Manvotional: Jack London on Life That Lives

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 23, 2014 · 20 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals


Editor’s note: The excerpt below is taken from the beginning of the preface to Jack London’s book, The Cruise of the Snark, a non-fiction work which detailed he and his wife Charmian’s attempt to sail around the world in 1907.

From The Cruise of the Snark, 1911
By Jack London

It began in the swimming pool at Glen Ellen. Between swims it was our wont to come out and lie in the sand and let our skins breathe the warm air and soak in the sunshine. Roscoe was a yachtsman. I had followed the sea a bit. It was inevitable that we should talk about boats. We talked about small boats, and the seaworthiness of small boats. We instanced Captain Slocum and his three years’ voyage around the world in the Spray.

We asserted that we were not afraid to go around the world in a small boat, say forty feet long. We asserted furthermore that we would like to do it. We asserted finally that there was nothing in this world we’d like better than a chance to do it.

“Let us do it,” we said … in fun.

Then I asked Charmian privily if she’d really care to do it, and she said that it was too good to be true.

The next time we breathed our skins in the sand by the swimming pool I said to Roscoe, “Let us do it.”

I was in earnest, and so was he, for he said:

“When shall we start?”

I had a house to build on the ranch, also an orchard, a vineyard, and several hedges to plant, and a number of other things to do. We thought we would start in four or five years. Then the lure of the adventure began to grip us. Why not start at once? We’d never be younger, any of us. Let the orchard, vineyard, and hedges be growing up while we were away. When we came back, they would be ready for us, and we could live in the barn while we built the house.

So the trip was decided upon, and the building of the Snark began. We named her the Snark because we could not think of any other name — this information is given for the benefit of those who otherwise might think there is something occult in the name.

Our friends cannot understand why we make this voyage. They shudder, and moan, and raise their hands. No amount of explanation can make them comprehend that we are moving along the line of least resistance; that it is easier for us to go down to the sea in a small ship than to remain on dry land, just as it is easier for them to remain on dry land than to go down to the sea in the small ship. This state of mind comes of an undue prominence of the ego. They cannot get away from themselves. They cannot come out of themselves long enough to see that their line of least resistance is not necessarily everybody else’s line of least resistance. They make of their own bundle of desires, likes, and dislikes a yardstick wherewith to measure the desires, likes, and dislikes of all creatures. This is unfair. I tell them so. But they cannot get away from their own miserable egos long enough to hear me. They think I am crazy. In return, I am sympathetic. It is a state of mind familiar to me. We are all prone to think there is something wrong with the mental processes of the man who disagrees with us.

The ultimate word is I Like. It lies beneath philosophy, and is twined about the heart of life. When philosophy has maundered ponderously for a month, telling the individual what he must do, the individual says, in an instant, “I Like,” and does something else, and philosophy goes glimmering. It is I Like that makes the drunkard drink and the martyr wear a hair shirt; that makes one man a reveller and another man an anchorite; that makes one man pursue fame, another gold, another love, and another God. Philosophy is very often a man’s way of explaining his own I LIKE.

But to return to the Snark, and why I, for one, want to journey in her around the world. The things I like constitute my set of values. The thing I like most of all is personal achievement— not achievement for the world’s applause, but achievement for my own delight. It is the old “I did it! I did it! With my own hands I did it!” But personal achievement, with me, must be concrete. I’d rather win a water-fight in the swimming pool, or remain astride a horse that is trying to get out from under me, than write the great American novel. Each man to his liking. Some other fellow would prefer writing the great American novel to winning the water-fight or mastering the horse.

Possibly the proudest achievement of my life, my moment of highest living, occurred when I was seventeen. I was in a three-masted schooner off the coast of Japan. We were in a typhoon. All hands had been on deck most of the night. I was called from my bunk at seven in the morning to take the wheel. Not a stitch of canvas was set. We were running before it under bare poles, yet the schooner fairly tore along. The seas were all of an eighth of a mile apart, and the wind snatched the whitecaps from their summits, filling the air so thick with driving spray that it was impossible to see more than two waves at a time. The schooner was almost unmanageable, rolling her rail under to starboard and to port, veering and yawing anywhere between southeast and southwest, and threatening, when the huge seas lifted under her quarter, to broach to. Had she broached to, she would ultimately have been reported lost with all hands and no tidings.

I took the wheel. The sailing-master watched me for a space. He was afraid of my youth, feared that I lacked the strength and the nerve. But when he saw me successfully wrestle the schooner through several bouts, he went below to breakfast. Fore and aft, all hands were below at breakfast. Had she broached to, not one of them would ever have reached the deck. For forty minutes I stood there alone at the wheel, in my grasp the wildly careering schooner and the lives of twenty-two men. Once we were pooped. I saw it coming, and, half-drowned, with tons of water crushing me, I checked the schooner’s rush to broach to. At the end of the hour, sweating and played out, I was relieved. But I had done it! With my own hands I had done my trick at the wheel and guided a hundred tons of wood and iron through a few million tons of wind and waves.

