Tuesday, March 11, 2008

# 88 The Call of the Wild – Jack London

The centathlete is a Cat Person.

It figures! you snort—you gregarious, loyal, honest team player who loves to travel, you
Dog Person. Wait—it seems that subtlety, gracefulness and independence do in fact appeal to you—you Cat Person. Don’t they? No? So you yourself are then decidedly a ___ Person.

Cat v. Dog–the dichotomy elicits spot
quizzes and spotty self-analysis (the centathlete actually tested out as a Dog Person). Regardless of our personal biases, we all possess characteristics contrary to our diagnosed pet-hood.

The author Jack London was a Dog Person, some of us will yip, in light of his political team-playing (he was an active Socialist) and his utilitarian, outdoorsy, globetrotting curriculum vitae. Moreover, he gave the world two literary exemplars of canine worship: The Call of the Wild, published in 1903, and White Fang, published in 1906.

Buck, the protagonist of The Call of the Wild, is half-
Saint Bernard and half-Scotch shepherd, or collie. When we meet him at the age of four, he lives a princely, secure life on an estate in California’s Santa Clara Valley, which the narrator describes four separate times as “sun-kissed.” This epithet, recalling the “wine-dark” sea of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in English translation, announces myth-making in the narrative.

In iterating “sun-kissed” London anticipated by five years the aptness of the term for California. In 1908 the advertising agency for the Southern California Fruit Exchange trademarked
“Sunkist” for its oranges and lemons.

Citrus seeds were first planted in California during the 1840’s with the beginning of the Gold Rush, as thousands of early fortune-hunters suffered from
scurvy. London could have used some of those oranges. He developed scurvy while gold-prospecting in the Klondike two generations later, in 1897, and returned debilitated to San Francisco the next year.

Whereas London volunteered for the North, his dog hero Buck is forcibly taken there, recalling the 1886 novel, Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scotsman who for a time lived in San Francisco. In addition to influencing London, Stevenson left a similarly deep cultural imprint on the city by the bay,
according to Janice Albert and Don Herron:

“…only Jack London, a native son, exceeds Stevenson in the number of public tributes: state parks in two counties, a brace of plaques in San Francisco, and a library devoted exclusively to his work in St. Helena.”
The Call of the Wild reads easily as an adventure tale like Kidnapped, but the narrative briskly moves into the aforementioned mythologizing. When Buck is brutally clubbed— broken in order to serve man—the sustained episode of suffering becomes a
Passion.

Two pre-Christian heroes come to mind as role models in subsequent chapters. Buck is “preeminently cunning,” making him like the man of twists and turns, Odysseus. Sure enough Buck defeats his rival, Spitz, due to his imagination.

In his superior strength and courage Buck resembles Heracles. His “exploits,” such as the pulling of the impossibly burdened sled, recall the warrior’s
12 labors. (The majority of those labors required the canine task of “fetching” and the last entailed wrestling with the hellhound Cerberus.)

Buck’s feats inspire his kind master, John Thornton, to lead a new quest. Through a rough arcadia they search for a “fabled lost mine” and a “Lost Cabin,” combining frontier lore with the imagery of Perceval hunting the grail and visiting the illusory
Grail Castle.

Buck spends his late years running with a wolf pack into myth as a Ghost Dog, witnessed only by the fictional Yeehat Indian tribe, representatives of pre-Western culture. Ultimately then Buck exemplifies heroism for all times: the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Biblical Era, Middle Ages and Modernity.

The narration’s self-conscious myth-making and its journalistic treatment of rugged life in the Klondike both support another great process, as the title of the novel suggests. Buck’s transformation from pampered prince to wild warrior, his devolution into a “dominant primordial beast” is the compelling theme on display.

Buck’s voyage “into the womb of Time” to become the alpha wolf-dog, evokes for moviegoers a similar trip for mankind. In 1980’s
Altered States, Eddie Jessup, a medical researcher played by William Hurt, blurts out with pseudoscientific hubris: “I think that that true self, that original self, that first self, is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing—tangible and incarnate. And I’m gonna find [it].”

Let’s award an E for Effort to Hurt, if he was ad-libbing, for “mensurate,” a word the centathlete has never seen nor heard before or since. The O.E.D. labels it a rare transitive verb meaning “to measure.” Jessup’s complete thought suggests he meant “mensurable,” as a highfalutin, academic synonym for “measurable.”

If the script actually called for “mensurate” then qualified kudos may go to
Paddy Chayefsky, but he disavowed screenwriting credit after fighting with the director, Ken Russell. A celebrated dramatist for television and cinema and a three-time Oscar winner, Chayefsky wrote the 1953 teleplay Marty, which featured the following line of dialogue that could belong to a parody of The Call of the Wild: “You know, us dogs aren't really so much of the dogs that we think we are.”

