The late Henry Arthur FitzRoy Somerset, tenth Duke of Beaufort, must have given little comfort to English animal lovers. When his death at eighty-three was announced early this year it was revealed that the Duke had by his own estimation spent four thousand days in the saddle pursuing foxes, few of which, one must assume, evaded the pursuit. One must also assume that only the most knowledgeable traditionalist could remember a time when the hunting of animals in England could be represented not only as a necessary cultivation of military virtues but as a morale-raising demonstration of the triumph of human reason and skill over animal instinct. Fox hunters, fortunately, had the special advantage of being engaged with a creature that continued to get a bad press at a time when late in the 18th century it was no longer easy to use traditional justifications for other kinds of hunting. As Keith Thomas points out in Man and the Natural World, the fox was considered to be a subtle, pilfering foe, a conscious villain and midnight pillager.
Whether the Duke of Beaufort still thought of the fox this way two centuries later is doubtful, but his four thousand days in the saddle are an indication of the lengths to which humans will go to make possible a ceremonial encounter with the wild. Of course, long before that the English had learned how to encounter wild nature in the ceremonials of poetry, painting, and landscaping—though, as Thomas points out, “the taste for the wild and irregular was much more likely to seduce the well-to-do than the poor.” One is tempted to say that this has been less true in America where there has always been plenty of wild and irregular nature left over after nurture has done its worst. But these things are relative. We are at least as worried about the survival of the wolf and the grizzly bear as the English once were about the survival of natural landscapes against the encroachment of formal gardens and symmetrically cultivated farm lands. After all, we had to adapt as best we could to the announcement by the Superintendent of the Census that as of 1890 we could no longer think of a frontier line separating the settled from the unsettled West—an announcement that raised the disturbing possibility that a wilderness experience crucial to our national well being was about to end.
For Americans the childhood classic on the value of the wilderness experience was once Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. In this 1903 novel the dog Buck, a thoroughly domesticated mix of Scotch Shepherd and Saint Bernard, is kidnapped from his California home and taken to the Klondike, where in the service of his master, John Thornton, he becomes a super sledge dog. Intermittently Buck experiences the call of the wild, and eventually, after the murder of his master by Indians, he answers the call and becomes the leader of a wolf pack, “his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world.” It is obvious to an adult reader, if not to a perceptive youngster, that Buck is no more a mere dog than Melville’s Moby Dick is a mere whale or Faulkner’s Old Ben a mere bear. He is, in fact, a quite sensitive human being who, one might say, disguises himself as a dog in order to liberate his Nietzschean potential from emasculating domesticity.
But one must say more than that. The Call of the Wild was ultimately chosen by the Boy Scouts of America for Every Boy’s Library as one of those stories “in which the heroes have the characteristics boys so much admire—unquenchable courage, immense resourcefulness, absolute fidelity, conspicuous greatness.” Buck, of course, has all these virtues, and through the alchemy of youthful imagination he no doubt comes across as a champion worthy of emulation, not as a subversive advocate of a reversion to primitive ways. London’s novel, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books, belongs with the fictions of childhood and adolescence that put us in touch with that mysterium tremendum that exists beyond the threshold of conscious civilized life. One may hope that in due time its readers will move on to Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness or Golding’s Lord of the Flies and learn that the call of the wild can be a sinister siren call against which some hearers have very limited powers of resistance—perhaps even learn that the stories of Buck and Tarzan are adult fantasies of the utopianly liberated id.
Whatever one reads, however, the call of the wild, seductively varied as it is, is part of the mood music of our culture. London’s canine hero is having ahead of time, for instance, the experience we see the enraptured German Nazis having in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 documentary film Triumph of the Will or the no less enraptured young American Aquarians having in the documentary film of the 1969 Woodstock festival. More interestingly for the literary adult, Buck anticipates the experience of Connie Chatterley with the gamekeeper, Mellors, in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. As he wilderness claims him for its own, Buck’s experiences are analogically sexual (properly enough, since he will in time become the progenitor of a new super-breed of timber wolves):
Life streamed through him in splendid flood, glad and rampant, until it seemed that it would burst him asunder in sheer ecstasy and pour forth generously over the world.
This is close to Connie’s experience with Mellors in the Chatterley woods, especially in the section where in the wilderness of sex the shame bred by civilization is burned out of her and she is saved.
