Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Swastika Night, violence, Orwell, and style

I will finish Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night with one last blog that encompasses its attitude on violence, its influence on Orwell, and its writing style.



Burdekin was a pacifist until the start of World War II, when she supported the war because she thought it was vitally imperative to stop the Nazis. As her novel shows, she understood their core, and she despised it.

The novel has three main characters, all men (we remember that women have been reduced to little more than animals). First, Hermann, a typical Nazi, who is very stupid, brainwashed, and violent. Second, Alfred,  who is an English mechanic visiting Germany. He is one of the last true humans on earth, meaning he owns his own soul. Third is a Nazi Knight, von Hess, so high up in the hierarchy he can take risks. He has a special book which contains some of the true story of the earth's pre-Nazi past.  Although admirable characters in the context of the idiocy of the thousand year Reich, both Alfred and von Hess have been brainwashed into believing in woman's inferiority, and von Hess is  comfortable with casual violence, for example, wanting Alfred, while flying an airplane, to simply knock down the  people on the runway, which Alfred refuses to do.

Hermann believes in "the fundamental immutable laws of Hitler Society:"
As a woman is above a worm,
So is a man above a woman.
As a woman is above a worm,
So is a worm above a Christian.
This laughable hierarchy sanctions violence. Not much is going to happen to you (in most cases)  if you take out your aggressions on someone below you. Given that the state also valorizes and applauds violence as the chief attribute of hyper-masculinized manhood, aggressive brutality is common.

Hermann, who has a pathetic and homoerotic attraction to Alfred, is wedded to violence. In a novel in which Burdekin despises Nazism so much she makes it largely infantile and idiotic rather than frightening, she doesn't hold back from depicting graphic violence: this part of the picture is not, to her, ridiculous and needs to be shown.

Infantile Teutonic idiocy that Burdekin despised


For example Hermann gets into trouble when he comes across a fourteen year old, for whom, along with his attachment to Alfred, he has a homo-erotic desire. This boy is an:

angel-faced golden-haired chorister making a determined attempt to rape a well-grown little girl of about twelve. The child had not reached the age of submission and was therefore within her rights in putting up a sturdy resistance. And as Hermann stood for an instant, watching them rolling and tumbling, clawing, kicking and biting, he caught sight of a large red cross on the breast of the little girl’s jacket. So it was a Christian! Hermann’s whole body filled with delicious thundering warming floods of rage. He loathed the boy for being even interested in girls—with his lovely face, his ... immaturity—Hermann was physically jealous; he was shamed ... here was something at last that he could smash and tear and make bleed and utterly destroy  ...Hermann jumped at him again, and with his fists beat him into insensibility. He took special pleasure in spoiling his face. When the boy was lying unconscious at his feet he started to kick him, in the ribs, on the head, anywhere ...

The above accurately captures the Nazi mindset.

Against this, Burdekin makes a plea for non-violence. For instance, von Hess has grown up saturated in a violent culture, but he says the following to Alfred:

And warn them, warn them, Alfred, with all the soul-force you have, against violence. I don’t mean telling them just not to kick physically against the German authority, I mean warn them against accepting violence as a noble, manly thing. We Germans have done that, we have brought force to its highest power, and we have failed to make life good ...

Over and against the mindless hierarchy and cult of masculinity that sanction violence, Burdekin argues for British-style liberalism:


that very tolerance of sincerity in ideas which oneself finds loathsome shows a reserve of spiritual power which I cannot help envying for our people. In these English and Scotch heretics of all ages and in the common men who could not withhold from them all sympathy, England’s real greatness lay. If they can resist, not the physical destruction of their records, for that will be impossible, but the Germanisation of their character, and somehow, in face of all the deception they will suffer, remain themselves, there will be soul-power in Europe after the passing of this dark evil time. 

These are still words for our time.

It seems clear, as others have pointed out, that Orwell must have read and been influenced by Burdekin's novel as he wrote 1984,  which is focused on an English Everyman like Alfred who goes up agains the power of a vicious and violent totalitarian state that robs people of their humanity.  His novel also features a secret book that lays bare the underpinnings of the social order.

Of course, we read 1984 for a reason beyond polemic: it is good literature (I realize, too,  it is sexist--and ageist). In contrast, as far as the quality of writing goes, Burdekin is crude. She is far less interested in style than ideas. I went back to the novel thinking perhaps I was too harsh, perhaps it doesn't read like the draft, but then came across the first line:

THE Knight turned towards the Holy Hitler chapel which in the orientation of this church lay in the western arm of the Swastika, and with the customary loud impressive chords on the organ and a long roll on the sacred drums, the Creed began.

I stumbled over "customary loud impressive chords" but then thought, well, maybe it is not too bad. There's description and some alliteration ... it's not much worse than du Maurier's Rebecca or some of Agatha Christie's mysteries, but it has an even rawer quality, as if the novel itself were the barest skeleton on which she displayed her ideas: the characters are not fleshed out, nor is the story. It has the quality of something filmed on little more than a bare stage. For example, there are pages of sheer dialogue without one mention of someone moving a limb or even having a body. 

Nevertheless, there's also a certain crude power in her stripped-down writing: the ideas don't get buried under story, and there is little ambiguity about her point. 

I am glad I read this novel. Burdekin saw through early to the core horror of fascism--an atavastic, violent pseudo-philosophy. As Thomas Wolfe expressed in You Can't Go Home Again,  a book about his trip to Nazi Germany in 1936, these crude ideologies do not die but merely crawl into caves and crevices to await their time (Camus's observation as well in The Plague)) to reemerge. We are in that time again.  Burdekin, who speaks with incisively for woman's rights, peace, dignity. freedom of thought, and human decency, thus speaks to us today.  








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