"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

9 Jun 2014

A Philosophy of Tramping—Jack London


'Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony. In Hobo Land the face of life is proteanan ever changing phantasmagoria, where the impossible happens and the unexpected jumps out of the bushes at every turn of the road. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment. He has learned the futility of telic endeavor, and knows the delight of drifting along with the whimsicalities of Chance.'
Jack London (1876-1916)




Preamble

Unlike most of the other tramp writers I discuss on this site, it is not my intention to dwell too much on London's life history. Given that London was an international celebrity, there is no shortage of very detailed accounts of his life already written; including three books by London's second wife Charmain, Jack London: The Log of the Snark (1915), Our Hawaii (1917) and The Book of Jack London (1921), as well as his daughter Joan's biography, Jack London and His Times: An Unconventional Biography (1939). And so I confine these pages to selected episodes of London's time as a hobo and his personal philosophy. Furthermore, because London's tramping adventures, remarkable and entertaining as they are, add little to American hobo facts and parlance already recorded on this site, I will focus on those yarns and wisdoms that give insight into what drew London to vagabondage.

London was also a political animal, active in revolutionary socialist causes and the class struggle; even running (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Oakland in 1901 and 1905, though more as a political statement than serious attempt to enter politics. In any case, such associations should not define the man, as like most with the tramping spirit in their veins, London was first and foremost an individual, with views often at odds with the stock political credos of the time. Indeed, in London's writing, a unique blend of 'individualism' (partly influenced by Nietzsche's notions of übermenschen) and socialist idealismdoctrines normally taken as antitheticalseems to coalesce as a unified philosophy. But, as with Nietzsche also, instead of looking beyond the headlines and acquainting oneself with a deeper understanding of London's philosophy, many have taken London's words literally and made mischief of them. As London's daughter Joan acknowledges in the 'Introduction' of her book, 'On the one hand he was assailed for his socialist beliefs, and on the other, for his racial prejudice and glorification of the Anglo Saxon "blond beast" '. 

Rather than being active in any organisation or 'movement', London's main contribution to political ideology was through his writing. I discuss one of these works, The People of the Abyss, a travelogue come social critique of the poor and dispossessed of London's East End, towards the end of this post. But it is in the chapter titled 'How I Became A Socialist', from another political treatise, War of the Classes (1905), that London reveals his coming to politics:

'It is quite fair to say that I became a Socialist in a fashion somewhat similar to the way in which the Teutonic pagans became Christiansit was hammered into me. Not only was I not looking for Socialism at the time of my conversion, but I was fighting it. I was very young and callow, did not know much of anything, and though I had never even heard of a school called "Individualism," I sang the paean of the strong with all my heart.'

For further information see the following:
  • Joseph Sciambra's essay The Philosophy of Jack London, a comprehensive account (with links to works by London) of London's philosophical and political influences, and also his controversial theories on race, Darwinism, eugenics and atavism (while I disassociate myself from Sciambra's own forthright religious views, this is an excellent overview of London's philosophy nonetheless).
  •  Earl J. Wilcox's essay Jack London's Naturalism: The Example of The Call of the Wild, an analysis of London's celebrated allegory of humans' life-and-death struggle with their hostile environment through the eyes of a dog; providing further insight into London's philosophy of naturalism and atavism.
  • London's own article On the Writer's Philosophy of Life, published in The Editor, October, 1899.
Of London's prolific writings (including 120 short stories, 26 full length prose works, 22 essays, 45 poems, and 6 plays*) only three works are described as autobiographical: The Road, The Cruise of the Snark, and John Barleycorn, although, as I have discussed before in respect of other tramp writers, these categorisations are not always helpful as London's autobiographies contain elements of fiction, and his novels elements of autobiography. Nonetheless, for the purposes of this post I shall focus mainly on The Road and John Barleycorn, a reading of which puts the lie to the popularly held misconception that (as it was with Josiah Flynt also) London was a sociologist first and a tramp second:

'Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately phrased, I learn that it was in order to study sociology that I became a tramp. This is very nice and thoughtful of the biographers, but it is inaccurate. I became a trampwell, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on "The Road" because I couldn't keep away from it; because I hadn't the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn't work all my life on "one same shift"; becausewell, just because it was easier to than not to.'

* Joan London claims that, at the time of publishing her book in 1939, more than forty movies (in different languages) had been spawned worldwide by London's writing; the people of Soviet Union being among London's biggest fans.


Early Life and Alcohol

In order to try and establish a chronology of London's tramping exploits and influences (he was a sailor tramp before he became a road tramp) it is necessary to jump between two of his, quite distinct, autobiographical works, The Road (1907) and John Barleycorn(1913). The latter being London's exposition on his love-hate relationship with alcohol, and possibly the best philosophical treatise on the subject ever written. It is impossible, however, to follow an exact chronology of events from London's own books, so I suggest those who are interested obtain one of the many biographies of London; his daughter Joan's has the advantage of being thoroughly researched as well having known her father intimately. For the purpose of this post I am more concerned with significant vagabonding events as they illuminate London's attitude to life in general, and his wanderlust in particular.

* 1/ The term 'John Barleycorn' is used as a personification of drinks made from barley, especially malt liquor. 2/ London's book John Barleycorn, is the origin of the term seeing 'pink elephants' when describing the hallucinatory effects of extreme drunkenness: '... [one] who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants.'

London first got drunk at the age of five after being asked, one hot summer day, to carry a pail of beer to his father who was ploughing a field half a mile away. But he did not enjoy the taste. The second occasion, at the age of seven, London got drunk on red wine in the company of some older children and adults. He was bullied into drinking a glass of wine, only to shock those around him by downing several more without showing any ill effects, at least until walking home some time later and collapsing into unconsciousness:

'When I came to, it was dark. I had been carried unconscious for four miles and been put to bed. I was a sick child, and, despite the terrible strain on my heart and tissues, I continually relapsed into the madness of delirium. All the contents of the terrible and horrible in my child's mind spilled out. The most frightful visions were realities to me. I saw murders committed, and I was pursued by murderers. I screamed and raved and fought. My sufferings were prodigious. Emerging from such delirium, I would hear my mother's voice: "But the child's brain. He will lose his reason." And sinking back into delirium, I would take the idea with me and be immured in madhouses, and be beaten by keepers, and surrounded by screeching lunatics.'

London was sick for several days following this second drinking bout. Initially finding beer and wine unpleasant both in their taste and effect: 'very clear was my resolution never to touch liquor again. No mad dog was ever more afraid of water than was I of alcohol.' But the reaction from those around him did not help reinforce his abstinence. With the exception of his mother, whose views he says were extreme in all things, London achieved some notoriety from the event, 'I felt that I had done something heroic.' And in spite of his declared loathing of strong drink, London acknowledges that, 'the brightest spots in my child life were the saloons. ... Here was a child, forming its first judgments of the world, finding the saloon a delightful and desirable place.' This was helped, as London admits, by all of the exotic free food offerings put out to entice the paying drinkers. He tells us it would be a further twenty years before he actually acquired a taste for alcohol, and even then, remained repelled by it until after he had imbibed his first drink of the day.

