Authors of ages past spoke frankly and with some damn common sense about things that get modern authors totally excluded from the literary mainstream for talking about. Something this beautifully written and compelling tale is a sensational example of.
Is this very educated and sophisticated guy, Darrell Standing who is a prisoner on death row in a brutal and dreary california prison. The petty and vindictive prison warden keeps punishing him by putting him in a tortuous straight jacket. While the life is constricted out of him by the jacket, he goes on marvelous metaphysical journeys through time and space to his past lives as a roman legionary, a pioneer in the wild west, a maritime explorer, a frenchman, a shipwrecked sailor, an egyptian and other human experiences throughout the epochs.
I don't get the impression that Jack London had a lot of white guilt. In every life of the protagonist storied he is a heroic white, european man. He's never an enslaved African or a victimized woman moping around feeling sorry for himself.
He speaks of the faustian european spirit...
The white man has gone around the world in mastery, I do believe, because of his unwise uncaringness. That has been the manner of his going, although, of course, he was driven on by restiveness and lust for booty.
He mentions a rather controversial narrative about Egypt which modern archeology is increasingly confirming, that the builders of the pyramids and timeless monuments of Egypt were of European extraction, not north Africans.
I have been an Aryan master in old Egypt, when my soldiers scrawled obscenities on the carven tombs of kings dead and gone and forgotten aforetime. And I, the Aryan master in old Egypt, have myself builded my two burial places—the one a false and mighty pyramid to which a generation of slaves could attest...
Is one of the points that the book really drives home.
I have endured eight years of their torment, and now, in the end, failing to get rid of me in all other ways, they have invoked the machinery of state to put a rope around my neck and shut off my breath by the weight of my body.
He makes the uncomfortable point that us, the citizens are complicit in the state's brutality...
And yet the state, which includes all the citizens of the state, believes that it can blot out this wisdom of mine in the final dark by means of a rope about my neck and the abruptive jerk of gravitation...
We like to blame politicians or the military industrial complex or come up with conspiracy theories about the violence of the state but the truth is that the citizenry have a degree of responsibility for the brutality and injustice perpetuated by the state.
Even back in 1915 California was a pretty unjust place rife with political corruption.
Oh, no; California is civilized. There is no such law on the statute books. It is a cruel and unusual punishment, and no modern state would be guilty of such a law. Nevertheless, in the history of California I am the third man who has been condemned for life to solitary confinement.
It required the state law of California, a hanging judge, and an unpardoning governor to send me to the scaffold for striking a prison guard with my fist. I shall always contend that that guard had a nose most easily bleedable.
At one point the prison where he and other prisoners are regularly tortured is the subject of an investigation. But the auditors are corrupted and the San Francisco newspaper falsely reports that the prison treats all its residents humanely.
Alas! no whisper of what I divulged ever went outside the prison walls. The Senate Committee gave a beautiful whitewash to Warden Atherton and San Quentin. The crusading San Francisco newspaper assured its working-class readers that San Quentin was whiter than snow, and further, that while it was true that the strait-jacket was still a recognized legal method of punishment for the refractory, that, nevertheless, at the present time, under the present humane and spiritually right-minded Warden, the strait-jacket was never, under any circumstance, used. And while the poor asses of labourers read and believed, while the Senate Committee dined and wined with the Warden at the expense of the state and the tax payer...
In one chapter he is a Roman centurion of Northern European extraction serving in Palestine who witnesses the crucifixion sentencing of Christ.
I am a Roman," I said slowly, knowing full well that with the words I gave up all hope of her. "You are a man-slave of Tiberius, a hound of Rome," she flamed, "but you owe Rome nothing, for you are not a Roman. You yellow giants of the north are not Romans." "The Romans are the elder brothers of us younglings of the north," I answered. "Also, I wear the harness and I eat the bread of Rome.
In this chapter he also describes something that historians detail as contributing factor in the decline of the roman empire; the disloyalty and general unreliability of the axillary roman battalions filled with barbarians serving Rome for silver.
In the current year this book would be banned for hate speech against jews:
The Jews had got on his nerves. They were too volcanic, spasmodic, eruptive. And further, they were subtle. The Romans had a straight, forthright way of going about anything. The Jews never approached anything directly, save backwards, when they were driven by compulsion. Left to themselves, they always approached by indirection.
...Rome did not interfere with the religious notions of its conquered peoples; but the Jews were for ever confusing the issues and giving a political cast to purely unpolitical events.
The book features a vignette from a little known historical event, America's forgotten first civil war with the Mormon's, The Utah War. It's yet another historical example of just a little bit of religious diversity causing bloodshed and war.
My father regarded me quizzically. "Don't like the Mormons, eh, son?" I shook my head and felt myself swelling with the inarticulate hate that possessed me. "When I grow up," I said, after a minute, "I'm goin' gunning for them.
In 2019 Jack London would certainly be pilloried and demonized as a vile misogynist.
...the eternal lesson learned in all lives, that woman is ever woman … that in great decisive moments woman does not reason but feels; that the last sanctuary and innermost pulse to conduct is in woman's heart and not in woman's head.
Jack London wrote another novel, Martin Eden that is really about himself which stories a lot of blue pill behavior and futile appeasing of women. Like so many men, it sounds like Jack London had to learn the hard way about women. But throughout the book's 270 pages he praises the redeeming features of the fairer sex and points out that the love of women has no equal a motivator of greatness, endeavor and invention.
I conclude that the greatest thing in life, in all lives, to me and to all men, has been woman, is woman, and will be woman so long as the stars drift in the sky and the heavens flux eternal change. Greater than our toil and endeavour, the play of invention and fancy, battle and star-gazing and mystery—greatest of all has been woman.
Sometimes I think that the story of man is the story of the love of woman.
A lot of interpretations of this book that you can find online say that the book is about reincarnation that the protagonist is sharing his past lives and experiences with us, upon careful reading I think this is incorrect. The word reincarnation never even appears in the book. Several passages suggest that he is recounting experiences as a universal man, that he is part of this chain of life and is metaphysically connecting with experiences of past men while his body is being tortured in the jacket...
I am life. I am the unquenched spark ever flashing and astonishing the face of time, ever working my will and wreaking my passion on the cloddy aggregates of matter, called bodies, which I have transiently inhabited.
I think that Jack London may have been woke to and writing about the phenomena of genetic memory. There's numerous examples of us being born knowing things that we have never been taught, sometimes quite specific skill sets and elaborate knowledge sets. It stands to reason that we could be born with genetic knowledge of our ancestors' specific experiences, indeed this could account for a lot of supposed cases of reincarnation where a young child has accurate memories of some person that lived years before they were born.
Scientists and philosophers have hypothesized that our junk DNA is not junk. That the junk is encoded memories from our genetic past lives.
In the book he says something very interesting about human hibernation...
the far northern Siberian peasants made a practice of hibernating through the long winters just as bears and other wild animals do. Some scientist studied these peasants and found that during these periods of the "long sleep" respiration and digestion practically ceased,
I had to research this further and I found an old paper about hibernating Siberians One hundred years ago: Human hibernation:
This custom has existed among them from time immemorial. At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, of which an amount sufficient to last six months has providently been baked in the previous autumn. When the bread has been washed down with a draught of water, everyone goes to sleep again. The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks.
This winter sleep is called lotska.
In the book he describes his metaphysical state as a cataleptic trance. According to wikipedia this is a real thing:
Catalepsy is a nervous condition characterized by muscular rigidity and fixity of posture regardless of external stimuli, as well as decreased sensitivity to pain.