The Call of the Feral

By: Matthew Battles
September 16, 2011

A grassy valley strewn with boulders; above the wind’s stiff buzz, a keening whistle on the air. And from the boulders, from the shadows of the far trees, the feral dogs rise. Long-limbed and rough-coated, white with brown masks, they come trotting over the coarse-combed grass. They mount the near slope at a trot, tongues lolling — and then, as if crashing some invisible barrier, they veer off, the brown horns of their ears swiveling, at once empty and full. The dogs’ flashing faces fill with something other than mere hunger, something that signifies and overspills. And then the video ends — a jagged YouTube fragment, a snippet uploaded from Australia’s Snowy Mountains.

The original feral dog, the dingo, likely arrived in Australia some four thousand years ago as the barely-domesticated companion of migrating Austronesians. Australia saw a fresh infusion of feral dogs in the colonial era, when Europeans brought their shepherds, guardians, and companions. These two feral populations having intermixed, as evidenced by the masked faces of the dogs in this video, there’s likely no longer such thing as a “pure” dingo. The talk page for Dingo at Wikipedia is a wilderness of contention on this point; was there ever such a thing as purebred — or is there only ever such a thing?

The dog is a fraught symbol of Australian wildness (a wildness marked everywhere by the ancient and abiding figurations of the human). After all, these splendid creatures are also dangerous predators and troublesome pests. In regions where their populations run high, they’re pursued with recreational impunity by hunters who have discovered that a high whistle will bring them running from their outback redoubts; the kid who posted the video online explains in a caption that he’s doing it “for practise when i go bowhunting for dogs with dad.”

It’s a primordial discipline, whistling up the dogs. It might have emerged when Paleolithic hunters observed the creatures emerging from the woods at the cries of wounded quarry — to kill and to steal, but also to beg; to bring us to heel, to begin the lengthy and perilous adventure of co-domestication. And now these dogs, feral descendants of our feral fellow-travelers, still feel an impulse, strangely compounded of hunger and desire to please, at the sound of a whistle. They live in spirited thrall to their frightened curiosity — the tragic and unavoidable compulsion that drags some of us towards the inamicable.

In an admittedly enigmatic series of posts over the last few months, I’ve collected little instances of this hobbyhorse of mine, the feral creature: a domesticated animal forced by circumstance to adopt the wild estate; a beast caught in the betwixt and between; a traveler, and perhaps a kind of messenger as well. The predicament is a familiar one; who has not felt it — stalking through an airport on the edge of lost, bruised and tickled by the terminal’s uncanny familiarity; standing in line, waiting for a cup of coffee or a job; parked before the screen, hunching and bowing before the chatroom’s throbbing inquisition — who has not felt the prickle, the vague disquiet of quarry? Like weeds, we grow in disturbed soil, subsiding between progress and collapse. And yet the very qualities of the feral, qualities that condition our thriving — anonymity, wariness, curiosity — have a way of shading imperceptibly into liabilities.

We’ve long been aware of this complex condition, its odiousness as well as its entrancements. Take a fanciful anecdote about a Greenland Eskimo Dog marooned in the mid-eighteenth century “by a smuggling vessel… on the coast of Northumberland —

Finding himself deserted, he began to worry sheep; and did so much damage, that he became the terror of the country, within the circuit of above twenty miles.

When he caught a sheep, he bit a hole in its right side, and after eating the tallow about the kidneys, left it: several of them, thus lacerated, were found alive by the shepherds, and being taken proper care of, some of them recovered, and afterwards had lambs.

From his delicacy in this respect, the destruction he made may in some measure be conceived: as it may be supposed, that the fat of one sheep a day would hardly satisfy his hunger. The farmers were so much alarmed by his depredations, that various means were used for his destruction.

They frequently pursued him with hounds, greyhounds, &c. but when the dogs came up with him, he laid down on his back, as if supplicating for mercy; and in that position they never hurt him; he therefore laid quietly, taking his rest till the hunters approached, when he made off without being followed by the hounds, till they were again excited to the pursuit, which always terminated unsuccessfully.

And it is worthy of notice, that he was one day pursued from Howick to upwards of thirty miles distance; but returned thither and killed sheep the same evening. His constant residence, during the day, was upon a rock on the Heugh-hill, near Howick, — where he had a view of four roads that approached it: and in the spring of 1785, after many fruitless attempts, he was at last shot there. — from “The Greenland Dog,” in The New-York Reader no. 3 (Samuel Wood & Sons, 1815).

