I wanted to begin my essay with the words from Martin Eden: "Life is, I think, a blunder and a shame";I wanted to tell about my mediocre and wasted life, adding a quotation from Mikhail Lermontov for better effect: "Are there not many who begin life by aspiring to end it like Alexander the Great, or Lord Byron, and yet remain petty civil servants all their lives?"But then I thought to myself, "Who today can be impressed with or interested in a story of someone's wasted life?" Why, any person, be he a lowlife drunk or a prosperous businessman, a popular artist or the president of a nation, could tell something about his might-have-been plans.
You could find many quotations in which people of different historical epochs and different social statuses speak of their unfulfilled hopes. Why is it so? Why it is that sometimes disappointment in life can be stronger than the instinct of self-preservation?
There seem to be something in human relations - or in humans themselves - that keeps a human being from making his dreams or wishes come true. A disease of some kind that affects one's mind and sometime leads to a lethal outcome.
For some, like Martin Eden, life becomes unbearable at the height of their fame, and they commit suicide. Others seek escape in alcohol or drugs, thus destroying their own minds - the actual source of the disease - to keep them selves from unbearable psychic pain.
There was a time when reality would constantly reject me like a living organism rejects a foreign body, and I, too, would think now and again about making away with myself. I would lay the blame on the socialist system in which I lived, feeling superfluous. But the theme of the "superfluous man" has always existed - be that Jack London's Martin Eden or Chatsky from Alexander Griboyedov's Woe From Wit. So the reason must lie elsewhere.
Each person has his own problems. And each one believes that only his problems are real, while those of other people are nothing important.
One thing I'm sure about myself is that I prefer to be a creator. Never have I been attracted to the idea of consuming or accumulating material goods. For example, I have never wanted to have a big car to grow bigger in my own eyes or in the eyes of other people. Instead, I've always wanted to create something fresh - something nobody ever knew or could conceive of.
But all my intentions were destroyed by the socialist system. The system that was unviable in it self and that butchered anything creative in its very womb.
My story might be only one of many. But it exists, so why not let it be known to the world? The whole history of mankind is made up of such little grains. My inspiration comes from London's words:"All things were related to all other things from the farthermost star in the wastes of space to the myriads of atoms in the grain of sand under one's foot."
Personally, I've found a solution. I'm not going destroy my body physically, nor will I poison my mind with chemicals. I will be studying the problem. I'll call myself a psychological corpse and dissect this corpse philosophically in the search for truth.
I have realized what happened to me: I am, in part, the outcome of mother nature's failed attempt to create a fair society based on socialist values, and of misunderstood essence of being, as a whole.
During my philosophical research, I found that the outlook of my favorite author, Jack London, was never static - it gradually changed throughout his life from the intuitive and emotional perception of socialism to its absolute renunciation, which was caused by his understanding of the nature of human behavior. His idea of a just society also changed. There is nothing amazing about it, and no one is to blame for it. Just like no one can be blamed for the fact that people used to believe for a long time that the Earth was flat. It was only with the appearance of new scientific knowledge that this opinion changed. The same with the idea of socialism - almost a century has been required, with millions of human lives sacrificed, to come to the conclusion that the socialist idea, no less attractive than the idea of a perpetual motion machine, is just as unrealizable because of the laws of nature.
To begin with, let me explain why I turn to the works of Lack London rather than great philosophers, psychologists or writers.
Socrates, Plato, Freud, Berdyaev, Hegel, Lenin, Einstein, Chekhov, Plekhanov, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer ... Hearing these names, you feel like standing up to attention - what great minds, what a goldmine of knowledge and ideas and aspirations! I can almost feel physically that somewhere up there, in the dazzling heights of the human mind, is the truth, far too distant for me to reach.
But as I reflect, getting over shyness, on what all those distant classics actually did, I come to the conclusion that neither I nor all mankind really care about all the searches, struggles or vacillations of those "great minds", after all. What good are all their ideas if none of them could stop the First or Second World War? Nor could they prevent a single terrorist attack or stop the senseless slaughter of men by men.
It terrifies and despairs me that even after World War II, ever since the Nuremberg Trials were over, all sort of "leaders" have been appearing, again and again (like Pol Pot, for instance), whose crimes against humanity are no less terrible than those committed by the Nazis or communists in their countries. And these "leaders" seem to believe they act from good motives. What good are all the speculations and all the great theories, if even now in the 21st century some countries are still going to build socialism, and in the former Soviet Union you can see medieval hereditary princes reappearing here and there? And finally, of what worth is all the smooth-tongued oratory of Russian politicians and their associated devotees of democracy, when Russia is quickly moving toward a totalitarian dead-end, compared with which the stagnation of the Brezhnev years might appear a period of rampant development?
For example, Nikolas Berdyaev, a Russian philosopher, wrote: "I began this chapter at a terrible and agonizing moment for Europe: in June 1940. Whole worlds are crashing in ruins, and other worlds, unknown and unpredictable, are coming into being. Men are cast into outer darkness in which they are reduced to the semblance of broken puppets."
Perhaps someone does think highly of the profundity of Berdyaev's thought, but as for me, these words are evident enough to say that he was rather insufficient as a philosopher. Long before Berdyaev, another man wrote: "The more I read, the more sharply I realize that the world has always been in the throes of agony, that civilization has always been tottering on the brink". Or take Victor Yerofeyev, who has quite recently published a book pretentiously named The Russian Apocalypse.
No matter what all sorts of theorists say in their writings, life, with its twists and turns, keeps on running its natural course (so far poorly explored), and if something can crash, it's Mr. Berdyaev's own artificial world; it is not Russia that is threatened by an apocalypse but Mr. Yerofeyev himself. It's not true that men are cast into darkness, it's people like Berdyaev and Yerofeyev who turn out to be useless - a bunch of bankrupts with their own fancy ideas.
Take Alexander the Great or Charles the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon or other historical persons, whose names are associated with a reorganization of the world. Human history is all about destroying old worlds and creating new ones. When life gets turbulent, you can always see people trying to find an explanation of their useless existence. But most of their florid, pseudoscientific philosophical speculations crash against the rocks of reality. Such ideas usually exist as long as their authors live.
I think there's no point talking about such people or their ideas.
In Jack London's books, the most important thing to me is the author's philosophy, not the plot. London puts his philosophy in the form of fiction: his natural, realistic descriptions are intertwined in his writings with a line of philosophical judgments or conclusions. My idea of such a priority agrees with Jack London's own position. In John Barleycorn, he writes: "I had four preferences: first, music; second, poetry; third, the writing of philosophic, economic, and political essays; and, fourth, and last, and least, fiction writing."
Jack London's books were widely published in the Soviet Union, and I read a lot of them. I formed quite a definite opinion of London's writings - an opinion that depended neither on the official dogmas nor on the political situation in the country. Moreover, a dream had already been born and lay hidden deep in my heart, a dream to visit the Klondike, to run the Box Canyon, to see Jack London's homeland. And only then did I read what Soviet literary theorists thought of him. I did and I found myself perplexed.
London was an author quite well known in the Soviet Union. His popularity and uncompromising support coming from the Soviet propaganda were due to the fact that he had the reputation of being a proletarian author of America. In the Soviet Union, the official literary criticism had always followed Maxim Gorky's words: "Soon the time will come for the great masterpieces of proletarian literature. Jack London will be honored for giving a start to this new tradition",or those of Anatoly Lunacharsky1: "Some of his stories, especially his big novel "Iron Heel", are to be considered among the best works of the socialist literature". And all Soviet literary theorists would inevitably mention in their works the fact that Nadezhda Konstantinovna had read London's Love for Life for Vladimir Ilyich when he was ill. (Just in case someone doesn't remember: Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya was the wife of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet State.)
The Soviet literary critics regarded London's or any other writer's works from the positions set by the Communist Party. The Party had created certain standards, and all the literary criticism would come down to analyzing just how precisely an author's writings conformed to the standards. Virtually, you couldn't even hear the author's own opinion. All you could hear was someone's authoritative voice declaring indisputable principles.
No matter what research on London's life was pursued or what new biographical facts or documents were found, everything was regarded as just another confirmation of his Marxist views - or wasn't regarded at all.
Vil Bykov, the leading Soviet London scholar, made his career by presenting exclusively the proletarian aspect of London's writings. I believe it is no secret that Bykov's visit to Jack London's homeland in the United States in 1959 (the height of the Cold War) was only possible on condition that he would prove, according to the line of the Communist Party, that London really was a proletarian writer. And the "relevant authorities" had first scanned his genealogy back to the seventh generation in order to exclude the very possibility of genetic dissident traits.
The Nietzschean views of Jack London were a great opportunity for the Soviet London scholars to discuss his misconceptions or criticize him.
For example, this is what Alexey Zverev wrote about the change in London's outlook: "The spiritual upheavalhe experienced at the end of his life path that was repaid by severe creative failures seemed inconceivable to many of London's contemporaries. But there was in fact nothing mysterious about it. It simply became clearly apparent that the revolutionary thinking typical for London and most of the other socialists of his time was yet immature."