More than two decades later, Chayefsky wrote his only novel,
Altered States. Although he despised the film adaptation, the real scientist who inspired the story liked it fine. “I think they did a good job,” John C. Lilly, the model for Eddie Jessup, told Omni in 1983, “The hallucination scenes are much better than anything ever produced before.”

In 1954 Lilly, a medical researcher,
invented the isolation tank to explore consciousness and sensory deprivation. Ten years later, while floating with three dolphins, he took LSD for the first time. Looking to explore and confirm his prior vision, while unmedicated, that there were “alternate realities,” Lilly incorporated LSD and Ketamine into his research for years to come.

He saw amazing and terrifying things (such as the Earth Coincidence Control Office) that intrigued him much more than the devolution into ape man. That process, the focus of Altered States, was based on an episode that Lilly offhandedly dismissed:
“As for the scientist's regression into an apelike being, the late Dr. Craig Enright, who started me on K while taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, suddenly ‘became’ a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, ‘Where the hell were you?’ He said, ‘I became a prehominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away.’ I said, ‘If you do that again, I'll kick you in the ass.’ He laughed.”
Through Chayefsky's dramatization of this curious incident of the ape man in the night-time, Eddie Jessup becomes the “other, more primitive self” through “genetic regression.”

Jessup, during his extended incarnation as Primal Man, is attacked by stray dogs, In warding them off with a pipe, striking out, he is a fearful victim, not a club-wielding “lawgiver” such as the man in the red sweater that breaks Buck. Primal Man then follows the dogs to the zoo.

This last act is re-imagined as a stylized dream by Jessup’s wife Emily, played by
Blair Brown. On a dark Boston street, silhouetted by streetlamps, Primal Man races with two wild dogs at his side—they now work together, as they would have thousands of years ago, chasing down prey or searching for the grazing grounds of big game.

The scene also resonates on another level, suggesting Emily’s “own liberated masculine aspect à la WMN WHO RUN W/T WOLVES [sic],”
according to a writer for deliriousfilm.com, an engrossing site devoted to “movies, dreams, myths and psychoanalysis.” Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, is the original woman who runs with the wolves; worship of her dates back to mankind’s hunter/gatherer days.

If we think of London’s hero Buck running with the wolves, he becomes a male stand-in for Artemis. His omnisexuality as a hero was suggested early in the plot: in myth women (
Europa, Sita, Persephone, et al.), not men, are kidnapped.

The wolf-dog himself, in The Call of the Wild, experiences charged visions of the coexistence of species. By the fire Buck remembers a primitive companion, a “hairy man” who squats, makes strange sounds, and exhibits “perpetual fear.” Later the wolf-dog and hairy man run through the woods.

The fictional treatments of this partnership are grounded in historical fact. The Call of the Wild adds the geographical foundation, at least for North Americans. Some time 10,000-14,000 years ago
or even earlier, “the first dogs crossed the Bering land bridge with a wave of humans occupying North America,” according to one website devoted to huskies.

Many of the novel’s sled dogs, like Spitz, are huskies. Buck himself is not one and, at 140 pounds, he outweighs his coworkers almost
threefold. The introduction of such a stranger into a group of sled dogs would not be that unusual, we can gather from comments made by Doug Swingley, the 1999 Iditarod winner, to Joe Runyan:

“The Alaskan husky is a continuous experiment in breeding and really nothing more than a successful mixed breed mutt. The diverse gene pool is an advantage because it allows mushers to very quickly develop dogs for specific traits.”
The centathlete is reminded of an old friend, Cody, a superior specimen who was happiest when working or exercising outdoors; friendly when meeting people and then mainly aloof; taciturn but not sulky; and calm, with a very long fuse that lead to a dangerous temper. Perhaps you know someone like that.

An Alaskan husky with
glacial blue eyes, Cody belonged to a friend who lived nearby in apartments in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood. You did not “walk” Cody; he strode or trotted ahead, pulling the leash vigorously and steadily like a sled dog. Marveling at his unflagging physicality, you would forget that when Cody was a puppy he fell six stories from a balcony, shattering his hind legs and suffering internal trauma. Surgery was ruled out, yet the bones and organs mended completely, never appearing to trouble him again.

When Cody met humans he was universally admired for his handsome lupine build and markings. Huskies are uncommon in Gotham; Cody was an exotic hunk.

When he met other dogs he was typically proud and indifferent at first. He stood still and permitted sniffing, which he reciprocated briefly, if at all. His apathy was most profound to the centathlete one night by Williamsburg’s industrial waterfront. Walking with Cody, we passed a lot full of buses. Two pit bulls lurched out, roaring and gurgling, suspended in rage by their chains. Less than ten feet away on the other side of the barbed wire fence, Cody continued on without looking at them, without flinching, as if they didn’t exist.