My delight was in that I had done it—not in the fact that twenty-two men knew I had done it. Within the year over half of them were dead and gone, yet my pride in the thing performed was not diminished by half. I am willing to confess, however, that I do like a small audience. But it must be a very small audience, composed of those who love me and whom I love. When I then accomplish personal achievement, I have a feeling that I am justifying their love for me. But this is quite apart from the delight of the achievement itself. This delight is peculiarly my own and does not depend upon witnesses. When I have done some such thing, I am exalted. I glow all over. I am aware of a pride in myself that is mine, and mine alone. It is organic. Every fibre of me is thrilling with it. It is very natural. It is a mere matter of satisfaction at adjustment to environment. It is success.

Life that lives is life successful, and success is the breath of its nostrils. The achievement of a difficult feat is successful adjustment to a sternly exacting environment. The more difficult the feat, the greater the satisfaction at its accomplishment. Thus it is with the man who leaps forward from the springboard, out over the swimming pool, and with a backward halfrevolution of the body, enters the water head first. Once he left the springboard his environment became immediately savage, and savage the penalty it would have exacted had he failed and struck the water flat. Of course, the man did not have to run the risk of the penalty. He could have remained on the bank in a sweet and placid environment of summer air, sunshine, and stability. Only he was not made that way. In that swift mid-air moment he lived as he could never have lived on the bank.

As for myself, I’d rather be that man than the fellows who sat on the bank and watched him. That is why I am building the Snark. I am so made. I like, that is all. The trip around the world means big moments of living. Bear with me a moment and look at it. Here am I, a little animal called a man — a bit of vitalized matter, one hundred and sixty-five pounds of meat and blood, nerve, sinew, bones, and brain, — all of it soft and tender, susceptible to hurt, fallible, and frail. I strike a light back-handed blow on the nose of an obstreperous horse, and a bone in my hand is broken. I put my head under the water for five minutes, and I am drowned. I fall twenty feet through the air, and I am smashed. I am a creature of temperature. A few degrees one way, and my fingers and ears and toes blacken and drop off. A few degrees the other way, and my skin blisters and shrivels away from the raw, quivering flesh. A few additional degrees either way, and the life and the light in me go out. A drop of poison injected into my body from a snake, and I cease to move — forever I cease to move. A splinter of lead from a rifle enters my head, and I am wrapped around in the eternal blackness.

Fallible and frail, a bit of pulsating, jelly-like life — it is all I am. About me are the great natural forces — colossal menaces, Titans of destruction, unsentimental monsters that have less concern for me than I have for the grain of sand I crush under my foot. They have no concern at all for me. They do not know me. They are unconscious, unmerciful, and unmoral. They are the cyclones and tornadoes, lightning flashes and cloud-bursts, tide-rips and tidal waves, undertows and waterspouts, great whirls and sucks and eddies, earthquakes and volcanoes, surfs that thunder on rock-ribbed coasts and seas that leap aboard the largest crafts that float, crushing humans to pulp or licking them off into the sea and to death — and these insensate monsters do not know that tiny sensitive creature, all nerves and weaknesses, whom men call Jack London, and who himself thinks he is all right and quite a superior being.

In the maze and chaos of the conflict of these vast and draughty Titans, it is for me to thread my precarious way. The bit of life that is I will exult over them. The bit of life that is I, in so far as it succeeds in baffling them or in bitting them to its service, will imagine that it is godlike. It is good to ride the tempest and feel godlike. I dare to assert that for a finite speck of pulsating jelly to feel godlike is a far more glorious feeling than for a god to feel godlike.

Here is the sea, the wind, and the wave. Here are the seas, the winds, and the waves of all the world. Here is ferocious environment. And here is difficult adjustment, the achievement of which is delight to the small quivering vanity that is I. I like. I am so made.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John February 23, 2014 at 9:42 am

Awesome. There are few better summations of why we should get up and live life to its fullest than this passage. Thank you for sharing.

2 Mike February 23, 2014 at 10:26 am

very nice piece…

3 Nikola Gjakovski February 23, 2014 at 11:34 am

Since the ego is one of my favorite articles I doted this beautiful sentence that explains it all “This state of mind comes of an undue prominence of the ego”

4 Matthew February 23, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Wow. I’d never come across this before (or read much Jack London before, either. “To Build a Fire” gave me chills in grade school, and in return I gave London my cold shoulder). That must be remedied immediately. He hits the nail on the very head. This is an ethos that I can live by, and do, only not so eloquently put.

Most invigorating!

5 Marc February 23, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Live your life, define your own success, and truly grasp freedom. Carpe Diem!

6 Christopher J February 23, 2014 at 2:42 pm

Brilliant reminder for those that are shunned from engaging in their natural inclinations and passions by those (who may be dearest) simply do not “understand” or “like”…

Thank You!!

