JACK LONDON, an awesome person; MARTIN EDEN, an awesome book.

John Griffith Chaney, born in San Francisco on January 12th 1876, was the son of a traveling astrologer and a spiritualist. He worked while he was finishing his pre-university level studies and,among other jobs, he worked as a sea man, a fisherman and a smuggler.

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He was a man of action, not an intellectual, and it is said that his ideas derived from reading Kipling, Spencer, Darwin, Stevenson, Malthus, Marx, Poe and Nietzsche, lack consistency and precision: he accepted Darwinism and racism, prevalent during his time, but at the same time he was troubled that the “inevitable white man” would destroy the rich cultures of various native groups he had encountered (in the South Seas). He was a supporter of women’s suffrage and married a New Woman (second wife, Charmian Kittredge) but was patriarchal toward his 2 wifes and daughters. He was a socialist but an individualist at heart, with a drive toward capitalist success. It is said that his self-taught and uninformed reading made of him a fervent socialist and a naïve fascist (because of his belief in the übermensch), but personally I disagree and think that it is quite a biased, oversimplistic and hyperbolic view, which partly prepare the ground for some of his works (for instance the one I present below). Besides, many “informed” writers, with a more extensive scholar background, have reached similar conclusions to those of Jack London.

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Jack London lived to the full and went to Alaska to try his luck during the gold rush in 1897-8, an experience which proved a failure as a means of becoming rich, but which was fertile in literary terms, as the experience provided him with material for a collection of short stories and a background for his novels related to the “Homo homini Lupus” concept. It was during his convalescence, as he came back ill, when he started massively reading and writing. His writings deal with human survival, nature and socialist topics.

He died on November 22nd 1916, at 40 in his Glen Ellen estate, and there’s a romantic legend concerning his death. It’s said that he committed suicide because he was suffering due to his kidney condition, although it hasn’t been proved. You may get contradictory information about this fact, depending on the source. Other sources state that he died of renal failure with gastrointestinal uremic poisoning.

Martin Eden

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Martin Eden is a sturdy working class mate who has spared a young high-class woman, Ruth, from having a rough time by defending her and getting into a fist fight for her sake. She is so impressed with him, as he “saves” her, and she finds him so different to the kind of men she’s used to, that she invites him over to her house to thank him. There he meets her family and has a look at her surroundings, her upbringing and her library, above all a volume of poems by Swimburne.

He has his own intellectual curiosities and concerns even though he’s automatically regarded as an unambitious working class fellow who is not able to see beyond his limits. But as he puts it: “insularity of mind that makes human creatures believe that their color, creed and politics are best and right and that other human creatures scattered over the world are less fortunately placed than they”, which is of course wrong.

The young couple keep in touch and have long conversations, as couples do, and she seems to strive to change him. In the meantime, due to his monumental strong will, he manages to surpass his own limitations by working and studying at the same time, until he is finally able to publish (“He hated the oblivion of sleep. There was too much to do, too much of life to live”). In the process, when he’s not known and he has to support himself by his physical work, the woman dismisses his works, but then her opinion changes as he manages to publish and gain a certain renown (“Martin had faith in himself, but he was alone in his faith”).

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Then, he seems to be someone new for her, someone she can feel in awe of without feeling embarrassed; but this whole process had made him conscious of several painful truths: “Make me like those other men, doing the work they do, breathing the air they breathe, developing the point of view they have developed and you have destroyed the difference, destroyed me, destroyed the thing you love” and “He knew now that he hadn’t really loved her. It was an idealized Ruth he had loved, and ethereal creature” and that ethereal creature belong to another world, to the “bourgeois swine” who despised him.

In his journey he meets Brissenden, who also belongs to the upper-class but has somehow rebelled against it in his own way, as an individual against the masses, just like Eden has. He’s a physically weak person who lacks Eden’s will and knows it, and he strives for new thrills in life through drugs rather than through action. He’s a good friend for Eden though and they both manage to understand each other. Eden seem to be in the process of stepping into the nowhere’s land: slowly he discovers that those who once were his mates -working class people- are not so close to him now and fail to understand him, but he doesn’t belong with the bourgeoisie either.

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As an individual standing against the masses (“Herd-creatures, flocking together and patterning their lives by one another’s opinions, failing of being individuals”), even having achieved his goal, discovers that he is alone. His estrangement from Ruth, Brissenden’s death and his growing apart from his former mates, makes him become increasingly disappointed and disenchanted with life: (“I care for nothing. Something has gone out of me. I am empty of any desire for anything.”)

