- The Five Suicides of Martin Eden
Elwyn Hoffman was depressed. Hoffman was a California writer and journalist, as well as a fan, friend, and contemporary of Jack London. Hoffman, six years older than London, admired London, and London would occasionally give Hoffman advice.1 In the fall of 1900, things weren’t going well for the aspiring author and poet, and he told his friend about his troubles. In a letter back to Hoffman dated December 10, 1900, London offered some empathy: he sometimes struggled with the blues, too. Such despair was, according to London, the penalty paid by virtue of being one of the “higher organisms.” In an effort to cheer Hoffman up—or, at least, to demonstrate that he understands and can empathize with Hoffman—London provides Hoffman with a long quotation from Thomas Huxley’s essay Evolution and Ethics:
“The constant widening of the intellectual field indefinitely extends the range of that especially human faculty of looking before and after, which adds to the fleeting present those old and new worlds of the past and future, wherein men dwell the more, the higher their culture. But that very sharpening of the sense and that subtle refinement of emotion, which brought such a wealth of pleasure, were fatally attended by a proportionate enlargement of the capacity for suffering; and the divine faculty of imagination, while it created new heavens and new earths, provided them with the corresponding hells of futile regret for the past and morbid anxiety for the future. Finally, the inevitable penalty of over-stimulation, exhaustion, opened the gates of civilization to its great enemy, ennui—the stale and flat weariness where man delights not, nor woman either, when all things are vanity and vexation, and life seems not worth living except to escape the bore of dying.”(Letters 1: 222) [End Page 150]
Having established a kind of intellectual framework for Hoffman through this—albeit somewhat grim—assessment by Huxley, London proceeds to explain how the kind of ennui felt by Hoffman (and scientifically contextualized by Huxley) has affected him personally:
This is the penalty we pay for being higher organisms, but it is not always paid. I know many bright, talented fellows, and women too, who escape the futile regret and morbid anxiety by addressing themselves to the work of ameliorating so many factors in present-day society which are causes of futile regret and morbid anxiety. Look at the socialists, for instance—men who immolate self upon the altar of the Cause, and so immolating self, forget self, and exchange the pains of self for the pleasures of struggle and altruism. Now don’t say this is all bosh. I have been so blue as to have spent a day contemplating suicide, and gone forth in the evening to lecture before some socialist organization,—and in the battle forgot self, been uplifted out of self, and in the end returned home happy, satisfied. The thing works; it’s bound to. Too much introspection is unhealthy. Man is a gregarious animal, and when he shuns his fellows he is bound to become morbid, abnormal.(Letters 1: 222)
Aside from being an early gloss of sorts on his 1909 novel Martin Eden, this is a revealing exchange between two young writers. London confesses to Hoffman that his own regrets and anxieties have led him to contemplate suicide on occasion, and he suggests that one way to counter that dark impulse is to get passionate about a topic and go lecture about it. Of course, it is not the lecturing that cures the morbidity—it is the intellectual or emotional distraction that comes from shifting one’s focus from morose introspection to enthusiasm for an external cause.
Hoffman didn’t kill himself, and neither did London. And nine years after this exchange between the two young writers, London published Martin Eden. Depression and suicide are significant elements of this novel, and not just by virtue of the fact that the novel ends with the title character taking his own life. In fact, suicide itself—as a choice, as an act, and as the outcome of a peculiar kind of cognitive process—is...