What’s the point of this game we call “Life”? That’s the question that drives Jack London’s most profitable and well-read novel (at least during his lifetime), called Burning Daylight. I was familiar, of course, with The Call of the Wild and White Fang, his best-known tales. But I did not know the story of Elam Harnish, aka “Burning Daylight,” the subject of this 1910 work.
I was attracted to the title based on a simple search of the Web. Over the last decade and more, I had adopted the cliché that “we’re burning daylight.” In other words, time is fixed, finite, and flying, falling away at breakneck speed. Not a moment is to be wasted. Not a second is to be lost. There is so much that can be done and experienced and known and so little time to pack it all in.
As I searched the cliché for a different project, I came upon London’s book. Here is, of course, another example of my perspective. How many more great books have I missed simply because I have not been paying attention? A whole universe full, in fact. But that’s another conversation.
Elam Harnish comes on the stage as a brawny, brawling, larger than life prospector in the years leading up to the Yukon gold rush. Part I of the book details how he builds a fortune of eleven million dollars based on daring, Yukon-sized gambles that risk life and limb and contain a vision as big as the man himself.
Daylight, as the main character is known, is not particularly interested in the wealth as such. For him, it’s the “game.” The higher the stakes the better. “A man played big,” London wrote of his protagonist. “He risked everything for everything, and anything less than everything meant that he was a loser” (page 5). The big game produced big bucks. But Daylight learned that the winnings were really of a different sort – the real game was played for power.
In Part 2, Daylight heads south to San Francisco. He brought his money and his nerve to a far bigger playground and to a game called “high finance.” “Big man as he had been in the Arctic game,” London wrote, “it merely showed how much bigger was this new game, when a man worth eleven millions, and with a history such as his, passed unnoticed” (page 105).
Daylight did not remain unnoticed for long. In this second act of London’s morality play, Daylight takes on the robber barons of both coasts. He faces a steep learning curve and doesn’t always win. But in the end, he doubles his millions and more. Yet, the game takes its toll on him in heart, soul, mind, and strength.
“Finance was poker on a larger scale,” London observed, through Daylight’s musings. “The men who played were the men who had stakes. The workers were the fellows toiling for grubstakes. He saw the game played out according to the everlasting rules, and he played a hand himself. The gigantic futility of humanity organized and befuddled by the bandits did not shock him,” Daylight observed. “It was the natural order. Practically all human endeavors were futile” (page 136).
The price to play was steep. His heart became hard to the suffering of others. His soul became bitter and cynical after seeing so much greed, venality, cowardice, and malice. His mind would not rest, because there was always another play, another deal, another crisis, or catastrophe. His strength waned from lack of exercise, too much booze, too little sleep, and too much cruelty. It was not so much that he played the game. The game was playing him.
This was, Daylight thought, simply in the nature of things. “It was life, and life was a savage proposition at best. Men in civilization robbed because they were so made. They robbed just as cats scratched, famine pinched, and frost bit” (page 136). Equipped with that perspective, Daylight made a killing as a financier, and was slowly killing himself in the process. I would not presume to improve on London’s own assessment.
“The grim Yukon life had failed to make Daylight hard. It required civilization to produce this result. In the fierce, savage game he now played, his habitual geniality imperceptibly slipped away from him, as did his lazy Western drawl. As his speech became sharp and nervous, so did his mental processes. In the swift rush of the game, he found less and less time to spend on being merely good-natured. The change marked his face itself” (page 137).
Part II of the book takes a more human turn as we come to know Dede Mason, the one great love of Daylight’s life. Spoiler alert! If you want to read the book for yourself to find out how things end, you should probably skip down a few paragraphs.
Dede leads him to see the truth of his life. “And was it worth it?” Daylight wondered to himself. “What did all his money mean after all? Dede was right. It could buy him no more than one bed at a time, and at the same time it made him the abjectest of slaves” (page 263). Winning the game, Daylight discovers, is a losing proposition in the end.
What is the point of the game? Is it consuming or communing? Elam Harnish played the consuming game for all he was worth. He played according to the few “rules” of that game, and he came out the winner. What he discovered was that in consuming others, he was himself consumed by the game, playing it simply for something to do.