I can't agree with such words. But I see no reason to enter into a dispute - simply because it's obvious today, due to the complete bankruptcy of the socialist ideas, whose thinking is in fact "immature ". As for the manner in which Mr. Zverev stated his opinion, it's a good illustration of the tone you'd better not use today if you don't want to put your foot in it tomorrow.
When I first came across Hearts of Three, I read it in one breath. To me, this novel is much more interesting than James Bond, Indiana Jones and all that action-adventure stuff, be that films or books. It was the first London's novel I read, and I regard it with awe. That's why, when I read Irving Stone: "He worked only on the movie story "Hearts of Three" for which entertainment nonsense the Cosmopolitan had offered him twenty-five thousand dollars,"or Alexey Zverev: "After London's death, new books kept being published for a few years more - hastily and negligently written books, such as "Hearts of Three",I feel like crying out: "Are you holier than the Pope?" Why, Jack London himself estimated his novel like this: "I have certainly never done anything like it before; I am pretty certain never to do anything like it again. And I haven't the least bit of reticence in proclaiming my pride in having done it. And now, for the reader who likes action, I advise him to skip the rest of this brag and foreword, and plunge into the narrative, and tell me if it just doesn't read along."
The more London's Marxism contributed to his popularity in the Soviet Union, the more he suffered from Marxism in his native country, as Alexey Zverev points out: "The almost half-century-long downplaying of London was not least caused by his socialist aspirations displeasing the mainstream American literary criticism - the stunning pictures of class antagonisms that he had shown in "People of the Abyss", or the threatening prophecies filling his "Iron Heel".
In nowadays Russia, when struggle for money has been brought to the forefront, when all moral, ethical and philosophical principles are turned upside down, it's difficult to talk about London's works, because there is hardly anyone to talk to. The old London scholarship that was bound to Marxism is beneath criticism (to say the least), while the new one ... well, there is simply nothing of the sort.
If the Marxist standards are inappropriate, then what should we base on - from what position should we consider London's works now? So many heads, so many opinions ... And I thought I'd better offer my own opinion.
I cannot understand, nor do I want to, how the work of a writer can be discussed from the position of a teacher rebuking an unruly pupil without any possibility of appeal. What I'm going to do is just speak of Jack London's life and philosophy, comparing and paralleling some of the events of his life with those of mine. It is in London's books that I find confirmation of my own experience, thanks to which I don't give up on myself but regard my past life rather philosophically: "This is how mother nature wanted it."
I don't want my personal opinion and my view on London's works to be taken as a general Russian idea of Jack London. This is the opinion of an individual person. I can only hope that, at best, it might be concordant with what other people think. I'm an individualist by nature. If I have any thoughts, those are my thoughts - even if they appear similar to those of other people. I can agree with someone's opinion but I would never allow myself to assume the right to speak for all readers - or, as Victor Yerofeyev does, to take the liberty of speaking of all Russian women in the following manner: "A young woman in Russia lacks philosophical grounds for living her life. The market disorientates her with its temptations. She lives beyond her means. She lives better than she can afford." (Victor Yerofeyev, The Russian Apocalypse.)
What could serve as an epigraph to the further part of my essay is the words of the basic principle of Communism: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Some might say these words sound out of place, but I believe they do reflect all the collisions of Jack London's Marxism and Nietzscheanism.
People nowadays have become used to the idea that they all differ from each other not only physically but also mentally. They put up with it, though somewhat theoretically, since no one is likely to admit that he's not as smart as others, and the worst offence you can commit is to doubt his intelligence.
I'm not going to prove that Jack London had outstanding intellectual abilities. Today, when London's worldwide significance is beyond doubt, let's just take it for granted - as if we were talking about the color of his eyes or the size of his shoes.
Now, following the narrative logic of my essay, I have to put in a few words about myself.
I was born in a family of Soviet officials in January 1953, even when Comrade Stalin was still alive. My grandfather and his multiple brothers and sisters had been involved in revolutionary activities and took part in the Russian revolutions of the early 1900's. My parents belonged to the generation raised in fear of repressions, in constant suspicion and in ecstasy over the grand achievements of the first five-year plans2, waiting for the happiness promised by the Communist Party to come. Their idols were Valery Chkalov3, Ivan Papanin4, the builders of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station5, the fighters for the freedom of Spain, and other people and events that were to fill everyone with belief that the worldwide revolution was inevitably approaching. My father finished school in 1941. The date means a lot for any Russian reader. It was the year when the Great Patriotic War began, in which Russian people fought against the Nazis. After the war, there was living on the edge of poverty and struggling for survival, yet my father managed to start a family (including me) in hopes that his children would have a better life. He was a communist and believed in the "bright future" that was to come, but my mother always thought him an idealist.
From my early childhood I remember the red steamer I could see from a window of my kindergarten before taking my after-dinner nap. There was a phrase written on the steamer in white words, which said "Slava KPSS" ("Glory to the CPSU", i.e. the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). Grownups had read the phrase for me but they never explained what it stood for, so I kept wondering for a long time what it could possibly mean. The thing is that the word "Slava" not only means a glory, but it's also a human name. I started school when I was seven and a half, on September 1st, 1960. From that day on, going to school became my only occupation for 10 years. I can only add for variety that I changed school four times over the period, and after finishing the ninth grade, during the summer vacation, I worked as a bricklayer's assistance. I earned 130 rubles - quite a sum for those days. Besides, when I was fourteen, I got involved in rowing which became my hobby for about three years. It came in handy later on.
Ever since I was a small child, living in the country of victorious socialism, I never suffered from hunger or severe environment, unlike Jack London. While my Mom and Dad were accomplishing the task of creating the material and technical basis for Communism, I, just like all Soviet children, was being brought up to become a "new man".
Unlike London, I grew up in a big city. And yet, just like London, I can say: One of my earliest and strongest impressions was of the ignorance of other people. I was impressed not so much by people's ignorance as by the fact that many people simply didn't want to gain knowledge. There was a lot of literature around, both scientific and fictional. But as much as I was hungry for everything new, others couldn't care less about the same books (I didn't know then that love of learning could be explained with individual human personality). I liked reading, just like London did. Most of all I preferred historical and adventure books and all sorts of educational fiction, like Jules Verne, Ivan Yefremov, Dale Carnegie and others. These authors wrote in a manner similar to Jack London's - they all presented scientific knowledge in the form of fiction. No wonder I learnt geography mostly from Jules Verne's In Search of the Castaways rather than from schoolbooks. There were lots of popular scientific magazines at home, and reading an article once from one of them or from my big sister's textbook was enough for remembering all the dates, figures and the logic of the story. My childish mind eagerly absorbed any natural knowledge, as well as the "correct" ideas concerning social organization that were inculcated in me by grownups. Even as a boy, I was in a sort of awesome worship of the triumph of the human mind.
I remember very well the exultation swept over the nation in the spring of 1961, after Yuri Gagarin's flight into outer space. And in the autumn, when the "Program for building Communism" was adopted, my boyish mind would sooner have doubted that the sun would rise the next day than that Communism really would be the "bright future" of mankind built due to human intelligence. The ease with which I fell for the idea can be explained today with my mentality and ... my modest physical abilities. Even now I still believe in natural selection which in time will lead to a race of human beings with big heads, while the hands and body will become obsolete and shrivel to a size only large enough to allow one to press the buttons of various automatic machines or eat from tubes, just like astronauts did in the early Space Age.
At the age of nine life was acquainting Jack London with its rules - and it's the same age when life taught me my first lesson, too, which gave me cause to doubt the official interpretation of the reasons and motives behind human relations - the so-called communist relations that were based on Marx's ideas. For the first time there was a doubt creeping into my mind: I was no longer so sure about the purity of the ideals, I just felt there was something wrong about it. It all came when our class was about to join the Young Pioneers. The Young Pioneers was a juvenile organization whose purpose was to go on with the indoctrinational work usually started as early as elementary-school age. Joining the Young Pioneers was an obligatory ritual in the process of raising the "new man". You were required to pledge solemnly that you would struggle for the cause of the Communist Party, and when there came the words of the motto: "Young Pioneer, for the cause of the Communist Party, be ready!" you were supposed to raise your hand over your head and answer: "Always ready!" There were few who understood the meaning of the ritual resembling either the rites of savage tribes or a brainwashing lab, but you had been told that it just must be done this way and you must be like all the rest. So, when the whole class was to write the application our teacher was about to dictate, I refused. My motive was simple: I thought I didn't deserve to be a Pioneer. We had been told many times that only the best pupils could be allowed to join the Young Pioneers. No one cared about what I felt inside or what I thought of myself, but this extraordinary gesture caused much fuss. Today I understand how my parents felt at the time. It was lucky that the Khrushchev Thaw6 had already begun, so it didn't come to accusations of being anti-Soviet. I was scolded and intimidated and reclaimed - so I gave up in the end. But, unlike other schoolboys, I wore my Young Pioneer's red neckerchief (a Pioneer tie, as it was usually called) all the time till I entered the next age period of the Communist indoctrination and became a member of the Komsomol (Young Communist League). There is a nuance about it. For 10-year-old children, it was interesting to wear their red ties and feel belonging to something great and significant. But at the age of 12 or 13, when girls started showing interest in boys and the boys wanted to look more mature, the Pioneer tie was interpreted as an attribute of childhood, like a baby's pacifier. Now the signs of maturity were cigarettes and alcoholic drinks. So all these young fighters for the cause of the Communist Party tried to put their red ties away as soon as they were out the school doors. But for me, the Pioneer tie was the evidence of one's adherence to the Communist ideas, so I kept tying it around my neck each morning. I couldn't understand how it was possible that you had promised solemnly to wear your tie and yet didn't keep your promise, so I thought my classmates were not conscientious enough.
