Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy; will not drive us hence;
Here we may reign secure; and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in hell:
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.
-Paradise Lost, Milton
At the heart of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf is a juxtaposition between the moral and the unmoral. Morality is commonly accepted as the individual’s internalized sense of right and wrong, some of which is inherited knowledge, the rest what he progressively carves out for himself over a lifetime of experience. But perhaps because we belong to the same species, just as how we expect one person’s interpretation of the color yellow to be near-identical to another’s, we have also come to expect a generic, one size fits all definition of morality. In doing so, we have not only implicitly violated the individual’s sovereignty but we have also conflated morality with ethics, the latter being little more than the rules of conduct without which society cannot reasonably function. Ethics, however, are an artificial construct, imposed from outside and devised through consensus, and therefore lie some ways distant from an individual’s core constitution when compared to morality which is, or ought to be anyway, developed organically. And yet we never lag in denouncing behavior falling outside the framework of this paradoxical morality instructed through convention by calling it immoral, when in fact the correct term in most cases would be unethical. Or, in the case of The Sea-Wolf‘s Wolf Larsen, unmoral.
The Sea-Wolf was written to be a bildungsroman, a coming of age story for its once-soft narrator Humphrey van Weyden. His extraordinary circumstances also provide London with the pretext for celebrating the eventual, to him inevitable, triumph of altruism and shared labour over dog-eat-dog Darwinism. Shipwrecked and rescued by a sealing ship off the coast of San Francisco, he is thrust from a sedentary life of high culture into unimaginably rough surroundings. The ship’s crew envies and jeers at him by turn, finding him unsuited for the predominantly physical work of sailing and detesting him for his privileged upbringing, but compounding matters for all concerned aboard is the presence of the captain, Larsen, a veritable force of nature, no less than any demigod, and treated with fear and loathing by all as such. He is van Weyden’s adversary and mental foil in this tale, their dialogues and verbal fencing fleshing out opposing personal philosophies in fine detail. Larsen is not a man to like, his deeds becoming increasingly difficult to justify as the narrative wears on, but he is a man to be reckoned with and one that all other men, reluctant as they may be to admit it, can’t help admiring in some dark corner of their primeval souls.
To Wolf Larsen, all life is chaos, into which we are upended without warning at birth as it were, but once alive, the greatest responsibility devolves upon us to continue living. Life is a lottery, never had before and never to be won again, and though you may share it with others, it is still your life alone and therefore to be treasured and preserved above all else as the great gift that it is. He likens it to “a ferment of yeast”, an inglorious pit of organisms constantly churning and striving against each other for survival on account of an elementary impulse to live. Van Weyden quizzes him whether that impulse is the soul and if so what of its claim to immortality, but to Larsen, there is no such thing as a soul; that impulse is consciousness itself, animating otherwise dead hunks of meat. As long as consciousness remains, thought remains and with thought, the lofty intellectual formulations such as the possibility of a soul and its immortality, but once consciousness and thought blink out, we go back into the slime without realizing our demise or that we ever existed in the first place.
Van Weyden makes the observation that the captain has devised his own code of right and wrong, ruled solely by what is in his direct interest, and lets no ulterior considerations deviate him from that path. In doing so, he is unfailingly committed to his conception of morality, and therefore he is as moral in his own way as the most upstanding and unimpeachable character in civilized society. Which but only begs the question whether society can function cohesively if each member adopted such an uncompromising, self-serving outlook towards life? Larsen’s situation is unique in that he plies his trade and lives his life on the open seas amidst coarse company, where he can be a law unto himself, where his brute strength aided to acute intelligence can settle nearly all contentious issues. How viable would such an attitude be among “refined” society with its layers of diplomacy and dissimulation? And will not those in society who view him as an outlier and a threat band together to destroy him the way they would to drive out a man-eater on the fringes of human settlement?
London certainly seems to think so. Larsen’s ship is almost always in a state of near-mutiny, and van Weyden himself consistently stands up to him despite his innate meek nature and eventually makes good his escape by working in tandem with a close companion. The author’s inference is clear, that man needs his fellow man to survive and thrive, that the bonds that join can beat the overbearing lash, and that pride always goes before the fall. As indomitable as Larsen seems on the outside, well-established and iron-clad though his convictions appear, there still is a deeply cut melancholy to him, an unsaid, perhaps even unadmitted, longing to rejoin the rest of the species and partake in their simple pleasures. But he knows it is too late for him and so he redoubles his commitment to his bleak philosophy. His end is pitiable and tragic for so great a figure, a gradual diminishing by degrees that bears mockingly accurate testimony to his view of life, that the essential impulse remains even as the cage of flesh around it wastes away. In all ways, he is the embodiment of the proud, rebellious Luciferian spirit, as van Weyden muses at another time in the book with Larsen resoundingly thundering in the foreground:
“He led a lost cause, and he was not afraid of God’s thunderbolts,” Wolf Larsen was saying. “Hurled into hell, he was unbeaten. A third of God’s angels he had led with him, and straightway he incited man to rebel against God, and gained for himself and hell the major portion of all the generations of man. Why was he beaten out of heaven? Because he was less brave than God? less proud? less aspiring? No! A thousand times no! God was more powerful, as he said, Whom thunder hath made greater. But Lucifer was a free spirit. To serve was to suffocate. He preferred suffering in freedom to all the happiness of a comfortable servility. He did not care to serve God. He cared to serve nothing. He was no figure-head. He stood on his own legs. He was an individual.”