Call of the Wild

I’ll start with a quick revisit of the criteria for my year of reading dangerously (myord). First, in order to acknowledge the future of the book, it must be available online – as a download, whatever. Second, the book must be one I haven’t read. Third, in order to be dangerous, the book must have been banned at some stage, somewhere. Fourth, I’ll write a review of the book with the url so you can go mad with your year of reading dangerously too.

I chose Call of the Wild (Jack London, 1903) as my dangerous book for March. Free download from Project Gutenberg, or, why read when you can listen to it from LibriVox?

A quick synopsis: Big lapdog becomes a sledge dog in Alaskan gold rush. Discovers if you’re not the lead dog the view’s always the same. Meets nice guy who meets nasty end. Men!?! Who needs ’em? Dances with wolves, and becomes leader of the pack.

A tale about a dog, and it’s banned? Yes, according to the Online Books Page (Banned Books Online), banned in Italy (1929), Yugoslavia (1929), and burned in Nazi bonfires (1932). Apparently the rationale for the Yugoslavians was that the book was ‘too radical’. It’s kind of hard to imagine that ‘Call of the Wild’ represented such a deep threat to society that it was banned, with all the logistical issues that banning would entail … perhaps it was less about the book, per se, and more about London’s pro-socialist leanings.

Anyone who has spent any time with a dog would probably know that deep inside their beloved Poochie, the whispers of the wolf, (albeit little more than echoes on the wind) still stir. Watch a dog sleeping – they twitch and lurch and run and hunt – wild and free in their dreams and the call of the wild. London built on that familiar knowledge and presented a story that’s readable and enjoyable on the first level – indeed, it was originally written as a serial for The Saturday Evening Post magazine in early 1903, before elaboration into a full novel, published later in the year.

I took a slightly different message from the book, perhaps the kind of message that would lead towards banning. I was reminded of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (available at Project Gutenberg) – the person needing to vault over themselves to become übermensch, the new person that was better, more human than before. Nietzsche’s perspective was man not needing god, to become a god. In Call of the Wild, Buck, the dog, is initially torn away from his lapdog existence and becomes a successful sledge dog. He’s torn from that world over a series of events, and eventually becomes leader of a wolf pack – the alpha male – in what is most rightfully his own world – that of wolves. Dogs descended from wolves, having been tamed, domesticated, and selectively bred – effectively created by gods – humanity. By becoming himself – in his true nature – his authentic self, and in the process, overcoming and literally throwing off the shackles of his past, for Buck, god was dead.

I was interested to learn that London himself wouldn’t have had a bar of my postmodernist interpretations. According to wikipedia,

Jack London dedicated both his novels The Sea-Wolf and Martin Eden to criticizing Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch and his radical individualism, which London considered to be selfish and egoistic.

My, don’t I feel foolish? Despite this, I’m still inclined to believe it’s not possible, and not desirable, to take all of the wolf out of the dog. To do so, in some sort of reductionist refinement, would mean to be left with a creature neither dog nor wolf, and something completely without need of God. And it is possibly this that was the concern to the Italians, Yugoslavians, and Nazi Germans. Their respective societies were, in the 1920-1930s, thoroughly bound by the shackles of the State, and the last thing that the leaders would’ve wanted was the people finding their authentic selves. Clearly Call of the Wild was, and remains, a very dangerous book. You’ll love it.

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