Another thing about my high-school period - especially in its beginning - is that I believed it was possible to reclaim man. "If only all people were good." It was merely a childish way of thinking. I was neither experienced nor scientifically educated at the time. Our teachers would tell us that all people were the same, and if you just educated them properly, there would come a paradise upon earth. And I believed them. And I never stopped wondering why there were still dunces and bullies appearing again and again among the pupils. Moreover, I felt remorse because I thought I wasn't conscientious enough, getting average grades from time to time when I didn't really want to learn something, so I was afraid they wouldn't take me to Communism because of that. It seemed that the roots of the negative phenomena still existing in socialism were well known to everyone - it was all because of the remnants of capitalism and wrong education. Even those who were "unconscientious" did know about that. And yet they wouldn't quit, say, drinking or smoking.
In the eighth grade - that is, when I was about 15 or 16 - we had an interesting subject called Social Science. Our teacher - the kind of woman with the "correct" attitude - would tell us students that people must eradicate all their "negative" traits: acquisitiveness, sycophancy, hypocrisy, deceitfulness, and so on. She would tell us that under communism all people would be "correct" and all would live happily. At the same time, I could see Young Pioneer, Komsomol or trade-union "leaders", who, by definition, were supposed to be the best of all, and yet they did resort to lies, hypocrisy or deception to make their way up the ladder. We were told it was not good to lust after a career or stand out against others, while life showed such things were unavoidable, for they were life itself. My attempts to ask our teacher about the nature of such a phenomenon would throw her into fits of anger and indignation. She would tell me that I knew nothing about anything, that I took too much on myself, and do on. As for my classmates, they would only chuckle and go listening to the "disintegrating" western music or drinking wine so "detrimental" to health. I couldn't help feeling caught up in some kind of elaborate practical joke. As if all were aware of certain rules of the game but kept mum and only laughed at you.
I was genuinely convinced that twist was part of the pernicious influence of the West, the Beatles played disintegrating music, and Vysotsky7 was a negative person. Unlike London, who could choose his own way up according to his talents, people of my generation had no choice. The very word "career" was something reprehensible. Everything was predetermined: kindergarten, high school, college, army, and then labor in your country's service.
You were supposed to believe that everything was great in the country; you had to deserve what the state gave you and be grateful. The most deserving would be noticed and taken upstairs; they would be awarded and held up as an example to others.
I finished high school at 17. In my character reference letter - a document accompanying each graduate - there were the following words: "... has always been an example to all due to his competence and attitude towards physical work." Yes, I could work. I liked working and I wanted to work much. Here I can proudly compare myself with Jack London, who wrote: "I was not afraid of work. I loved hard work".
I was pretty good at exact sciences, and I understood everything I was taught. But that was not what I was cut out for. I wanted to be a writer or an explorer. But the building of Communism required technical specialists, so I had to choose an aviation college.
Yet I was rather reluctant to enter it. I remember walking around in the park near the college, castigating myself for being so weak. A voice from within kept repeating, No, it's not what you want. No wonder I failed the exams.
And then my life rolled down the beaten path. After high school I worked as a mechanic in an auto repair shop, then I went into the army. After my service was over, I tried a technical college and, to my surprise, entered it with no trouble. I was even more surprised to find myself being a straight-A student, according to the results of the first term. I kept doing well until I graduated with all excellent grades. And I was most successful in such now-nonexistent disciplines as History of the CPSU, Political Economics and Scientific Communism. One of our lecturers even wondered why I had chosen a technical college rather than an arts college. Another one, who himself had graduated from the Kiev University, called me "another talented metallurgical engineer", obviously referring to Leonid Brezhnev who had once specialized in the same area. But my knowledge of the Marxist-Leninist theories was much deeper than required, so my name was never seen among those of the best graduating students of the college. Once I had told our faculty about my doubts regarding the correctness of Marxism, and the most perspicacious ideologists preferred not to run risks and go without mentioning my name among the best students.
The reality would constantly cut me down "to size", and by the age of twenty-seven I found that I'd lost interest in life. I could explain that. I had attended school for ten years - I did well and acquired a good grasp of moral guidelines about our lives being still far from perfect and the "bright future" being built for all people to make them happy. The ten years that followed had brought some "corrections" to the values inculcated in high school. By and by, I had turned into a man who didn't know how or why he should live. The world I lived in made it impossible to live the way I had been taught in school, but to live the way the world was pushing me to live - that I couldn't do, because of those well-learned school lessons.
I couldn't help feeling I was defective or something, like a leper to be isolated from normal people, like Dostoyevsky's idiot who always found himself out of place with his truth. When I acted as I had been taught to, people looked at me as if I were an odd bird unfamiliar with common rules. I had to live in a secret world of my own. Sometimes I did try to share my thoughts with a few friends of mine, but they wouldn't understand me. Or, at best, they would tell me to take it easy.
It was then that I started on a frantic pursuit of knowledge. I entered postgraduate engineering courses, but I spent all my spare time studying humanities.
While studying Marxism-Leninism, psychology, etc., I began to understand why I had come to a crisis. It was because, on the one hand, I tried to suppress all the "human weaknesses" stirring in me, for I was determined to work hard to provide a happy life for all people and for myself, too. On the other hand, however, it turned out that the concept of a "happy life" did include things known as "human weaknesses", which I had given up, like plenty of delicious food and wine, comfortable housing, career successes, relationships with women - in other words, all those sensual pleasures.
Living in the conditions of real socialism, I came to hate it, I just couldn't bear to see it anymore. So I escaped from reality into theory. I rose to the heights of the human mind and found the goldmine of human knowledge. Flabbergasted, I set to reflecting. What I understood made me feel delighted. Now the "developed socialism" appeared before me in all its naked simplicity. I realized that socialism was impossible by definition.
I started feeling disgusted with such life; I was both disgusted and desperate, for I could see no hope in the situation. And there was nothing I could do about it. My upbringing and my poverty wouldn't allow me to break away from the socialist system, nor would I seek oblivion in alcohol or drugs.
So it happened that I, a man born under socialism, in a functional family free from any prejudices of the past, brought up by the soviet system, turned into a convinced opponent of Marxism.
I put my thoughts together into a work I called "More Concerning the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State" (an answer to Friedrich Engels's Concerning the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State). But, having put my thoughts together, I could only bury them in the depths of my mind. It was 1981, ten years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and I wouldn't even try to lay my thoughts open to public due to the instinct of self-preservation.
More than a quarter-century has passed since then. Much of what I came to theoretically has been confirmed in practice. Socialism as an economic formation has revealed its complete bankruptcy, and the very course of social life is what could confirm the validity of my ideas.
I'd hate to scare the reader away with the prospect of facing another theory explaining the nature of the world, but, for those who enjoy the books of Jack London, I'd just like to make some quotations from his works which are consonant with my own ideas.
In the process of my research I came to the conclusion that the primary reason for the collision between Marxism and Nietzscheanism lies behind human abilities. And the main reason for the change of social structures is the contradiction between the social status a person is born into and the one he could have achieved according to his abilities. As for the mode of production and distribution of goods accentuated by Marx, it's just what the contradiction can be eliminated with.
The idea of the "American Dream" (in fact, it may not necessarily be "American"; it's just that America has ever been a place where you could make your dream come true) is rising from the bottom of the social scale to the top. You have a chance to work your way up owing to your inborn abilities. London owed his rise to his literary talent, Ford to his technical skill, and Lincoln to his organizing ability.
People have different intellectual capacities. Realizing the idea that his abilities are different from those of other people can affect a person's mind even more than realizing his mortality. It can be explained by the fact that we are all only equal in death, but as long as we live, we have to do with what nature gave us.
And I often find confirmation and sometimes development of such ideasin Jack London's books. There are many autobiographical elements in London's writings. Therefore, we can follow step by step the evolution of London's views on life.
I hope the reader is familiar with London's biography, so I'm not going to repeat well-known facts, I just want to point out what seems most important to me. Jack London's intellectual abilities were higher than average. As a boy, he couldn't realize that, though he did feel there was something special about him.
