A Man's Life, On Manhood

The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #10: Ashes

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This article is part of a series that studies the life of Jack London, and especially his display of the Ancient Greek concept of thumos.

Jack London might have lived a long and happy life – living comfortably off the fruits of his literary achievements, devoting himself to making his ranch a success, writing new works only when and if he felt like it, enjoying his family and friends, and continuing to travel the world. But the desires of his appetites — his dark horse — would keep this kind of healthy, balanced future ever out of reach.

Forever in the Hole

Jack did not become a writer because it was his great passion, but simply because he wanted to do something creative in his work, and writing provided such an outlet along with the financial independence he sought. It was a means to an end, and while he wasn’t a slave to those means, he struggled with managing the ends:

“I am writing for money…More money means more life to me. I shall always hate the task of getting money…I’d sooner be out in the open wandering around most any old place. So the habit of money-getting will never become one of my vices. But the habit of money spending, ah God, I shall always be its victim.”

There was almost no time in Jack London’s life when he was not in debt, although this was not entirely due to profligate spending habits. Throughout his life he had felt duty-bound to take care of his family members, and his acquaintances as well. He supported his mother, his old wet nurse Mammie Jenny and her family, his nephew who had been abandoned by his stepsister, his ex-wife, and their two daughters, as well as Charmian and himself. Beauty Ranch also became a weigh station for every tramp and old sailor London had ever crossed paths with in his youth. Jack was known for his generous heart and hospitable spirit, and he welcomed all visitors with a night’s stay, a hot meal, and a few dollars in their pocket before they headed on their way. And then there were the letters anyone who reaches prominent success receives by the bucketful – requests for money for this or that cause or charity or need. London almost never turned such requests down.

But on top of these allocations of his funds, Jack also enjoyed blowing cash on all the good things in life. After a childhood of just getting by, it gave him great satisfaction to purchase the very best, top of the line version of everything from boxing gloves to saddles. He sunk literal boatloads of money into the yacht he intended to sail around the world, hiring a completely inept building manager for its construction who ended up making everything cost several times as much as it should have. He enlarged his ranch, buying up more land and expanding into different operations, even though the ones already started had yet to become profitable. Then there was the construction of what Jack hoped to be the centerpiece of the ranch — a 4-story, 2-million dollar, 15,000-square foot stone mansion: Wolf House. Designed to have the feel of a large cabin or lodge, the gem of the house for Jack was to be his large study that was set off from the rest of the house – a retreat where he could write undisturbed. Below it, connected by a spiral staircase, would sit the realization of Jack’s boyhood dream: a large library where he could store his massive collection of books.

Jack swelled with pride and excitement as he watched the Wolf House take shape each day. But paying the bills for it, along with the rest of his debts, was a constant scramble. He frequently wired his publisher in New York, pleading for an advance on his next book.

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To keep himself from getting too far into the hole, London had to constantly be generating income by writing new manuscripts. While writing had always been a commercial venture for him, it increasingly became a chore of bare necessity, as he turned out pot-boilers and hackwork he hoped would quickly sell. The drive of his thumos deserved a rest, but he was forced to keep flogging his white horse day after day, pushing it to continually produce. For a decade his fiery thumos had been game for such unrelenting effort, but the ceaseless toil began to take a grave toll.

A Spiritedness Extinguished

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In Plato’s allegory of the chariot, thumos acts as the seat of a man’s emotions and his lofty, noble ideals, and it is the source of feelings of delight and awe. Thumos and Reason are supposed to work together – intellect tempered with passion – to help a man progress through life. But as Jack’s white horse slowed to an exhausted trot, his Reason began to operate in isolation without this needed counterbalance.

There are some people who can plumb the very depths of knowledge and experience much of what the world has to offer and still hold onto their ideals, and others who find that such study and horizon-broadening makes them cynical and jaded. Jack was one of the latter. “I burned my fingers that time I clutched at the veils of Truth and rent them from her,” he said. Having been introduced to the stark realism of Nietzsche, Spencer, and Darwin in his youth, and read many more works of science and philosophy through the years, a view of life as strictly biological – a matter of primitive survival of the fittest – had come to dominate his worldview.

