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.

JackLondonQuote2-350

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.

jl3

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

MartinEden

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”).

jl5

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.

friedrich-el-viajero-contemplando-el-mar-de-nubes-1818

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.”

Advertisements

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.

muttandjeff-Mutt & Jeff-

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.”

flapper

-“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.

Be my Valentine: gift giving and other poisoned apples.

Anthropologists have looked into the matter of gift giving as a universal feature in human societies. In primitive societies, some of the reasons for it can be found in the establishment of bonds of kinship. Lévi-Strauss stressed the importance of the prohibition of incest in human societies as a way of making women available for “trade” by men of their tribe with men belonging to other tribes, more than as a way to ward off physical deformity or psychological damage. This was his particular extension of Marcel Mauss’s theories in “The Gift” (1925), which emphasized the symbolic rather than economic value of gifts exchanged.

Now, how do this apply to our society and our circumstances today, as we get ready for this Valentine’s social obligation? I understand that in Anglo-Saxon countries the Valentine gifts go to lovers and friends. In my country, Spain, it used to be for couples only, although due to the cultural influence exerted by the USA through TV sitcoms, some (especially kids) feel compelled to spend twice the money/effort/time. When I was a child, the only thing we did was to laugh at those who were dressed in red in St. Valentine’s Day, because it meant that they were in love, and we used to chase them in order to kiss them (they tried to escape, of course, that was the fun of it).

Nowadays, in adult terms, I find that gift giving is a double edge sword. What should we do with gifts? Ideally I was very much for personal gifts, and I try and make them myself, at least for the ones whom I regard as special people. But I’m afraid the chances to put my foot on it are similar. All the effort and love that you invest may not be appreciated, and I have seen some of such personal gifts been cornered or discarded. Some people are used to expensive stuff or high quality goods and as you are involved in a relationship, they feel free to give their opinion which is not always directly proportional to what you have invested love-wise. Should we just go to a shop and buy stuff with the little money that we have in these turbulent times of economical crisis? The stuff we buy may just be equally discarded… What to do then? I have always thought that a good criteria for gift giving is taking into consideration your lover/friend/relative’s tastes, hobbies & fields of expertise. My mother is always happy to receive some Black&Decker device for her birthday.

You can also bear in mind your own strong points: I paint as a hobby, and sometimes I give a painting as a present. Another possibility is a practical gift, although it is not valid for everyone, some people prefer to be the receivers of a frivolous object they do not really need, or would prefer to be given something that otherwise they would not acquire, like something “luxurious” (SPA bonus, massage, expensive perfume). I was very happy to receive a set of moulds for cakes last year.

The negative aspect of personal gifts is that if the thing you are giving away is criticized, it feels personal too. I was able to experience this not long ago and it made me rethink all my policy with this kind of stuff. Also, there are gifts that get too personal: once I received the book “The Whore’s Son” (I happen to have a son) by Richard Russo as a birthday present. I was astonished. As an explanation, the one who bought it for me, told me that it was a very famous author that she heard me talk about. I could not recall the moment when I was supposed to have mentioned Richard Russo at all. It was the very first time that I heard about him, but that person insisted through flattering my literary knowledge (as Freud’s saying goes, we are defenceless when it comes to flattery, or at least that is what that person might have thought). I have always seen that book as a show of hostility towards me (I know very well that person and she is capable of such a “detail”), and I do not like much its presence.

To sum up, I think I will change my policy towards gifts and stop gift giving and taking altogether.