Millions of boys started life the way Jack London did. Yet few of them were able to take a sober view of their status and realize it was at odds with their abilities or their purpose and needed to be changed.
London wrote: "I was born in the working-class. My environment was crude and rough and raw. My place in society was at the bottom. Above me towered the colossal edifice of society, and to my mind the only way out was up."
London didn't put it plainly - and he probably didn't realize himself yet - that he had extraordinary abilities. It's like a person endowed with a talent for versification: rhymes flow from his lips even before he knows it, and he never wonders if it could be otherwise, and other people would never do what he does without the slightest effort. In Martin Eden, however, writing about himself in the third person (note: "Yet I was Martin Eden" ), London points out repeatedly that Martin is gifted with extraordinary abilities:
"Under that muscled body of his he was a mass of quivering sensibilities. At the slightest impact of the outside world upon his consciousness, his thoughts, sympathies, and emotions leapt and played like lambent flame. He was extraordinarily receptive and responsive, while his imagination, pitched high, was ever at work establishing relations of likeness and difference.
He felt a sharp gradation between himself and his shipmates, and was wise enough to realize that the difference lay in potentiality rather than achievement. What he could do, - they could do; but within him he felt a confused ferment working that told him there was more in him than he had done."
When he was still in his teens, London felt strength in him, and he could already see his way up the social ladder:
"From then on I was mercilessly exploited by other capitalists.But I did not resent this. It was all in the game. They were the strong. Very well, I was strong. I would carve my way to a place amongst them and make money out of the muscles of other men. I was not afraid of work. I loved hard work. I would pitch in and work harder than ever and eventually become a pillar of society."
These words contain the ideology of London as a young man. He's not yet aware of Marx or Spencer or Nietzsche or Darwin. He simply lives his life following his natural instinct. Like newly-hatched baby turtles boldly making their way through the sand toward the water without a moment's thought about being able or unable to swim.
I'd like to dwell on this point because it's important for understanding the essence of many life phenomena. Let's see what Alexey Zverev writes: "For example, the legend of London being an ardent follower of Nietzscheism was believed in for decades supported by "proving quotes" from his books, starting from his first novel "A Daughter of the Snows" (1902). Long rejected by the Soviet literary critics, this legend has been taken for truth in the author's native country until recently, even by some of those sympathizing with London. Armed with facts, Robert Barltrop has proved that London could only know about Nietzsche by hearsay during the time he worked on this or other novels of his."
You could agree with Zverev's words that London really didn't know a man with the name of Nietzsche, but you can't agree that the ideas later known as Nietzscheanism couldn't come into London's mind under the influence of real-life circumstances. Little boys running a race know nothing about a single philosopher or his philosophical ideas, but as soon as the whole crowd reaches the finish, they immediately start finding out who was the first to get there, each of them shouting, "I win!" The boys have no idea about the German philosopher named Nietzsche, and yet the fact that each of them wants to be the first in line, stronger and smarter than the others, can be perfectly explained by Nietzsche rather than by Marx.
So it's no wonder that the same ideas can come to different persons' minds.
A confirmation of this can be found in London's novels:
"You've studied biology," he said aloud, in significant allusion.
To his surprise Brissenden shook his head.
"But you are stating truths that are substantiated only by biology," Martin insisted, and was rewarded by a blank stare. "Your conclusions are in line with the books which you must have read."
A few more words about London's Nietzscheanism.
Irving Stone wrote:
"He was going to believe in the superman and socialism at one and the same time, even if they were mutually exclusive. All his life he remained an individualist and a socialist; he wanted individualism for himself because he was a superman, a blond-beast who could conquer . . . and socialism for the masses who were weak and needed protection. For a number of years he was to be successful in riding these two intellectual horses, each of which was pulling in an opposite direction."
But why, actually, should these "horses" be mutually exclusive? I insist that Marxism and Nietzscheanism are just two sides of the same coin.
The idea of a "man on horseback" is not the product of a fevered imagination. Our whole life can fit within the framework of Nietzsche's ideas. And that even before we are born. Starting from the very moment when the millions of spermatozoa start for the ovum. It was the very first one - the super-spermatozoon, if you please - that reached the target and gave rise to your life, my dear reader. And all our further life is based on the same principle - to become the first and the best, to become super.
Let's have a look at Marxists. They propagate the ideas of collectivism, equality and fraternity. They sound too good, one more convincing than the other. They are so engrossed and self-confident that they start elbowing their way through the others till one of them manages to get on a horse - or on an armored car, like Vladimir Lenin did in his time. Once on horseback, such man will lead the mass of people after him ... But wait, you might say, isn't it the Nietzsche's superman, that man on horseback?
As for Nietzsche's theoretical opponents, it's only right to say that any of their victories confirm the triumph of Nietzsche's ideas. For example, one well-known philosopher smashed Nietzsche's theories to pieces, much more effectively and convincingly than anyone else did before him. He published a book and captured millions of human minds. He showed the best possible way for human society to develop and, marching at the head, led people after him. But this, again, is the well recognizable Nietzsche's man on horseback, the superman.
I got acquainted with Nietzsche's ideas for the first time when I studied Social Sciences in college. Back then Nietzsche was introduced to us as a reactionary philosopher. Our lecturers would emphasize that Nietzscheism was what the origins of Nazi ideas should be searched in. But for all that, there was no chance for you to read any of Nietzsche's books in those days. Today, however, I find many Nietzschean theses interesting. The only thing I can't agree with is the "blond-beast." However, this can be easily explained by the fact that in Nietzsche's time the European race was prosperous. There was a flourishing of economy, culture and science in Germany. Nietzsche himself was a European. That is why, being in this euphoria, he attributed to outstanding qualities to the European race. The history of the last century shows clearly that persons with any color of skin can assume the role of a "man on horseback".
The motivations of people's behavior lie in human nature, which is quite similar to the nature of any living being.
It's the human nature that has given all those failing to climb on a horse the Marx's theory of collectivism, equality and justice. It's an artful theory that allows even the most equal of the equal to suddenly turn, like a werewolf, from a slave into a master - a leader, a superman.
Marxism and Nietzscheism reside together in every man. Like Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll. They can't appear at the same time, though, so they each act depending on circumstances.
For instance, when London worked in a laundry, he couldn't be a Marxist. His abilities - and, above all, his intelligence - were much higher than those of the owner of the laundry. For the owner, probably, running a laundry was the limit of his abilities. For London, however, it was just an episode, no more than one step up the ladder. But in this particular situation, London was lower on the social scale than his boss. Unfair as it might seem to London, this was a fact that gave him food for thought concerning inequality and his own status that needed to be changed.
But if we take the same Jack London (or Smoke Bellew, if you please) riding the Yukon rapids, it's a totally different man. He runs through the rapids and does things too difficult for those who can only watch him enviously from the bank. He's on the crest of the wave, on the cusp of success - he's a demigod, a superman conquering the mighty river. A few minutes later, though, he's back in the role of a man engaged by his masters to work for wages. So it's not surprising that the stories London wrote during that period reflect the ideas of Marx as well as Nietzsche.
I divide London's outlook on life into two periods: before and after his voyage on the Snark. Before the cruise of the Snark, it's an ascending branch of forming views, life full of events. London still has to prove his right to be called a writer, he keeps learning from life itself. He's still below his abilities. This is a contradictive phase associated, as I've mentioned before, with the social status a person is born into.
It's mainly the pressure of economic conditions that made London realize the inequity of the situation, so he joined Marxists with the full maximalism of youth. His socialist essays and his novel Iron Heel are rather emotional in many ways.
"Then began a frantic pursuit of knowledge. While thus equipping myself to become a brain merchant, it was inevitable that I should delve into sociology. There I found, in a certain class of books, scientifically formulated, the simple sociological concepts I had already worked out for myself. Other and greater minds, before I was born, had worked out all that I had thought and a vast deal more. I discovered that I was a socialist.
The socialists were revolutionists, inasmuch as they struggled to overthrow the society of the present, and out of the material to build the society of the future. I, too, was a socialist and a revolutionist,"- this is what he wrote in his essay What Life Means to Me.
And, after ten years of constant struggle, study and growth, London became a recognized author and could afford a custom-built yacht to fulfill his dream of going around the world. On the yacht, he was his own boss and a god to the crew. Beside him was a woman he loved. It was complete isolation from the outside world. A hundred years ago, there were no radio and no satellite cell phones. London really was cut off from civilization with its never-ending hustle-bustle, and probably for the first time had the opportunity of analyzing his own life and estimating his motives in a calm environment. He wrote an autobiographical novel named Martin Eden. "Yet I was Martin Eden," he stated later on in John Barleycorn.
