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Introduction to "Telic Action and Collective Stupidity"
By Dan Wichlan
"Telic Action and Collective Stupidity" is an essay that London wrote in late 1902 or early 1903 after his return from London, England where he wrote "The People of the Abyss" and while he was living in Piedmont, California. This essay is taken from an undated manuscript with a specified location of "Piedmont, Alameda Co., Calif.". London lived in Piedmont from February 1902 until July 1903.
London went to New York City in July 1902 at the request of the American Press Association to make arrangements for going to Africa to cover the Boer War. While in New York City, his trip to Africa was cancelled because the African officials he was to interview had gone to Europe. He decided to use the advance money for a trip to Europe on the chance of meeting the officials there or, if not, to have a vacation. While he was in New York City he toured the City and made the observations documented in this essay.
In particular he writes "People, by the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands, are crowded into screaming tenement districts; and the stench of their being is an offense to high heaven and an offense to the nostrils of their more fortunate fellows. The congestion of living and of traffic causes incalculable suffering, friction, and loss of time and nervous power; while evil and hurtful sights and sounds abound." London was both fascinated and repulsed by what he saw in New York City and his ambivalence is apparent throughout the essay. His "sightseeing" in New York may have planted the intellectual seed for "The People of the Abyss". This exposure to the East Side of New York City must have lingered in the back of his mind as he sailed to Europe and conceived of and wrote "The People of the Abyss" in the East End of London.
The premise of the essay is that society or "the crowd" is incapable of long term planning and thinking that result in improvement of its condition (telic action). London goes on to say that this lack of "collective wisdom" has "made democracy a vain thing and without avail". Presumably, since society is incapable of "telic" action, the implication is that some benevolent organization (perhaps the Socialist Party?) is required to do so. Although, the essay is not overtly a socialist piece, it definitely has socialistic undertones.
This essay also introduces a recurring theme underlying some of London's later fictional works — the dehumanizing effect of urbanization. This theme is prominent in both The Valley of the Moon and Burning Daylight.
It is interesting to note that the Subway to which London refers in the essay was still under construction during London's visit; it did not open until early 1904. However, elevated trains were operating in parts of New York City during London's visit, which explains the "swiftness and ease to go places" that London refers to in the essay.
My source for this essay is a hand-written manuscript unmistakably in London's hand that was part of Charmian London's estate that was donated to Utah State University. The manuscript is part of that school's Special Collections.
Telic Action and Collective Stupidity
By Jack London
New York City presents one of the most splendid of human paradoxes. On the one hand, it portrays man's wonderful achievements, and, on the other, man's monumental stupidity. As an adventure, it is so colossal as to dwarf all adventures of the elder world which have descended to us; and, as a colossal blunder, not even Babylon or Rome may compare. At first glance it would appear that stark and blithering stupidity increases in direct ratio with wisdom, that the wiser man becomes, the greater his foolishness.
For instance, in the case of New York City, its engineering achievements, from the great Subway to the cloud-brushing skyscrapers, is as remarkable as any man has yet produced anywhere on the planet. Men hold up their feet and rest their legs, and are whisked about from place to place, under the earth, on the earth, and above the earth. And, as Gerald Stanley Lee says, the elevator is that democratic device that gives to all men the privilege of first floors though they be twenty stories above the ground.
In brief, in New York City are to be found the most perfect of the many inventions man has made to aid him in the pursuit of happiness. But here, where the pursuit of happiness has received man's ripest wisdom, is to be found not only a prodigious sum of happiness, but a correspondingly prodigious sum of misery.
People, by the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands, are crowded into screaming tenement districts; and the stench of their being is an offense to high heaven, and an offense to the nostrils of their more fortunate fellows. The congestion of living and of traffic causes incalculable suffering, friction, and loss of time and nervous power; while evil and hurtful sights and sounds abound.
The splendid business organization of many industries is counterbalanced by the arrant idiocy of the political organization; the happiness and comfort of Fifth Avenue, by the sorrow and misery of the East Side; the swiftness and ease to go places, by the absurd distances between places and the ridiculous number of places; the facility to enjoy things, by the inability to stop long enough to enjoy things. In short, an intellectual entity from another planet would regard this gigantic city as a vast conglomeration of insanity shot through here and there with stray gleams of rationality.
On closer investigation, however, the intellectual entity from another planet would find the clue to the mystery, and he would find it in the difference between the actions of man by himself and the actions of men in a crowd. In other words, the individual is capable of, and does perform, telic actions — that is, adjusts his acts to remote ends; a thing which society never does.
For instance, the young man elects to take a thorough education in order that this education will fit him to receive in the distant future a corresponding return of profit and happiness. It will enable him to get the most possible out of his life. All really intelligent individuals would (live) their lives in this manner; two or three individuals, or a score, may organize a company or corporation and collectively perform telic actions; but all the individuals of society, coming together in a crowd, prove to be incapable of telic action.
Thus, the building of the Subway is a telic action on the part of the men who planned it; the Subway is necessary only because of the collective foolishness of the crowd that is to take advantage of it; and if this crowd had been collectively wise, it would have so organized its affairs as to have prevented the congestion of New York City and to have made the Subway unnecessary.
And so, the paradox of New York City, (which is the paradox of society, or the paradox of the crowd), comes to be understood; and we can only conclude that we, as reasoning beings, are as individually wise as we are collectively foolish. And we may further conclude, from the facts of our past history, that the trend of our development is toward greater and greater collective wisdom, so that ultimately we shall be as collectively wise as we are individually wise. This is the verity which underlies the conception of democracy, and it is the failure to grasp this verity which has to a certain considerable extent made democracy a vain thing and without avail.
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