Skip to main content

FINDING EDEN



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?

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

GRAY MATTERS

I was watching the TV show Naked and Afraid last night as I sometimes do. The show teams together two strangers, a man and a woman, who attempt to survive on their own for a period of 21 days in some remote and isolated region. Some of the locales featured include the Australian Outback, the Amazonian rainforest and the African Savanna. The man may have a military background, or be an adventurist or deep sea fisherman. Sometimes he's an ordinary dude who lives with mom. The woman is a park ranger or extreme fitness enthusiast or "just a mom" herself. Sometimes the couple quarrel, sometimes one or both "tap out" (quit) in a fit of anger or illness. It is satisfying to see them actually make it through the challenge and reach their extraction point. The victors are usually exhausted, emaciated, begrimed and bare ass naked. 

Even more satisfying, at least for me, is the occasional ass shot, snuck in at strategic intervals to boost viewership, of course. It's co…

EVERYTHING'S INTENTIONAL

There is no such thing as screw-ups.

Case in point. My excellent friend Deej comes over to help me beautify the garden. He immediately dives in, crouching down on his knees and weed whacking with his bare hands. Before I can say yay or nay, he proceeds to remove a huge clump of daisy greens from the oblong patch of Earth adjacent to the driveway. The area instantly looks bare. Like the back of Woody Allen's head. Smoothing out the soil and shaking his head Deej mutters to himself "I fucked it up!" over and over again. We try everything. Planting succulents in the daisy's place. Covering it with rocks. But still the area looks barren. And every time you water it the water trickles down onto the sidewalk in the absence of roots to hold it in place. It's getting dark so we go back inside. The next day I return to the spot with a clear perspective and remove all the other daisies, leaving only rose bushes and the succulents that DJ planted, and depositing 10 bags of m…

SOUL CYCLE

This is not a commentary on the latest fitness fad. Because if it were, the little I'd have to say on the subject would be largely derogatory. I simply cannot see see how crouching in a stuffy, dark, cramped room surrounded by sweat-drenched strangers while expending a lot of energy and going nowhere deserves to be called fun, though aficionados tell me it is (fun). I tell these aficionados that if no pain no gain is your thing, discomfort can be had for a lot cheaper than $50 an hour. Try plucking your nose hairs. What we don't do for the sake of beauty. This endurance heir to the Stairmaster and elliptical is all hype. There's a name for the type who likes to run (or otherwise move) in place. It's called a hamster. 

This reminds me of a joke my father likes to tell, about what living with a woman turns a guy into. You go from a wolf to a sheep to a hamster. After nearly 40 years of married life, my dad has added cockroach to the zoological lineage. Which I'm sure …