He describes his ambivalent relationship with alcohol thus: 'This physical loathing for alcohol I have never got over. But I have conquered it. To this day I conquer it every time I take a drink.' London does not buy the theory that people have a constitutional predisposition to developing a dependency on alcohol, he worked hard at it, enjoying and suffering drink in equal measure until it killed him three years after John Barleycorn was published. But for now, here is an account of the enchantment that bars held for the ten year old London, a daily tableaux of danger and adventure that would sow the seeds of the young vagabond's eventual wanderlust:

'In the saloons life was different. Men talked with great voices, laughed great laughs, and there was an atmosphere of greatness. Here was something more than common every-day where nothing happened. Here life was always very live, and, sometimes, even lurid, when blows were struck, and blood was shed, and big policemen came shouldering in. Great moments, these, for me, my head filled with all the wild and valiant fighting of the gallant adventurers on sea and land. There were no big moments when I trudged along the street throwing my papers in at doors. But in the saloons, even the sots, stupefied, sprawling across the tables or in the sawdust, were objects of mystery and wonder.

And more, the saloons were right. The city fathers sanctioned them and licensed them. They were not the terrible places I heard boys deem them who lacked my opportunities to know. Terrible they might be, but then that only meant they were terribly wonderful, and it is the terribly wonderful that a boy desires to know. In the same way pirates, and shipwrecks, and battles were terrible; and what healthy boy wouldn't give his immortal soul to participate in such affairs?

Besides, in saloons I saw reporters, editors, lawyers, judges, whose names and faces I knew. They put the seal of social approval on the saloon. They verified my own feeling of fascination in the saloon. They, too, must have found there that something different, that something beyond, which I sensed and groped after. What it was, I did not know; yet there it must be, for there men focused like buzzing flies about a honey pot. I had no sorrows, and the world was very bright, so I could not guess that what these men sought was forgetfulness of jaded toil and stale grief.'

Four years later, early signs of London's wanderlust are becoming evident both in his insatiable appetite for reading and his first tentative sailings aboard his skiff in San Francisco Bay:

'When I was fourteen, my head filled with the tales of the old voyagers, my vision with tropic isles and far sea-rims, I was sailing a small centreboard skiff around San Francisco Bay and on the Oakland Estuary. I wanted to go to sea. I wanted to get away from monotony and the commonplace. I was in the flower of my adolescence, a-thrill with romance and adventure, dreaming of wild life in the wild man-world.'

And it was on such a sailing trip at the age of fourteen that London encountered a pair of teenage sailor tramps in a sloop in the bay and got drunk for the third time:

'By this time [of the drinking bout] the singing stage was reached, and I joined Scotty and the harpooner in snatches of sea songs and chanties. It was here, in the cabin of the Idler, that I first heard "Blow the Man Down," "Flying Cloud," and "Whisky, Johnny, Whisky." Oh, it was brave. I was beginning to grasp the meaning of life. Here was no commonplace, no Oakland Estuary ... All the world was mine, all its paths were under my feet, and John Barleycorn, tricking my fancy, enabled me to anticipate the life of adventure for which I yearned.'

In the next passage London describes his discovery that, even at fourteen, he could carry his drink better than most otherssomething he would later regard as a curse:

'I was very proud, and John Barleycorn was proud with me. I could carry my drink. I was a man. I had drunk two men, drink for drink, into unconsciousness. And I was still on my two feet, upright, making my way on deck to get air into my scorching lungs. It was in this bout on the Idler that I discovered what a good stomach and a strong head I had for drinka bit of knowledge that was to be a source of pride in succeeding years, and that ultimately I was to come to consider a great affliction.'

At the age of fifteen, London bought his first sloop Razzle Dazzle and gave up his work in the canning factory to become an oyster pirate. Drinking in the saloons along the waterfrontand learning the rules of drinkingbecame a necessary initiation into the world of pirates. It was also the moment that London realised that the only use of money, to those who espouse vagabondage as a lifestyle, was to buy comradeship and the respect of his fellow pirates by standing several rounds of drinks at the bar. Up to this point of his life, London had been a shrewd trader and careful with his money. But, as with those who joined the ranks of the ancient Cynics by abandoning their worldly goods and throwing their money into the sea, so London now abandoned all of his childhood possessions to cast his fate in with the hard living, hard drinking fraternity of the Oakland waterfront:

'And so I won my manhood's spurs. My status on the water-front and with the oyster pirates became immediately excellent. I was looked upon as a good fellow, as well as no coward. And somehow, from the day I achieved that concept sitting on the stringer-piece of the Oakland City Wharf, I have never cared much for money. ... So completely did I break with my parsimonious past that I sent word home to my mother to call in the boys of the neighbourhood and give to them all my collections. ... I was a man now, and I made a clean sweep of everything that bound me to my boyhood.

My reputation grew. When the story went around the water-front of how French Frank had tried to run me down with his schooner, and of how I had stood on the deck of the Razzle Dazzle, a cocked double-barrelled shotgun in my hands, steering with my feet and holding her to her course, and compelled him to put up his wheel and keep away, the water-front decided that there was something in me despite my youth.'

The Road, the Saloon and the Sea

Having already established his reputation as a tough and respected oyster pirate, it was not until the age of sixteen that London first took to the road. Oyster pickings had been lean that year and London and a friend embarked on a forty mile boat ride north to Port Costa to rescue another friend's boat that had been impounded by the police. After snatching the boat from under the constable's nose, and waiting for the tide and wind to favour their return to London's home in Oakland, the weather favoured a different direction and the pair set sail instead up the River Sacramento. In the river harbour of that city, London met a group of road kids who captivated him with stories of their tramping adventures, and so, with the predictable moniker of Sailor Kid, London's hoboing career commenced:

 'These wanderers made my oyster-piracy look like thirty cents. A new world was calling to me in every word that was spokena world of rods and gunnels, blind baggages and "side-door Pullmans," "bulls" and "shacks," "floppings" and "chewin's," "pinches" and "get-aways," "strong arms" and "bindle-stiffs," "punks" and "profesh." And it all spelled Adventure. Very well; I would tackle this new world. I "lined" myself up alongside those road-kids. I was just as strong as any of them, just as quick, just as nervy, and my brain was just as good.'

London recalls that on his maiden voyage beating a train, he was one of a group of a dozen road kids heading out of Sacramento to cross the Rocky Mountains on a Central Pacific overland train—a kind of initiation ceremony for new tramps. There was only one other first timer attempting to board the train with London, with the moniker French Kid, but he never made it. He stumbled on boarding the train and both his legs were amputated by the wheels. London recalls being shown his stumps when meeting up him two years later.