Connie anticipates O in Pauline Réage’s Story of O, who also has the shame burned out of her in the process of demonstrating the paradox of self-transcending happiness in erotic slavery. Buck demonstrates this paradox as well when, his divided, civilized consciousness having been burned out of him, the wild possesses him as utterly as a master possesses a slave. Lawrence did not especially like dogs, but it is likely that he would have seen here an anticipation of his own conviction that our divided culture tempts us to define sexual experience as a culturally impeded effort to be overwhelmed by a wilderness force. One implication is that the truest freedom is beyond all consciousness of being free, which is the way it is with Tarzan in his jungle state, whether in Burroughs’s version or in Hugh Hudson’s new film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. This being the case, it is probably as safe to predict that some people will always be discovering Sade as a liberator from the tormenting false consciousness of civilization as it is to predict that other people will always be content to settle for fox hunting. Indeed, when communities attempt to ban or restrict pornography or prostitution, the problem often is not simply that other freedoms are involved but the opposition put up by the half-articulated conviction that the impersonal, or “pure,” sex of pornography and prostitution is a manifestation of wilderness that merits the same conserving attention we give to wolves and grizzly bears. Something like this appears to have been on the mind of the late Jean Paulhan, member of the French Academy and editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, when he wrote his preface to Réage’s novel—along the way making the point that women “never cease obeying their nature, the call of their blood, that everything in them, even their minds, is sex.”
Lawrence’s Mellors, of course, is an imaginary figure even though when he holds forth on the evils of civilization he sounds remarkably like his creator. His genealogy takes us back to the medieval forest and another legendary figure who is the subject of Richard Bernheimer’s Wild Men in the Middle Ages. Bernheimer defines the urge behind this figure as “the need to give external expression and a symbolically valid form to the impulses of reckless physical self-assertion which are hidden in all of us, but are normally kept under control.” The wild man lives shamelessly in the forest like an animal for one of a variety of reasons, including unrequited love; he goes on all fours and has beastlike long hair; his powers of speech are limited if not nonexistent; he cannot control his passions and is excessively combative. Ultimately, the attitudes toward him reflect the range of possible attitudes toward the wild, the primitive, the natural, so that at one end of the scale he is barely above the beasts while at the other he is the 18th century’s noble savage. In the beginning his opposite is the civilized courtly knight who is often represented in tapestry and woodcut rescuing his lady from the lusts of the wild man. A “major turning point in the history of European civilization,” writes Bernheimer, occurs when “the wild man is sometimes allowed to win in works of art describing the conflict.” At this point European society is getting ready for the reversal in which the life of the wild man becomes the ideal against which civilization is measured. In due time it will be society that one has to be afraid of—that “malevolent, partly insane beast,” as Mellors the latter-day wild man puts it.
There is an understandable tendency to take the wild man out of the story world and locate him as a real figure in the real wild, whether as a child raised by wolves like the famous wild boy of Aveyron, or by apes like Tarzan, or as a menacing man-beast like the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas and the American Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch. Hard information about such creatures is hard to come by since, like the Loch Ness monster, they live in fastnesses into which neither Boy Scouts nor fox hunters can penetrate, but they seem to lack utterly the virtues of Tarzan or Buck. Their escapades are grist for the coarse mills of the tabloids. The Weekly World News has recently reported that a seven-foot-tall monster with long reddish brown hair had run off with a woman who, her husband had reason to believe, was quite happy to be run off with. A bit later the same publication reported the appearance in China of hairy supermen, stronger than normal humans and more resistant to disease—which makes them sound like those possessors of pure Nordic blood who, Heinrich Himmler believed, could be found in the mountains of Tibet. An Associated Press release early this year refers to a Chinese Wild Man Research Institute that is looking into reports of gargantuan hairy creatures at large in the forests of Hubei province. Last summer it was reported from Peking that there were wild and very hairy women, one of whom had raped a peasant, living on the lower slopes of Mount Everest. The indications are that all such creatures are as shameless as Shakespeare’s Caliban and as little bothered by the crippling restrictions of Christianity as the encyclopedist Denis Diderot imagined the Tahitians to be when, late in the 18th century, they came to his attention by way of the reports of the French explorer Antoine de Bougainville.
There is nothing formally religious in the call of the wild as it comes from London’s dog or Lawrence’s gamekeeper; nevertheless, it has always been easy for young readers of London’s novel, to say nothing of older readers of Faulkner’s The Bear, to sense that they are in a world of supernal realities. In this at least they have some affinity with Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Emerson. The romantic encounter with nature generally entailed the discovery that organized religion is a way of protecting people from the unmediated force of spirit. The call of the wild is thus an inciter of the urge to merge—to achieve, like Réage’s O, a state of possession that is symbiotic rather than metaphoric.
