Jack London – Martin Eden

So I have a new favourite book.

For a long time, Jack London was for me the author of an old book about a wolf , The Call Of The Wild. But slightly more than a year ago, Art Of Manliness published an 11 part series : The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos. And for two weeks I was on: following the concept of thumos (quickly, a force in life that must be controlled and kept alive), AOM’s Brett & Kate McKay went through the life of Jack London, an author, sailor, lover, how he thrived for mastery, for a true and meaningful life and how he fought against the darkness of its life.

Besides the pleasure of discovering the life on such a man on its whole length, I also found in this series what would become one of my favourite quotes:

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 in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

Having it pinned on my wall for almost a year, I decided to put hands on one of London’s book, Martin Eden.

Martin Eden is a 21 years old boy who meet Ruth, after years of sailing and rough living: 4 years older than him, she is also thousands of miles away from him, being a bourgeois university student. But Martin gets madly in love with her, and there begins his rise to knowledge, starting with simple self-conscious the mastery of writing, with the help of philosophy and biology (mostly).

Love is a central topic of this book: I loved how through the whole book, while he’s getting smarter and smarter, he stays amazed by what he feels for Ruth. All he can do is find finer and finer words to phrase it.

He could not belittle love. He worshipped it. Love lay on the mountain-tops beyond the valley-land of reason. It was the sublimated condition of existence, the topmost peak of living, and it came rarely. p 240

Love came into the world before articulate speech, and in its own early youth it had learned ways and means that it had never forgotten. p 217

But first, she must love him. The rest would be easy. p 209

In this quote, London sizes it all:

Love tormented him and overrode his will, so that, despite all determination, he found himself at the little ink-stained table. The sonnet he composed that night was the first of a love-cycle of fifty sonnets which was completed within two months. p 219

He has good words about attraction:

Again she looked. All the centuries of woman since sex began were eloquent in her eyes. p 85

Whatever his tongue could express would have appealed, in part, her judgment; but the touch of hand, the fleeting contact, made its way directly to her instinct. Her judgment was as young as she, but her instincts were as old as the race and older. p 217

She thrilled with these proofs of her power that proclaimed her a woman, and she took an Eve-like delight in tormenting him and playing upon him. p 217

I also enjoyed the numerous torments and recoveries of the main character in his pursuit of excellence: to see his mindset change drastically, and witness how it shapes the world around him is a delight, although he sometimes suffers from it.

As a captain, he could marry her (if she would have him). And if she wouldn’t, well — he would live a good life among men, because of Her, and he would quit drinking anyway. p 78

Up to that time, drinking had seemed to him the proper thing for men to do, and he had prided himself on his strong head which enabled him to drink most men under the table. […]. They had their limitations to forget, and when they were drunk, their dim, stupid spirits were even as gods, and each ruled in his heaven of intoxicated desire. p 82

There were twenty-four hours in each day. He was invicible. He knew how to work, and the citadels would go down before him. p 115

Life was so strange and wonderful, filled with an immensity of problems, of dreams, and of heroic toils, and yet these [newspapers] stories dealt only with the commonplaces of life. p 160

[…] he was profoundly impressed by the fact that it was a very beautiful and well-ordered world and that it was good to be alive and to love. p 163

He wanted to be great in the world’s eyes; “to make good,” as he expressed it, in order that the woman he loved should be proud of him and deem him worthy. p 240

Already the zest of combat, which of old had been so keen and lasting, had died down, and he discovered that he was self-analytical, too much so to live, single heart and single hand, so primitive an existence. p 424

Other small pieces:

It was the old tragedy of insularity trying to serve as mentor to the universal. p 251

“But I am I, and I won’t subordinate my taste to the unanimous judgment of mankind. If I don’t like a thing, I don’t like it, that’s all; and there is no reason under the sun why I should ape a liking for it just because the majority of my fellow-creatures like it, or make believe they like it. I can’t follow the fashions in the things I like or dislike.” p 256

Beauty is the only master to serve. p 344

It is easy to forgive where there is really nothing to forgive. Nothing that you have done requires forgiveness. One acts according to one’s lights, and more than that one cannot do. p 462

And some sentences, whose meaning don’t strike me, are just really well formulate:

 It stood for success, and the eagles stamped upon the coins were to him so many winged victories. p 285

It came to me as you were talking, so I was not primed and ready to deliver it. p 294

One thing puzzled him, a little thing that would have puzzled the world had it known. But the world would have puzzled over his bepuzzlement rather than over the little thing that him loom gigantic.  p 437

 

Picture: from a Behold article from last August, I shared it then on Fb and still find it striking.

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