London's daughter Joan would have it as a short time before this episode, but we know from John Barleycorn that liquor might have killed London and ended his tramping career at the age of sixteen. After a particularly bad bout of drinking and a failed suicide attempt at sea, London all but gave up working for oysters and slid into becoming a bar room stiff:

'So I left Benicia, where John Barleycorn had nearly got me, and ranged wider afield in pursuit of the whisper from the back of life to come and find. And wherever I ranged, the way lay along alcohol-drenched roads. Men still congregated in saloons. They were the poor-man's clubs, and they were the only clubs to which I had access. I could get acquainted in saloons. I could go into a saloon and talk with any man. In the strange towns and cities I wandered through, the only place for me to go was the saloon. I was no longer a stranger in any town the moment I had entered a saloon.'

On 20th January 1893, a few days after his seventeenth birthday, London decided to dry himself out by signing on for a fifty-one day voyage on the three masted schooner the Sophie Sutherland bound for a seal hunt in the isolated Bonin Islands south of Japan. After more alcoholic binges, London returned to America determined to settle down to a steady job and be done with both drinking and tramping. He slaved for several months, first at a jute mill, and then working a twelve to thirteen hour day shovelling coal (and damaging the tendons in his wrists) having been conned into believing that he had embarked on the bottom rung of the ladder to a respectable career as an electrician (London had been on apprentice wages enabling his employer to lay off two adult men on full wages). After coming to the realisation that honest work was a mugs game, London tramped east to New York, renewing his relationship with John Barleycorn along the way.

London puts the year of his trip to the east at 1894, which coincides with Leon Ray Livingston's account in his book Coast to Coast with Jack London. Livingston was already a minor celebrity at this time and London responded to an ad Livingston had placed in the help-wanted column of the Sunday World Magazine stating, 'Wanted­travelmate by hobo contemplating roughing trip to California.' In his own account, Livingston describes London as 'a youth of about eighteen'—which he would have been in that year; though London does not mention Livingston in any of his autobiographies, neither does Joan London in her biography of her father; rather describing the trip east in terms of London's escapades in Kelley's Army (see below). Whatever the chronolgy, London must have certainly packed a lot of diverse tramping into his eighteenth year, and, apart from his year long trek to the Klondike in search for gold after giving up university at the age of 21, had pretty much exchanged tramping for writing.

In any case, by the end of the trip with Livingston, both tramps had pledged to continue on from San Francisco on a round the world tramp by land and sea. Sadly, by the time the pair reached London's home in Oakland, they were severely incapacitated by malaria. London convalesced at his mother's house, and Livingston in San Francisco. When Livingston had recovered he tells how he went in search of London, but that London's mother would not give the older tramp London's whereabouts, fearing correctly that Livingston would persuade her son back on the road. All she would tell Livingston was that London had gone to work in an up-state laundry. Livingston writes that London never gave up his plan to tramp around the globe, having received the letter below from London twelve years later




London was at the time recovering in Tahiti from a tropical disease after persuading his wife and a friend to accompany him on his seagoing tramp on board the forty-five foot sailing boat, the Snark. London's autobiography, The Cruise of the Snark, is a remarkable travelogue and adventure tale but, with the exception of chapter 3, throws little additional light on London's philosophy of tramping. Chapter 3 is given up entirely to a description of the 'qualifications' and motives of the hundreds of those who answered London's call for crew members to join his round-the-world voyage:

'The possession of a passionate fondness for geography, was the way one applicant expressed the wander-lust that was in him; while another wrote, I am cursed with an eternal yearning to be always on the move, consequently this letter to you.  But best of all was the fellow who said he wanted to come because his feet itched.'

But for now, let us pick up London's earlier tramping adventures as catalogued in his first autobiography, The Road.


Seasoned Tramp

London's first autobiography, The Road, is one of the most frequently quoted works of tramp literature, inspiring other tramp narratives, not least Jack Kerouac's On The Road. But The Road itself was inspired by the earlier writings of Josiah Flynt (seven years older than London) whom London acknowledges with the following dedication in the front of his book: 'TO JOSIAH FLYNT, The Real Thing, Blowed in the Glass'. I explain the term 'blowed-in-the-glass' in my own biography on Flynt as follows:

'Flynt distinguishes between blowed-in-the-glass-stiffs, mature hobos who supported themselves purely through begging and thievery, and gay-cats', mainly younger tramps, who were prepared to work and hustle to make ends meet.'

Much of The Road repeats anecdotes about tramping and beating trains that are well described elsewhere on this site, but it is London's manner of telling that makes him stand out as a writer of note. In the chapter 'Holding Her Down' London tells of a particular journey on the Canadian-Pacific where twenty tramps jumped the train at the start of its journey but all are eventually out-foxed by the train's crew until only London remains. The cat and mouse game ensues between London and the crew: two 'shacks' (brakemen), a conductor, fireman, and an engineer. The first three carriages had blind platforms at the ends (mail-cars with no doors or locked doors into the carriage) leaving London safe from molestation so long as the train was moving at speed. Each time this particular train stopped at a station, London would have to drop smartly from the train, race ahead, and wait until the train gathered speed before again jumping on to one of the blind platforms. Every possible strategy was exploited on this trip by both London and the crew, with London time and again outsmarting his would be assailants. The crew would occupy one or more of the blind platforms to prevent London jumping on board the train, wait for London to alight then leap on the platform from the other side of the train, hide on the roof of a carriage to jump down on him, or even stop the train between stations:

'As I wait in the darkness I am conscious of a big thrill of pride. The overland has stopped twice for mefor me, a poor hobo on the bum. I alone have twice stopped the overland with its many passengers and coaches, its government mail, and its two thousand steam horses straining in the engine. And I weigh only one hundred and sixty pounds, and I haven't a five-cent piece in my pocket!'

On each occasion, exhilarated by the chase, London outsmarted them. At night they carried lanterns but would douse or hide them to trick him. When they learned his strategy and the blind platforms were no longer viable boarding places, London took to the carriage roofs, when he was doused with water by the engineer or hit by lumps of coal by the fireman, he took to riding the rods beneath the carriages. Eventually he was caught, but instead of the usual merciless beating, having gained the crews respect, they took him to the rear of the train where they planned to wait until the train had gathered sufficient speed to make it impossible for London to board the train again. The rest of the tale is in London's own words:

'the train has pulled out fast, the engineer trying to make up for lost time. Also, it is a long train. It is going very lively, and I know the shack is measuring its speed with apprehension.

"Think you can make it?" I query innocently.

