|Jul/Aug 2015 Humor/Satire|
Let me apologize for being late by letting you know that I left my notes on the subway. Today, therefore, I will proceed to shoot from the hip—as it were—on The Call of the Wild. First, those of you with something other than a rudimentary social consciousness will no doubt have sussed out that Jack London was no Lucy Maud Montgomery. If—like one of the dog lovers who took this course last year—you have not been above shedding a compassionate tear for the hero of London's novel (the student said she kept looking from London's page to Sandy, her Labrador, and imagining how terrible it would be if what befell Buck befell Sandy), then you could do worse—in terms of being an empathetic reader—than, if not to shed a tear, perhaps to exhale a sigh of sympathy for London himself, the material conditions of whose own life were so stark that Buck's trajectory seems by comparison, if not (as the saying among students sometimes goes) "a cake walk," then at the very least—I am sure I can be forgiven for saying—a sort of Alaska cruise vacation that went wrong. But of course we will leave facile questions of a biographical nature where my fellow scholars never tire of reminding us they belong: in that realm of speculation and dubious relevance otherwise known as the trash heap of history. One of my students told me that during her summer internship (this was many years ago) at the National Gallery she became a tour guide for no less a figure than our President Himself, who, stopping in front of Picasso's Guernica (which was on loan, obviously), looked at the painting for a few seconds and asked her if she thought Picasso was happy when he painted it. Let us not make the same mistake.
I will only say—before passing on—that biographical scholarship is on the rise once again, after a period when the bugbear of interpretive analysis was the assumption that there could be even the slightest connection between the lived experience of the artist and the work she produced. Of Norman Mailer I will not even speak, but if (say) Hawthorne lived in the utopian commune of Brook Farm and became enthralled with the great feminist figure Margaret Fuller (another of the residents) and then went on to write a novel about an experimental community in which the narrator joins a social project and subjects one of its strikingly independent females to observation so obsessive as to be voyeuristic, this is—according to this argument—merely a coincidence, a conjunction of biography and art that is—critically—neither here nor there. In other words, The Blithedale Romance, while it did happen to be written by Hawthorne, could just as well have been written, say, by Emile Zola, although of course Zola would have to have written the novel when he was twelve. No doubt there is a French scholar somewhere—even as we sit here today—arguing that Zola did indeed write The Blithedale Romance when he was twelve. Needless to say (I hope) it was not, however, Zola who wrote The Blithedale Romance, any more than it was Gertrude Stein who wrote The Sun Also Rises, although my analogy is a poor one because Gertrude Stein, were she—and I (like yourselves, one presumes) would be all for this—to rise triumphant from her tomb in Pere Lachaise and come and visit the class to give us her opinion on the matter, would be well within her rights to claim a sort of ancestral authorship of Hemingway's novel, notwithstanding the fact that Stein's manner of telling us this might not necessarily be completely free from what I will call for purposes of critical elucidation a lack of clarity.
But to get back to Zola. He may well not have written The Blithedale Romance, but he could well have written The Call of the Wild, which was published—of course—the year following Zola's death, though I should add—to preserve the honor of La France, as it were—that Zola could only have conceivably written The Call of the Wild after receiving an extremely serious blow to the head or (say) after falling down some very steep (they would have to have been stone) steps. I say this because Zola was the mother of Naturalism. Naturalism is a term you'll need to know for the exam, so I'll say a few words about it quickly. Naturalism is a philosophy of fiction that attempts to dramatize the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest. Essentially, what Naturalism amounts to is this: the world is big; we are small. In the laboratory of the Naturalistic fictional enterprise, characters are little ants who will be squashed by a cosmos wearing enormously big boots: all life forms will have their brains bashed out by the inexorable laws of physics, and that's that. C'est tout! We can be as determined as we like for this not to be the case, but since the human predicament itself is predetermined we don't have a cat in hell's chance of ever becoming free agents in the Supermax of circumstance.