All this foreshadows the end:

“For too much love of living

From hope and fear set free,

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives forever,

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.”

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We will never be the same

Migration. We turn the TV on and there it is. We sit on our comfy sofas and watch the lifeless body of a toddler on the seashore. We watch the refrigerated truck, parked alongside a highway, full of corpses, the Hungarian reporter kicking men and women and kids. We watch the desperate families soaking wet under the rain, with their kids weeping beside them, all wrapped in plastic bin bags in order to avoid freezing in the streets, as they are denied a roof by the authorities. We watch fifty people in a rubber boat crossing the strait that separates Africa and Europe. We watch the beaches in Lampedusa, filled with stranded corpses of those who invested all they had in a ticket to nowhere. Then, we hear comments in the street; “why don’t they stay in their country”, “what does it have to do with me”, “not my business”. What a short term memory we have…

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Photo 1: Spaniards in a French concentration camp. 

Photo 2: “illegal” Spanish immigrants captured in Venezuela.

It’s healthy to exercise one’s memory and empathy, and assisted by the writer González de la Cuesta, that is what I’m doing.

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“Nunca seremos los mismos” -We’ll never be the same- tells the story of several unforgettable although anonymous characters such as Manuel, Lola, Marga and Rodrigo, and that of well-known Spanish politicians and intellectuals  who belonged to the losing side of the Spanish Civil War: the famous poet Antonio Machado and the president of the Republic, Manuel Azaña. During the war, in the 30s, we witness how Spain becomes an unsafe place for those who lost the war, an they are finally forced into exile. They escape only to find an equally shattered Europe, just about to burst into the Second World War. And they were equally rejected and despised by the French government, who wasn’t at all welcoming. It makes us step down from our oblivious ivory tower by reminding us how it feels:

“they were running away from their defeat, from death, who lurked ominously over them like a shadow (…) and made them feel  like the scum of History. As they were just normal people, professionals who loved their country, their family and their friends (…)”

“nothing made them feel so desolate as the contemplation  (…) of thousands of people struggling to cross the border (…) the French authorities weren’t making much of an effort to aliviate the suffering of those people, who only wanted a safe place to live. What is more, they seem to be willing to thwart the mass influx of Spaniards to their country (…) by beating them up with the butts of their guns”.

Once you enter the world of the diaspora, nothing will ever be the same. You will never be the same. You leave your country behind and try to adapt to a new country, where your culture and your identity are questioned every minute, and the more you adapt -as you must survive- the more you will grow apart from your homeland. It is more so in the case of war-motivated exile. You change, but your country can change dramatically to a point of no return.

This is experienced by Manuel, Rodrigo and Marga. They leave their country to never come back, because their homeland as they once knew it -and loved it- has disappeared forever. With them, we feel the deep pain of such a great loss, together with their fierce struggle for survival and their determination.

In their journey, not only do they face rejection as in France, but also there’s a place for solidarity and transnational support, provided by anonymous individuals who will gain relevance in their lives and the story: Viveka, Mrs.Cameron, Pilar… Cruelty and indiference toward their fate shown by the authorities will be in stark contrast with the kindness they find in other fellow citizens, as usual in real life.

The cities they live in during their escape from Spain are minutely described, and one can imagine life in them during the 30s and 40s, in a wounded Europe and in the U.S. during the attack to Pearl Harbour.

They don’t ever give up, but something has been broken inside as they have been violently uprooted from their home and exposed to uncertainty.

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We’ve been there as well, in the same rubber boat, sharing the same spirit, with all those who run away from the atrocity. And was not so long ago. Fleeing from a mortally wounded country, from the systematic violation of basic human rights, from hunger and death, from a fratricide conflict. We were just like them. And our ditches are there to show for it, still full of the corpses of those who couldn’t cross the borders and were killed just there and buried on the spot in mass graves. They are all over Spain. They are just there, under the tarmac. As the saying goes, «Aquellos que no recuerdan el pasado están condenados a repetirlo» -those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it- (Jorge Santayana). It’s good to remember. Let’s remember.

Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis.