The Northumbrian Eskimo Dog described in the pages of the New-York Reader is the perfect avatar of the feral. Its hungers are capricious, even lascivious; it possesses a cunning born not of some reawakened wildness, but of its intimate, evolutionarily-battened connection to humankind. Whether or not the tale is true, its rudiments make sense: the taste for kidney fat it likely learned from its Inuit masters, who feed their dogs the innards of seals, walruses, and other quarry; the capacity to bewitch fellow dogs with a submissive display is but the perfectly-tuned response of an animal brought up in a pack. And yet this complex of adaptive qualities also set the dog at odds with the world; its very existence threatened the order of wild and settled alike. There is a willingness to make a home in bewilderment, which Dr. Johnson defined as being “lost in pathless places… confound(ed) for want of a plain road.” There is a condition that arises at the edges, along the hedgerows and fences, in the wastes between towns. It is the condition of the trickster, the habit of Mercury, god of roads. Call it the Feral Muse.

Searching for a feral bildungsroman

In strict terms the feral is the condition in which domestic animals find themselves when they are loosed from the captivity and protection of humankind: the cats of Rome, draped amidst the stones of the Baths of Caracalla; the aforementioned dingo; the mustang, whose name derives from a medieval Spanish word for unclaimed beasts found straying on the commons. Resistance and contempt, freedom and exile — these are some of the names by which we measure the troubled and enticing polarities of the feral. It’s a quality that captured my attention a couple of years ago when I re-read Jack London’s Call of the Wild: his canine protagonist, Buck, is best defined by the terms of natural history as well as custom and law as a feral dog; and yet London’s conception of the Wild is inimical to the kind of spirit, cunning, and enthusiasm for life itself that I discern in the feral condition.

The Call of the Wild wants be an animal bildungsroman, tracing the noble, exiled dog Buck’s progress from a domesticated state to an existence shorn of connection to the human lifeworld. But in its glorymongering, murderous fetishization of the Wild, it’s in fact a thoroughgoing negation of the feral embodied in the tale of the Northumbrian eskimo dog. Buck’s size and strength from the beginning mark him as a creature worthy of veneration; London is always caressing the dog’s sturdy features in breathless, intimate ekphrasis. From the start, in fact, Buck is the preeminent domesticated animal, a powerful and deeply loyal dog, the companion of no less than a judge (it’s noteworthy that White Fang, Buck’s wild-cum-tame complement in the eponymous companion novel, is brought within the circle of civilization by a judge as well).

And as Buck’s normative role is that of an avatar of the Law, his story concludes with a revelation of the Law’s complement: a Wild that is the figure of a dark and spectacularly bloody deism, a motivating contempt at work throughout the natural world. His progress towards the Wild state is a kind of apotheosis of the feral — although the wild state towards which London drags Buck is impossibly, damagingly romantic. Forced into the feral state by circumstance, Buck is never anything but antagonistic to the truly feral — and vice-versa; his very abduction comes at the hands of Manuel, an immigrant and a gambler whose feral credentials are solid. Throughout the novel, Buck’s antagonists are the feral creatures: tricksters and opportunists, dogs and men who have committed themselves to a life on the edges of their respective worlds. Everywhere London finds the truly feral, he scorns it.

It’s striking to note that Buck is not a purebred, but a cross between hard-working breeds, the St. Bernard and the “Scotch Shepherd” (likely a Collie). At once strong and deeply domesticated, Buck rules over a “great demesne” of groves, fields, and gardens; he hunts with the Judge’s sons and plays in the yard with his grandchildren. His domesticity is total — and it proves his downfall, for when Manuel brings the rope to tie around his neck and lead him away to a furtive sale, he trusts the man implicitly. Manuel sells Buck to a dealer collecting “dogflesh” for the Klondike gold rush — ”because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal…. These men wanted dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.”

It’s a long way from Judge Miller’s place in sunny California to the dark forests of the Klondike and the mean, bloodied huts of London’s imaginary tribe, the Yeehats. Buck finds his way there through a tuition in the savagery men can make — a savagery to which, London’s book proposes, the purifying fury of the Wild is the most bracing and efficacious reply. Laying bare his “ferine strain” (to use the formula in “Atavism,” the John O’Hara poem that London chooses as his epigraph), Buck in the end achieves a kind of apotheosis:

The years were not many when the Yeehats noticed a change in the breed of timber wolves; for some were seen with splashes of brown on head and muzzle, and with a rift of white centring down the chest. But more remarkable than this, the Yeehats tell of a Ghost Dog that runs at the head of the pack. They are afraid of this Ghost Dog, for it has cunning greater than they, stealing from their camps in fierce winters, robbing their traps, slaying their dogs, and defying their bravest hunters.