During his “Long Sickness,” Jack came to see his youthful ideals – belief in the desirability of recognition, the power of dreams and goals, the nobleness of sacrifice and altruism, the ineffable beauty of art and culture, the special nature of human love, and so on – as simply “fond illusions” that “keep the world spinning round.” These illusions — the Good, the Just, the Beautiful – Truths of the capital-letter variety that Plato championed – were irrational, false facades, veils of pretense used by modern civilization to hide the bald biological reality of existence. Such illusions were clung to by sentimentalists who believed in the immortality of the soul and a world of meaning; they were too cowardly to face the fact that there were no “higher” aims or morals, and that humans were just animals that operated solely from self-interest.

Jack could even admit that his beloved socialism was an illusion like all the rest. Yet at first he chose to hold onto it, and other “illusions” too, deciding he’d keep on believing in them anyway; he “knew the illusions were right” and that their uplifting effect on his outlook and attitude had helped pull him out of his Long Sickness. But holding onto ideals while at the same time conceding that they are in fact illusions is an effort that cannot long be sustained. As London lost his grip on his ideals, he came to agree more and more with his Sea-Wolf, who argued that life is “piggishness”:

“I believe that life is a mess,…It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all. What do you make of those things?” He swept his arm in an impatient gesture toward a number of the sailors who were working on some kind of rope stuff amidships. “They move; so does the jellyfish move. They move in order to eat in order that they may keep moving. There you have it. They live for their belly’s sake, and the belly is for their sake. It’s a circle; you get nowhere. Neither do they. In the end they come to a standstill. They move no more. They are dead.”

As Jack got older and his Reason increasingly trumped his ideals, he tried to keep his reading and studying to lighter subjects, in hopes it would alleviate his cynicism, or at least not deepen it:

“I pursued Truth less relentlessly, refraining from tearing her last veils aside even when I clutched them in my hand. I no longer cared to look upon Truth naked. I refused to permit myself to see a second time what I had once seen. And the memory of what I had that time seen I resolutely blotted from my mind.”

But hiding from knowledge could not be the answer and the cat could not be put back in the bag; the spiritedness and burning curiosity of Jack’s youth were gone.

Enter Stage Left: John Barleycorn

Jack had drank on and off throughout his life, taking part when fraternizing with other men on the “adventure path,” but feeling no need for it, and actually rather enjoying its absence, when it was unavailable, such as aboard the Sophie Sutherland or through the long Klondike winter. And he felt no urge to drink during the times when he was driving towards a new goal and glorying in the challenge of studying and writing. Of such periods he said: “I possessed too many fine faiths, was living at too keen a pitch… alcohol could not give me the fervors that were mine from ideas and ideals.”

But as Jack’s ideals and thumos faded, and his spirits flagged, John Barleycorn took hold of the reins of his dark horse and urged her on. His first move was to present himself as an antidote to Jack’s boredom in social situations, which had begun to be quite painful and acute as a result of his jadedness about life in general:

“I had climbed too high among the stars, or, maybe, I had slept too hard. Yet I was not hysterical nor in any way overwrought…I was merely bored. I had seen the same show too often, listened too often to the same songs and the same jokes. I knew too much about the box-office receipts. I knew the cogs of the machinery behind the scenes so well, that the posing on the stage, and the laughter and the song, could not drown the creaking of the wheels behind.

When I was in company I was less pleased, less excited, with the things said and done. Erstwhile worth-while fun and stunts seemed no longer worth while; and it was a torment to listen to the insipidities and stupidities of women, to the pompous, arrogant sayings of the little half-baked men. It is the penalty one pays for reading the books too much, or for being oneself a fool. In my case it does not matter which was my trouble. The trouble itself was the fact. The condition of the fact was mine. For me the life, and light, and sparkle of human intercourse were dwindling.”