To one who takes the call seriously it is always a summons to quit the realm of the civilized, divided consciousness and come home, as Tarzan does at the end of Greystoke, However, if one cannot literally come home to the wild one can at least have the moral equivalent of a return. Drugs, orgies, states of passionate and shameless abandon are such equivalents, and for some people they are more satisfactory than those calculated sorties into primitive areas made safely possible by sophisticated survival gear and an assortment of freeze-dried foods. Authentic encounterers of the wild must, like passion lovers, be willing to risk all, even rape by hairy wild women. It is to be expected that such people will have little sympathy for fox hunters, who conserve foxes not out of any genuine affection for the wild but for the pleasure of being able to assault it with relative safety.
The Greek Cynics were among the earliest of those who demonstrated a moral equivalent of being at home in the wild. They were as convinced as Rousseau or Lawrence’s Mellors that civilization was an unnatural and generally bad state of affairs. For Diogenes of Sinope, says the late philosopher George Boas, “the natural was that which he could not discard and still live.” Thus he and his followers had no alternative but to imitate the practice of animals in diet, sexual habits, scorn of privacy, and in the whole economy of living. However, this philosophy was lived out in full view of civilization, not out in the wilderness for an uncomprehending audience of wolves and foxes who needed no cynical schooling, since the idea was to dramatize the necessity of the burning out of shame. And where there is shame, as Mellors and Diogenes know, human beings are dangerously tame. The present miserable state of affairs will be over, Mellors says ironically to Connie, “When the last real man is killed, and they’re all tame: white, black, yellow, all colors of tame ones: then they’ll all be insane.” The virginal Thoreau says in Walden that “he is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out of him day by day, and the divine being established,” but he is nevertheless in the Cynic tradition, his monastic cabin in the woods being the moral and critical equivalent of the wine jar in which Diogenes was supposed to live—and in which the latter too strove “to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”
The aim of the Cynics was to break down the barrier between the wild and the civilized by reducing the latter to the former. They were meat-eaters, but like the animals they imitated they ate their meat raw. London’s super-dog was a meat-eater: “A carnivorous animal, living on a straight meat diet, he was in full flower, at the high tide of his life, overspilling with vigor and vitality.” Burroughs’s Tarzan “more than the apes, craved and needed flesh,” ate all he could get, and developed into a “wondrous combination of enormous strength with suppleness and speed.” Colin W. Turnbull tells us in The Mountain People that the brutish and mean-spirited Iks of Uganda had been happy and sociable people when they were hunters and meat-eaters. According to the Western historian Francis Haines, the Plains Indians, who were often admired by white men for their vigor and vitality, could eat ten pounds of buffalo meat per day per person when it was available. The English, says Keith Thomas, tended not to eat their pets and looked down on the wild Irish because they ate horses, but otherwise they were great meat-eaters, and in the 18th century “were notorious for serving their beef underdone”—impelled, apparently, not by an ingrained cynicism but by the “long-established habit of praising red meat because it supposedly made men virile and courageous.” It is hard to imagine a fox hunter who is not a meat-eater, though there is no record of a fox hunter eating the fox: it is cut up and fed to the dogs, possibly in the interest of making them virile and courageous. Even Thoreau, that part-time wild man, admitted that his impulse to a higher spiritual life was counterbalanced by a rank and savage instinct that once tempted him to seize and devour a wood-chuck raw.
Vegetarians, on the other hand, believe that to eat animals, domesticated or not, is to violate a bond that unites humans with their creaturely relatives and guarantees a continuity between the wild and the civilized. Not for them St. Paul’s discouraging remark to the Romans: “One man will have faith enough to eat all kinds of food, while a weaker man eats only vegetables.” Anthropologists now may disagree about the dietary practices of the first humans, but early primitivist thought, as Boas points out, tended to favor vegetarianism. For Empedocles, vegetarianism was linked with the pacifism of the Golden Age; the poet Aratus believed that men did not forge swords and eat meat until the Bronze Age; Pythagoras believed that people in the Golden Age lived on fruit, berries, milk, and wild honey; the Roman satirist Juvenal thought that virtuous people could get along on acorns, though it is doubtful if he was himself that virtuous. The early Christian theologian Tertullian, whose asceticism suggests Diogenes in one direction and Thoreau in the other, believed that there was no meat-eating before the deluge, and early Christian thinkers generally agreed with Milton that there was no meat-eating in Paradise. In 17th- and 18th-century England, Thomas points out, there was a growing tendency to think of meat-eating as unnatural and a cause not only of bad breath but of intemperance and aggressiveness in human conduct.