Buck becomes the Ghost Dog by means of a kind of apprenticeship, with the Wild as a whip-wielding magister; the harsh discipline it metes out is filled with moral lessons (a genre utterly opposed to the energies of the feral). In the course of his apprenticeship, Buck learns that there is no communication but that which takes the form of spectacular violence. After taking his vengeance upon the killers of his wilderness champion, the kind and courageous John Thornton, he meets a wolf pack in a moonlit clearing. “They were awed, so still and large he stood, and a moment’s pause fell, till the boldest one leaped straight for him. Like a flash Buck struck, breaking the neck.” In the wild, wolves have their elaborate jargon of assertion and subordination, but London’s Wild is too cyclonic and pure a force for mere natural history; death, for him, is the only idiom worthy of utterance.

This fury, this power, this bloody-minded state of nature — it all seems far removed from the fluency and cunning of the Eskimo dog. Indeed it seems far removed from the feral condition altogether. I shouldn’t be content to describe what the feral is not, however; I want to limn the condition in positive terms as well. The feral qualities are furtive and crepuscular, difficult to pick out in the forests of tales, but they may be discerned, braiding their way through the figures and tropes of less-noticed fictions. The catalogue of readings that follows is partial and personal; my feral noticings hardly exhaust the possibilities of the books considered, which are rich and replenishing in ways the feral only begins to touch. Nonetheless the strain is there, enlivening the works in question and offering the reader a kind of teaching as well.

The name of namelessness

Rarely has writing more forcibly evoked the feral than in the work of Finnish artist and writer Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomintroll stories for children and a clutch of lapidary short novels for adults. Her True Deceiver (1982; quoted below from Thomas Teal’s pellucid translation published by New York Review Books) tells the story of Katri Kling, a baleful, yellow-eyed, and cunning anti-heroine living in a snowbound village, where she cares for her man-child brother Mats and a large dog. Katri is a kind of midwife of hard truths, all but allergic even to the tiniest white lies. Her neighbors both rely upon and revile her for her pitiless wisdom and her cruel insight. Children chant “witch” when they see her, but late at night their parents call upon her; she advises them to end marriages, close businesses, shut prodigal heirs out of wills. “Why do you go to her?” one villager asks a neighbor. “Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back. You’re different.”

Kind and unprepossessing, deaf to neighborly intrigue, brother Mats meanwhile haunts the local boatwright’s shop, where he dreams of building a yacht of his own design. The dog, on the other hand, is an unsettling element in this fey family — for it has no name. (“It’s unnatural not giving your dog a name,” the villagers mutter; “all dogs should have names.”) Katri refuses to name the dog in fealty to her wild and scrupulous honesty: “Dogs are mute and obedient,” she reflects, “but they have watched us and know us and can smell how pitiful we are —

People idealise their animals, and at the same time they patronisingly overlook a dog’s natural life — biting fleas, burying bones, rolling in garbage, barking up an empty tree all night… But what do they do themselves? Bury stuff that will rot in secret and then dig it up and bury it again and rant and rave under empty trees! No. My dog and I despise them.

Nameless creatures — and the civilizing toll naming takes on denominator and denominated alike — figure throughout Jansson’s work. In one of the Moomintroll stories, a wandering, musical dreamer named Snufkin bestows a name at the request of an anonymous forest creature. When he visits him just a few hours later, the once-fawning animal has no time for him. “Before I had a name I just used to hop around,” he tells Snufkin; “and perhaps feel this or that, and everything was simply happening around me, sometimes nice things and sometimes not nice, but nothing was real, don’t you see?” Snufkin offers to sing a tune or tell a few stories, but the anonymous beastie waves him off. “Cheerio, and give my greetings to Moomintroll! I’ll have to live as fast as I can, because I’ve lost a lot of time already!” leaving a bemused Snufkin to scratch his head — “‘so,’ he said to himself. ‘Yes, I see’” — and wonder at the power of names, which banishes the feral freedoms of wandering about, feeling this or that, and letting things happen.

As The True Deceiver progresses, Katri learns that someone is taming dog on the sly, giving it a name and teaching it to play. But taming proves to be an unsettling, as Katri discovers during a late-night walk —

Katri lit a cigarette, crumpled the empty packet and threw it out on the ice. And the dog retrieved it, flung himself through the shore water, took it in his mouth and brought it back to her feet. With the hair on his back on end and his head on one side, he stared her straight in the eye, and Katri understood that her dog had become a kind of adversary.