He releases my collar, makes a quick run, and swings aboard. A number of coaches are yet to pass by. He knows it, and remains on the steps, his head poked out and watching me. In that moment my next move comes to me. I'll make the last platform. I know she's going fast and faster, but I'll only get a roll in the dirt if I fail, and the optimism of youth is mine. I do not give myself away. I stand with a dejected droop of shoulder, advertising that I have abandoned hope. But at the same time I am feeling with my feet the good gravel. It is perfect footing. Also I am watching the poked-out head of the shack. I see it withdrawn. He is confident that the train is going too fast for me ever to make it.

And the train is going fastfaster than any train I have ever tackled. As the last coach comes by I sprint in the same direction with it. It is a swift, short sprint. I cannot hope to equal the speed of the train, but I can reduce the difference of our speed to the minimum, and, hence, reduce the shock of impact, when I leap on board. In the fleeting instant of darkness I do not see the iron hand-rail of the last platform; nor is there time for me to locate it. I reach for where I think it ought to be, and at the same instant my feet leave the ground. It is all in the toss. The next moment I may be rolling in the gravel with broken ribs, or arms, or head. But my fingers grip the hand-hold, there is a jerk on my arms that slightly pivots my body, and my feet land on the steps with sharp violence.

I sit down, feeling very proud of myself. In all my hoboing it is the best bit of train-jumping I have done. I know that late at night one is always good for several stations on the last platform, but I do not care to trust myself at the rear of the train. At the first stop I run forward on the off-side of the train, pass the Pullmans, and duck under and take a rod under a day-coach. At the next stop I run forward again and take another rod.

I am now comparatively safe. The shacks think I am ditched. But the long day and the strenuous night are beginning to tell on me. Also, it is not so windy nor cold underneath, and I begin to doze. This will never do. Sleep on the rods spells death, so I crawl out at a station and go forward to the second blind. Here I can lie down and sleep; and here I do sleephow long I do not knowfor I am awakened by a lantern thrust into my face. The two shacks are staring at me. I scramble up on the defensive, wondering as to which one is going to make the first "pass" at me. But slugging is far from their minds.

"I thought you was ditched," says the shack who had held me by the collar.

"If you hadn't let go of me when you did, you'd have been ditched along with me," I answer.

"How's that?" he asks.

"I'd have gone into a clinch with you, that's all," is my reply.

They hold a consultation, and their verdict is summed up in:

"Well, I guess you can ride, Bo. There's no use trying to keep you off." '

Still aged only eighteen, and now bearing the moniker Sailor Jack, London tells how he had a three thousand mile race beating trains across Canada from the east coast to the west with another tramp named Skysail Jack. The tramp signs carved by the pair on water-tanks along the way told their own storystarting with Skysail Jack's first inscription in Montreal dated October 15, 1894. Sometimes London was ahead, sometimes Skysail Jack, but to London's disappointment the pair never met? Skysail Jack reached Vancouver first:

'I hurried on into Vancouver. But he was gone. He had taken ship immediately and was still flying west on his world-adventure. Truly, Skysail Jack, you were a tramp-royal, and your mate was the "wind that tramps the world." I take off my hat to you. You were "blowed-in-the-glass" all right. A week later I, too, got my ship, and on board the steamship Umatilla, in the forecastle, was working my way down the coast to San Francisco. Skysail Jack and Sailor Jackgee! if we'd ever got together.'

London also provides an account of marching with Kelly's Army, part of the 1894 march of hoboes and unemployed from California to Washington DC discussed elsewhere on this site. London's account is notable for his descriptions of how the protestors commandeered a train, sought or tricked citizens on the way to feed the army, and in particular, the scam he and a small group of nine others pulled on the two thousand other marchers. Although popularly identified as a political activist, London was never an adherent to any cause but his own, rather, a resourceful individual with his own moral code and his eye on the main chance. The following extract of London's time in Kelly's Army, well identifies this individual streak, a rogue even among vagabonds:

'For a good part of the three hundred miles we were from half a day to a day or so in advance of the Army. [...] When we approached a small town, or when we saw a group of farmers gathered on the bank, we ran up our flags, called ourselves the "advance boat," and demanded to know what provisions had been collected for the Army. [...] if some philanthropic farmer had donated several dollars' worth of tobacco, we took it. So, also, we took butter and sugar, coffee and canned goods; but when the stores consisted of sacks of beans and flour, or two or three slaughtered steers, we resolutely refrained and went our way, leaving orders to turn such provisions over to the commissary boats whose business was to follow behind us.

My, but the ten of us did live on the fat of the land! For a long time General Kelly vainly tried to head us off. He sent two rowers, in a light, round-bottomed boat, to overtake us and put a stop to our piratical careers. They overtook us all right, but they were two and we were ten. They were empowered by General Kelly to make us prisoners, and they told us so. When we expressed disinclination to become prisoners, they hurried ahead to the next town to invoke the aid of the authorities. We went ashore immediately and cooked an early supper; and under the cloak of darkness we ran by the town and its authorities.

I kept a diary on part of the trip, and as I read it over now I note one persistently recurring phrase, namely, "Living fine." We did live fine. [...] This was hard on the Army, I'll allow; but then, the ten of us were individualists. We had initiative and enterprise. We ardently believed that the grub was to the man who got there first ...'

Following London's adventures in Kelly's army and his east to west coast tramp with Leon Ray Livingston, he was becoming tired of both tramping and hard labour. To escape the pointless toil of the latter and further his ambition to become a writer, London now threw himself into the more satisfying graft of matriculating to enrol in university:

'I completed the first half of my freshman year, and in January of 1897 took up my courses for the second half. But the pressure from lack of money, plus a conviction that the university was not giving me all that I wanted in the time I could spare for it, forced me to leave. I was not very disappointed. For two years I had studied, and in those two years, what was far more valuable, I had done a prodigious amount of reading. Then, too, my grammar had improved. It is true, I had not yet learned that I must say "It is I"; but I no longer was guilty of a double negative in writing, though still prone to that error in excited speech.'

Joan London describes this period of her father's life as follows, but it could equally pass for a description of university education in generalfrom then until the present day:

'His courses were not living up to expectations. Comparing what they promised to what they actually gave, he grew angry, as one who had been deceived by a glowing advertisement. He was not learning anything that he could not dig out of the books himself, and more quickly. On the other hand, he was spending much preciuos time at work that was utterly useless for his purpose. In this connection he was shocked by his teachers' apparent abhorrence of the present, of ideas that were alive, of books that grappled with contemporary problems and experiences.'

After quitting university, London spent a year travelling to the Klondike with his brother-in-law, which although having to be abandoned due to contracting scurvey, did provide some of his best writing material. On his return London took up his career as a writer in earnest, forgoing the hobo life for the most part, but not his relationship with drinking. And one of the first things that London would learn about writing was that, to succeed in the game, he would have to first, 'unlearn about everything the teachers and professors of literature of the high school and university had taught me.' A lesson as true today as it was then because, as Joan London identified in the quotation above, most professors of literature are stuck in the past with dead writers. 