Instead of a cat in hell, however, London gives us the next best thing for his Naturalistic case study: a dog in Alaska. But Buck is not just any dog. In many respects, the hero who snarls, froths, and howls his way through the narrative is not just a great dog but the Great Dog, the dog that never quits, the dog who triumphs at last, the dog that casts off civilization and its overlaid discontents and emerges—to use London's phrase—as "the dominant primordial beast," a creature who grasps "the law of club and fang" by the forelock and—paraphrasing Nietzsche here—crowns his own process of becoming by taking his greatest weakness (his moral nature) and rebaptizing it as his greatest strength: his will to power. It is in this manner that Buck becomes the Uberdog. The secret of becoming the Uberdog is for Buck to negatively transcend his individuality by merging with the collective unconscious of all dogs. However, Buck's predicament is somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, in order to survive he needs to assert himself as the primordial beast he is; on the other, he also needs to subordinate his individuality to a primitive social consciousness that locates his agency within the purview of the pack. These imperatives would seem to be at odds, but perhaps we can resolve this paradox by saying that London has Buck's individual will mutate into and become submerged by a group consciousness in order for the distinction between the group will and his own to be collapsed: Buck is merely the flint tip of the arrow that is the pack's will. Nevertheless, Buck—if only in an attenuated sense—is a survivor and (in the conflict with his environment, if not with himself) emerges victorious. It should not surprise us, then, that when Buck joins the pack of wolves he also becomes—as the popular song that has surely been remixed for your own generation has it—"the leader of the pack," although (of course) a leader of the pack who will enjoy his primacy for longer than the motorcycle gang leader lamented by the Shangri-Las, with whom—I discern from the vacancy of your expressions—you are not familiar anyway.
What, if not the most polished, then certainly the most powerful of the American Naturalists, Theodore Dreiser, called "the Bitch Goddess of Success" certainly guides the dog's fate. Buck becomes a sort of canine heavyweight champion of the world. The brutality of the conditions in which he finds himself demands that he either die or become so ferocious, so savage, that—rather than falling victim to it—he will become the ultimate avatar of the law of club and fang, the avenging angel of disadvantageous circumstance. Those of us, perhaps, who grew up in violent neighborhoods will sense something familiar in Buck's struggle. We went to school and we got beaten up. We went home and nursed our wounds until we had—against the advice of our unemployed single parents—picked off our scabs. Then we went back to school and got beaten up again until, finally, our bodies covered in the discolored patches left by the aforementioned picked-off scabs, the moment of vengeance came and we began to inflict on others the necessity of picking off scabs: the Darwinian struggle, the survival of the fittest. To review here, let me quickly summarize the action of the novel. In fact, I'll do it in one sentence. A dog is stolen from a paradisiacal ranch in the balmy climes of Southern California and is sold for profit into a life of abject bondage pulling sledges on a team in the arctic wilds of Alaska, but—a fine old fighting dog at heart—he learns to kick some ass (as it were) in his own defense and finally prevails, rising to the rank of Head Honcho in Chief of the Wolves and showing us the real meaning of social mobility as he progresses up the food chain all the way to the Yeehats, ripping out the throats of all who stand in his way or threaten his ascent.