Jack saw no solution outside the bottle: “And now we begin to come to it. How to face social intercourse with the glamour gone? John Barleycorn!” Alcohol helped him enjoy himself more and act as a pleasing host and guest.

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For a time, Jack’s drinking was limited to social situations, but his mind eventually made a leap: if John Barleycorn could heighten his enjoyment of parties and dinners, why not let it heighten his happiness in other areas as well? He recounts this heartbreaking turning point:

“I remember one day Charmian and I took a long ride over the mountains on our horses. The servants had been dismissed for the day, and we returned late at night to a jolly chafing-dish supper. Oh, it was good to be alive that night while the supper was preparing, the two of us alone in the kitchen. I, personally, was at the top of life. Such things as the books and ultimate truth did not exist. My body was gloriously healthy, and healthily tired from the long ride. It had been a splendid day. The night was splendid. I was with the woman who was my mate, picnicking in gleeful abandon. I had no troubles. The bills were all paid, and a surplus of money was rolling in on me. The future ever widened before me. And right there, in the kitchen, delicious things bubbled in the chafing dish, our laughter bubbled, and my stomach was keen with a most delicious edge of appetite.

I felt so good, that somehow, somewhere, in me arose an insatiable greed to feel better. I was so happy that I wanted to pitch my happiness even higher. And I knew the way. Ten thousand contacts with John Barleycorn had taught me. Several times I wandered out of the kitchen to the cocktail bottle, and each time I left it diminished by one man’s size cocktail. The result was splendid. I wasn’t jingled, I wasn’t lighted up; but I was warmed, I glowed, my happiness was pyramided. Munificent as life was to me, I added to that munificence. It was a great hour —one of my greatest. But I paid for it, long afterwards, as you shall see. One does not forget such experiences, and, in human stupidity, cannot be brought to realize that there is no immutable law which decrees that same things shall produce same results. For they don’t, else would the thousandth pipe of opium be provocative of similar delights to the first, else would one cocktail, instead of several, produce an equivalent glow after a year of cocktails.”

At first London limited his drinking to his leisure time, keeping his mornings when he worked and wrote soberly sacrosanct. But then he began to enjoy a drink during his writing sessions, and soon felt the need for a cocktail right after waking up.  It wasn’t long before he was drinking all the time. London was unhappy with his intensifying need for alcohol and the rising strength of his dark horse. He knew that despite the illusions of happiness and high living alcohol provided him, there would be a steep price to pay:

“This is not a world of free freights. One pays according to an iron schedule–for every strength the balanced weakness; for every high a corresponding low; for every fictitious god-like moment an equivalent time in reptilian slime. For every feat of telescoping long days and weeks of life into mad magnificent instants, one must pay with shortened life, and, oft-times, with savage usury added.”

Jack would argue with the “White Logic” – the mollifying voice alcohol produced in his head — trying to fight against its enticements:

“I know you for what you are, and I am unafraid. Under your mask of hedonism you are yourself the Noseless One and your way leads to the Night. Hedonism has no meaning. It, too, is a lie, at best the coward’s smug compromise.”

Yet the Noseless One – death — continued to win out.

A Superman Falls to Earth

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In Jack’s late thirties, he suffered a streak of terrible luck. He and Charmian tried for a child together; their first died just a few hours after it was born, the second ended in a miscarriage. His ranch was damaged by weather and insects. He suffered an appendicitis. And in a singularly horrible twist of fate, his magnificent, newly finished Wolf House – which had been two years in the making — burned to the ground just days before he and Charmian were set to move in. London bore of all these setbacks stoically. But each one further broke his spirit.

London’s physical health deteriorated as well. By age 37, the strong, ready-for-anything body of his youth of which he had taken so much pride had become bloated and creaky – old before its time. His formerly fit waistline had expanded, his joints ached from rheumatism, and he was stricken with uremia – kidney failure. Doctors pleaded with him to change his habits, but he refused to alter course. He continued to chain-smoke 60 Russian Imperials a day, gorge himself daily on two nearly raw ducks (his favorite meal), and enjoy the regular company of John Barleycorn. He was constantly fatigued and in pain, and when kidney stones arose to deepen his suffering, he added morphine to his arsenal of self-medications.