Born in Minessotta in 1885, Sinclair Lewis was the first North American writer to be awarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930. His works are X-ray pictures of the American Dream and its ruthless capitalism between the wars. His views can turn out to be extremely modern, as he depicts working women to perfection, in portraits full of respect and dignity, disregarding social class. After graduation in Yale, he had several different jobs and wrote in all kind of styles, from pulp novels to stories for magazines. He even sold plots to Jack London, such as The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., London´s unfinished novel. He was an alcoholic and was interned in Austen Riggs Center in 1937. He died in 1951 from advanced alcoholism. I have always wondered how could he become an alcoholic during the Prohibition!

His first great success was Babbitt, written in 1922. Set in a fictional town, Zenith, where George Babbitt – a villager by birth and a foster son of Zenith – wishes to embody the exemplary successful Zenith man, with not an inch of Catawba – his village- in him. Babbitt is proud of himself and what he has achieved in life, by walking upon the well-trodden path. His life, given his materialistic spirit, is described in terms of what he possesses: a nice car where he can even fit a modern lighter, a house worthy of a decorations and interiors magazine – which does not feel like home, though -, his suits… Babbitt is the embodiment of capitalism itself in his daily life: he speculates with properties for a value exponentialy greater than their real one. He doesn´t care for community values, even though he pretends he is a moral man, as his speculative deeds have a negative impact in his beloved community.

Whenever Babitt has to express a personal opinion about any topic, he needs first to research the approved and official sources: the Advocate Times, the Evening Standard and the Chamber’s newsletter as well as learning about the decisions taken by the Republican senators in Washington. They guide his thoughts and opinions and he finds it difficult to have an opinion about something which hasn´t yet elicited an article on one of these sources. As soon as he reads the opinions included in the aforementioned papers, he finds himself able to express his individuality – his favourite page in those papers is the Mutt&Jeff cartoons, though – . His beliefs and his morals are equally dictated by the Presbyterian Church.

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Sanctimounious Babbitt is relieved that prostitution, speakeasies and other illegal activities are restricted to certain ghettos in town, so that “decent families”can feel safe. But there is a high degree of hypocrisy in this statement, provided that, when he organises a party with his friends, he goes to one of this ghettos and buys alcohol for the occasion.He and his friends talk about the Prohibition Act, implying that it is justified, so that those consumers who can’t really afford it do not get tempted, but they feel that it thwarts their freedom as middle-class citizens who can pay for beverages and lead exemplary and productive lives.

Babbitt’s closest friend, Paul, breaks the former’s peace of mind -only interrupted by a recurrent dream – with his questioning the kind of life they both lead. Paul talks about the lack of a sense of purpose in life, about boredom and frustration in married life, which makes him feel trapped and disappointed after living by the rules as a good boy all his life. Babbitt does not love his wife, either. He never really did, although he is sometimes able to feel tenderness towards her. When they first met, Myra was a “nice” girl who didn’t allow him to kiss her and the first time he did, she assumed that they were engaged. He wasn’t able to say no. Married life was comfortable for him, though. Thus, as a self-righteous person, he reacts in a somewhat paternalistic manner to that, only to start questioning his own life afterwards:“Whatever the misery, he could not regain contentment with a world which, once doubted, became absurd.”

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-“Flapper” B/W photograph by J. Baldwin. Oil painting copy by Gisela P.-

As a result of this, he tastes what he had previouly preached against, and becomes an adept at breaking the rules by partying, drinking alcohol and trying to have affairs with women with not much success. However, he does not go so far as to burn the bridges towards respectability. As he gets more and more involved with liberal practise, he starts showing public signs of sympathy towards liberal theorists as well, being ostracised as a consequence. When he is on the brink of tilting the scale wholly to the liberal side, coming to terms with the fact of risking his job and marriage, both of which are at stake at this point, his wife illness brings him back to the path of virtue; he embodies the parable of the prodigal son. His experience is not futile and empty, though, as it turns him into a more tolerant citizen and enables him to come to terms with the following generation.

