"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." Edgar Degas

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Call of the Wild


 
Jack London is a writer best known for his stories of sled dogs during the Klondike Gold Rush. He writes with a unique and forcerful voice; so what if it’s a dog's?

One of the great sins in the theology of modern literary criticism, right up there with sentimentality, is anthropomorphism. I kind of like it. To me, it is no worse to ascribe thoughts and feelings to fictional pets than fictional humans. I often find the behavior of other species more predictable and understandable than that of homo sapiens. Some things – hunger and desperation among them – are universal in the animal kingdom. This passage, showing the dog Buck’s behavioral change under a new, harsh environment, might sound like anthropomorphism run amok to some ears but it rings true to mine.

The first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.

 
The worst literary sins I see in The Call of the Wild are the horrendous accents:

'Ah, my frien's' he said softly, 'mebbe it mek you mad dog, dose many bites. Mebbe all mad dog, sacredam! Wot you t'ink, eh, Perrault?'

But there's not a lot of dialogue and London makes up for the awkward accents with both his ideas and his presentation of them. 


One of the concepts humans use to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom is instinct. We imagine behavior of “lower” life forms is dictated by a process without connection to the intellect. It’s bullshit of course. If instinct exists it is as hardwired into humans as it is in other species. We call it by loftier words like epigenetics or “the collective subconscious” but it exists.

Here is Buck coming to terms with the revelations of his collective subconscious:

And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark.


In the end, the currents that run in the bloodstreams of dog and man are not so different. The call Thoreau heard echoes in these furry ears:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.