forced to eternally pushing a boulder up a hill that will always roll back to the bottom. The struggle in pushing the boulder up the hill is where man can find his meaning. As he puts it, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

A triptych of other essays this book, "Summer in Algiers," "The Minotaur," and "Return to Tipasa." also serve as poetic odes to the cities of Algeria. In these essays, Camus explores the beauty in the struggle of living everyday life. From the exuberance of the beaches and dancehalls of Algiers to the wistful nostalgia that a trip to a place of one's youth like Tipasa for Camus brings one. He demonstrates in these how unnecessary appeals to higher purposes are to living a full life.

Camus was more interested in classical Greek philosophy than the works of his contemporaries. "Helen's Exile" is an interesting comparison of the state of mid-20th century Europe to that of ancient Greece at its height. The final essay, "The Artist and His Time" is an exploration of the place of the artist in society.

It's not for nothing that Camus won the Nobel prize for literature. This is an absolutely essential philosophical work. Highly recommended.

Buy The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus here.

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