The Lake Poets

The Lake Poets became known as such when Francis Jeffrey used the term in one of his articles on literary criticism. Derogatorily intended, this expression alluded their sectary nature. They were regarded as radical and antisocial, and blamed for using ordinary language and themes in their poetry. The term prospered and it has been systematically used to this day. The three components of this group are considered Romantic poets, due to their interest in the unusual and the supernatural. Each of them had their own focus, though: Wordsworth the familiar, Coleridge the philosophical, and Southey travelling and adventure. The three poets shared a love for liberty and radical political convictions in their youth, sympathising with the French Revolution, although they turned more conservative as they grew older. The French Revolution meant the promise of a glorious renovation of society. It inspired Southey and Coleridge – who met in 1794 in Oxford – to plan a Utopian community in America called Pantisocracy – equal rule by all -, based on libertarian principles. Wordsworth and Coleridge met in 1795, and wrote Lyrical Ballads (1798) together, influencing each other greatly throughout their lives. The Wordsworth household was formed by William and his sister Dorothy, also a poet, relegated by literary history to a satellite position together with other authors. Her writings were not intended for publication, although she had a gift for precise observation and description that may surpassed that of William Wordsworth and Coleridge.

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Wordsworth had chosen to describe the “humble and rustic life”, as in them “the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity”. His works were not considered as radical because they embodied revolutionary thoughts, but because he sought to express values which stood apart from gentility and what he regarded as false sophistication. He even professed the ambition of beginning a literary reform. His main themes are the pastoral against the ugly background of industrialization, his love of nature and “emotion recollected in tranquility”.

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Coleridge was brilliant in his studies but as he grew older, he found little stimulation in them and fell in idleness, dissoluteness and debt. In accord to the medical prescription of the time, Coleridge had been taking laudanum from an early age in order to ease the physical pains and ailments that he suffered. As a result, he became an addict. He expresses his despair in Dejection: An Ode (1802), his farewell to health, happiness and poetic creativity. Despite his attempts at restoring his health, he continued with his habit, and withdrawal symptoms interfered in all his relationships. He survived for some time by giving lectures, writing for newspapers, etc. While addiction was a main driving force in his life, he usually adapted – or simply transcribed – passages from other writers in order to meet deadlines, and he was charged with plagiarism. Writings that required sustained planning were left unfinished or were made up of brilliant sections padded out with filler. In 1816 under Dr. Gillman’s supervision, he manages to control, although not to suppress his addiction. His remaining years he spent with Dr. and Mrs. Gillman.

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Robert Southey was expelled from Westminster School for criticising the practise of flogging in the school magazine. The incident was an instance of his revolutionary ideals which found expression in his first long poem Joan of Arc (1796). By then, he had already written The fall of Robespierre (1794) in partnership with Coleridge, with whom he also shared experiences such as taking part in experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) in 1799. He also wrote travel books, composed by letters from his short residence in Port and Spain. The Doctor, published in 1837 contains the famour tale The Three Bears. Although he was praised by W. Scott and Lord Byron, and was appointed Poet Laureate in 1813, his poems does not seem to have passed the test of time, as he is now regarded by the critics as the most flat and less talented of the three.

The outcasts and the New Poor People Law in literature.

“Oliver Twist” was published in 1838, in the midst of what came to be known as the Time of Troubles: the severe economic and social difficulties attendant on industrialization during the 1830s and the 1840s, after a brief period of prosperity between 1832-36. A crash in 1837 and a series of bad harvests produced unemployment, desperate poverty and riots. People lived in

crowded slums packed with unsanitary housing,and children toiled in unimaginable brutal conditions.

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In the political background, the Poor Law Amendment Act, AKA New Poor Law, was passed in 1834 by the Whig government. Its aim was the reformation of the country’s poverty relief system. The PLAA curbed the cost of poor relief in England and Wales and created workhouses, replacing the existing legislation based on the Poor Law of 1601.
The New Poor Law was based on the theories developed by Malthus and Bentham; according to Malthus, the population increases faster than resources, and according to Bentham, people tend to accommodate to what is pleasant and would tend to claim relief rather than working.
All these facts are reflected in the novel by Dickens, whenever he addresses to one of the institutions devised for the poor, such as the workhouse where Oliver’s mother dies or the institutions where Oliver asks for “some more”. They try to deter poor people from staying in them for too long by providing them with poor helpings of unedible food and making them toil hard.
This facts are also reflected in the methods devised in “People of the Abyss” by Jack London, written in 1903,where the outcasts are forced to toil and to pray if they want to benefit from a scarce helping of skilly.
We can also find the same deterring methods within “the spike” in “Down and out in Paris and London”, by George Orwell.
The PLAA was only repealed in 1948 (1948!!!)