And he discovered that the game took away his humanity.
We are created by God for communing, not for consuming. God desires to have all of me – my whole heart, whole soul, whole mind, and whole strength. Thus, the only appropriate response to God is to give my whole self to God.
This is the language either of consuming or communing. If it’s consuming – if I am to be eaten whole – that’s the work of sin, death, and the devil. God seeks self-giving union with all of me. We are made to give ourselves completely to God. That’s why we find such satisfaction and meaning in complete self-giving. That will be salvation for Burning Daylight at the end of the story (not to give too much away).
Such complete communion is nearly as scary as being consumed. The Markan composition has a remarkable play on words that is lost in the NRSV translation (unnecessarily so, in my humble opinion). This complete union with God (and as a consequence with neighbor) is worth more than “all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.”
The play comes with the word “whole.” It’s not just all our heart, soul, mind, and strength that God desires. It’s the “whole” of our selves that God calls into union with God in Christ, like the “whole burnt-offerings” (you might want to think of the “living sacrifice” language in Romans 12 in this regard). Just as the “whole burnt offering” is completely consumed on the altar in the Temple, so we are to be taken up into God as a “whole.” That could mean that we evaporate into oblivion, and that’s what scares us.
Or it could mean that we are transformed completely into what God created us to be from the beginning.
That, of course, is what God intends. The point of the game is union with God and with one another. In that union, we become most fully ourselves. If, on the other hand, the point of the game is consuming (winning), then everyone loses in the end. And, as Burning Daylight discovers to his chagrin, that winning makes us progressively less human – less whole in heart, soul, mind, and strength.
What prompts this question about the point of the game? It can certainly be prompted by losing – by losing a loved one, a job, a dream, a child, an illusion. If a person has been working to win and the work doesn’t pan out, we can be driven to seek meaning and purpose elsewhere. I suspect that at least part of the current “Great Resignation” in the job market involves people who were losing at this game and have been forced to wonder if it’s the right game at all.
The question can, paradoxically, also be prompted by winning. No matter how banal the insight, it is indeed true that the one who dies with the most toys still dies. This is part of the point of London’s book, I think. Daylight wins the game, repeatedly. But he cannot claim what matters most to him in the end, even though he has won. He can only find real victory by resigning from the game.
If this reminds you of our conversation about the rich man in Mark 10, that’s not accidental. I think that one way to read the Markan composition from Mark 8:26 through the end of Mark 13 is with this question in mind. What’s the point of the game? Perhaps it is a political restoration of Israel. Perhaps it is accommodating the Roman imperial regime. Perhaps it is wealth and possessions. Perhaps it is raw power – even in Jesus’ glorious reign.
But none of these strategies produces a real “win” in the Kin(g)dom of God. It is as my dad often wondered. What would that dog do if he ever actually caught the car he was chasing? Then what’s the point?
It is the losers who win in the Markan composition – climaxing with our hero, Blind Bartimaeus, dancing with Jesus toward the cross. Perhaps this is the real revolution of Luther’s Reformation – the insight that the Church of his time was simply playing the wrong game. That’s a question for the White church in our own time and place as well. White male supremacy and the racist status quo are simply the wrong game for Jesus followers.
It is even more a question for the political and economic players of our time. Will we resign from consuming one another and consider communing with one another? It’s clear that we must answer soon, one way or another. After all, we’re burning daylight.
References and Resources
Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Aceepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.
Furnish, Victor Paul. “Love of Neighbor in the New Testament.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 10, no. 2, [Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc, Wiley, Blackwell Publishing Ltd], 1982, pp. 327–34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017773.
Greenlee, Mark B. “Echoes of the Love Command in the Halls of Justice.” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 12, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 255–70, https://doi.org/10.2307/1051616.
HEIL, JOHN PAUL. “The Narrative Strategy and Pragmatics of the Temple Theme in Mark.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1997, pp. 76–100, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43723803.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
London, Jack. Burning Daylight. Kindle Edition.
Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.
Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 201-203). Kindle Edition.
Manning, Brenna. The Furious Longing of God. Colorado Springs, CO.: David C. Cook, 2009.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.