I recently flipped through Jack London’s The Call of the Wild for the first time since my childhood. My father had given me the book at a young age, telling me that he had read it at around the same point in his life. This show of confidence, the transmission of sacred wisdom to the next generation, was quite enough to fill a boy like me with a sense of importance. I recall reading it with zeal and even at 10 years old being deeply impressed with the powerful themes of the book. In fact, I even recall spearheading my own memetic attempt at writing through the lens of our family dog. The story filled my head with a vague sense of passion and honor and changed the way I, as a pensive and quiet boy, thought about the world of recess sports games and constant one upmanship contests I was immersed in at my school.
For those unfamiliar, The Call of the Wild is a book written by Jack London and published in 1903. The story was London’s first success as a writer and was met with immediate and mercurial popularity. It has since secured a place among the classics of American literature, along with several film adaptations and translations into dozens of languages.
The plot traces the journey of Buck, a hulking and impressive Saint Bernard and Scotch Collie mix-breed, as he is stolen from his idyllic home at the ranch of a wealthy judge in Santa Clara and sold into service as a sled dog in the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s. Along the way, Buck is forced to reckon with the harsh realities of life outside of paradise. He encounters beatings at the hands of cruel human masters, as well as vicious, brutal competition for status and sparse resources among the other sled dogs.
As he comes to grips with his new reality, he finds that he must either purge the docile and peaceable ways of his past life, or perish. Once adapted to his harsh new lifestyle, however, Buck encounters a new found meaning and purpose. He begins to enjoy the thrill of competing for and earning status and the gentle pride of an honest hierarchy. The story concludes with Buck finding his way into the wild and living out his days freely as the leader of a pack of wolves.
The story had not crossed my mind for years, but it had a similarly powerful impression on me the second time. Older and wiser, I was struck this time around by the Nietzschean flavor of Buck’s courtship of strength, power, and competitive hierarchy, a grouping christened “the law of club and fang” by London. It seemed to fit cleverly within the historical moment of social Darwinism, gilded age capitalism, and unfettered imperialism. A fiction of strength, guile, and competitive hierarchy for an age of strength, guile, and competitive hierarchy. If this were all, I would view the book as a worthy story for its ability to ignite a virtuous respect for hierarchy and passion in youthful hearts.
I do not think that this is all, however. It cannot be forgotten that the name The Call of the Wild suggests a certain fateful telos. Buck, after all, is a dog and not a human. Some of the more compelling images in the story arise when Buck is haunted by a primal sort of dream, a fleeting image of a primeval world where the hostile and dark forest, suggestive of the looming threat of violent death, encroaches around Buck. This image grows in intensity within Buck as he becomes further estranged from the posh and utopian world of his California youth. As Buck conforms to the harsh laws of the Yukon, the primal “call of the wild” grows within him.
Of course, in the story’s culmination, Buck answers to the call of the wild and therein achieves this telos with radical finality:
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. (3.34)
By joining the wolves, Buck comes to live exclusively within the law of club and fang and loses all semblance of himself as the docile creature from California. What is unique and intriguing about this tale of fulfillment among modern tales of fulfillment is the thematic journey away from a civilized and comfortably moral existence towards one of competition and hierarchy. While London was far from a virtuous man, one cannot help but delight in a fanciful conception of The Call of the Wild as a mischievous, and even reactionary, literary revolt against modernity. Buck finds his greatest fulfillment in the antithesis of egalitarianism. In a sense, Buck meets his telos by conforming to the laws of Gnon.
It must be addressed that the human-dog conversion necessary for the extraction of a thematic lesson presents some problems. As I said before, Buck is a dog and not a person. Some amount of cruelty is certainly in the nature of wolves and dogs, and this is a problem. It would be quite troubling from a literary perspective if Buck’s journey towards fulfillment saw him embrace blunt cruelty. Fittingly, Buck in the story remains consistently impressed by a deep sense of justice. Even under the law of club and fang, Buck favors a just and discerning exertion of strength. This betrays the somewhat obvious idea that Buck is meant to be understood as a human actor. With human-like sentience, Buck remains haunted by an irreducible moral sense. Even as he migrates towards competitive hierarchy, he feels called to follow this moral sense.