Before, the dog had followed Katri everywhere; under the spell of a name, following becomes heeling, every movement an index of obeisance. As Snufkin’s little beast discovered, a name licenses all manner of business and burden. And yet denomination deranges as well; one might say that Katri’s dog goes wild with domestication. But there’s more to the texture of Jansson’s mad dog; its madness is transitive: the dog “had become a kind of adversary” to Katri. In her wintry banishment, Katri knows the lesson of Eden: it is naming, and not temptation, that seals on the social contract.

This namelessness is not the same thing as anonymity; its closer kin is anomie, the “normlessness” which sociologist Emile Durkheim identified springing up in the wake of shattered solidarity. Jansson has already demonstrated the link between norms and names. But I want to say that namelessness is a kind of name; it is a mask, a pose, and an appearance — a mask of masklessness, as it were, a camouflage, but of a kind that is donned from the inside out. This condition has its analog in the behavior of lost dogs, who revert to a roaming habit in which they become supremely reluctant to respond to their name. (For all of Jack London’s wonted realism, throughout The Call of the Wild Buck remains Buck, so named by the judge). The feral animal at root is a creature exiled from its name; the lost dog exudes a namelessness that becomes a mask of skepticism it quickly becomes loathe to remove.

Cunning as…

Another quality of the feral, cunning, is more widely distributed in literature. A handy example is found in the D. H. Lawrence novella The Fox (1923), which tells the story of two young women, Banford and March (called only by their surnames, a kind of semi-namelessness) who take a farm together in the wake of the Great War. They keep chickens, which are harassed and murdered by a fox. March, who wears puttees and does the farmwork, tramps about with a gun on her shoulder in hopes of killing the fox. But when she finds the fox, his gaze undoes her —

For he had lifted up his eyes upon her, and his knowing look seemed to have entered her brain. She did not so much think of him: she was possessed by him. She saw his dark, unabashed, eye looking into her, knowing her. She felt him invisibly master her spirit. She knew the way he lowered his chin as he looked up, she knew his muzzle, the golden brown, and the greyish white. And again she saw him glance over his shoulder at her, half inviting, half contemptuous and cunning.

A wild creature, and yet one at home on the margins of the human lifeworld: attuned to our comings and goings, suffering our impatience, adapted to our leavings; in nature as well as in its most richly-imagined literary manifestations, the fox approaches the feral as it were from the other side. It manages its business with us by means of that quality of which it is the totem: cunning — a kind of improvisational intelligence, a situational genius. Cunning is not strategic; it has no foresight; planning is beyond its reach. Cunning instead practices a kind of reactivity that is uncanny and magical in its prescience: it reacts before the action. March feels the call of the Wild spilling at her from this mute and watchful fox; Lawrence knows this call, and unlike London he recognizes its danger and its dark intelligence.

Furloughed soldiers — nearly the perfect type of feral human — are migrating across the countryside. One of these, from Canada (Buck’s haunt, a large land) finds his way to the farm and settles in for a time, helping with the chores in return for board. His name is Henry, but throughout the book he is called “the boy” (that namelessness again). He sets about winning the farm and March’s love, a project that is never plotted and planned but only pursued; doglike, foxlike, he waits and watches and worries his prey. He kills and skins the fox, his first rival for March’s fascination; next he turns his cunning on Banford, seeking to separate the two women from one another as a dog teases and cuts a lamb away from its mother. He catches his chance late in the book, while preparing to fell a tree the women have been trying to bring down for a week —

(A)s he looked into the sky, like a huntsman who is watching a flying bird, he thought to himself: “If the tree falls in just such a way, and spins so much as it falls, then the branch there will strike (Banford) exactly as she stands on top of that bank.”

He looked at her again…. In his heart he had decided her death. A terrible still force seemed in him, and a power that was just his. If he turned even a hair’s breadth in the wrong direction, he would lose the power.

“Mind yourself, Miss Banford,” he said. And his heart held perfectly still, in the terrible pure will that she should not move.

“Who, me, mind myself?” she cried, her father’s jeering tone in her voice. “Why, do you think you might hit me with the axe?”

“No, it’s just possible the tree might, though,” he answered soberly.

In his confidence, he even dares a warning, knowing that Banford will take it as a challenge and refuse to move. And when the bough swoops down on her and catches her in the neck, laying her out, he watches “with intense bright eyes, as he would watch a wild goose he had shot.” Through his cunning the boy wins all; with Banford gone, March succumbs to his will. But for all its patience, cunning has no foresight; the boy never knew what a toll domestication would take on March. She marries him, takes off the puttees and pants, and puts on a dress; and all the life drains from her eyes.