Cody could be rambunctious, though he seemed serious when playing with other city dogs, who could be unfocused and silly, and were usually slower and more beholden to short bursts of energy. Chasing a ball or scampering around the dog run, Cody often looked like a varsity all-star small forward playing pick-up with the JV.

Though he lived in a cramped, hot apartment, Cody did travel often to the woods and to wide-open spaces in New England, Pennsylvania and Upstate New York. The best trip he ever took was out west, to Colorado, the Dakotas and Montana. He walked through a herd of buffalo. He was followed for several days by a lone coyote, though they never met up. The framed photographs from that excursion of Cody in high meadow grass radiate fundamental joy.

Cody went to northern California several times as well, also in wooded areas. He committed a violent crime out there—he ravaged a small dog that may or may not have provoked him.

In his late years Cody remained active and calm, beloved by his neighbors in Gramercy and naturally by his master, whom he in turn loved and in certain aspects resembled.

One day his master telephoned, his voice quavering. Cody had fallen very sick. Before a trip to the vet could occur, he’d fallen unconscious and received mouth-to-mouth. He revived then passed out again. Despite further desperate attempts at resuscitation, Cody, the glacier-eyed husky, passed away.

While dogs enhance our existence with their vibrant activity—evoking recognition of a primitive, shared vitality—they also introduce and continually reacquaint many of us with Death. On account of dogs’ shorter life expectancies (and the reduction in size of human families),
the successive expirations of our numerous pets can define how we cope with the mortality of cherished ones and ourselves.

More than a week had passed before Cody’s master could make that phone call and others bearing the sad news. He was overwhelmed with grief. More than four years later he hasn’t gotten another dog—in visiting pounds and breeders he hasn’t felt a connection strong enough to “replace” Cody.

John Lilly approached The End vocally and philosophically, due to his temperament and near-death experiences, as was manifest when he visited Craig Enright, who’d been in an awful car crash. Lilly held his friend’s hand and
said:
“It's not so bad to die, Craig. I've been to the brink myself a few times, and I've seen over the edge. The Beings have told me on several occasions that I was
free to go with them, but I decided to stay here and continue my work in this vehicle that everyone calls John Lilly; they showed me that I am one of them.
‘You are one of us.’ I know that you know this because we've been there together. Whatever you do, Craig, I love you.”
Enright died the next day. Lilly died years later in 2001; his legacy of pioneering, unorthodox research into consciousness and into
communicating with dolphins, lives on.

Buck lives on too, of course. The alpha dog runs with huskies, then wolves, into the beginning of primordial life.

A
study of dogs’ DNA affirmed the timelessness and the value of the interaction between man, dog and wolf described in The Call of the Wild:
“Most of the late Pleistocene, humans and wolves coexisted over a wide geographic area, providing ample opportunity for independent domestication
events and continued genetic exchange between wolves and dogs.”
The conclusion offers quite a kicker, as the authors consider other flora and fauna:
“Backcrossing events could have provided part of the raw material for artificial selection and for the extraordinary degree of phenotypic diversity in the domestic dog. Domestic species of plants and animals whose wild progenitors are extinct cannot be enriched through periodic interbreeding, and change under artificial selection may be more limited. Consequently, the preservation of wild progenitors may be a critical issue in the continued evolution of domestic plants and animals.”
Intermingling with the wild, therefore, is critical and enriching for man’s best friend. But man can’t breed with his own hairy progenitors, so he has to be content with their avatars in ancient and modern myths, and in sci-fi movies—and in
Geico commercials.

4 comments:

Paul said...

I enjoy the idea of man breeding with his wild progenitors in order to achieve a different kind of hybrid vigor that could counteract, say, the breeding habits of Beacon Hill and San Marino. It reminds me of Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog," in which--though the scenario is a little different than the wolves'--the masculine primitive that prevails over the effete, cultured, and apparently more highly evolved human cousins.

Had our species been free to evolve in that way, could we have prevented the Bush administration? Or would we effectively have recreated Dr. Moreau's little island paradise?

Anonymous said...

I once had a friend who tried to link an Underdog cartoon (where he battled Overcat for Earth's milking cows) to Nietzche' concept of the uber-menche. Alas... Underdog was NOT one of the cartoons that was meant to be viewed by varying levels/audiences. The four-part story boils down to Underdog... Overcat.(easily found on YouTube by searching keywords Underdog Overcat by the way) Enjoy...

The Centathlete said...

Paul: I read Harlan Ellison and many other sci-fi geniuses as a callow teen. Your recollection makes me want to reexamine those tales. And had we created a Moreau's paradise, would Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando have given us their cinematic fiasco about that island?

Anon: Thanks for pointing out that Underdog v. Overcat exemplifies the conflict between the species. Their bout echoes the boxing match between Bugs Bunny and The Crusher, who dwarfed the hero as did Overcat. But dogs are bigger, slower and stupider than cats, so was Overcat actually a Dog Person?

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