It is through the lens of this moral sense that Buck must adapt to things as they are under the law of club and fang. Were Buck to retain a principled aversion to violence, he would die. This struggle to stay alive fundamentally changes the nature of his moral existence:
This first theft [of food] 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. (2.22)
The harsh choice between self preservation and principled morality rightfully changes everything for Buck. Once Buck has come face to face with hard existential realities, the luxury of a comfortable and modern moral high-ground is no longer available to him. One could say that there is too much Nietzsche here for me to fairly project any coherent morality at all onto Buck (London was a noted fan of Nietzsche, and I can’t simply pretend that the above quote doesn’t label morality as “vain”). I, however, disagree. Buck is forced into making tough decisions in the interest of his own preservation and prosperity, but he never wilfully sinks into depravity. He steals when he must eat or starve, and he kills when he must kill or be killed. If Buck were an idealist universalist, he would sow the seeds of his own destruction. The fact that he is not does not make him immoral.
In this way, the story tells us that conformity to the laws of Gnon is by no means amoral. It is simply living in the real world. This is what Buck is forced to come to grips with along the arc of his journey. The judge’s estate in California is described in an idyllic and nearly heavenly manner for a reason; it is unreal. It could never exist outside of Buck’s naiveté. It melts away for Buck like any naive egalitarian dream should when exposed to the true mechanisms of nature. In fact, in this utopian state, the best Buck could do was a kind of sedated contentedness, much like the life of a man of 2017 who works a cushy job and lives for the next opportunity to smoke a bowl, eat a pizza, and watch Netflix.
In this state, Buck was missing the chance to find fulfillment by living the way he was truly meant to live. Buck’s new found life under the laws of Gnon, rather than destroying his moral sense, strips it to its very core, lays it bare, and points Buck down the path to a truly virtuous life. This discovery of purpose and fulfillment amidst the uncomfortable realities of nature makes Buck an anti-modern protagonist par excellence.
It is worth noting that the very aesthetic of Buck makes him an anti-modern protagonist in another significant way. To put it simply, Buck is an awesome dog. The reader is constantly bombarded with gushing language describing the awesome nature of Buck’s dog-hood. Why would London do this? What does it mean? What it means is that strong things are strong, and beautiful things are beautiful, and these things have value in and of themselves. Buck could have been a shih-tzu, but nobody would want to read that story. Buck is a strong and beautiful dog because this is a story about a strong and beautiful dog who achieves a purposeful life by unapologetically assuming the mantle of his own excellence. This is the polar opposite of the progressive ugly duckling parable where a weak or otherwise invalid protagonist overcomes adversity by tapping into their own “inner beauty”. The Call of the Wild says emphatically that strong is strong and weak is weak.
This explains how a contemporary (to London) reviewer for The Atlantic could write this about the book: “untouched by bookishness…The making and the achievement of such a hero constitute, not a pretty story at all, but a very powerful one.” The reviewer senses that something is off in the aesthetic of London’s story–it is not ‘pretty’. A pretty story would focus on themes such as oppression or othering or the aforementioned inner beauty. By finding beauty in the description of a strong creature who finds meaning and purpose through the honest exertion of his own strength, London’s story runs in sharp contrast to the egalitarian aesthetic of modernity. The idea that there could be virtue and justice in the hard-earned hierarchical ascent of a strong protagonist over other, weaker, characters is taboo in modernity.
The artful violation of this taboo, as seen in The Call of the Wild, is a service to all who wish to restore vitality to those ideas which made Western civilization great. This inversion of progressive themes presents a ripe template for the subliminal injection of reactionary values into the stories we tell. In an age where Disney continues to pump egalitarianism and multiculturalism like an aggressive street vendor, London’s story is a breath of fresh air. This is the kind of thing that you can pass down to your children with confidence in its message. I know I am grateful to my dad for doing the same with me.