Fluent ignorance, autistic genius

This lack of foresight indicates another feral tactic, a kind of social illiteracy that is at once a blindness and a strength. The domesticated creature has its limited phrasebook of human exchange, but in exile the glossary is useless. Like twins or wild children, feral creatures subsist like the last speakers of a lost tongue; they utter their secrets without fear of discovery.

Such a community of lost native speakers features in Jean Stafford’s courageous and cruel novel The Mountain Lion (1947; you’ll notice that in literature, the feral qualities do tend to gather themselves to animal avatars). Stafford’s heroes are Molly and Ralph, bright and angry siblings whose father is dead, and whose mother hides her grief and fear for her children’s future in an access of bourgeois pretense. The children are not twins; but when they both fall prey to a fever that keeps them out of school for a spell and leaves them pray to weakness and nosebleeds, their bond of ill health estranges them not only from their peers but from their mother and older debutante sisters. Invalided together, they forge a bond composed with all the ferocity and privilege of twins, leaving them in the state of feral children —

Their skin and hair were dark and the truth of it was they always looked a little dirty…. They were so self-conscious that they could not sit on a chair without looking as if they perched on a precarious cliff…. At home Ralph and Molly were hot-tempered and rebellious, but elsewhere they were so easily intimidated that the enemies among their contemporaries called them cowards. And while (their sisters) had dozens of fast friends and were invited to innumerable slumber parties and donkey parties every year, Ralph and Molly had none but one another…. In some ways the most disturbing thing about them was their precocity. Mrs. Follansbee, who was discomforted by intellect in anyone, said that their reading excesses were very like the result (not the cause) of their having to put on eyeglasses at such an early age: first they looked studious and then they were studious.

As the novel opens they’re living in southern California, where the brightness of the sunlight seems to pick out each object and throw it into stunning relief —

On the floor of the Wash, Ralph and Molly could find bright-colored stones, pink and green and yellow and blue. After a heavy rain, there was sometimes fool’s gold in the puddles. Strange harsh shallow-rooted flowers grew all over the steep slopes and clumps of mallow that yielded bitter milk. There was one place where the mud dried and cracked into wedges like pieces of pie and when Molly was very small, she thought this was where the sandwiches lived.

Stafford’s novelistic practice is built on this kind of close noticing: wary and spirited, precisely empirical and willfully idiosyncratic. In assigning places and objects their secret myths and purposes, Molly and Ralph build themselves a kind of memory palace and private encyclopedia. And of this feral scholarship, Molly — who insists that she learned Braille in kindergarten, who plans to be a writer and makes poems of uncanny fancy — is the dean and genius.

The lodestar of Ralph and Molly’s life is their grandpa, Mr. Kenyon. A rancher, like Buck’s first master in Call of the Wild he is wise and worldly, a self-made man, a paterfamilias and avatar of the law. “He had been everywhere in the world and had hunted every animal indigenous to the North American continent,” we learn; “he had caught wild horses in Nevada and tamed them ‘into the gentlest little benches a man ever saw.’” Their mother’s stepfather, Mr. Kenyon’s bond with the family is oblique and conditional, and to the children he represents the freedom and adventure that is everywhere stifled by their mother’s timorous, bourgeois ways; his yearly visits give the children a rare access of freedom and possibility.

And then, during his long-awaited annual visit, he dies. His son Claude, arriving for the funeral, frightens the children with his laconic, incomprehensible mien. But when the children are sent the next summer to live with Uncle Claude on his ranch in Colorado, they find themselves free to indulge in feral impulses, roaming foothills that hem the ranch beneath mountains “at once remote — their summits were often obscured by clouds — and oppressively confining.” Unlike the seas of the California coast, which hid their dangers, the mountains “wore peril conspicuously on their horny faces.” And while this perilous landscape at first oppresses, in time it catalyzes and transforms Molly and Ralph’s feral project.

As they reach adolescence, of course, they confront the taming blows of coming adulthood. Ralph in particular feels the tug of his uncle’s strength; a new urge seizes him to no give up naming and chanting the land, and to tame it instead, to subdue it to productive designs. He enters a pact with his uncle to hunt and kill a mountain lion that stalks the ranch — and in the novel’s horrible denouement, this pact to subdue and reduce will prove disastrous.