The People of the Abyss (1903)

I now wish to turn to one of London's political treatise to provide a context for the final section below, titled 'On London's Philosophy', where I discuss the following paradox. On the one hand London feels pity for the metaphysically innocent (Nietzsche's 'human herd', described by London in The Abyss as, 'dull animal happiness ... stupid and heavy, without imagination'), and yet London, as did Nietzsche also, feels envy for the simple minded's freedom from the intellectual preoccupations that expose cynics, like these two philosophers, to the world's limits and imperfections. There is the further anomaly in The People of the Abyss that, although London takes on the role of the social researcher, he at the same time identifies with the objects of his study, reverting time and again to the hobo he was, and to some extent still is.

In 1902, already a successful writer, and setting a precedent never previously undertaken by a social researcher, London spent several months living among the poor and dispossessed of the East End of London, including sleeping rough on the streets and in workhouses. The Abyss is a unique and remarkable investigation into the lives of the poor and dispossessed of that city, witnessed mainly through the individual stories of the characters who London befriended. The book is also a savage critique on capitalism.

Initially, London was warned by friends against this enterprise:

' You dont want to live down there! everybody said, with disapprobation writ large upon their faces.  Why, it is said there are places where a mans life isnt worth tupence.

The very places I wish to see, I broke in.'

And bizarrely, London also describes how on approaching the travel agent Thomas Cook & Son, who would have had no difficulty in organising a trip to Darkest Africa or Innermost Tibet, were yet unable to advise him on travelling to a part of that city a stones throw from their office:

' You cant do it, you know, said the human emporium of routes and fares at Cooks Cheapside branch.  It is sohemso unusual.

Consult the police, he concluded authoritatively, when I had persisted. We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all.

Never mind that, I interposed, to save myself from being swept out of the office by his flood of negations.  Heres something you can do for me.  I wish you to understand in advance what I intend doing, so that in case of trouble you may be able to identify me.

Ah, I see! should you be murdered, we would be in position to identify the corpse. '

What London had actually intended, was that the Thomas Cook employee would be able to vouch for him should, during his sojourn in the East End, he get into difficulty with the police. After eventually persuading a cab driver to drive him into that part of London, he describes his first impressions on entering the East Endalthough at this point of his adventure, surprisingly still in the voice of the detached observer rather than someone who had himself experienced the vagabond life:

'Nowhere in the streets of London may one escape the sight of abject poverty, while five minutes walk from almost any point will bring one to a slum; but the region my hansom was now penetrating was one unending slum.  The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance.  We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery.  Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling.  At a market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while little children clustered like flies around a festering mass of fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid corruption, and drawing forth morsels but partially decayed, which they devoured on the spot.'

London soon discovered some of the harsh realities of living in the East End of London. Renting a room, never mind two rooms, was nigh on impossible. Several families shared a single house, and single men were bunked three to a room. That was the economic reality from the landlords point of view. The philosophy of many of the single men London encountered, was to earn enough money in the city or at sea in order to find pay for board and lodge and alcohol. The idea of settling down to married life they found laughable. They could not support themselves, never mind a family.

'My first impression of East London was naturally a general one.  Later the details began to appear, and here and there in the chaos of misery I found little spots where a fair measure of happiness reignedsometimes whole rows of houses in little out-of-the-way streets, where artisans dwell and where a rude sort of family life obtains.  In the evenings the men can be seen at the doors, pipes in their mouths and children on their knees, wives gossiping, and laughter and fun going on.  The content of these people is manifestly great, for, relative to the wretchedness that encompasses them, they are well off.

But at the best, it is a dull, animal happiness, the content of the full belly.  The dominant note of their lives is materialistic.  They are stupid and heavy, without imagination.  The Abyss seems to exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor, which wraps about them and deadens them.  Religion passes them by.  The Unseen holds for them neither terror nor delight.  They are unaware of the Unseen; and the full belly and the evening pipe, with their regular arf an arf, * is all they demand, or dream of demanding, from existence.

This would not be so bad if it were all; but it is not all.  The satisfied torpor in which they are sunk is the deadly inertia that precedes dissolution.  There is no progress, and with them not to progress is to fall back and into the Abyss.  In their own lives they may only start to fall, leaving the fall to be completed by their children and their childrens children.  Man always gets less than he demands from life; and so little do they demand, that the less than little they get cannot save them.

At the best, city life is an unnatural life for the human; but the city life of London is so utterly unnatural that the average workman or workwoman cannot stand it.  Mind and body are sapped by the undermining influences ceaselessly at work.  Moral and physical stamina are broken, and the good workman, fresh from the soil, becomes in the first city generation a poor workman; and by the second city generation, devoid of push and go and initiative, and actually unable physically to perform the labour his father did, he is well on the way to the shambles at the bottom of the Abyss.'

* 'half and half', possibly refers to diluted beer rather than the North American meaning of equal measures of milk and cream. In Wales we use the term to denote rice and chips, usually with pub curries!

A graphic example of the abject poverty of the East End, is described by London when walking down the Mile End Road one evening between two men who had fallen on hard times, being no longer able to compete for work with younger, fitter men. The trio were headed for the workhouse in Poplar to try and secure a night's lodging. London noticed the way the other two men had their eyes peeled to ground and kept bending down, retrieving what London at first assumed were cigarette and cigar ends, but soon became aware that their labour was of a more desperate kind:

'From the slimy, spittle-drenched, sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and, they were eating them.  The pits of greengage plums they cracked between their teeth for the kernels inside.  They picked up stray bits of bread the size of peas, apple cores so black and dirty one would not take them to be apple cores, and these things these two men took into their mouths, and chewed them, and swallowed them; and this, between six and seven oclock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world has ever seen.'

And of the practice the police have in London's West End of moving vagrants on all night long, from doorways, benches, anywhere they tried to grab a few minutes sleep, London observes the following:

'And now I wish to criticise the powers that be.  They are the powers, therefore they may decree whatever they please; so I make bold only to criticise the ridiculousness of their decrees.  All night long they make the homeless ones walk up and down.  They drive them out of doors and passages, and lock them out of the parks.  The evident intention of all this is to deprive them of sleep.  Well and good, the powers have the power to deprive them of sleep, or of anything else for that matter; but why under the sun do they open the gates of the parks at five oclock in the morning and let the homeless ones go inside and sleep?  If it is their intention to deprive them of sleep, why do they let them sleep after five in the morning?  And if it is not their intention to deprive them of sleep, why dont they let them sleep earlier in the night? ... I came by Green Park that same day, at one in the afternoon, and that I counted scores of the ragged wretches asleep in the grass.  It was Sunday afternoon, the sun was fitfully appearing, and the well-dressed West Enders, with their wives and progeny, were out by thousands, taking the air.  It was not a pleasant sight for them, those horrible, unkempt, sleeping vagabonds; while the vagabonds themselves, I know, would rather have done their sleeping the night before.

