I don't have many friends, and I sometimes wonder why I don't spend more time socializing. Because my interactions with others, whether chance and fleeting or extended and deep, always prove beneficial in some way. This may be partly due to the fact that I'm very open to suggestion and impressionable. My mother would say this trait is indicated by my Sagittarius rising. Your rising sign is how you appear to the world, and Sagittarius is mutable, as in open to suggestion. But I don't live or die by astrology.
A recent dinner date led to my purchase and perusal of a lovely little book on Zen. And after spending a day watching football with my friend and his wife, I came away with a copy of Jack London's Martin Eden.
Martin Eden is one of Anna's (my friend's wife) favorite books. She particularly likes the way the eponymous main character died at the novel's end. She told me even before giving me the book that, determined to end his life, Eden, who was once a sailor, swims as far below the surface of the ocean as his lungs and limbs will carry him and with no means of egress, suffocates on salt water. The final passage is haunting and beautiful. It was almost as if the author himself had known death in order to write about it. And a short time later, the author would.
The ending was tragic, considering that Eden was only twenty-two at the time of his suicide, and already a published author with a string of sensational successes to his credit.
But worldly success is often not enough. If it were, there surely would not be so many celebrity suicides. Heath Ledger killed himself a month before he would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Batman. He joined the ranks of many actors and artists who have died at the height of their fame. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is another. And the writer David Foster Wallace. In addition to being a writer, Ernest Hemingway was a hunter who put a gun to his head. Sometimes the pressure to produce is too much of a burden to bear, or the fame and glory and wealth not all they're cracked up to be. Which is why the advice I recently gave to a friend who is a school teacher with a desire to fulfill the dreams of his childhood and become a successful broadcaster was this: Unlike the desires for food or sex, which are quickly gratified after a lavish repast or a roll in the sack, the lust for power and fame is insatiable. No matter what rarefied heights you may attain, it will never be enough. So why be like the dog chasing its own tail, doomed to dissatisfaction? Content yourself in your humble profession, and if the desire for creativity seizes you, keep a journal or maybe make a YouTube video. In other words, take a page out of the Epicureans' book: Eat, drink and be merry (and have a lot of sex if you so desire); but leave the big dreams to the tragic endings. Like Jack London.
Jack London, who authored Eden, has been a favorite novelist of mine since the dawning of my literary aspirations. Like his Martin Eden, I began writing "seriously" around the age of twenty-two. The novel is largely autobiographical. London, who didn't have a college education, was self-taught, like Eden, who embarks on a two-year-long course of self-study, reading all that he can and writing more, hoping his journey will culminate in manuscript sales and marriage to his sweetheart. Alas, Eden gets his wish, but not in the manner he had anticipated. For he finds the literary community to be obtuse, his bourgeoisie readers without minds of their own, the opinions of his peers fickle, and publishers to be so many liars and thieves unwilling to part with their money even after putting his words in print.
Even the girl he loves, a high-society debutante whose name escapes me because she turns out to be so stinkin' ordinary, doesn't really believe in Eden's work even after they get engaged. She keeps trying to persuade him to work for her father, even though Eden regards the daily grind in the working world of 9-t0-5 as a soul-crushing hell that would only stultify his creative spirit (and mine). And so his sweetheart breaks up with him, only to try and crawl back into his arms once he becomes the author du jour. At which point he no longer desires her. And why would he? Nobody wants a person who loves him for his money. Like the lady who berates you for staring at her breasts, we all scream in our heart of hearts: Love me for who I am not what I have!
Disenchanted, Eden gives most of his money away to friends and family, the very ones who didn't support him during his struggles, but embraced him in his success, and sets sail for Tahiti, hoping to live a quiet life on a tropical island ... and never write another word. But en route he finds he has no desire to do anything, no zest for life, and when he thinks of all that getting settled in his new abode will involve, purchasing equipment and forging new relationships, he is overcome with malaise. And rather than start anew in paradise he chooses to end it all and risk going to hell.
I can so relate to Eden! I too embarked on a two-year program of self-study in my early twenties, when I was just out of college. During this time I read all I could, including novels and screenplays and Shakespeare's plays, and even the dictionary, and wrote not one but five screenplays. But unlike Eden none of my works found an audience. I have also known quite a few bouts of disinclination, dismay and malaise. And unlike Eden, twenty years after my journey's start I am here to talk about it. I suppose I am fortunate. Am I?
If I believed in reincarnation, I'd think I was Jack London in a former life. But I don't believe in reincarnation. Give the concept any thought and it breaks down. For identity (the notion of who you are) rests on memory and continuity. Without either, you don't get you. Consider: most people cannot remember life as a two-year-old, but there are pictures and legal documents that attest to your existence, not to mention parental testimonies. Though the infant you once were bore no resemblance to the person you are today, at least mini-you had the same name, parents, circumstances as today. I even lived in the same house then as now! This is to say there is continuity. But if I were Jack London (who died 55 or so years before I came into the world), there'd be no continuity, since that great writer was different from me in name and form, not to mention literary accomplishments. Nor can I remember life as London. So no memory nor continuity. Without either, you have no identity.
But when I read London's prose, I think, I write that way! Or so I hope. Of course it helps that when I set out to become a writer I devoured three of his works in swift succession - Sea Wolf, White Fang and Call of the Wild - and they surely influenced my prose. But when I finished Eden, I felt as if I had reached onto the bookshelf and grabbed an old manuscript of my own. Many of the archaic words London liked to scatter across the page are the very same ones I have used in novels of my own. Who else uses "essay" in place of try but he and I?
And the author's life was in certain ways a complement of mine, which in certain ways is an evolution of his. He wanted to study at UC Berkeley and did for a time, though he left before graduating. I wanted to attend Berkeley but was put on the wait list so enrolled in UCLA, which I tried to leave several times only to stay and graduate at my parents' behest. And the aforementioned self-study the author undertook and had his protagonist undertake were similar to my own, as I said. And as I said, the success is where we differ. London and Eden had loads of it, I have not a jot. But like Eden, London also met a premature end. At the age of 40, broken down by morphine and alcoholism, he suffered kidney failure and dysentery and died in extreme pain. While I, who just turned 44, am still around to lament my lot!
Some think London's death was suicide, like the death of his Martin Eden. I think of suicide almost every day, in a vague sort of way. And when I do I can't help but wonder: Who's the lucky one?