Jack London’s 1915 novel about the paranormal visions of a condemned prisoner is a strange mixture indeed. As editor Fiedler points out, London didn’t actually have any personal belief in the metaphysical phenomena that the story portrays. These include both bilocational projection of consciousness (the sort sometimes now characterized as “remote viewing”) and magical memory, or recollection of previous incarnations. The latter dominates the tale, with a wide range of para-autobiographies, each allegedly pieced together by the writing prisoner from various random instances of visionary recall.
There are some uniformities among the sub-narratives. All of the protagonists are male. Even though London’s narrator Standing claims at one point to have experienced prior incarnation as a woman, the lives that he provides with detail are all boys and men. In fact, near the end of the story, he hypostasizes gender into a spiritual principle, claiming his own identity with all men as the One Man, and offering a paean to his love of the One Woman. What’s more, his alter-egos are all white. Even when the setting is Korea, the experiences are those of a European explorer. In the (requisite?) episode set in first-century Roman Palestine, the Standing incarnation serving as a soldier under the authority of Pontius Pilate is actually a recruit from the barbarian north. This particular consistency seems to reflect an acceptance of Aryanist racial theory, when Standing later claims to have been “an Aryan master in old Egypt” and “a builder of Aryan monuments under Aryan kings in old Java and old Sumatra.” (298-9) And yet the implied notion of “race memory” does not preclude the story of a boy murdered at the age of six.
The frame story offers some round denunciation of modern carceral practices and capital punishment, but there is no call for socialist revolution, such as London might offer elsewhere, and the assessment of efforts at liberal reform is bitterly pessimistic. Standing is an atypical protagonist for London: a college professor, whose murder offense is never fully detailed, and who is abused into profound ill-health. Although it sometimes seems that the more realized of Standing’s prior incarnations might have been abortive stories of their own from London’s pen, the composite effect is not without some merit, giving the reader added opportunities to reflect on the ultimate nature of freedom and the human capacity for justice. [via]