Thursday, September 28, 2006

Week 06, London

Notes on Jack London’s Tales of the Pacific: “The House of Mapuhi” (31-53); “Mauki (64-79); “The Sheriff of Kona” (121-34); “Koolau the Leper” (135-50); “The Bones of Kehekili” (151-73).

“The House of Mapuhi” (31-53)

Human desire outlasts or rides out nature’s spectacular fits. So which desires are most worthy of survival? Whose wishes does the story validate? The tale only seems to pit primitive beliefs and desires against more civilized ones. But things aren’t so clearcut as that by the end, when Mapuhi is left alone with his family speculating about their prospects for getting their house built, and dealing with the white people’s economy. The elements expose us all to luck and randomness, but there’s more than that to Mapuhi’s survival, it seems; his material fantasy of a home sustains him, and it is also what sustains Nauri when she makes her way back home. Mapuhi has a will to live and some firm plans that don’t reduce to mere greed. He wants to make his ideal real. London’s socialist viewpoint makes him well attuned to the way in which invisible forces control our behavior in the “civilized” world – after all, it was Marx who described the power of the commodity as a form of fetishism.

Well, the story mocks human pretensions to strength and permanence. Toriki and Levi, for example, are taken away by the storm; Captain Lynch and the Mormons die, too. Raoul survives, and there’s something admirable about his matter-of-fact utterance, “So this is a hurricane” even at the worst point of his sufferings. Mapuhi survives, and so does Nauri even though she is an old woman. In London, there’s often a Darwinian cast since “the survival of the fittest” seems to appeal to him. But physical strength doesn’t necessarily equate with being fittest to survive. Persistence persists, we might say.

Towards the end of the story, after the brief but violent hurricane works its destructive magic, the perspective has shifted decisively from Raoul to Mapuhi and family. This isn’t a return to primitivism. That huge pearl works as a talismanic object to help Nauri make her way home—it stands not so much for greed as for hope. In the end, the natives are left huddling over the value of the white men’s hard cash, so they really can’t escape from the “civilized” economy and all the risks connected with it.

“Mauki (64-79)

Mauki is a “special” breed of primitive, a strong individual. The story pits two kinds of savagery, we might say: Mauki’s (as explained on page 65) versus the “degenerate brutality” of the white man Bunster, which is of course backed up by the larger-scale violence of those man-of-war ships off the coast. Mauki escapes countless times only to be recaptured. Being sent to serve Bunster on Lord Howe Island, however, turns out to be his salvation—an outcome half-predicted by the white men who sent Mauki to him (71). Bunster’s severed head becomes a powerful fetish-object, and is made to serve Mauki’s ends once he returns to Malaita on the Solomons, making himself ruler of his old homeland. It seems that both sides are resourceful in their own ways, but Mauki wins this particular context between European colonizers and natives. In the end, the joke is on the white men and their ridiculous legal contracts—we recall that Mauki’s many escapes had bound him ever more closely to his indentured status, but when he gains enough information about his European oppressors, he is able to turn that information to account, taking a sadistic and oddly appropriate revenge upon Bunster, whose head becomes the most powerful “devil-devil” on Malaita.

“The Sheriff of Kona” (121-34)

Again, it’s a contest between natives and whites, with the latter defining themselves as the healthy ones and the former being defined as subject to the dread disease leprosy. The narrative really rubs things in with regard to the Europeans’ notions about their immunity to leprosy: Lyte Gregory is said to have been in perfect health, and it’s said as well that he really loved Kona and thought of it as his native land. But then he becomes a leper, and such pariahs cannot be suffered to remain in the island paradise of Kona. Leprosy has its own time-frame—an incubation period of seven years makes for lots of uncertainty, waiting for the dreadful transformation of self into despised other. A person may have cancer or some other disease, but a person afflicted with leprosy is a leper. Since biblical times, the disease has usually been treated more as a moral condition, a state of soul, than as a mere skin disorder. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond points out that disease is every bit as much a weapon for colonial invaders as the guns and swords they carry with them. The Conquistadores, for example, followed that paradigm whether wittingly or otherwise—they brought their pathogens with them and wiped out large portions of the native population. Smallpox and other diseases made the work of conquest much easier. In the case of Hawaii, leprosy seems to have been imported along with the Chinese laborers brought in to work the cane fields planted by the European colonizers in the 1830’s. Once established among the native population, the disease became a powerful way to regiment them and sap their strength in more ways than one. So the Sheriff of Kona can hardly be expected to accept the fact that he himself has fallen prey to leprosy—the disease has asserted its power over at least one “inevitable white man,” a man who has apparently sent many a native Hawaian to the leper colonies. As usual in London, nature is always ready to assert its imperatives and must not be despised.

“Koolau the Leper” (135-50)

London’s interest in Darwinism and socialism are both in evidence here. Koolau pits his fierce will to remain free against the foreigners who would send him to Molokai’s leper colony along with his band of outcasts. On 135-37, he sets forth the social and political case against the colonialists: the Europeans brought in Chinese laborers to work in the cane fields around the 1830’s, and with them came leprosy. The whites persist and dominate the native Hawaians, with leprosy become yet another means of subjugating them. Koolau is a political rebel as well as a leper, and his victory is that he dies a free, if miserable, man, clutching his rifle and keeping his own terms. Of course, nature still takes even this brave fighter down—as so often in London’s fiction, the narrative resists the urge to soften the edges of nature. Even in the midst of paradise, nature can reduce us to rotten flesh over an agonizingly long period of time. Many of London’s “paradises” are real enough and beautiful beyond belief (I certainly found Hawaii breathtaking when I visited a few of the islands some years ago), but they’re not really for us. We suppose that because we divide up and define the land, we can then make claims upon nature and insist that it serve us.

“The Bones of Kehekili” (151-73)

Very often London seems most interested in pitting human beings against nature, or emphasizing the necessary closeness between them, but here he explores the power of human culture. Kumuhana the commoner, in the course of reluctantly spilling the secret of Chief Kehekili’s bones, reveals just how powerful the institution of rank has been in structuring the course of his life. This human institution seems every bit as powerful as the terrible forces of nature—hurricanes, earthquakes, and so forth. London is at least as much a psychologist as he is a nature-writer.

Edition: London, Jack. Tales of the Pacific. New York: Penguin, 1989. ISBN 0140183582.

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