What makes Martin Eden remarkable to me is that it was the first London's book in which I found words confirming my doubts about the correctness of Marx's theory. During my thorough study of Marxism I had been hunted by the feeling that the classics were intentionally not telling me all they knew, keeping back something very important. Marxism operated such terms as "classes", "mass of people", "proletariat", and all the time I was expecting them to start talking about an individual man with his needs and capabilities. But, as life has shown, when it comes to the interests of an individual human being, all the good intentions of Marxism in the end have an opposite effect. In studying this phenomenon, I came to the conclusion that Marxists' mistake was that their theory ignored the biological factor, the animal nature of man. This is what I found in London's books:
"I'll tell you where you are wrong, or, rather, what weakens your judgments," he said. "You lack biology. It has no place in your scheme of things. - Oh, I mean the real interpretative biology, from the ground up, from the laboratory and the test-tube and the vitalized inorganic right on up to the widest aesthetic and sociological generalizations.
Is there one thing in the known universe that is not subject to the law of evolution? - Oh, I know there is an elaborate evolution of the various arts laid down, but it seems to me to be too mechanical. The human himself is left out. The evolution of the tool, of the harp, of music and song and dance, are all beautifully elaborated; but how about the evolution of the human himself, the development of the basic and intrinsic parts that were in him before he made his first tool or gibbered his first chant? It is that which you do not consider, and which I call biology. It is biology in its largest aspects."
"You spoke yourself of the human frailty that prevented one from taking all the factors into consideration. And you, in turn, - or so it seems to me, - leave out the biological factor, the very stuff out of which has been spun the fabric of all the arts, the warp and the woof of all human actions and achievements."
And then London comes to the conclusion of his theory, which held me speechless for quite a while:
"And so," he concluded, in a swift resume, "no state composed of the slave-types can endure. The old law of development still holds. In the struggle for existence, as I have shown, the strong and the progeny of the strong tend to survive, while the weak and the progeny of the weak are crushed and tend to perish. The result is that the strong and the progeny of the strong survive, and, so long as the struggle obtains, the strength of each generation increases. That is development. But you slaves - it is too bad to be slaves, I grant - but you slaves dream of a society where the law of development will be annulled, where no weaklings and inefficients will perish, where every inefficient will have as much as he wants to eat as many times a day as he desires, and where all will marry and have progeny - the weak as well as the strong. What will be the result? No longer will the strength and life-value of each generation increase. On the contrary, it will diminish. There is the Nemesis of your slave philosophy. Your society of slaves - of, by, and for, slaves - must inevitably weaken and go to pieces as the life which composes it weakens and goes to pieces.
"Remember, I am enunciating biology and not sentimental ethics."
But the more carefully I read the passage, the more my doubts grew. And finally I understood what it was all about. Referring to biology in its largest aspects, London, however, makes a principal mistake. He forgets that biology involves such things as variability and mutations. Which means, children don't always take after their parents, no matter how talented their parents are. It's the wisdom of nature that strong individuals don't always give birth to strong offspring. It is well known, for example, that Alexander Pushkin, who was a genius of Russian poetry, had many descendants. They had various skills, yet none of them became a poet!
In Martin Eden, London makes it clear that the abilities of an extraordinary man allow him to rise above society; but he also shows that such a man simply can no longer live in society. London sees no hope for his character. Having lost his friend, disappointed in his girlfriend, Martin has no strength to search for a solution, and the only way out for him is suicide: "I am sick, very sick," he said with a despairing gesture. "How sick I did not know till now. Something has gone out of me. I have always been unafraid of life, but I never dreamed of being sated with life. Life has so filled me that I am empty of any desire for anything. If there were room, I should want you, now. You see how sick I am."
The main thing for me in Martin Eden is that I found confirmation of the idea that all people are different, for they all have different intellectual abilities. The more brilliant a person's abilities, the more difficult it is for him to live in the world that surrounds him. Another couple of quotations from Martin Eden in support of my words:
"As for myself, I am an individualist. I believe the race is to the swift, the battle to the strong. Such is the lesson I have learned from biology, or at least think I have learned. As I said, I am an individualist, and individualism is the hereditary and eternal foe of socialism.
Thus, in his development, Martin found himself face to face with economic morality, or the morality of class; and soon it became to him a grisly monster. Personally, he was an intellectualmoralist, and more offending to him than platitudinous pomposity was the morality of those about him, which was a curious hotchpotch of the economic, the metaphysical, the sentimental, and the imitative."
"So Martin thought, and he thought further, till it dawned upon him that the difference between these lawyers, officers, business men, and bank cashiers he had met and the members of the working class he had known was on a par with the difference in the food they ate, clothes they wore, neighborhoods in which they lived. Certainly,in all of them was lacking the something more which he found in himself and in the books. The Morses had shown him the best their social position could produce, and he was not impressed by it. A pauper himself, a slave to the money-lender, he knew himself the superior of those he met at the Morses'; and, when his one decent suit of clothes was out of pawn, he moved among them a lord of life, quivering with a sense of outrage akin to what a prince would suffer if condemned to live with goat-herds."
But let's get back to my own life. I decided to quit my postgraduate studies. I put together all my dairy entries dating all the way back to my college days, gathered all my photos, newspaper cuttings, quotes from books and a handwritten copy of "More Concerning the Origin ..." (I called all those my "personal archive"), then put everything in a brief case - and left the city of Kramatorsk. It was not the first time that I had to start a new life.
The city where I had studied in college for five years was Kommunarsk, and it was there that I first tried to work as ... a theater critic! In Kommunarsk, I was still full of hopes and illusions. I had all my life before me ...
In Krasnodar, I took part in the production of material goods, and it was there that I first heard from a professional editor that I was pretty good at writing newspaper reports. It was in Krasnodar that I became firmly convinced there was something wrong with what was happening in the country. I, who had a college diploma with honors and could easily manipulate triple integrals or speak in terms of the theory of elasticity, wasgiven the task of describing process flows. My first salary was 115 rubles. Just for comparison, blacksmiths who only had elementary education earned 400 for the work which, as well as the process flows, didn't change for the last 30 years. I quit my process engineer position to try myself as a foreman in the blacksmith shop, so I could see where the 400 rubles came from. It turned out that only 100 rubles were the "money equivalent of labor" (time to recall Marx's theories), while the rest were false figures. That's what all the socialist production was like. I couldn't live in such conditions. It was a dead end for me. Yet I still hoped there might be another life somewhere. So I wanted to find it. I decided to start with science, as long as I had been an excellent student at college and was even recommended for admission to postgraduate studies. So Krasnodar was only a place I could start from - like, say, Oakland was for Billy and Saxon in The Valley of the Moon. "Oakland was just a place to start from, he said. And, well, we've started, haven't we?"
I think it was in Kramatorsk that I first started doing what I really liked. I kept reproaching myself for not reading technical books, and yet I simply couldn't tear myself away from Engels's "Concerning the Origin of the Family ..." or Anatoly Dobrovich's "Diogenes Lantern". Every now and then I would find my hand reaching for a pen and paper. I would make summaries and notes in the margins or go back and reread certain passages without noticing time going by. It was Creation, it was Research - it was the Height of Pleasure. I could and would do it forever. I was fascinated by the logic of philosophical arguments. Any break in the logical chain would make me go back to the beginnings to find the lost thread and follow it over again. I made a small discovery of my own: when you study exact sciences in high school, you begin with the simplest concepts, understandable and accessible to everyone. Take multiplication tables, for instance. They are the same for all people in any part of the world. Or Newton's second law of motion: force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration. Mass is constant, while acceleration is the change in velocity. These concepts were enough to explain the world around us. In college, however, acceleration is regarded as not just the change in velocity but as the "derivative of velocity with respect to time". The further, the deeper. Till at last the high school wording of Newton's second law "unfolds" into classical mechanics. But it works the other way, too: the most complex mechanics formulas can be "folded" into basic high school formulations.
When you study humanities, however, you start with concepts which can't be interpreted unambiguously. What is "good" and what is "bad", for instance? And what about "justice", "equality", "honesty"? Jack London writes:
"It gets me," he admitted. "It's enough to give a guy the willies thinkin' about it. And yet it's plain as the nose on your face. Get honest men for politics, an' the whole thing's straightened out. Honest men'd make honest laws, an' then honest men'd get their dues.
But who will get honest men? Dishonest ones? There are too many questions. Enough to give you willies thinking about it, that's right. It's impossible to change mentality. Never will man grow wiser, and never will his eyes open. It only seems easy as "one-two-three" to reform man. In fact, biology would never allow such an overturn, even though London does refer to it. In the animal world, the carnivorous tiger will never become the herbivorous sheep.
That's how I discovered that all sorts of philosophical theories with their complicated conclusions could ultimately be "folded" into human nature and the instinct prompting one to be the first. However, hardly anyone would apply these simple and natural concepts to man. To animals - no problem. But not to man!