As Ralph is drawn deeper into his uncle’s productive designs, his hunting and riding and management of the ranch, the siblings’ feral bond is tested. Aware of Ralph’s masculine domestication and his newfound desire for women, his sister retreats into her private discourse; in her notebook she writes —

Ralph has gone beyond the pale. I am his permanent enemy and do not know whether I shall ever speak to him again. I am his permanent enemy and do not know whether I will ever speak to him again as he has literally beat a rivet of hatred into my heart…. Resolution: think all the time about Ralph getting fat. Tomorrow I must look at the pictures of stout men’s underwear in the catalogue and decide which one I want him to be.

With Molly’s retreat into asociability, she grows closer to nature. Under a snow-covered rock she discovers the prodigy of hibernating ladybugs, red as summer, and she determines to study and husband them through the winter. On a hike to the ladybugs with Uncle Claude they see the mountain lion —

They had a perfect view of her, for the mesa there was bare of anything and the sun illuminated her so clearly that it was as if they saw her close up. She allowed them to look at her for only a few seconds and then she bounded across the place where the columbines grew in summer and disappeared among the trees. Her flight was lovely: her wastless grace and her speed did not make Molly think immediately of her fear but of her power.

There is a mingling of pronouns and affects here — whose fear? and whose power? — girding Molly’s recognition that “the lion had sensed peril and yet they, the watchers, sensed peril in her, under her tawny hide.” The moment uncovers a deep affinity between Molly and the mountain lion, even as Ralph and Claude’s desire to kill her and have her hide is confirmed. They would subjugate her, reduce her to their designs, arrange the land and its creatures according to their order and rules; Molly by the same vision is confirmed in her feral solitude, which is the only guarantee of perfect freedom. The collision of these opposed natures, when it comes on the mountainside in late spring, can only be cataclysmic.

I want to call Molly’s feral tactic a kind of autism, in recognition of its Greek root word autos, the self. I do so hesitantly, however, for I have no wish to reduce a cognitive disorder to a metaphor or critical category. (The many uses of “autism” today, the broadening spectrum to which it is applied, seem to express a cultural intuition of the spectrum’s relevance to our time, as tuberculosis organized the nineteenth century and cancer the twentieth.) In the autism of disorder, the self is marooned in itself, excluded from fruitful social congress; in feral autism by contrast, the self can be a haunt of exile that is solitary and exclusive, but also richly figured. This fluent asociability is perhaps the closest we come to the quintessence of the feral — although to say such a thing puts us in dangerous territory, for the feral must remain numb to essences. It is a style, a toolkit, a set of reflexes or tactics, and it refuses — it does not quite refuse or deny; no, it ignores — everything that carries the taint of essence or universal law. In this sense it is utterly unlike London’s Wild. The feral is not about the search for truth, disappointed and aggrieved, that follows the fracturing of innocence and unity; when it comes to ideology, the feral is categorically cynical. Neither is the feral is an exile from community and unity, but a creature at best excluded from, and at worst made a scapegoat of, the very project of imagining community and unity.

Feral lives in liquid times

London published Call of the Wild and White Fang at a critical moment in the evolution of nature writing. Released barely a decade after Kipling’s The Jungle Book had bulked out the beast tale with the sentimental certainties of the Victorian era, a new flush of animal books appeared that characterized the creatures of wood and stream with a blend of natural-historical detail and pathos. The archetypal roles of animals in fables and children’s tales, with creatures often attired in clothing and playing the roles of peasants, kings, and knaves; the pastoral watercolors of the children’s illustrator Randolph Caldecott, after whom the ALA’s picture-book prize is named, were fading from favor. (A few years ago I was looking at one of Caldecott’s books in the company of Maurice Sendak; we were examining the concluding illustration in a tale about a little boy lost in the woods, a towhead fetally curled in a clearing while animals regard him beneficently from amidst the trees. The forest creatures came to wish him a good night’s sleep, the caption read. “Yes,” muttered Sendak. “Or perhaps they were ready for dinner.” Part of what makes Sendak one of our great artists of the feral is his ability to hold sentiment and nutriment in equal regard.) In the new beast tales, however, sentiment would play a larger role than ever — only the sentiment would no longer derive from old pieties, but from the psychology of Flaubert, Proust, and William James. No longer would wolves be solely Big and Bad; like Akela, they could evince sagacity, but also timorous uncertainty; like Lobo, the loyal and courageous hero of one story in Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, they could even be susceptible to suicidal depression.

