Sunday, May 10, 2015

Jack London, The Sea-Wolf


Opening Passage:

I scarcely know where to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth’s credit. He kept a summer cottage in Mill Valley, under the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, and never occupied it except when he loafed through the winter months and read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to rest his brain. When summer came on, he elected to sweat out a hot and dusty existence in the city and to toil incessantly. Had it not been my custom to run up to see him every Saturday afternoon and to stop over till Monday morning, this particular January Monday morning would not have found me afloat on San Francisco Bay.

Summary: Humphrey Van Weyden is a literary critic from a wealthy background. He has never done a hard day's work in his life, his nickname even among his peers in school was "Sissy", and his world is about to come crashing down when events land him aboard a sealing schooner, the Ghost, captained by a brilliant amoral brute of a man, Wolf Larsen. He is kidnapped and set to menial work among brutish men, entirely at Wolf Larsen's whim.

The obvious advantage of a ship for a story is that it is a world in miniature, and London takes full advantage of this. The men aboard the Ghost are quite diverse, but it is a world governed on materialist principles, in which victory goes to the stronger, and Larsen is top of the heap by sheer force of intelligence and brute strength. In both practice and discussion, his materialism and Van Weyden's idealism clash -- and the latter is what gives, because the former is what has all the physical strength and amoral ruthlessness.

But this is not the whole story. The reason that Van Weyden's idealism must give way is that Larsen's contempt for Van Weyden's idealism is to some extent justified: Van Weyden, having been shielded from harsh reality all his life, treats men as if they were merely pure spirits, not animals of flesh and blood. But animals of flesh and blood we certainly are, and any view on which this is not recognized is harmful to us, leaving us stunted, weak, incapable of fulfilling our true potential.

Ambrose Bierce famously remarked that the characterization of Wolf Larsen was very great, which is certainly true. He also remarked that the love story in the novel was absurd, and I think it's the case that people have tended to regard it as a secondary matter. This is very unfortunate. For The Sea-Wolf is not a novel about how impressive Wolf Larsen is; it is a novel about what is wrong with a Wolf Larsen, no matter how impressive he is. It is the interaction between Humphrey Van Weyden and Maud Brewster that makes it so.

We talk about a Nietzsche-like 'superman', but in real life where do we find men actually coming closest to having something of that greatness -- the overflowing of life into grand projects, the affirmation of one's own excellence and creation of one's own values, the willingness to fight, not out of resentment, but out of the glory of the challenge, or whatever else we may attribute to such an Übermensch? Where, in short, do we most typically find men at their best as animals and as minds?

London's answer is clear enough: it is in a man rising to a challenge because of a woman. This is the point of life where all the material side of life, the demand of blood and flesh, rushes together with all the ideal side of life, the meeting of minds and the protection of others. A Humphrey Van Weyden or a Maud Brewster, alone and individually and with nothing but their ideals, are scarcely more than ephemeral spirits, wisps and ghosts who only get by because others do their work for them. That's what their idealism on its own amounts to: the hard physical work and the dirt on the hands they leave to others. But put them together, and they are more than Wolf Larsen can be. (Admittedly they have some luck -- but without each other not all the luck in the world would have sufficed.) A man for a woman, a woman for a man: the spirit expressing itself in the flesh and the flesh rising up to the spirit. It is here that human potential at its greatest is found. Wolf Larsen's animal strength, animal intelligence, animal magnetism -- they are only half of human excellence.

And they are the half of human excellence that on their own can only end in death and despair. Van Weyden and Brewster luck out with Wolf's illness, but this is just a matter of timing. There was never any other end for Wolf, but to die helpless in the face of something he cannot fight. That is the end of every animal, even if that animal is human; Wolf's materialist viewpoint, in which we are all just part of nature red in tooth and claw, can recognize nothing that goes beyond the final tooth and claw that gets you. It's very ironic that he captains a ship called the Ghost; there is nothing immaterial in his view of the world. And thus no ideals, no higher glory, no excellence that takes one beyond fighting to the top of the heap until something else drags you down again. Might makes right, on its own, can only end with universal defeat. London can see, and describe, its plentiful attractions; but there is no other fate in store for those who go down that road than to be someday crushed.

It is the Van Weydens and Brewsters, not as 'pure spirits', as airy minds divorced from the real world, but instead together as both spirit and flesh, who will inherit the earth. It is they who still have something to drive them on, no matter how bad the world gets. Even if they die, they will not die alone and defeated, because between them they build the conditions for a higher victory. What is wrong with Nietzsche's Overman (at least as he would have been widely conceived in London's day)? He's a bachelor conceived by a bachelor, and doomed always to be a bachelor. A real superman would have a willing mate fit to join with him in life itself.

What makes the work is the vividness with which London understands both sides. London could always admire a Wolf Larsen; he was an enthusiastic reader of Nietzsche; he had all of Wolf Larsen's literary tastes. It is not an accident that his writing of the work corresponded with his period of Long Sickness, as he called it (using a phrase from Nietzsche), in which he was nearly crushed by nihilistic despair -- and also not an accident that it corresponds with his flight from the city and into the hard work of ranching -- and also not an accident that it corresponds with the early part of his affair with Charmian Kittredge, whom he would marry not long after the book was published. And it is also not an accident that his pet name for Kittredge, Mate Woman, is echoed in the tale by Van Weyden. The novel is not about Jack London. But he knew all sides of the story very well.

Favorite Passage:

Death Larsen!” I involuntarily cried. “Is he like you?”

“Hardly. He is a lump of an animal without any head. He has all my—my--”

“Brutishness,” I suggested.

“Yes,--thank you for the word,—all my brutishness, but he can scarcely read or write.”

“And he has never philosophized on life,” I added.

“No,” Wolf Larsen answered, with an indescribable air of sadness. “And he is all the happier for leaving life alone. He is too busy living it to think about it. My mistake was in ever opening the books.”

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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