Dare you tell me I am not a lark bird asleep

From Jack London’s The Water Baby – in the Library of America anthology of his novels and stories. Compare the thought to the famous butterfly dream of Zhuangzi posted afterwards. I remember London had cited one or two Chinese poets in his John Barleycorn autobiography and am now curious what level of acquaintance with Chinese literature and thought he had.

“When I was younger I muddled my poor head over queerer religions,” old Kohokumu retorted.  “But listen, O Young Wise One, to my elderly wisdom.  This I know: as I grow old I seek less for the truth from without me, and find more of the truth from within me.  Why have I thought this thought of my return to my mother [the ocean] and of my rebirth from my mother into the sun?  You do not know.  I do not know, save that, without whisper of man’s voice or printed word, without prompting from otherwhere, this thought has arisen from within me, from the deeps of me that are as deep as the sea.  I am not a god.  I do not make things.  Therefore I have not made this thought.  I do not know its father or its mother.  It is of old time before me, and therefore it is true.  Man does not make truth.  Man, if he be not blind, only recognizes truth when he sees it.  Is this thought that I have thought a dream?”

“Perhaps it is you that are a dream,” I laughed.  “And that I, and sky, and sea, and the iron-hard land, are dreams, all dreams.”

“I have often thought that,” he assured me soberly.  “It may well be so.  Last night I dreamed I was a lark bird, a beautiful singing lark of the sky like the larks on the upland pastures of Haleakala.  And I flew up, up, toward the sun, singing, singing, as old Kohokumu never sang.  I tell you now that I dreamed I was a lark bird singing in the sky.  But may not I, the real I, be the lark bird?  And may not the telling of it be the dream that I, the lark bird, am dreaming now?  Who are you to tell me ay or no?  Dare you tell me I am not a lark bird asleep and dreaming that I am old Kohokumu?”

And Zhuangzi’s dream, in Burton Watson’s translation (The Complete Works of Zhuangzi):

“Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up, and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he were Zhuang Zhou who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly, there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”

He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances

From Jack London’s To Build A Fire in the collection Lost Face

But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

It is then, if ever, man walks alone with God

From Jack London’s The White Silence – originally published in his first collection, The Son of the Wolf, but now in any anthology of his short fiction.

No more conversation; the toil of the trail will not permit such extravagance.

And of all deadening labors, that of the Northland trail is the worst. Happy is the man who can weather a day’s travel at the price of silence, and that on a beaten track. And of all heartbreaking labors, that of breaking trail is the worst. At every step the great webbed shoe sinks till the snow is level with the knee. Then up, straight up, the deviation of a fraction of an inch being a certain precursor of disaster, the snowshoe must be lifted till the surface is cleared; then forward, down, and the other foot is raised perpendicularly for the matter of half a yard. He who tries this for the first time, if haply he avoids bringing his shoes in dangerous propinquity and measures not his length on the treacherous footing, will give up exhausted at the end of a hundred yards; he who can keep out of the way of the dogs for a whole day may well crawl into his sleeping bag with a clear conscience and a pride which passeth all understanding; and he who travels twenty sleeps on the Long Trail is a man whom the gods may envy.

The afternoon wore on, and with the awe, born of the White Silence, the voiceless travelers bent to their work. Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity–the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven’s artillery–but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more.

Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance.

And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him–the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence–it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.

But as so much duckweed on a river

From Jack London’s John Barleycorn, in London’s inner dialogue with what he terms the White Logic – the brutal insight of drunkenness:

“Your clear white light is sickness,” I tell the White Logic. “You lie.”

“By telling too strong a truth,” he quips back.

“Alas, yes, so topsy-turvy is existence,” I acknowledge sadly.

“Ah, well, Liu Ling was wiser than you,” the White Logic girds. “You remember him?”

I nod my head—Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.

“It was Liu Ling,” prompts the White Logic, “who declared that to a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river. Very well. Have another Scotch, and let semblance and deception become duck-weed on a river.”

The sentiment comes from Liu Ling’s In Praise of the Virtues of Wine (trans. Jennifer Oldstone-Moore):

There is Mr. Great Man:

He takes Heaven and Earth to be one day,

Ten thousand years to be one moment

The sun and moon are his windows;

The eight barren places are his palaces.

He travels without tracks or traces

He lives without room or cottage

Heaven is his curtain, the earth his mat

Self-indulgent, he does what he pleases….

No worries, no brooding,

He is content and well pleased.

He becomes intoxicated without moving;

All of a sudden, he awakens from his drunkenness…

He doesn’t know the feeling of flesh hurt by bitter cold or searing heat,

Or the sensations of covetousness

Gazing down, he watches the rest of the world agitated and unsettled

Like bits of duckweed borne on the Yangtze and Han rivers.




The hour of John Barleycorn’s subtlest power

From Jack London’s John Barleycorn.  I’m curious to know whether Malcolm Lowry had read this work.  He references Sea Wolf, Valley of the Moon, and The Jacket in Under the Volcano but does so when speaking of Hugh’s roving life  – ‘he had been reading too much Jack London’ – rather than the Consul’s alcoholism.  Given the so perfect correspondences of thought, however, it almost seems an instance of Lowry – always fiercely insistent on the originality of his work – hiding a possibly influential predecessor.

There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.

The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most pleasantly jingled, he walks straight and naturally, never staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and what he is doing. It is not his body but his brain that is drunken. He may bubble with wit, or expand with good fellowship. Or he may see intellectual spectres and phantoms that are cosmic and logical and that take the forms of syllogisms. It is when in this condition that he strips away the husks of life’s healthiest illusions and gravely considers the iron collar of necessity welded about the neck of his soul. This is the hour of John Barleycorn’s subtlest power. It is easy for any man to roll in the gutter. But it is a terrible ordeal for a man to stand upright on his two legs unswaying, and decide that in all the universe he finds for himself but one freedom—namely, the anticipating of the day of his death. With this man this is the hour of the white logic (of which more anon), when he knows that he may know only the laws of things—the meaning of things never. This is his danger hour. His feet are taking hold of the pathway that leads down into the grave.