Monday, August 2, 2010

Jack London's Credo

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

Jack London supposedly wrote these words towards the end of his life. Clarice Stasz has written an intriguing article questioning the veracity of that claim. Many people have seen it as an inspiring credo, one to emulate. It appears to be espousing a vigorous view of living life to the fullest. I see it in a different light.

According to more than one biographer (it has been awhile since I have read a biography of Mr. London, so I am intentionally vague on this point. Not sure where I read it), Jack London wrote this piece towards the end of his life. That was a time when he was a sick man. He was smoking to excess, drinking to excess and eating eight minute cooked duck. His doctor told him eating it was extremely bad for him, given the precarious state of his health. Jack responded by writing an article about his favorite dish (again, I do not remember where I read this). His friends were urging him to take better care of himself as he was working himself to death. It was at this time that the credo was allegedly written. To me the significant line is "I shall not waste my time trying to prolong [my life]." Here he declares he will not change his debilitating lifestyle, but will keep doing what he is doing, no matter how it affects him. Far from trying to prolong his life, he was actively shortening it.

This brings me to the controversy surrounding his death. Irving Stone claimed Jack London deliberately killed himself with a calculated overdose of morphine. It has been written that one cannot calculate an overdose of morphine. Others have said he woke up in the middle of the night in pain and accidentally killed himself with an overdose of morphine. I believe the death certificate says he died of uremic poisoning. How he died is still a hot topic of debate among London scholars.

I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Russ Kingman a few times before he died, as well has having a short correspondence with him. Though Mr. Kingman identified a bit too much with Jack London to be completely objective, he was probably the premier Jack London scholar. I talked to him about Jack London's death and he had his own opinion. When Jack was semi-conscious people tried to get him up by saying to ranch was endangered. According to one witness, Jack lifted his right arm. When Russ Kingman told this to a doctor, the doctor immediately responded that he must have had a stroke, as his left side was possibly paralyzed because he did not lift his left arm. Russ seemed to think this vindicated Jack from the accusation of suicide, but it still points to self-destruction. Jack was deliberately running himself into the ground by being constantly busy and pouring all sorts of toxins into his body. So it might not have been suicide as legally defined, but Jack London definitely killed himself by the omission of taking any measures to keep himself healthy.