"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
From Huck to John and Jack to Winston
Three of my favorite writers are Mark Twain, F. Paul Wilson, and Manly Wade Wellman. The first everyone knows, the second, a lot, but not as much as the first, and the third, unless you are interested in Ozark horror tales and early American music (think of the song, "Shenandoah,") hardly anyone at all.
Specifically, I am a fan of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Wilson's Conspiracies and The Tomb, and as for Wellman, anything by him, but especially his tales of Silver John, a singer and guitar player who wandered through the countryside of America, taking on such monsters as the Behinder, who one never saw because of course he got you from behind, and the gardinels, which only look like houses.
It took me a while to figure out what all three writers had in common: the desire for freedom, and the quest for it. And my, how much the times have changed, and how much liberty has been lost. I sometimes wonder if we know just how much. But if you want to see that loss, just read those three writers.
Huckleberry Finn, one of the most subversive American novels ever written, if not the most subversive, isn't only about freedom and the quest for it, it's also about non-conformity, as all quests for freedom involve non-conformity. As Emerson wrote, "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist." It's a quote Huck would have heartily agreed with. And Wilson, and Wellman.
I don't think Huck Finn could have been written by anyone but an American. For that matter, the same applies to Wilson and most especially Wellman. How many novels from the rest of the world are about what it means to be free?
The one theme in Huck is liberty versus slavery, the desire of Huck to get away from the strictures of society and religion, both of which in his time supported slavery, a slavery that Huck finally repudiated, even, he said, if he went to Hell over it. That's why it's so subversive. But then, hasn't freedom always been about subversion and non-conformity?
Although slavery could not have existed except through law, getting away from the oppression of the State doesn't really exist in the book, because there wasn't much of it in Twain's time. No Social Security numbers, no IDs, no IRS , no withholding, no hundreds of thousands of laws, no federal government taking half of everyone's income, none of the oppressive machinery of the State that all of us are so familiar with today.
Now let's take our Wayback Machine, turn it around, and go forward to now, to F. Paul Wilson's popular "Repairman Jack" novels. All nine of them are about Jack getting away from the State. In fact, every one of the novels is about him falling off the screen and his attempts to stay off it.
Jack has no IDs and deals only in cash and gold. If he was to ever be checked out by the police, nothing would come up. He wouldn't come up. Now compare the life of Huck to that of Jack, of a boy who doesn't give any thought to the State because it barely exists, to a man whose life consists of trying to hide from it because it's everywhere. And it's the same country, in a span of less than far less than 200 years.
I repeat: how times have changed, and how much liberty has been lost. The Repairman Jack novels wouldn't have been written in Twain's time, because no one would believe the government could get that big or intrusive. They'd be appalled and outraged, and consider Wilson to be writing horror novels. Ironically, that is exactly what Wilson writes: horror. Jack pursues monsters as an ever-growing Blob of a monster pursues him.
Wellman? His Silver John character is in-between Huck and Jack. Although it's never clearly pointed out, I believe John fought in World War I, so he would live in a world much freer than our own. The only thing John has to occasionally deal with are the police, since he by choice is pretty much a nearly-penniless hobo who wanders with his guitar from adventure to adventure.
He carries a bedroll, sleeps under the stars, and generally has about two dollars in his pockets. But that's the life he wants, because he's free. He's even free from the worries of money: once, after winning a contest, he gives away a solid-gold trophy. The only thing he's not free of are the various witches and devils and haints that are always pestering him. Of course, he pesters them back.
Huck and John, both from the past, are free both in body and spirit. Jack, from today, is free in spirit but only in body because he hides from the State. He's continually apprehensive, a feeling that always comes from dealing with that bloated Black Thing whose nature is to steal and murder and oppress.
But what happens when you cease to be free in both body and spirit? Then you end up with Brave New World, 1984, and Ira Levin's little-known, This Perfect Day. You end up like Winston Smith in 1984, when Big Brother got so deeply inside his head Smith ended up loving him.
Czeslaw Milosz, in his remarkable book, The Captive Mind, details what happens when the State has gotten so big it absorbs nearly everything, not only body but spirit. His, too, is a horror tale, a true one of people who have lost their souls. That's what happens when the State gets inside you: it will steal your soul. To keep your soul as your own, you must always oppose the State, and never, ever let it get inside your head, no matter what kind of propaganda it uses. Especially if you're told it's for your own good.
We pine for a time when we could float down the Mississippi in a raft and sleep on an island. We wonder about the modern days, and we dread the future.
From Huck, to John to Jack. What's the next stop for this choo-choo train we're on? The captive mind of Winston? And if so, when? In less than 200 years? Or even less than that?