7 Jim Collins February 23, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Esteemed Kate, Brett, and Readers,

I like or I don’t like. Usually when someone says, good, bad, evil, moral, sound, unsound, neurotic, sensible – these are disingenuous ways of saying I like or I don’t like. I do not mean by that I disavow ethics. Rather, for me, making ethical decisions mean choosing what I like. I like to be constructive. I like a moderate meal made with craft rather than one destined for gluttony. I like being devoted to my wife and few friends. I like doing things well.

Often I fail and I don’t like that.


Jim Collins.

8 Alberto February 23, 2014 at 4:27 pm

Brett and Kate I cannot thank you enough for exposing me to the virile Jack London through your series on him long ago. I became quite enthralled with him and have read some of his works and most of his biography after your series’ exposure.

After reading this excerpt of his I am speechless. So much of what he writes here resonates with me deeply and sincerely. He lived a life that I plan to live. Full of odysseys, intrepid adventures and challenge and then expressed himself through writing. What he wrote about his like for achievement and testing himself and his lack of a need for an audience or others to know of his bold endeavors is so riveting.

How did you find this work? I did not know he wrote non fiction, directly about his travels and voyages. I thought most of his life was abstractly twined in his fiction works. I definitely will read the cruise of the snark.

Thank you for this. I am going to read it again. As I was reading this I was in an almost serene, quiet, utterly assimilating state. It was beautiful.

9 Marc February 23, 2014 at 4:33 pm

CARPE DIEM!!! long live jack…

10 Aron February 23, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Defiance to convenience and heart that knows what life is when presented with a real challenge, yes following that instinct and not the accepted popular dogmas is what a man is truly here for.
Great read; thank you for sharing!

11 matt February 23, 2014 at 8:29 pm

effing awesome!
I am headed outside to wrestle a bear.

12 Ned February 24, 2014 at 2:51 pm

‘I Like’!

13 Brownfox February 24, 2014 at 3:38 pm

I always liked his writing. Now I like the man better.

14 Mark Stieber February 24, 2014 at 8:34 pm

I loved this one on Jack London so much, I ordered the book. This one is especially relevant to me, as I am building a racing sailboat for my own adventures. As a long time reader of AOM, I came up with the idea of building my own boat from the thought of what was one of the most manly endeavors I could do, whats going to be even more fun, is going out and winning with it. I am building near Denver colorado you can check in on my build blog

15 Justin Casey February 24, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Some of the best stuff I’ve ever had the privilege of reading. Thanks for sharing.

16 John February 25, 2014 at 12:47 am

London knew the impermanence of a superb meteor, as for philosophy, his theory is definitely taken from Heidegger, Sartre, and the Stoics. if anyone is ever in the Bay area I highly suggest making a trip to the wolf house in Glen Ellen. I cannot explain how inspired I become when I visit.


17 Gary February 25, 2014 at 11:59 am

It’s truly amazing to me that there were people like Jack London. I wish that we could all share in adventures like him. It seems so much harder to live like that today. There are days when i feel such disdain for my desk and just want to walk away from everything.

18 Paul T. February 25, 2014 at 7:13 pm

After reading this, I realize I’m a lot like Jack. Not as bad ass per say, but I love doing things that others think is hard or not worth it.

My biggest accomplishment in life was running a marathon… and then another… and then another. And I did it because I love the challenge and the feeling that when I was done, I was a bad ass for at least that day.

I hope one day to do greater things than just run 26.6 miles, but for now, I can relish in the fact I’m in the small percentile who can I say, “I did that.”

19 Pancho Villa February 28, 2014 at 11:14 am

Sorry folks, Jack London talked the talk but as far as walking his talk, a little bit of research into his life is needed. Jack London is not anyone that I wish to emulate nor my four sons to emulate. Jack London was unlike many of his protagonists from his writings. I question Jack London’s manliness asserting points of view from AOM. Many of London’s writings deal with the “free spirit” that lives within all of us, yet he was adamant about a rule of governance which would stifle your individual freedoms. Jack London was a socialist. Jack London was an accused plagiarist. IMHO, Jack London ain’t near the man that walks the peaks and valleys of everyday life keeping a roof over his family, food on the table, and shoes on their feet.

20 Kammes March 3, 2014 at 11:39 am

“Our friends cannot understand why we make this voyage. They shudder, and moan, and raise their hands. No amount of explanation can make them comprehend that we are moving along the line of least resistance; that it is easier for us to go down to the sea in a small ship than to remain on dry land, just as it is easier for them to remain on dry land than to go down to the sea in the small ship. This state of mind comes of an undue prominence of the ego. They cannot get away from themselves. They cannot come out of themselves long enough to see that their line of least resistance is not necessarily everybody else’s line of least resistance.”

I really appreciate being introduced to this passage.

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