The great naturalist John Burroughs harshly criticized the new emotion-laden strain in writing about animals — an opinion shared by none other than naturalist-in-chief Teddy Roosevelt, who coined the term “nature fakers” to describe authors like Seton and Kipling (and London as well). While Burroughs and Roosevelt were happy to have old Aesopan stereotypes fade away, they were loathe to see them replaced with sentimental fictions about loving, loyal, moral wild animals. A scientific beast literature, they argued, should not sacrifice its rigor on the altar of art; literary excellence and empiricism need not be antagonists.

To such criticism London offered a spirited reply, arguing that the idea of evolution, far from convincing us to exclude animal characters from the possibility of emotion and sentience, should induce a spirit of sympathy with them —

[T]hough you stand on the top of the ladder of life, you must not kick out that ladder from under your feet. You must not deny your relatives, the other animals. Their history is your history, and if you kick them to the bottom of the abyss, to the bottom of the abyss you go yourself. By them you stand or fall. What you repudiate in them you repudiate in yourself — a pretty spectacle, truly, of an exalted animal striving to disown the stuff of life out of which it is made, striving by use of the very reason that was developed by evolution to deny the processes of evolution that developed it. This may be good egotism, but it is not good science. — London, “The Other Animals,” from Revolution and Other Essays (1909).

When London warns his critics not to “deny [their] relatives, the other animals,” he is halfway heeding the feral muse. His error in Call of the Wild lies not in imparting complexes of emotion and calculation to his animal heroes, but in forcing a particular set of qualities upon them; he doesn’t so much disestablish the Great Chain of Being as simply reverse its polarity. In London’s Wild we find much that is glowering and judgmental — a gospel of the strong — an exaltation of the primordial qualities of the Law.

The feral, by contrast, is the quality of having no qualities.

I know that this last point is a paradox, and a flimsy one. Puzzling over whether I’m prepared to commit to this sloppy paradox, I recall a scene from Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film adaptation of the Margeurite Duras novel The Lover in which Tony Leung’s Chinese Man finds his strength challenged by his youthful lover’s elder brother. “But I am weak,” he replies in a voice both ironic and minatory. “Weaker than you could possibly believe.” It may be more accurate to say that the feral is a pose: the affect of lack, a certain suppleness, a willed invisibility. A friend points out, vis-à-vis my avidity for this quality of not having qualities, that the Northumbrian Eskimo Dog with which I began this venture has qualities in spades: for one, he is a virtuoso signaler; his submissive display before the coursing hounds has about it a kind of dark fluency, almost a deceitfulness. There is in this feral state a mandated lurking, a need to hide, to dissemble and contrive, whether in the howling wilderness (it is we who howl, Thoreau noted, and not the wilderness) or the forest of symbols.

When Call of the Wild is taught in schools, much is made of London’s assumption of an animal viewpoint. Is it possible, teacher often asks, for an author to take such a stance? How does a writer convincingly use words, which we humans share with no animal, to create the consciousness of an animal? But such questions go wrong from the start: they fail to adjust themselves to the fact that there already is an animal that uses words, and that using those words — including the use of them to mimic the consciousness of creatures unlike his own — is how that animal expresses its wildness. And in this acknowledgment — that we humans inherit an authentic “ferine strain” that consists in the use of symbols — we have a revelation of the feral.

Outside of fiction’s fancies, feral animals tend to be hunted and despised. They kill stock and ruin crops, menace children and pets, spread disease between the domesticated world and the wild. And yet by wit and appetite, spirit and invention, the feral creature survives in an environment that is neither of its own making nor entirely familiar to its habits of perception.

There’s something more to this feral quality than the savor we find in stories. For what are we in the midst of networked, global, postmodern culture, all of us, but feral creatures of a kind? I’ve long been dissatisfied with the idea of the “digital native”; I’m not convinced that anything can properly be “native” to a habitat that changes so rapidly and thoroughly as networked culture. And the whole notion of nativity, after all, seems tainted with the romanticism of the Wild (a new state of nature is still the State of Nature). The qualities of the feral, by contrast, answer to a particular way of thriving amidst the vast clamor of the online world. The nameless maps onto the pseudonymity and anonymity of digital culture; cunning catches the furtive ways of memes; denying herself the full panoply social cues, the online imagination subsists in an uncanny solitude. Hidden in its nameless mask, with all the patience and will of its cunning, impregnable in the fortress of its fluent autism, it watches, hungers, and waits — testing the freedoms and the fragility of the digital, both the powers it gives us and the susceptibilities, perhaps fatal, which it bequeaths.

In A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek famously lampoons the red-pill/blue-pill choice presented in the film The Matrix. “I want a third pill!” he exclaims. “So what is the third pill?… [It is] a pill that would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself.” I wonder if the feral might be the “third pill” that philosopher-clown Žižek calls for. The feral creature, perhaps, is one who is able to dwell in the “reality of illusion,” to make a habitat of the infrastructure of imperfection itself.