In our own time the ethical argument against meat-eating has been advanced by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in Animal Liberation and by the American philosopher Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights. From such writers, as might be expected, we get a highly principled vegetarianism, but this is no less the case with such notables as Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Bernard Shaw, and Adolf Hitler, though the latter two depended at times on injections derived from the entrails of animals. In fact, Hitler, like Wagner whose music he so admired and Shelley whose poetry he seems not to have been aware of, saw a connection between meat-eating and the decay of civilization. Thoreau was an off-and-on vegetarian, not liking to eat “our kindred animals.” Even Lawrence was persuaded briefly but to no good effect to try an arsenic-vegetarian cure. What Himmler’s Nordic supermen ate in the Tibetan mountains is anybody’s guess, but at least they were safe from the civilized depredations of the Beaufort hunt.
Vegetarians, being an alienated and embattled minority in what many of them consider a cannibalistic environment, tend to agree with cynics ancient and modern that civilization as we know it is a deplorable, power-abusing state of affairs. This was pretty much the opinion of the meat-eating Jack London, whose Call of the Wild belongs as much with the literature of Utopia as does the vegetarian Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Indeed, it is the combination of cynicism and utopianism that makes it so hard for many of us (as it is hard for Tarzan at the end of Greystoke) to decide in which direction we should go to get home at last. Perhaps this is why meat-eaters and vegetarians alike have been so prone to envisage home as an island—an island such as Diderot and his Enlightenment contemporaries imagined Tahiti to be, or as Margaret Mead much later imagined Samoa to be. On such an island it would be possible to sing a song of a younger, prelapsarian world, for nature would be uncorrupted by nurture and wild men and wild women would live in loving harmony with the unpolluted environment. In such a place, of course, fox hunting was no more likely to be permitted than in More’s Utopia. Countless readers have found in Thoreau’s Walden the moral equivalent of such an experience. For a long time Lawrence had an “island idea,” his “Rananim,” a place to which about twenty souls could escape “from this world of war and squalor” and find “some real decency,” but by the time he came to write Chatterley he seems to have given up on the idea.
In the end, whether they are vegetarians or meat-eaters, those who are most sensitive to the call of the wild are most likely to respond to its promise of a symbiotic unity that will remove forever the burden of civilization with its dividedness, its sense of shame, and its confinement to the troubling ambiguities of metaphor. Perhaps civilization can be said to begin at the point where the difference between symbiotic and metaphoric states of unity can be recognized, for in the latter unity-in-diversity becomes possible along with privacy, self-conscious reflection, a sense of shame, and the discovery that we once may have been wild.
Our knowledge of the wild is of necessity limited since we must approach it, as Margaret Mead approached the primitive culture of Samoa, with our heads full of the structures of civilization—often long before we have learned that the critical instruments we use distort what we are measuring, if indeed they do not create it in response to our troubled, civilized need. One of the most effective instruments so far devised by civilization to define the wild is the tall tale, the kind of hyperbolic fiction employed in 19th-century America to define with a disclaiming humor the nature of frontier life. What we know about Diogenes, for instance, is a collection of grimly humorous tall tales, the most popular being the one that represents him going about with a lantern in broad daylight looking for an honest man—which if it tells us little about the historical Diogenes tells a great deal about those who value the story. Tarzan of the Apes and The Call of the Wild are tall tales told by writers who, if they have little of the humor that characterizes stories about frontier heroes like Davy Crockett and Mike Fink, have just as sure a sense of the fabulous. Burroughs admitted that the life of his Tarzan was wildly improbable, and there is good reason to believe that London knew he was telling his readers the kind of fairy story they (and he) liked to believe. Bernheimer’s wild men and wild women are figures in humorless tall tales who need to be understood in relation to the extravagance and idealization that marks classical and medieval pastoral. And what is Chatterley if not the most humorless of tall tales?
The latter, in fact, was too tall a tale for Sylvia Beach, who said of it (after successfully resisting attempts to have her Shakespeare and Co. republish it in Paris) that it was all preaching. There is, God knows, preaching enough in the extravagant fictions that never seem to lose their capacity to thrill us (indeed, give some of us the only religious experiences we ever have) with their unfavorable comparisons between our own environment and nature in the raw, whatever that may be. Such fictions, of course, are more likely to entertain than to inspire corrective action, since the extremity of the terms in which they are conceived tends to discourage it. Once the story is over, all roads from Diogenes’s wine jar and Tarzan’s jungle redoubt promise only more places where the meat is raw and the plumbing nonexistent. Meanwhile, their tall tales are means we use to keep from learning that our problem is not so much that civilization lusts against the wild as that the wild in us lusts against civilization. Perhaps fox hunting serves the same purpose.