In Kramatorsk, besides humanities, I became really interested in boating tourism - that's when my previous sports achievements came in handy. I had no trouble fitting in the group, and toward autumn I was a well-known person among boating tourists. I think it was only there that I found real friends. I traveled around the country. I joined the so-called "bard" movement8, I listened to Yuriy Vizbor himself playing live! As for the tourism, it helped me better learn, understand and feel London's writings. Smoke Bellew's ride through the rapids is a whole story for me. It's but a few lines in the book, but for me it's a flood of emotions and recollections, just as strong and unrelenting as a torrent of raging water. And his climb up the Chilkoot Pass ... I know what it means to feel sick and physically exhausted. Once, after finishing a trip, I shouldered all my baggage, which consisted of mainly tourist equipment, and went on foot. When I got home, I weighed my load. It was 52 kilos! During the trip, I had to carry no less than that cross-country. And that with my own weight of 68 kilos! I bet I would yield neither to London nor to the Indians carrying heavy loads to the Chilkoot. I had a few articles on tourism published in a local newspaper. I found it interesting to write about hikes and trips, it was what I liked to do. In Kramatorsk, I began to cherish the dream of traveling down the Yukon. It was a hopeless dream, though. We lived behind the "iron curtain". No one would even understand me. And I could only hope no one would find out about my views - it was frightful even to think of it.
During my lifetime, I changed five cities in different parts of Russia, on average staying a couple of years in each job. I would often ask myself why it was so. Every time I started a new life I was enthusiastic and full of hopes. I hoped I would settle down and have enough time to do something big and important, but each time I found myself facing serious reasons for dropping it and starting all over again. In the back of my mind, I kept having the sense that I was not cut out for this job. Often, within a year or two of living in a new place, I would be performing at a level that other people take years to reach; I would achieve many things without much efforts and then just leave everything without regret. In a year after college, having started as an ordinary process engineer, I became an office chief. A year and a half later, after moving to another place, I was given an apartment (back in Soviet times, people often had to wait forever for the state to give them an apartment). But such life left me discontent. I would quit everything. Like Billy and Saxon from The Valley of the Moon, I moved from place to place in search of a "promised land".
The Valley of the Moon, I believe, is a milestone novel of London. It was written after his voyage on the Snark. This was a period when London's worldviews grew more profound, as I usually put it. He no longer needed to prove that he was a popular writer, what he was interested in was the truth of life. Beside him was the woman he loved. London had obtained a status "according to his abilities".
The main characters of The Valley of the Moon, Billy and Saxon, as often happens in London's books, are people of humble origin, but highly developed physically and intellectually. The first half of the novel is rich with London's reflections on the essence of life, including relationships between man and woman, human beauty, the joys of being human. I believe London deliberately dramatizes the situation to get an opportunity of discussing the socialist ideas one more time. He's calm and reasonable in his discussion. It is no longer an outbreak of emotions as it was in Iron Heel, but an analysis of human nature. If after reading Iron Heel the most irrepressible ones feel like raising a banner and marching right into battle, after The Valley of the Moon you start thinking more like, "What are you fighting for? Against whom? And how?"
The Valley of the Moon is not to the liking of capitalists, though it wouldn't please socialists either.
Judge for yourself. How should socialists take such a statement?
"Most men are born stupid. They are the slaves. A few are born clever. They are the masters. God made men so, I suppose."
Or Billy's words:
"If we'd only wise up and agree to pick out honest men -"
And the following words would cause a storm of indignation in both parties:
"Democracy - the dream of the stupid peoples. Oh, la la, my dear, democracy is a lie, an enchantment to keep the work brutes content, just as religion used to keep them content. When they groaned in their misery and toil, they were persuaded to keep on in their misery and toil by pretty tales of a land beyond the skies where they would live famously and fat while the clever ones roasted in everlasting fire. Ah, how the clever ones must have chuckled! And when that lie wore out, and democracy was dreamed, the clever ones saw to it that it should be in truth a dream, nothing but a dream. The world belongs to the great and clever."
In The Valley of the Moon, the theme of London's disappointment in the way the labor movement was organized is clearly apparent. Though he's still looking for something that could improve the situation:
"The trouble is labor ain't quite got its eyes open. It ought to play politics, but the politics ought to be the right kind."
You must remember that the novel was published in 1913, when there was a decline in the world revolutionary movement. The behavior of labor leaders added to London's disappointment and prompted him to search for the cause of the ineffectiveness of the labor movement. He writes:
"Look at Frisco, the labor leaders doin' dirtier polities than the old parties, pawin' an' squabblin' over graft, an' goin' to San Quentin, while - what are the Frisco carpenters doin'?"
"What can a fellow do when everybody's of different minds? Look at the socialists themselves. They're always disagreeing, splittin' up, an' firin' each other out of the party. The whole thing's bughouse, that's what, an' I almost get dippy myself thinkin' about it."
It was such thoughts that later brought London to the decision to leave the socialist party. I was a witness of no less amazing metamorphoses taking place before my very eyes. At the end of the 20th century, many convinced Marxists in Russia suddenly turned into multimillionaires and rushed to build capitalism.
In The Valley of the Moon, though, London still tries to rehabilitate the proletarian idea, and there is still the theme of human equality touched upon in the novel:
"If every farmer was to mix flowers an' vegetables, then every farmer would get double the market price, an' then there wouldn't be any double market price. Everything'd be as it was before."
"Same old thing. If every farmer delivered day-old eggs, there wouldn't be no ten cents higher 'n the top price. They'd be no better off than they was before."
But the "if every" socialist idea is in conflict with biology. Nature never creates two things that are exactly alike. The behavior of one person is different from that of another. Each person acts as he sees fit.
In The Valley of the Moon, London does find a way out for the characters being in a crucial and seemingly hopeless situation. While the only way out for Martin Eden was to go into non-being, Billy and Saxon don't knock on a "locked door" but choose another way - they decide to move to a new place leaving the environment that seems a dead end to them. They start looking for a "place in the sun" and they find it - a place where they can and would live.
What became such an Oakland for me was Krasnodar. I had made up my mind. This is what I thought: "I've been born, grown up and am alive, but I'm discontented with my lot, so I simply need to find somewhere a world suitable for me and my abilities. Or create a world of my own!" But you'd better never try to change an already existing world. If there is a world, there are also people who were created for it as well as those who created it. So no one has the right to change it. If you don't like it - find or create something else, but do not try to change what already exists.
I found in The Valley of the Moon what London thought was a possible way of eliminating the contradiction between a person's origin and abilities - you only need to find an environment that would fit your own abilities.
But let's get back to my story. Like I said, I put my soul in a brief case and, leaving it with my parents for safekeeping, went on my way.
Then the North appeared in my life as it had in London's. What I had to struggle with in the North was not the asperity of the climate in winter but the naked greed, stupidity, self-interest and treachery of people.
My North was no gold mines but the last great project of the "developed socialism" - the BAM. Twenty-five years ago, this abbreviation was far too well known - the Baikal-Amur Mainline. I went to the city of Neryungri, the center of the coal-mining industry, and got a job in a design institute. Geographically, Neryungri is in the south of Yakutia, but as for the climatic conditions, it's more like the North with its intensely cold weather, its permafrost and its remoteness from civilization. Nature is always beautiful in its diversity, no matter what part of the world you are in, but humans are all the same. According to the Soviet newspapers, the BAM was built by brave and courageous people devoted to the cause of Communism. I, however, met with people who had left their more or less comfortable life "on the Continent", as they called it, in order to make money in the North. In the Soviet Union, there was a considerable salary increase in the areas climatically equivalent to the regions of Far North. Not only could you save up enough money in three years to buy a car, but also actually buy it in spite of the eternal problem of scarcity in the country. People would forget everything except money. They would forget such things as self-respect, dignity, honor, and pride. There was no "Moral Code of the Builder of Communism", and there were no Christian laws. Back on the Continent, as a rule, those people hadn't been distinguished for their talents, and here in the North they were ready to do anything for money. It was common among executive employees of all ranks: corruption, theft of socialist property and false reporting were in full swing.
I gained a certain foothold in the group of people I had to work with, and I was even in good standing with the director. Not only did I have engineering talents and knowledge, but also was able to play any necessary social role, thanks to Carnegie. But you can't play forever. Sooner or later there will be a breakdown. And so there came a moment when my nature revolted against the role of a subordinate admiring the technical genius of his boss. I didn't agree with one of the director's decisions for I could see it was economically irrational. And I was fired. I don't want to weary the reader with too much detail. My story is an ordinary one. In the newspapers of the early Perestroika period you can find many articles about the arbitrariness that reigned during the epoch of "developed socialism". You can refer, for example, to the Literaturnaya Gazeta newspaper or some works of Yuri Shchekochikhin, a well-known journalist. The materials they published were so shocking that my case may seem just a small incident against the background of total disclosures.
But this was what I really had to get through. The socialist arbitrariness was not an abstract concept to me.