There’s no falsifiable hypothesis here, of course. I’m not a quantitative social scientist — I’m a reader. But I’d like to propose that the feral is certainly an evocative, and perhaps a useful, means for understanding the confrontation between imagination and today’s transmodern global culture. I find these qualities in literature, but we should look for them as well in sociology, in post-political behavior, in music and film, and in the technologically-enabled ways of life which increasingly constitute means of artistic expression in themselves.

It is in this transmodern time of ours, the “liquid modernity” of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman — a world both borderless and zoned, fluid and stoppered, flat and rigidly walled — that the feral takes on special relevance and force. As the twentieth-century nation-state glitches and blurs out of focus, as capital increasingly migrates through the stratosphere or orbits high above the strictures of community and country, ever larger tranches of population find themselves outside the wall and outside the law. Reacting to the liberal, liquid dimension in which power now eludes politics, states throw up walls where borders used to be (and a wall is not a border). Those outside the walls, the transient ones, the excluded ones, the refugees — described by Bauman as “people without qualities [my emphasis]… deposited in a territory without denomination” — are forced into a consideration of the unqualified quality of the feral. Bauman suggests that in their exclusion, expropriation, and exile, refugees serve as sacrificial substitutes for the neoliberal elite — those lone dogs who roam the stratosphere and dine on the kidney fat of lambs. “Refugees and immigrants,” writes Bauman, “are uniquely suitable for the role of effigy through which the spectre of ‘global forces’, feared and resented for doing their job without consulting those whom its outcome is bound to affect, can be burnt —

After all, asylum seekers and “economic migrants” are collective replicas (an alter ego? fellow travellers? mirror images? caricatures?) of the new power elite of the globalized world, widely (and with reason) suspected to be the true villain of the piece. Like that elite, they have no tie to any place, are shifty and unpredictable. Like that elite, they epitomize the unfathomable “space of flows” where the roots of the present-day precariousness of the human condition are sunk…. That elite is much too powerful to be confronted and challenged point-blank, even if its exact location were known (which it is not). Refugees, on the other hand, hapless and helpless, are a clearly visible, sitting and easy target for unloading the surplus anger… (Bauman, Liquid Times, p. 48)

While forced into an approximation of the feral state, the refugee rarely can assume the feral condition with full rigor. It is a reckless path, this embrace of namelessness, this resort to cunning, this fluent asociability. At its most terrible, it may be glimpsed in the anomie-driven insurgencies of recent years, from Iraq’s Mahdi Army in 2004 to the rioting shoplifters of London in 2011 — intransitive insurrections, incomprehensible to domesticated sensibilities. And yet in a time when the poles of possibility are the camp-dweller on the one hand and the Gulfstream passenger on the other, a creative and urgent application of feral tactics might be the basis of an efficacious approach to life, art, and politics. Its effects may be fertile and liberating: look for it in the namelessness of 4chan and Anonymous; look for it in the technological cunning that evades the pretenses of property and enclosure, from the creative commons to the Pirate Bay; look for it in the autistic, incomprehensible street art that turns walls into figurative borders, points of exchange between the real and the impossible. In any case, we should presume that the feral will only gain in importance in years to come. For as power evades the work of politics, infiltrating the circuits that connect consciousness to consciousness; as the planet urbanizes, filling up with walls to hem us in; as the climate tilts inexorably under the deranging influence of that preeminent domesticated species, Homo sapiens; all creatures must learn to cultivate the feral qualities.


Books discussed in this essay: The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, 1903; The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson, 1982; The Fox, by D. H. Lawrence, 1923; The Mountain Lion, by Jean Stafford, 1947; Liquid Times: LIving in an Age of Uncertainty, by Zygmunt Bauman, 2006.

a version of my discussion of Tove Jansson appeared in my review of Jansson’s novels The True Deceiver and Fair Play on August 17, 2011 at the Barnes & Noble Review.

Image: Grønlandshund’s scelet (1) by Petr Brož.

I am grateful to Joshua Glenn, Alan Jacobs, Tim Maly, James Parker, and Andrew Sempere, who offered challenging and useful comments on the work in draft.

This essay is for Marisol.


In 2012, HiLoBooks will serialize, then reissue in beautiful paperback form (in May; PRE-ORDER NOW), Jack London’s 1912 science fiction novel The Scarlet Plague. Introduction by HILOBROW’s Matthew Battles. More information here.