“…a man who has to live in hell had better be drunk than sober”

24 06 2007

I came across this passage in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle last night and found it especially powerful. It is disheartening to see that in the century that has passed since the book was initially published, conditions for immigrant workers have not greatly improved, and after reading this book it seems that recent works like Fast Food Nation and the film Super Size Me have very much in common with Sinclair’s story. Anyway, in the scene I’m about to quote from, our protagonist Jurgis finds shelter from the cold inside a church as there is no where else to stay warm;

The evangelist was preaching “sin and redemption,” the infinte grace of God and His pardon for human frailty. He was very much in earnest, and he meant well, but Jurgis, as he listened, found his soul filled with contempt for him – he would have liked to stand up and hoot at him, to get up there and punch him. What did he know about sin and suffering – with his smooth, black coat and his neatly-starched collar, his body warm, and his belly full, and money in his pocket – and lecturing men who were struggling for their lives, men at the death-grapple with the demon powers of hunger and cold! He had managed to get the good things of life, somwhow – but why at least could he not go off and enjoy them, without coming to taunt the poor with their misfortune? – This, of course, was very disrespectful, even impious; but it was how Jurgis felt, and it was how the vast majority of the men felt, while they listened, held prisoners by the cold. There men were out of touch with the life they discussed; they were unfitted to solve its problems; nay, they themselves were part of the problem – they were part of the order established, that was crushing men down and beating them! They were of the triumphant and insolent possessors – they had a hall, and a fire, and food and clothing and money, and so they might preach to hungry men, and the hungry men must be humble and listen! They were trying to save their souls – and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies? They were preaching about vice – and why did a workingman have to live with low women, save that he could not afford to marry a decent girl? They were preaching about drunkenness – and what made workingmen drink but repulsive homes, expose and hunger, over-work and uncertain employment – the fact, in a word, that his life was a hell, and that a man who has to live in hell had better be drunk than sober.

Update the 1st; A number of hours after I finished The Jungle (the last 1/4 reading essentially being a socialist propaganda tract) I watched the 1999 film Instinct with my wife, which was inspired by the Daniel Quinn novel Ishmael. While the movie did not go as deeply into the topic as the book likely does (Ishmael now being on my summer reading list as well), it was interesting to think about Quinn’s concepts of “takers” and “leavers” in the context of what I had just been reading in Sinclair’s book as well as Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. For some reason I seem to jump from book to book that is somehow connected to one another, although this is certainly because I’m picking up on similar concepts that are fresh in my mind and making associations where things are similar.


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