Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 43-56
[Access article in PDF]
Jack London's Medusa of Truth
Per Serritslev Petersen
FROM THE VERY START of his literary career, Jack London believed that a good fiction writer must also be a good thinker—that fictional authenticity and integrity must somehow be imbedded in philosophical authenticity and integrity. In his early essay "On the Writer's Philosophy of Life," and in his early letters to Cloudsley Johns, his intellectually "slovenly" friend (who also happened to share his literary ambitions and interests), London insists, again and again, on the proper philosophical foundation of the successful writer. This is how poor Cloudsley, who had previously been told to "get in and systematically ground [himself] in history, economics, biology and the kindred branches" 1 gets browbeaten by his self-appointed mentor and master, a veritable Jack of all trades, in a letter dated March 15, 1900: "To be well fitted for the tragedy of existence (intellectual existence), one must have a working philosophy, a synthesis of things. Have you a synthesis of things? Do you write, and talk, and build upon a foundation which you know is securely laid? Or do you not rather build with a hazy idea of 'to hell with the foundation.'" London then proceeds to catechize his friend on scientific principles such as the indestructibility of Matter, the persistence of Force, and the overall "dynamic principle, true of the metamorphosis of the universe"—principles that Cloudsley is urged to study "carefully and painstakingly" before he can ever claim to have "a firm foundation for [his] philosophy of life" (Letters, pp. 170-71).
In London's admittedly heavy-handed ad hominem argument, one recognizes the philosophical sledgehammer of Ernest Everhard, the revolutionary hero of The Iron Heel and one of the fictional exponents of "that cold forbidding philosophy, materialistic monism," 2 which also [End Page 43] served as the scientific foundation of London's own philosophy of life. There are, however, not one, but two components to London's philosophy, which, as I shall argue in this essay, together constitute an essentially dialectical construction, a dynamic juxtaposition of and negotiation with, on the one hand, the "cold forbidding" Medusa of Truth and, on the other hand, the life-enhancing Aphrodite of Romance, the second of which is one of several versions of the vital Maia-Lie (Maia being the Buddhist term for the power that creates or re-creates the world as cosmic illusion).
Two points need to be stressed from the outset. First, London's work is implicitly aligned with literary naturalism—the "Zolaistic Movement" of modern American fiction that the genteel writer and editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich famously condemned for its "miasmatic breath" 3 —even though London himself would always qualify his own naturalism by insisting that, artistically, he was "an emotional materialist" (Letters, p. 329), and that his realism was, in the words of Martin Eden, one of his fictional alter egos, "an impassioned realism, shot through with human aspiration and faith." 4 Second, London's work is explicitly aligned with philosophical naturalism (as distinct from supernaturalism)—that is, naturalism as the philosophical or epistemological view that, to quote The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995), "everything is natural, i.e. that everything there is belongs to the world of nature, and so can be studied by the methods appropriate for studying that world." In philosophical practice, naturalism and materialism have tended to coalesce, materialism being basically understood as the view that everything is made of matter, which can be studied by the methods of natural science. Like London's philosophical alter ego Ernest Everhard (and also like fictional protagonists such as Wolf Larsen and Martin Eden), London declared himself "a materialistic monist," although, as he admitted to Cloudsley Johns, "there is dam little satisfaction in it." Rhetorically impersonating, as it were, Wolf Larsen, London, in the same letter, asks himself and his correspondent, "what squirming anywhere, damned or otherwise, means anything? That's the question I am always prone to put: What's this chemical ferment called life about? Small wonder that small men...