I had to petition the court to defend my rights. Today I recall the process with a smile. At the time, however, it was terrible. Anyway, they started hearing my case. My colleagues appeared one by one. As I listened to them, I learnt many new and interesting things about myself. They spoke of anything but the reasons why I had actually been fired. I even felt proud to know I was all that bad. After each of my colleagues finished, he took a seat in the courtroom until finally it was full of people. They were all my workmates; a few weeks ago, I was on friendly terms with them all, I had even entertained them by dressing myself as Santa Clause on New Year's Eve ... I could plainly see that they spoke what their boss had told them to. He had said "At him!" - and the whole pack went for me. I could imagine the state of mind of the accused in the show trials during the Stalin period and after. Of course, my case was a good deal less important, but I'm a human being, too, so I can well imagine what other people felt, such as Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel9, and not in theory but as an involved person.
My former colleagues attacked me like hyenas, tightening around me in a ring. I could only twitch convulsively. I was sitting there before them, like a man condemned to be beheaded. But then it was the attorney's turn to speak. In a calm voice, he professionally went through every charge in the indictment. I was found not guilty on all ten charges! The courtroom looked like the final scene of Gogol's The Government Inspector10. I wish you could have seen that! The more I straightened my back as each charge was dismissed, the more confused my calumniators grew. It was pitiful to look at them. What had become of that energy of theirs? They were only strong when they felt they could get away with it, they would betray their own mothers just for the sake of grabbing a juicier piece of whatever it was they wanted. And many of them were communists or members of the Komsomol. So where were their principles? I was reinstated in my former position and even compensated for my enforced absence. And I had to work in that group for almost another year!
I don't cherish illusions. What saved me was ... Perestroika! I'm sure that the authorities didn't know themselves how things would turn, so they just left me alone.
As I kept working in the design institute, many of those throwing mud at me in the court would come up to me and say they were sorry, they had been forced to do so, they didn't really mean it, they were just anxious about their children or their own future, because they, too, could have been fired. They would even slip me some materials that were enough to discredit the director. I don't blame them. I felt hurt of course, but, on the other hand, I could understand them - I could see it was the system that had turned them into obedient creatures. They didn't have enough abilities to break away from the vicious circle.
I survived, though my soul was covered with wounds. To heal them, I decided to escape ... into the taiga. I took my rubber inflatable boat and tourist outfit, a good supply of food - and went off to float down the Timpton River. The farther the current carried me from people and civilization, the better I felt. On the second day, running through the rapids, when my heart was ready to jump out of my breast and the veins in my arms seemed about to burst, I forgot about the troubles that had plagued me back in town. There was no other soul for many kilometers around me. Every time I buried the nose of my boat into the seething water I wasn't sure I would ever make it. My life was in real danger, compared with which any misunderstandings between people seemed nothing but a childish fuss. Before going to sleep, I would take a bath in a sort of basin I would build of stones in the shallows. I would dip in the clear sun-warmed water. The stones would release the heat of the cloudless day. The air filled with the resinous scent of larch and the smell of flowers covering the banks was much more salubrious than that of any resort.
On one of the tributary creeks I spotted what looked like an abandoned gold mine. I could see vast areas of dug-up sand and fine gravel stretching far upstream. I was impressed with the scope of work. I couldn't believe so much soil could have been overturned with spades and shovels only. But it really was so. I'm sure convicts had worked there. Those were terrible times and no mistake. Now, however, the whole place was desolate. The dumps were overgrown with grass, or so it seemed to me at first. But when I looked closer, it turned out that it was no grass but young larch shoots. They were so many and so close to each other that it looked like a thick emerald carpet.
All my worries and troubles were forgotten. I remembered my previous journeys, and I recollected London's stories about the North. It was euphoria. But there was no one I could share my feelings with, so I could only keep the whole range of positive emotions to myself as I admired the perfection of nature.
Soon afterwards I got a chance to move to Novosibirsk, and I willingly left everything again. The expanses of Yakutia spread out beneath the plane, and I left behind yet another chapter of my life. A chapter that all the same had an inimitable feel to it. I was 33, the age of Christ. Bill Gates was laying the foundation of his computer empire, ABBA had sung their best songs, and I still had to prove my right to exist. I had to prove it to people who were not on the brilliant side - the pinnacle of their desires was a bologna sausage smuggled through the back door or the pleasure of being obeyed by those who are slaves by nature. The heyday of my physical and intellectual powers seemed to have been wasted ...
Meanwhile, Perestroika was gathering pace, and I looked forward to some changes in the country. I was thirty-four. I had almost given up on perpetuating my name through my work, but nature hadn't shortchanged me on the Adam and Eve route to immortality - the ability to produce children. I started a family.
For more than twenty years of living in Novosibirsk I kept looking for a niche for myself. I had ups and downs in my life; now I spent money like water, now I didn't have two nickels to rub together. Life certainly dealt me my share of vicissitudes. It really was a peculiar time: "Perestroika", "privatization", the breakup of the country, the division of property, the collapse of the Socialist Camp, financial pyramids, psychics performing on national television, all kinds of shows called "elections" ... You might even say life was interesting. I've been everything you can imagine, my jobs were very different - sometimes it was intellectual work, sometimes purely physical. But that didn't frighten me a bit. I could double as a gypsy cab driver or weave baskets. And what's more, once my name could even be seen in local elections.
In a word, life was bubbling, and it would make a long and interesting story to tell. But I'm not going to describe all its twists and turns; I just want to say that life, as I discovered, often repeats itself. It's kind of like Groundhog Day. The only difference is that similar things take place in other cities and under other circumstances, with other people involved. The only constant was my own involvement. Gradually, I accommodated myself to such life and even learnt to manipulate the course of things for my own interests.
In the 20 years that followed, there were no principal changes in the country. I only kept working on my role in the play called life. If before I had been busy accumulating statistics and making assumptions in my head, now my experience allowed me to draw inferences and conclusions or find verbal formulas. It was time to "gather stones". I guess this is what they call "worldly wisdom".
After moving to Novosibirsk I learned that my personal archive had been lost. While I was away on my northern odyssey, my parents thought they'd better destroy it to keep it from falling into alien hands. What a pity. I keep many things in my memory, but the documents and photos can never be restored. It was as if a piece of my soul had been torn from me and then destroyed. But I don't reproach my parents. They had grown in the epoch when a letter incautiously left behind could cause repressions against you and other people. Under socialism, people were forced to give up their own thoughts, their own children or their own parents. And many did give up. I don't blame such people. Biologically, there was even a point to it. People could survive physically even though they were morally broken. And physical survival gave hope that human dignity would be restored in succeeding generations after all.
During the "turbulent" times, though, all my dreams, wishes and interests receded into the background. I had to think of my daily bread. Like other people, I learnt to live in the new situation. But one day, in 2002, when I was on a business trip in Chelyabinsk, I happened to pass by a news-stall and spotted an issue of Vokrug Sveta magazine with an article called "The Odyssey of Jack London and Anna Strunsky" by Vil Bykov. I bought it and read the article. It gave me much to think about. Thoughts surged through my mind. My hand reached for a pen and paper again.
When I got home, I refreshed my memories about London's books. The Little Lady of the Big House is not only the last novel published during London's lifetime, but also probably the most complete and mature of his philosophical writings. The last ten years of London's life is a period the Soviet London scholars paid little attention to. This is understandable. Being a mature man, London diverged from Marxist idealism of human relations and became a real materialist (a naturalist). He got rid of the "infantile disease" of people's equality and fraternity. In The Little Lady, London developed the theme of "the real interpretative biology" to explain life.
What appeals to me most is London's interpretation of human nature. There is no superiority of one race over another, but there is a fact that all people are different regardless of their origin:
"In class recitation or spelling match his father's millions did not aid him in competing with Patsy Halloran, the mathematical prodigy whose father was a hod-carrier, nor with Mona Sanguinetti who was a wizard at spelling and whose widowed mother ran a vegetable store."
"The average Hottentot, or the average Melanesian, is pretty close to being on a par with the average white man."
"Now the average white man, per se, is just as bestial, just as stupid, just as inelastic, just as stagnative, just as retrogressive, as the average savage."
You must agree that not every person would find courage to apply such words to himself. But hardly anyone would be able to object either.
London's naturalism is generally associated with the way he describes the relationship between man and nature. But what makes London a great writer in my eyes is the naturalism of his describing the relationship between people.
This aspect of London's works is most difficult to understand. It's like, say, physics. Everybody studies physics on an elementary level in high school. But the deeper, the less people understand what it's all about. As for Einstein's formulas, or those of modern physics, sometimes even professional scientists fail to understand them completely. There are things you can hardly understand if you don't have certain intellectual abilities. Let's see what Irving Stone wrote about The Little Lady:"... A book so artificial, strained, and exaggerated that the reader is stunned, at a loss to understand how such spurious thinking could have emanated from Jack London."
I believe it's Stone who was "stunned" and "at a loss to understand". I, too, am a reader, and I am amazed at how naturally London describes human relations. I'm not going to reply to Irving Stone with a phrase like, "Since time immemorial, people have rejected what they couldn't understand". I'd better quote what London himself wrote about his book: "Let me tell you right now that I am damned proud of The Little Lady."