And so, dear soft people, should you ever visit London Town, and see these men asleep on the benches and in the grass, please do not think they are lazy creatures, preferring sleep to work.  Know that the powers that be have kept them walking all the night long, and that in the day they have nowhere else to sleep.'

In Chapter XII of The Abyss, titled 'Coronation Day', London witnessed the coronation of King Edward VII from a vantage point in Trafalgar Square on 9th August 1902. He provides a uniquely fascinating account of the procession and celebrations that followed, a detailed and accurate description interspersed with satirical observations of the eventhis own and others. Observing a man and a woman vagrant sitting on a bench later in the evening, London became incensed at the thousands of passing revellers who mocked the pair, and that not one had the humanity in the midst of their celebrations to say, ' Heres sixpence; go and get a bed. '

It is not surprising given London's politics, and the scenes and injustices that he witnesses daily, that The Abyss produces harsh criticism of the kind of society that tolerates such inhumanities:

In a civilisation frankly materialistic and based upon property, not soul, it is inevitable that property shall be exalted over soul, that crimes against property shall be considered far more serious than crimes against the person.  To pound ones wife to a jelly and break a few of her ribs is a trivial offence compared with sleeping out under the naked stars because one has not the price of a doss.'

And there is no shortage of graphic descriptions of personal human tragedy to stir the readers emotions:

'He had fought, and starved, and suffered for eighteen months.  He got up one September morning, early.  He opened his pocket-knife.  He cut the throat of his wife, Hannah Cavilla, aged thirty-three.  He cut the throat of his first-born, Frank, aged twelve.  He cut the throat of his son, Walter, aged eight.  He cut the throat of his daughter, Nellie, aged four.  He cut the throat of his youngest-born, Ernest, aged sixteen months.  Then he watched beside the dead all day until the evening, when the police came, and he told them to put a penny in the slot of the gas-meter in order that they might have light to see.'

Eventually we arrive at the point in the book where London draws some wider conclusions from the months he spent living among the dispossessed of the East End. He poses the question at the beginning of the final chapter, 'Has Civilisation bettered the lot of the average man?' in order to drive home his critique of the capitalist project:

'Let us see.  In Alaska, along the banks of the Yukon River, near its mouth, live the Innuit folk.  They are a very primitive people, manifesting but mere glimmering adumbrations of that tremendous artifice, Civilisation.  Their capital amounts possibly to £2 per head.  They hunt and fish for their food with bone-headed spews and arrows.  They never suffer from lack of shelter.  Their clothes, largely made from the skins of animals, are warm.  They always have fuel for their fires, likewise timber for their houses [...] starvation, as a chronic condition, present with a large number of them all the time, is a thing unknown.  Further, they have no debts.

In the United Kingdom, on the rim of the Western Ocean, live the English folk.  They are a consummately civilised people.  Their capital amounts to at least £300 per head.  They gain their food, not by hunting and fishing, but by toil at colossal artifices.  For the most part, they suffer from lack of shelter.  The greater number of them are vilely housed, do not have enough fuel to keep them warm, and are insufficiently clothed.  A constant number never have any houses at all, and sleep shelterless under the stars.  Many are to be found, winter and summer, shivering on the streets in their rags.  They have good times and bad.  In good times most of them manage to get enough to eat, in bad times they die of starvation.  They are dying now, they were dying yesterday and last year, they will die to-morrow and next year, of starvation; for they, unlike the Innuit, suffer from a chronic condition of starvation. [...] In a fair comparison of the average Innuit and the average Englishman, it will be seen that life is less rigorous for the Innuit [...] In this connection it is well to instance the judgment of a man such as Huxley.  From the knowledge gained as a medical officer in the East End of London, and as a scientist pursuing investigations among the most elemental savages, he concludes, Were the alternative presented to me, I would deliberately prefer the life of the savage to that of those people of Christian London.

[...]

'There can be no mistake.  Civilisation has increased mans producing power an hundred-fold, and through mismanagement the men of Civilisation live worse than the beasts, and have less to eat and wear and protect them from the elements than the savage Innuit in a frigid climate who lives to-day as he lived in the stone age ten thousand years ago.'


On London's Philosophy

Although still with reference to the same autobiographical works, I now turn from London's adventures to concentrate on his philosophy on living and the art of survival using some of the themes that flow from these books.

The Art of Begging and Pretence

We are told how Diogenes the Cynic begged alms from a statue as practice in the art of being refused. Jack London likewise worked hard at the art. He provides us with an excellent philosophy on begging that exhibits in his writings the Cynic's own literary and oral traditions such as irony, ridicule, satire and use of the aphorism as means of getting his message across, e.g., 'upon his ability to tell a good story depends the success of the beggar' and in the same piece, 'art is only consummate artfulness, and artfulness saves many a "story." ' London's thesis on begging mirrors that of Jim Phelan, discussed in my last post. For instance, he demonstrates his appreciation of the ancient Greek art of kairos: the critical moment in which, in his case, the beggar strikes a balance between seducing his target or loosing the game; the following lecture ending with another arresting aphorism:

'First of all, and on the instant, the beggar must "size up" his victim. After that, he must tell a story that will appeal to the peculiar personality and temperament of that particular victim. And right here arises the great difficulty: in the instant that he is sizing up the victim he must begin his story. Not a minute is allowed for preparation. As in a lightning flash he must divine the nature of the victim and conceive a tale that will hit home. The successful hobo must be an artist. He must create spontaneously and instantaneouslyand not upon a theme selected from the plenitude of his own imagination, but upon the theme he reads in the face of the person who opens the door, be it man, woman, or child, sweet or crabbed, generous or miserly, good-natured or cantankerous, Jew or Gentile, black or white, race-prejudiced or brotherly, provincial or universal, or whatever else it may be. I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short-story. Also, I quite believe it was my tramp-apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub.'

Also like Phelan, it is worth noting that London was a fast learner on how to survive the brutalities of penal servitude. In his first extended spell in jail at the age of eighteen (he had spent the odd night in cells), a thirty day trumped up vagrancy sentence in Erie County Penitentiary, Buffalo, rather than try to challenge the system, he learned quickly to earn favours from prisoners and guards alike (see chapters titled Pinched and The Pen in The Road).

