Sunday, May 19, 2013

Jack London's Crucified Mind

by Mike Ferraro

         The primary objective of mechanical labor is to make the laborer an unfeeling, unthinking instrument of capital. This is done in order to achieve capital's chief aim—namely, the endless pursuit and accumulation of wealth for the ruling class. The definition of mechanical labor here includes both white and blue-collar work, any type of mind-numbing, repetitious labor, that is, where the outcome of enforced docility and alienation is achieved.

The task of mechanical labor, then, is to rend and dull the senses, to degrade the worker into a state of permanent docility and vegetative dependency. This debasement has two main components: physical exhaustion and cognitive debilitation. In both, the desired effect is foremost a functional dehumanization. In this way, the underclass of mechanical laborers is reduced and alienated. For the vast majority in a control society, this defiled existence is the summation of life. So much for maximizing human potentials, that great fairytale, and purported goal, of liberalism.

             Unfortunately, I know this torment firsthand, as does anyone who has had the misfortune to work for a living. In this dehumanized state produced by enforced mechanical labor, as Jack London observed in his “alcoholic memoir” John Barleycorn, the active or awakened mind suffers most acutely. In relating his time at a steam laundry, London deftly delineates “the misery of stagnancy and inaction” of the active mind in harness. From Chapter XXIV:

                               At the laundry, I was suffering physical exhaustion again...But
there was a difference. When I went coal-shoveling, my mind
had not yet awakened. Between that time and the laundry my
mind had found the kingdom of the mind. While shoveling coal,
my mind was somnolent. While toiling in the laundry, my mind,
informed and eager to do and be, was crucified. (1053)

Here London succinctly articulates the effects of toil on the awakened mind with lyrical precision and blunt force. As noted earlier in the steam-laundry chapter, London accessed “the kingdom of the mind” through his acquaintance with books, and this acquaintance triggered his “informed and eager” mind “to do and be.” But this awakening is short-lived, immediately thwarted by toil. As the passage indicates, under the conditions of mechanical labor, physical exhaustion is customary and expected. Far worse and unexpected, however, is the new torment the awakened mind experiences and endures. In fact, where the somnolent mind merely endures physical exhaustion as a result of enforced toil, the awakened mind, in addition to experiencing physical deprivation is, according to London, “crucified.” In this way, a new state of persecution and torment, previously unimagined and unknown, is introduced. Further, the vacillation between these two states—the elation of awakening and the torment of persecution—is embedded in the syntax where this awakening occurs, specifically the involution of the last line of text: “While toiling in the laundry, my mind, informed and eager to do and be, was crucified.”

Notice, too, the subjective and stylistic shift from “I” to “my mind” above. Here London writes of his mind as a distinct entity, the anthropomorphized object and vehicle for both his enlightenment and eventual torment. This anthropomorphic shift is crucial, precisely locating the intensity of the joy of the mind's awakening. In rhapsodizing his awakening in this way, London magnifies the intensity of joy experienced. Conversely, the intensity of the tragedy of his suffering is also located and amplified by this technique.

London’s anthropomorphized and crucified mind, then, is an apt metaphor for registering the intensity of this crisis experienced by the awakened mind forced to toil. Yet the metaphor implies an end. A crucifixion can’t last forever after all, eventually the degraded object, mercifully, expires. And that is where the metaphor falls short. In reality, the alienated worker is afforded no such luxury. What she knows, instead, is more, and increasingly bitter, toil.

A life of toil then lasts interminably and obscenely long, much longer than the verb “crucify” implies or allows. Thus, the extremity of emotional suffering conveyed by the verb is accurate, as is the degradation produced by such toil, but the articulation of the temporality of everyday suffering is off. Again, this condition—the pervasive alienation felt—is closer to prolonged vegetation—the byproduct of senses dulled and coarsened through years of mind-numbing, repetitious servitude. This, then, is the essence of enforced mechanical labor: it is a unique type of perpetual degradation, an unending crucifixion onto itself.

And that, too, is exactly London’s point. In describing the condition of the awakened mind in this barbarous way the image of that most famous crucifixion is, of course, evoked. In appropriating this imagery, London imbues the plight of all awakened minds caught in mechanical labor with the mythic status and weight of Christ’s end, and by extension this allusion situates and enfolds the plight of such workers into this shared, aggrandized suffering. And this is as it should be. For in the old ancient moral sense, whose mind was more awake, and as consequence, more persecuted than the Christ’s? And, as retribution for this corrupted grace, has a harsher punishment been met, or a higher price paid or exacted?

               After all, persecution of the strong by the weak is a timeless practice. And vanity orders and misshapes the world. Everyone implicitly understands this and is complicit in this knowledge. Yet, for reasons known and unknown, we cling to our imprisonment, and imagine ourselves safe, rather than buried, by our chains.

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