As for me, my dear reader, I am quite sure that most people are simply unable to understand the causes of the processes that take place in society. I think London's socialist views were not the only reason why the author was somewhat misunderstood in his home country. For example, people involved in farming would hardly like the following words: "The thing is: they must farm, with individual responsibility, according to the scientific methods embodied in our instructions. The land is uniform. Every holding is like a pea in the pod to every other holding. The results of each holding will speak in no uncertain terms. The failure of any farmer, through laziness or stupidity, measured by the average result of the entire two hundred and fifty farmers, will not be tolerated. Out the failures must go, convicted by the average of their fellows.
The stupid and the inefficient will be bound to be eliminated by the intelligent and the efficient."
London calls things by their proper names without sentimentality. Even despite the fact that London's stepfather could well be called an inefficient farmer, too. Now, could you tell the same thing about you own father, or could you admit that you are a loser yourself? But think about a person spoken of this way - how would he feel? Why, he had probably tried his best, putting his heart into it, and people call him a looser. But that's the way the ball bounces. Personally, I'm not afraid to imagine that somebody might call my essay a "work of a C student". I don't mind confessing that my essay contains my essence - all my pain, my desires, disappointments and doubts. I did put my heart and soul into it, but why call me a "C student"? Emotionally, such a comment would be like a slap in the face, an insult that could make one indignant ... But my mind reminds me a phrase from Martin Eden again: "He paused, overcome by the consciousness that he had been talking over Ruth's head". Moreover, I admit that I might be a thousand times wrong. You can say and think what you like about me, dear reader, but I would like to note that what I'm doing in this essay is not showing off my elegant prose; I'm dissecting my very soul.
In case anyone should suspect I consider myself very clever, let me tell you one thing. Yes, I believe I have certain abilities. Just like any other person does. I could have been proud of my IQ, which is pretty high. But I think real-life results are more significant than abstract tests. Can you evaluate your own life in the same manner?
Speaking of myself, I can use the words London used to describe one of his characters, Dick Forrest:
"He had no flare for anything. He was that rare individual, normal, average, balanced, all-around."
Like any other man, I'm concerned with the following question:
"Is meat an' bread an' jam the end of it all, the meaning of life, the goal of existence?"
"I asked myself if this were the meaning of life - to be a work-beast?"
And I can answer this question using London's own words: "I want to do something ... something constructive."
Any psychologist could say that the human mind can't sit idle - it must be busy. Busy with work, creativity, alcohol, games, drugs ... to each his own. As to which of these contribute to the survival of humans as a biological species and could definitely be called "good" things, it's not so difficult to determine.
I can see in The Little Lady a kind of prediction about the ways of human development. Dick was lucky - he had twenty million dollars at his disposal, so he could afford to search for his place in life: "He knew that he did it because his father's twenty millions had invested him with mastery. Money was a tool. He did not over-rate it, nor under-rate it. He used it to buy what he wanted."
The progress of humanity is probably a prospering society that ought to see that its citizens don't have to worry about their daily bread from childhood onward, but rather can seek their place in life. And after a person finds his place, let him do his creative or constructive work as much as he wants. All the more so because it's an endless process, while technological progress gives people more and more areas to apply their abilities in.
Perestroika made it possible to go abroad. I had enough money to afford such a trip. For more than twenty years had I cherished the dream of traveling down the Yukon River following Jack London's route. Now I had a chance to fulfill my dream. I was totally carried away with the idea; I spent all my savings, even though my relatives or acquaintances could never understand that. I really believed that my dream had started to come true only when I was in the plane flying over Greenland. Then there were a dew days of traveling across Alaska.
I remember everything. It seems that I paddled the Yukon in a kayak only yesterday, and this morning I have walked on the streets of Dawson City. I have longed for this moment for twenty-two years. And now I'm in the Jack London Museum. There is a cabin in the yard - the kind northern explorers used to live in. I saw similar ones in my homeland when I traveled around Yakutia. I enter the museum. There are a lot of photos on the walls. It seems to me that going down the Yukon has not only been traveling inland but also back through time. I look at a photograph with Jack standing in a company of gold-seekers. He's only 21. I'm already 50. We seem to be looking at each other. His eyes don't look lackluster or something, they are bright. He doesn't know yet what will happen to him tomorrow or next week or a few years from now. I do know how he will get along a year or even ten years from today ... Could it be that I, too, was a gold-hunter in my previous life? What if that's me standing in the background or right beside Jack? Why am I so drawn to this man? Everything seems mixed up, both time and space ... The photograph was made in the autumn of 1897. On January 27, 1898, Jack left an inscription on one of the logs in the cabin at the mouth of Stewart River. Carving the date into the wood, Jack couldn't even suspect that exactly 55 years from that day, on the same date, I would come into the world. At the end of another 55 years, I would write this essay. Mystical, if you ask me.
I finished my essay on the day of my birthday. This is no ordinary birthday to me. It's an anniversary. I have reached pension age and may no longer work. However, I have been convinced from the socialist times that a pensioner is a person doomed to wait for the end of his days. My father left this life too early - the result of the wartime diseases. He died in the peak of Perestroika, the period that had in fact erased all the previous years of his life. All he had struggled and would readily die for - all turned out to be a mistake and deception. The only thing he did that really and indisputably matters in this life was begetting me, so I could continue the family line - it was my turn to carry the baton. But now my constructive life has formally drawn to its end. Looking back, I can only say that my entire life was a blunder and a shame.
My knowledge and application of biology in its largest aspects allows me to say that nothing has changed in Russia over the last twenty years. I'm not trying to convince anybody of this, though my heart aches for my country. My son is in his third college year. His name is the same as mine. And he's a straight-A student, too. I recognize myself in him. And I fear his destiny might also repeat mine. Oh God, is there nothing that can be changed? How long will it take people to realize that interpersonal relations built upon such abstract things as "consciousness", "justice", "honesty", etc., are as utopian as socialism itself?
So what is there in store for me? I'm going to keep on working, that's for sure. You can't survive on the pension in Russia. Should I keep trying to find my place in life? Or is it "I have done, put by the lute"?
Martin Eden, Paula Desten, Ivan Dragomiloff - they all departed this life deliberately. They couldn't find a way out of the situation they were stuck in. I'm in a dead end, too, but I'm not going to leave this world. Or is it lack of willpower?
Jack London, I believe, has showed us what underlies the interpersonal relations. He started to develop his ideas in the novel The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. But his short life closed, and The Assassination Bureau remained unfinished. I, too, haven't finished many things. But I know for certain that the world won't collapse tomorrow and the sun will rise again. Life goes on. And sometimes, I swear, it can be really interesting. We'll see yet ...
January 27, 2008, Novosibirsk, Russia
1. Anatoliy Lunacharsky (1875 - 1933) was a Russian Marxist revolutionary and the first Soviet People's Commissar of Enlightenment responsible for culture and education. He was active as an art critic and journalist throughout his career.
2.The Five-Year Plans for the National Economy of the USSR were a series of nationwide centralized exercises in rapid economic development in the Soviet Union.
3. Valery Chkalov (1904 - 1938) was a Russian aircraft test pilot and a Hero of the Soviet Union. In 1936 and 1937, he participated in several ultralong flights, including a 63-hour flight from Moscow to Vancouver via the North Pole.
4. Ivan Papanin (1894 - 1986) was a Russian Polar Explorer, Scientist, Counter Admiral, twice Hero of the Soviet Union awarded by nine Orders of Lenin. In 1937-1938 he was the head of the famous expedition North Pole-1.
5. TheDnieper Hydroelectric Station is the largest hydroelectric power station in Ukraine and one of the largest in Europe. Its construction began in 1927 and was finished in 1932.
6. Khrushchev Thawrefers to the period from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s, when repression and censorship in the Soviet Union were partially reversed, and millions of Soviet political prisoners were released from Gulag labor camps, because Nikita Khruschev initiated de-Stalinisation of Soviet life and the policy of peaceful coexistence with other nations.
7. Vladimir Vysotsky (1938 - 1980) was an iconic Russian singer, songwriter, poet, and actor whose career had an immense and enduring effect on Russian culture. Though his work was largely ignored by the official Soviet cultural establishment, he achieved remarkable fame during his lifetime, and to this day exerts significant influence on many of Russia's popular musicians and actors who wish to emulate his iconic status.
8. Bards is a term that came to be used in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s to refer to singer-songwriters who wrote songs outside the Soviet establishment and sang them to the guitar. Bard movement is still quite popular in Russia among young people, tourists, students.
9. Sinyavsky-Daniel trial was the trial against Russian writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, which took place in Moscow Supreme court between autumn 1965 and February 1966. The writers were accused of having published anti-Soviet material in foreign editorials using pseudonyms Abram Terz (Sinyavsky) and Nikolay Arzhak (Daniel). The court sentenced the writers to 5 and 7 years of forced labor.
10. The Government Inspector(also known as The Inspector General) is a satirical play by the Russian playwright and novelist Nikolai Gogol, first published in 1836. In its final scene the characters freeze on stage, struck with an unexpected message.