Gottfried Benn y las descomposiciones del cuerpo

El poeta alemán Gottfried Benn (1886 – 1956) cuenta con una producción literaria variada y de gran influencia tanto antes como después del III Reich. Sin embargo, hay una parte de su obra que concentra la atención de los lectores debido a lo peculiar de su temática.

Horse's skull in blueBenn escribe sobre todo poesía en el período anterior a la Primera Guerra Mundial, durante ésta y tras su conclusión. Sin embargo, su temática no está directamente relacionada con la guerra. Su producción poética en esta época, más concretamente entre 1912 y 1919, se conoce como su etapa expresionista, e incluye su obra más conocida: “Morgue und andere Gedichte” (“Morgue y otros poemas”), en la que queda patente su formación como médico en sus aparentemente asépticas descripciones de cadáveres y autopsias, utilizando un lenguaje carente de emotividad ante el hecho de la muerte. Así, en el poema “Schöne Jugend” (“Hermosa juventud”), resulta chocante la identidad de los receptores de su ternura y su contraposición al desapego mostrado hacia la muerte en plena juventud de un espécimen de su propia especie, desplazando los sentimientos que esperamos que exprese por éste en una dirección inesperada:

“La boca de una muchacha que había reposado largamente en el cañaveral

estaba muy roída.

Cuando se abrió el pecho, el esófago estaba muy agujereado.

Al final, en una glorieta debajo del diafragma,

apareció un nido de ratas jóvenes.

Una de las pequeñuelas estaba muerta.

Las otras se nutrían de hígado y riñones,

bebían la sangre helada y habían

pasado allí una hermosa juventud.

Y hermosa y rápida les llegó también la muerte:

las tiraron todas al agua.

¡Ay, cómo chillaban los tiernos hociquillos!”

El notable desapego que muestra por el “ente físico” que yace en la mesa pareciendo representar únicamente la rutina en el trabajo de un médico forense evoca de alguna manera las meditaciones sobre las Diez Descomposiciones del Cuerpo en el budismo. En ellos, el meditador contempla cuerpos muertos en distintos estados de descomposición, mediante su inspección y posterior visualización, supervisado por un maestro, para corregir el excesivo apego a la belleza, los placeres sensuales y comodidades. No obstante, el desapego no es absoluto, pues muestra ternura y compasión por los pequeños seres que representan la vida brotando de la muerte, y su repentino final, segando sus vidas en el comienzo de su hermosa juventud. Personas y animales se equiparan, resultando sus vidas igual de frágiles e impermanentes y sujetas a la misma temporalidad.

The Bluest Eye and the spiral of abuse

“The bluest eye” depicts a patriarchal society, that of the black south, in the forties. One of the protagonist families moves up North in order to increase their probabilities of having a better life after the Great War. The prospects in the South were not hopeful, but those they encounter up North are not what they had first expected either. Mr. and Mrs. Breedlove come across difficulties, due to the clash between societal habits in the North and South, but this fact is much more noticeable by Pauline Breedlove, as she has developed a strong dependence on her husband and finds it harder to adapt to their new environment. She depends on him emotionally and economically, until she decides to work. They start having violent fights and finally their relationship deteriorates until eventually she becomes fully responsible for work and money, while her husband becomes a drunkard layabout. When they arrive at Lorain, Ohio, she feels lonely, dependent and useless, and she is despised for it. When she starts working, she keeps on being abused by other coloured women (for being ugly, for not straightening her hair, for her manners), by the whites and at home. She becomes just a beast of burden that produces money, sexual relief and absorbs all her husband’s complaints and resentment about his past experiences, and his meaningless present.

Gipsy girl with child by Modigliani (copy)We encounter concentric circles of dependence and abuse in “The bluest eye”, the outer being constituted by being black in a white ruling society, then the one resulted from the tense relationship between southern blacks and northern coloured people. Another circle holds men’s frustration due to all all the above pressures which are in turn projected on women in the shape of violence, contempt, hostility and hatred, the same feelings they get from their surrounding context.

The inner circle of subservience is that constituted by little girls. Little boys are abused as well, as can be derived from Cholly’s experience or by the image of Sammy being beaten up by his mother in order to release her own pressure as a woman abused by men, society and the whites. However it is even more noticeable in the case of girls, who are subjected to abuse as children and as women. Pecola is turned into the object of everybody’s contempt and hostility (except for the group of whores), even other children’s. Finally, she is raped and impregnated by her own father, which is the culmination of all subordination and reification of women.