London certainly had the gift of the gab, even if it did not always serve him. In the following piece he demonstrates again his rhetorical skills. Having begged at a door where he spies an overfed glutton tucking into a meat pie, he is met with the usual prejudice about good-for-nothing hoboes who are too lazy to work for their bread. The diner challenges London to earn his bread by meeting him tomorrow at a building site where he will be offered food in return for 'tossing bricks'. But our hero is not so easily dismissed:

' "You see, I am now hungry," I said still gently. "To-morrow morning I shall be hungrier. Think how hungry I shall be when I have tossed bricks all day without anything to eat. Now if you will give me something to eat, I'll be in great shape for those bricks."

He gravely considered my plea, at the same time going on eating, while his wife nearly trembled into propitiatory speech, but refrained.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said between mouthfuls. "You come to work to-morrow, and in the middle of the day I'll advance you enough for your dinner. That will show whether you are in earnest or not."

"In the meantime" I began; but he interrupted.

"If I gave you something to eat now, I'd never see you again. Oh, I know your kind. Look at me. I owe no man. I have never descended so low as to ask any one for food. I have always earned my food. The trouble with you is that you are idle and dissolute. I can see it in your face. I have worked and been honest. I have made myself what I am. And you can do the same, if you work and are honest."

"Like you?" I queried.

Alas, no ray of humor had ever penetrated the sombre work-sodden soul of that man.

"Yes, like me," he answered.

"All of us?" I queried.

"Yes, all of you," he answered, conviction vibrating in his voice.

"But if we all became like you," I said, "allow me to point out that there'd be nobody to toss bricks for you."

I swear there was a flicker of a smile in his wife's eye. As for him, he was aghastbut whether at the awful possibility of a reformed humanity that would not enable him to get anybody to toss bricks for him, or at my impudence, I shall never know.

"I'll not waste words on you," he roared. "Get out of here, you ungrateful whelp!" '

There follows a hilarious tale when, to avoid arrest, London has to think on his feet after spinning a yarn to police in Winnipeg. He calculates that in the middle of that continent, he could safely make up a story to these landlubbers about being an English sailor, stranded from home after suffering tribulations at sea. To Livingston's dismay, the police return with an old sea dog sporting earrings and a sea weathered face:

'in those eyes, when they looked at me, I saw the unmistakable sun-wash of the sea. Here was a theme, alas! with half a dozen policemen to watch me readI who had never sailed the China seas, nor been around the Horn, nor looked with my eyes upon India and Rangoon.'

A dual of words follows between London and the expert witness, with Livingston always just one step ahead of discovery:

' "Do you remember the temple?"

"Which temple?" I parried.

"The big one, at the top of the stairway."

If I remembered that temple, I knew I'd have to describe it. The gulf yawned for me.

I shook my head.

"You can see it from all over the harbor," he informed me. "You don't need shore-leave to see that temple."

I never loathed a temple so in my life. But I fixed that particular temple at Rangoon.

"You can't see it from the harbor," I contradicted. "You can't see it from the town. You can't see it from the top of the stairway. Because" I paused for the effect. "Because there isn't any temple there."

"But I saw it with my own eyes!" he cried.

"That was in?" I queried.

"Seventy-one."

"It was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1887," I explained. "It was very old." '

Time and again Livingston gets the better of the old mariner, not waiting to be caught out he turns the tables and starts interrogating the sailor, asking if if he'd ever come across old so-and-so in this port or that, until the weary matlo confirms to the police the veracity of London's story and he receives a nights lodging and breakfast for his trouble before being sent freely on his way. In the following tale London displays his comedic talents to the full:

  'At six I quit work and headed for the railroad yards, expecting to pick up something to eat on the way. But my hard luck was still with me. I was refused food at house after house. Then I got a "hand-out." My spirits soared, for it was the largest hand-out I had ever seen in a long and varied experience. It was a parcel wrapped in newspapers and as big as a mature suit-case. I hurried to a vacant lot and opened it. First, I saw cake, then more cake, all kinds and makes of cake, and then some. It was all cake. No bread and butter with thick firm slices of meat betweennothing but cake; and I who of all things abhorred cake most! In another age and clime they sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept. And in a vacant lot in Canada's proud capital, I, too, sat down and wept ... over a mountain of cake. As one looks upon the face of his dead son, so looked I upon that multitudinous pastry. I suppose I was an ungrateful tramp, for I refused to partake of the bounteousness of the house that had had a party the night before. Evidently the guests hadn't liked cake either.'

On Morality and Human Vanity

On witnessing a gypsy woman being whipped by 'the chief of the tribe', London makes the following observation on the defects of human behaviour:

'I have sometimes held forth (facetiously, so my listeners believed) that the chief distinguishing trait between man and the other animals is that man is the only animal that maltreats the females of his kind. It is something of which no wolf nor cowardly coyote is ever guilty. It is something that even the dog, degenerated by domestication, will not do. The dog still retains the wild instinct in this matter, while man has lost most of his wild instinctsat least, most of the good ones.'           

This listener does not find London's remarks in the least facetious. The roots of misogyny in Western societies goes deep and wide. The celebration, even worship of women, in ancient religions, ended with the establishment of Christianity in the West. Credited as the founder of Western theology, Tertullian maintained that for the sins of Eve, God condemned women to the pangs of childbirth and the curse of menstruation:

'You [woman] are the devils gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child's play to you. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die.    Tertullian

And in case man still finds himself too weak to to resist women's guile, St. John Chrysostom provided some additional words of deterrent:

The whole of her bodily beauty is nothing less that the phlegm, blood, bile, rheum, and the fluid of digested food . . . If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is merely a whitened sepulchre.

And so, for those who might yet feel that London's remarks about human's mistreatment of the female of the species are facetious, let us just remind ourselves of one of the ugliest legacies of Christianity, the Christian witch hunts that took place between 1454 and 1782—when the last witch was officially executed in Poland. No other culture or civilisation in history has ever set out to systematically torture and murder, in the millions by some accounts, its own women in such a way:

'It [hysteria] is a type of behaviour many men associate with women; the word itself derives from the Greek hystera, meaning womb. But no superstition that any group of women has ever believed has come close to the level of credulity and psychosis that seized the most educated male elite during the witch craze. As if in a deep hypnotic spell, men accepted as a fact a phantasmagoria that defies comprehensionthat little girls in pigtails, pregnant women, and weak, elderly widows posed a mortal danger to society. . . . She could not expect a white knight to free her, because the white knights of societyher pastor, her king, her magistrate, and her popewere her tormentors.' Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet and the Goddess

Interestingly, London's use of dogs above to illustrate human beings' 'unnatural' behaviour is analogous to Cynic representations, both in their choice of name (the Greek kynicos being the adjectival form of the noun for dog) and their verbal and non-verbal discourse on the bankrupt state of human life. In his essay The Other Animals (1908), London refers to his own use of dogs to emphasise human failings

'I have been guilty of writing two animal-stories—two books about dogs.  The writing of these two stories, on my part, was in truth a protest against the “humanizing” of animals, of which it seemed to me several “animal writers” had been profoundly guilty.'  