As London approached forty, his dark horse had taken command of his soul, and his defeated white horse had fallen back. In his youth, thumos had led the way, propelling him on unforgettable adventures and to the heights of success, while pulling his appetites into line with its stride.  Now it was the dark horse that was in control — the white horse that was forced to do its bidding. Jack’s appetites urged him to spend beyond his means, which compelled him to constantly write to generate income, and pushed an already exhausted thumos to the point of collapse. Without the strength of thumos motivating him towards exploration and noble aims, the dark horse’s desires for the short-term numbness and pleasures of drink and drug took center stage. Meanwhile, stripped of thumos’ companionship, Jack’s Reason operated in isolation – ever turning back on its own thoughts, and failing to pay attention to and rein in the dark horse’s impulses. Jack’s chariot, which had once flown so high, became disastrously unbalanced, and plummeted to earth.

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Charmian recounts their last conversation on the night Jack died:

“He picked up two wooden box-trays of reading matter that he had brought with him, and lifted them to the table on which stood his almost untasted supper.

‘Look,’ he said, his voice low and lifeless, ‘see what I’ve got to read to-night.’

‘But you don’t have to do it, mate,’ I said, trying to stir his spirit. ‘Always remember that you make all this work and overwork for yourself, and it must be because you choose to do it rather than to rest. My ancient argument, you know!’

There followed a colloquy upon relative values, and then he stood up abruptly, came around the small table, and flung himself on the couch into my arms.

‘Mate-Woman, Mate-Woman, you’re all I’ve got, the last straw for me to cling to, my last bribe for living. You know. I have told you before. You must understand. If you don’t understand, I’m lost. You’re all I’ve got.’

‘I do understand,’ I cried. ‘I understand that there’s too much for you to do, and that you’re straining too hard to get it done. Are you so bound on the wheel that you cannot ease up a little, both working and thinking? You are going too fast. You are too aware. And you are ill. Something will snap if you don’t pull up. You are tired, perilously tired, tired almost to death. What shall we do? We can’t go on this way!’

The green shade was well down over his face, and I could not see his eyes. But the corners of his mouth drooped pathetically. Poor lad, my poor boy—he was, indeed, tired to death.”

Jack London never woke up from his sleep that night and died on November 22, 1916. He was 40 years old. A popular myth developed that London committed suicide. In truth, no one will ever really know what killed him. The doctor who examined him put “uremia” on the death certificate as the cause of death. A morphine overdose may have contributed to, or caused his death, but whether it was intentional or accidental is again impossible to say. Some scholars even think it was in fact lupus that did him in.

Having studied and wrote of the man intensely for the last few months, I do not personally think he killed himself. Yet he was not anxious about holding onto life either, and deliberately prolonging it was not a priority. This was, after all, the man who said he’d “rather be ashes than dust.” He told Charmian he wanted to live to be 100, but he had never been scared of death and would not have likely bemoaned his early demise. For someone who had pushed himself so hard in life, he saw death as a “sweet rest,” telling Charmian: “Think of it!—to rest forever! I promise you that whensoever and wheresoever Death comes to meet me, I shall greet Death with a smile.”

Read the Entire Jack London Series:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Boyhood
Part 3: Oyster Pirate
Part 4: Pacific Voyage
Part 5: On the Road
Part 6: Back to School
Part 7: Into the Klondike
Part 8: Success at Last
Part 9: The Long Sickness
Part 10: Ashes
Part 11: Conclusion

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Sources:

Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley 

Jack London: A Life by Alex Kershaw

The Book of Jack London, Volumes 1 & 2 by Charmian London (free in the public domain)

Complete Works of Jack London (all of London’s works are available free in the public domain, or you can download his hundreds of writings all in one place for $3, which is just plain awesome)


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