A few other points now about our hero Buck. First—and this is often overlooked by the subspecies of humanity otherwise known as scholars—Buck is a commercial success. The stronger he becomes, the more his earning potential increases. The climactic point in Buck's economic trajectory is reached when he pulls the gold-heavy sled for his savior, John Thornton, a feat that earns Thornton a tidy sixteen hundred dollars in just five minutes. Now, if we work out Buck's wages here, we will see—to the delight of the mathematicians and business students in our midst, no doubt—that Buck's salary, represented as an hourly rate, amounts to nineteen thousand, two hundred dollars. If Buck were to work an eight-hour day, pulling a similar sled every five minutes, he would be a very rich dog indeed, making a hearty income of a hundred and fifty-eight thousand four hundred dollars a day, seven hundred and ninety-two thousand dollars a week. If we give Buck two weeks of (unpaid) vacation and have him work for a year, this would amount to an annual income of thirty-eight million six hundred thousand dollars. Of course these figures are—assuming a narrative present somewhere in the region of the publication date of the book—in nonadjusted nineteen hundredish dollars, the value of which is usually calculated—if I remember correctly—at approximately twenty times the value of the greenback as it trades in international currency markets today, and thus (making this adjustment) Buck's career (we'll give him a well-earned early retirement after five years) income—assuming a feral dog would have the prescience to keep its earnings in gold nuggets and not sell them for currency to be invested at a reasonable rate of return—would total three billion, eight hundred and sixty million dollars. I could further adjust these figures to allow for taxes, but surely even the most scrupulous citizens among you realize that Buck's earnings in Alaska are—as the saying goes—"under the table," and for this reason I refuse to recompute these figures in a fashion that could only please accountants. Perhaps I am overlooking a wealthy dog all of you know about, but I personally am not acquainted with any list—in Forbes or anywhere else—which gives us the rankings of the world's wealthiest dogs, and I think, therefore, that I am well within my rights to say that these figures suggest—as I said before, at least for the five minutes he is pulling the sled—that Buck is far and away the richest dog in history, or—if you will—that he is making John Thornton the wealthiest dog owner in the world.
But Buck has no interest in pursuing a career as a sort of superstar circus strong dog, in spite of his obvious earning potential. Rather, he elects to roam the frozen tundra in a state of nature. Here, London is clearly representing nothing other than Buck's renunciation of the capitalist dream. Confronted with the choice (under one paw (so to speak) Buck has all the implied comforts of three billion dollars, and under the other—as it were—he has a chance to lead a pack of howling animals through a hellishly harsh environment), London's hero withdraws his paw from the Holy Mountain of Cash and places it—with his other paw—on the Pearl of Great Price: becoming an incarnation of the primal experiential urge. What we have here, then, is what I will call the Nietzschean angle of the tale. Buck, as I've already said, is no ordinary dog. He is the Uberdog, the mother of all dogs, a dog—as Nietzsche himself might have said—whose very being provides us with a pretext to forgive all the other dogs in history for the crime of having existed at all, a dog in comparison with whom all other dogs could with justice be termed "the bungled and the botched." The novel ends with Buck howling on a rock, the leader of the pack, but surely we can be forgiven for envisioning a sequel to The Call of the Wild, which takes Buck's development to its logical conclusion and depicts him as the leader of a husky horde that sweeps down from the northern wastes with great ferocity and rips the throats out of the entire human race, ushering in a new era in which dogs become a sort of master race, enslaving even the other dominant primordial beasts: elephants, sperm whales, Andean condors. In fact, it is not difficult to see all the way to this sequel's sequel—towards a dystopian future in which Buck, as hierophant of the animal impulse, becomes the prime liberator and ruler of the entire animate world, bursting the shackles of bondage by which the human race has held the animal kingdom prisoner since time immemorial: packs of salivating wolves taking over Golden Gate Park; giant crocodiles lurching into tony TriBeCa lofts; sabre-toothed otters carving out a kingdom on the Potomac. Further still—to confine ourselves to the parameters of trilogy could only be justified by a parsimony of imagination—a fourth volume would no doubt depict the threat to the canine order from other forms of animal life, which rise up in rebellion against the suzerainty of the dogs, replacing it with yet another order, which then in turn wipes out all of the dogs until finally—in the pentalogical conclusion—only two species remain (ants and bees would be my guess) which then move towards an Armageddon from which one of them emerges victorious, soon becoming extinct itself and leaving the earth bereft of animal and insect life long before Bertrand Russell's dire prognostication (an implication of the Second Law of Thermodynamics) has even a remote chance of being fulfilled, the planet having become lifeless eons before the sun implodes and the earth is incinerated in the blaze or—if your apocalyptic preference is for ice, rather than fire—before a ravenous, everything-gobbling, nothing-regurgitating black hole at the center of the Milky Way wolfs down the solar system to satiate the being-ravenous maw of the Void.