In direct contrast, then, to the humanising of animals, London's believes, like the Cynics, that it is our very arrogance in elevating ourselves above 'lower' animals that will prove civilisation's nemesis. As he describes in his essay The Somnambulists (1900), civilisation is no more than an illusion to disguise the fact that we are just animals:

'The mightiest and absurdest sleep-walker on the planet!  Chained in the circle of his own imaginings, man is only too keen to forget his origin and to shame that flesh of his that bleeds like all flesh and that is good to eat.  Civilization (which is part of the circle of his imaginings) has spread a veneer over the surface of the soft-shelled animal known as man.  It is a very thin veneer; but so wonderfully is man constituted that he squirms on his bit of achievement and believes he is garbed in armour-plate.'

Nietzsche put it thusand again, there is no hiding that philosophers influence on London:

'Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar system, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history’, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.'

I now move on to discuss how London's relationship with alcohol seems to have sharpened his criticism, both of human being's vulnerability and their banality.

On The Effects of Alcohol

John Barleycorn catalogues London's transmutation from a hobo into a bourgeois, if not maybe also bohemian, writer, and his steady slide into alcoholism. Contrast the opening quotation at the top of this post from The Road, in which London identifies the surreal pleasures of living for the moment and having the whole world out there waiting to be discovered, with the world-hating introspection at the end of John Barleycorn where, having mined all the pleasures that life has to offer, he declares that true contentment can only exist in ignorance and stupidity. The diminishing of the world in another sensethroughout the history of human civilisation, is wonderfully described by London in his 1900 essay, The Shrinkage of the Planet, opening with the words in the quote below, before proceeding to demonstrate how science and technology has brought us to a time where, 'the humblest clerk in any metropolis may place his hand on the pulse of the world'how much more has the world shrunk since London wrote these words in 1900, and at an ever accelerating pace, than from the time of Homer up until then: 

'What a tremendous affair it was, the world of Homer, with its indeterminate boundaries, vast regions, and immeasurable distances.'

But in John Barleycorn, the shrinkage London describes, is the disilusionment he experiences with the world within his own lifetime; the curse brought about by John Barleycorn on those with intelligence and imagination. For unlike the stupid man, he who 'drinks himself into sottish unconsciousness' and whose 'dreams are dim and inarticulate', the 'white logic' that alcohol can produce in those with 'imagination', exposes the sham illusions, frauds and corruptions that make up the entire human enterprise. What others hail as human accomplishments, London dismisses as inconsequential; 'miserable little egotisms'.

Here we have London the cynic par excellence. And when London refers in the passage below to 'a pessimistic German philosopher' he is likely referring to Nietzsche, whom he read and admired. The difference being though that, unlike London, Nietzsche never touched alcohol. Furthermore, although Nietzsche represented naked Cynicism in its modern form, his was a positive, optimistic cynicism, not the nihilistic brand that he has often been misrepresented for. Whether London's cynicism is optimistic or pessimistic is not immediately apparent. Neither is it readily apparent whether London's expressed emotions at this period of his life are intrinsic, alcohol fuelled, or the result of the depression that inevitably accompanies chronic alcohol use. What is evident, is that his thoughts and emotions are expressed with the clarity and poetry of the great German philosopher himself:

'to the imaginative man, John Barleycorn sends the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic. He looks upon life and all its affairs with the jaundiced eye of a pessimistic German philosopher. He sees through all illusions. He transvalues all values. Good is bad, truth is a cheat, and life is a joke. From his calm-mad heights, with the certitude of a god, he beholds all life as evil. Wife, children, friendsin the clear, white light of his logic they are exposed as frauds and shams. He sees through them, and all that he sees is their frailty, their meagreness, their sordidness, their pitifulness. No longer do they fool him. They are miserable little egotisms, like all the other little humans, fluttering their May-fly life-dance of an hour. They are without freedom. They are puppets of chance. So is he. He realises that. But there is one difference. He sees; he knows. And he knows his one freedom: he may anticipate the day of his death.'

There are many parallels between London and Nietzsche in the later pages of John Barleycorn, not just in exposing illusion and human deception but that, in the act of ridiculing human stupidity, both display a kind of envy for the metaphysically innocent. They know that in spite of their acknowledged clarity of thought, those who, unlike them, appear unconcerned at the worlds imperfections, at the same time appear to prosper on account of their freedom from intellectual preoccupations.

Nietzsche also described the price one had to pay for craving (as many of the tramp writers I discuss on this site have) novelty and adventure over submitting to the civilising effects of society. There is a terrible consequence, he said, in 'the attraction of the new and rare as against the old and tedious'. It is a curse characteristic of all forms of cynicism that cynics feel alienated from the society in which they live because they question the worlds limits. This is why, unlike the spiritually enlightened who may exude a privileged smugness at their unique vision of the world, the modern cynic may at times feel handicapped, even tortured by it.

The contemporary German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, refers to this feeling as inner emigration because cutting oneself off from the fundamental values of society leaves the cynic on the horns of a dilemma; Get out or collaborate? Flee or stand firm?. And in the latter part of his life, London seemed torn between the two to such an extent that he turned inward on himself, sinking into a pit of despair with nothing to look forward to other than his own death; although how much of this should be blamed directly on John Barleycorn is open to speculation:

'And now comes John Barleycorn with the curse he lays upon the imaginative man who is lusty with life and desire to live. John Barleycorn sends his White Logic, the argent messenger of truth beyond truth, the antithesis of life, cruel and bleak as interstellar space, pulseless and frozen as absolute zero, dazzling with the frost of irrefragable logic and unforgettable fact. John Barleycorn will not let the dreamer dream, the liver live. He destroys birth and death, and dissipates to mist the paradox of being, until his victim cries out, as in "The City of Dreadful Night": "Our life's a cheat, our death a black abyss." And the feet of the victim of such dreadful intimacy take hold of the way of death.'

London with second wife Charmain
the year before London's death
I urge the reader to enjoy for themselves Chapters 36 and 37 of John Barleycorn for a philosophic duel of words between London and John Barleycorn's 'White Logic'. 

And now finally to London's own epitaph which has a strange resemblance to the passage above by St. John Chrysostom; except that in London's case, he is resisting the fear of his own 'whitened sepulchre', not that of woman:

I am aware that within this disintegrating body which has been dying since I was born I carry a skeleton, that under the rind of flesh which is called my face is a bony, noseless death's head. All of which does not shudder me. To be afraid is to be healthy. Fear of death makes for life. But the curse of the White Logic is that it does not make one afraid. The world-sickness of the White Logic makes one grin jocosely into the face of the Noseless One and to sneer at all the phantasmagoria of living.'




1 comment:

  1. Just read The Road. Thanks for these reflections and the links to related reading.

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