I was reading out loud to my son on Thanksgiving holiday. We were snuggled into sleeping bags and blankets by the fire. Two sentences into his 1915 legend White Fang, Jack London writes:
A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild…
On the sled, in the box, lay a third man whose toil was over,—a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten down until he would never move nor struggle again. It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offence to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees till they are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terribly of all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man—man who is the most restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that all movement must in the end come to the cessation of movement…
On every side was the silence, pressing upon them with a tangible presence. It affected their minds as the many atmospheres of deep water affect the body of the diver. It crushed them with the weight of unending vastness and unalterable decree. It crushed them into the remotest recesses of their own minds, pressing out of them, like juices from the grape, all the false ardours and exaltations and undue self-values of the human soul, until they perceived themselves finite and small, specks and motes, moving with weak cunning and little wisdom amidst the play and inter-play of the great blind elements and forces.
Striking in its language, London employs the words of a systematic theology to describe the Incomprehensible Other of the frozen Wild: “silence,” “incommunicable wisdom of eternity,” “crushed weight,” and vast stillness. London writes of the Yukon and the Klondike as the scholastics wrote of the mysterium tremendum. The majestic immanence of the Wild reveals a horrifying transcendence.
At the end of chapter three, at a key narrative turn that could spell disaster for the protagonist before even coming into existence, London introduces a holy tautology: “But the Wild is the Wild…” Evoking the tetragrammaton of the Hebrew scriptures (“I Am is that I Am”), White Fang introduces readers to that which was, which is, and which is to come. The Wild is. The Wild is the Wild.
London is laying out his theology. The functional atheism of the Gold Rush cannot restrain the divine attributes of the frozen Wild. London’s characters are sinners in the hands of an angry Wilderness, at the mercy of its harshest elements. Where Captain Ahab faced an omnisciently cunning white whale, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley faced the Wholly Other of alien space, in London’s cosmos John Thornton (Call of the Wild), Weedon Scott (White Fang), and the chechaquo (“To Build A Fire”) face the most dangerous and omnipotent antagonist in the Wild. The divine presence is everywhere communicated in nature, and London writes of the eternal stillness of the frozen Wild for this purpose.
Salvation Among the Wolves
Riding the line of this boundary between divine nature and mortal tragedy are the protagonists, Buck (in Call of the Wild) and the eponymous White Fang. Early on, we discover that White Fang is actually a wolfdog, sired by a wolf father and wolfdog mother. This hypostatic union of feral wolf and domesticated dog is the main plot arc for White Fang, as the union of these two natures war for supremacy in the protagonist. Buck, who does not incarnate the two natures, tells the story of when a dog is predestined to remember its instinctual life in a wolf’s world.