I want to use this first of two posts on The Sea-Wolf to consider the character of Wolf Larsen, the radically individualist, amoral, and near psychopathic captain of the Ghost. Wolf Larsen is the Nietzscheian superman, the pinnacle of the Social Darwinian struggle for survival. He does not respect rank or blood. Wolf Larsen forces us to question whether someone can achieve the attractive characteristics of a radical individualist, without dominating others. Having reading much of London’s work in the past days, I find only two examples of the isolated individual – Wolf Larsen, the cruel and indifferent tyrant, and Martin Eden (or the protagonist in “To Build a Fire”), an isolated, exploited, and expendable victim. It seems these are two sides of the same coin. Wolf Larsen, if not in a situation when his particular sociopathy and brute strength would not aid him, could easily have been Martin Eden. Perhaps Wolf Larsen if Martin Eden if he had never left the ship and took up a literary career.
London published The Sea-Wolf in 1904, not long after his time as a journalist in London. It documents the experiences of Humphrey van Weyden, who was shipwrecked but saved by Wolf Larsen and the crew of Ghost, a sealing vessel. Wolf takes him aboard and refuses Humphey’s attempts to leave the ship because Wolf Larsen has an interest in his intellectual work. Larsen is an autodidact and interested in philosophy and literature. He also seems to want someone dependent on him as an ally against the his alienated crew. Van Weyden learns quickly that Larsen is a materialist, a bully, and amoral in his philosophy and the treatment of his crew. Van Weyden speaks often of killing Larsen but his philosophy does not allow it. During a battle between Larsen and his brother “Death Larsen,” van Weyden escapes the ship along with another intellectual rescued by Larsen Maud Brewster. They escape to a North Pacific island and await rescue. Eventually Larsen reappears with his ship but without a crew. He is sickened with headaches and strokes, which eventually incapacitate him. Van Weyden and Brewster care for him in his last days and respectfully dispose of his body. They are rescued.
There is much to respect in Wolf Larsen, if we allow ourselves to overlook his cruelty and exploitation of his crew and the natural environment. His world view does not allow deference based on money, title, hereditary, and rank. His autodidactisism is impressive and while his lack of formal education holds him back in some areas, he is the intellectual equal of the professional thinker van Weyden. He is intellectually curious, self-made. Like Ahab in Moby Dick his power over his crew comes not from title or rank but from the force of his personality. As we will recall, Ahad talked his crew into hunting the “White Whale.” His atheism and materialism ensures he looks at the world with a brutal honesty that is often lacking in softer visionaries. Larsen also faced his own death is a degree of nobility, not wavering from the worldview that got him through life.
The problem, of course, is the application of these talents and intellectual freedom. Wolf Larsen does not seem able to move beyond using his individualism and his very real powers to dominate those around him. When a sailor, Johnson, challenges Larsen (much like van Weyden often did), Larsen brutally beats him. Larsen probably agrees with London on the utter futility of cooperation and altruism in a Darwinian world. I see no evidence that London read Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, which shows that natural selection favors cooperation as much as it does conflict and struggle. Larsen certainly did not. “I held that life was a ferment, a yeasty something which devoured life that it might
live, and that living was merely successful piggishness. Why, if there is anything in supply and demand, life is the cheapest thing in the world. There is only so much water, so much earth, so much air; but the life that is demanding to be born is limitless. Nature is a spendthrift. Look at the fish and their millions of eggs. For that matter, look at you and me. In our loins are the possibilities of millions of lives. Could we but find time and opportunity and utilize the last bit and every bit of the unborn life that is in us, we could become the fathers of nations and populate continents. Life? Bah! It has no value. Of cheap things it is the cheapest. Everywhere it goes begging. Nature spills it out with a lavish hand. Where there is room for one life, she sows a thousand lives, and it’s life eats life till the strongest and most piggish life is left. . . . You know you only mean that in relation to human life, for of the flesh and the fowl and the fish you destroy as much as I or any other man. And human life is in no wise different, though you feel it is and think that you reason why it is. Why should I be parsimonious with this life which is cheap and without value? There are more sailors than there are ships on the sea for them, more workers than there are factories or machines
for them. Why, you who live on the land know that you house your poor people in the slums of cities and loose famine and pestilence upon them, and that there still remain more poor people, dying for want of a crust of bread and a bit of meat (which is life destroyed), than you know what to do with. Have you ever seen the London dockers fighting like wild beasts for a chance to work?” (534)
Wolf Larsen is like the global capitalist class in that he does not feel the need to justify his actions because they are simply the logical extension of natural law. This is the way the world is. I would be a sucker to not take advantage of it. To dream of alternatives where brutality and exploitation do not exist is a waste of energy.
My question: Does individualism lead either to being an exploiter who realizes her power over her neighbors, or the exploited, who failed to realize she needs others? It is my belief that individualism build upon a foundation of solidarity and community is one way to negotiate this dilemma. Unfortunately, we live in Wolf Larsen’s world and in Wolf Larsen’s world Wolf Larsen will rule. We need to create a world in which the tyrant — petty or grand — is not capable of existing.
And one final word. Wolf Larsen is a petty tyrant. For all of his impressive skills he can only dominate a small space: the Ghost. Maybe this is both a danger and a hope. In the end Wolf Larsen, dominating only a small space could do limited harm and could easily be taken down. The danger in a decentralized world of free association is a Wolf Larsen in every neighborhood.