Look into the eyes of the wolf. What does it see?
On 29th August 2016, shortly after the announcement of Steve Bannon’s appointment as Donald Trump’s new campaign CEO, The New Yorker ran a cartoon by Paul Noth. It shows a large billboard standing in a field of grazing sheep. Upon it is a wolf in a business suit with a gentle smirk across his face. “I’m going to eat you,” it reads in capital letters. Two of the sheep pause their grazing to look up at the image. “He tells it like it is,” says one to the other.
Two representations of animals, side by side. One the one hand, the sheep: numerous, anonymous, passive, stupid. On the other, the wolf: undoubtedly cunning (the human clothes, that half smile), but driven, like sheep, only by appetites. As they graze contentedly, the wolf plans his next meal. But while the sheep are presented to us directly, the wolf appears to the viewer through the medium of advertising. With his image reproduced and disseminated, the wolf becomes potent even in his absence. While it’s easy to privilege the power of the direct experience, sometimes it is the things that remain unseen which exert the most influence. A hatred of refugees, say, by those who have never met any. Or, indeed, death. How many hillsides bear this wolfy grin?
It was in the aftermath of this cartoon and Trump’s subsequent election victory that The Learned Pig launched an open call for this Wolf Crossing editorial season. Many other influences were at play too: an interview with Finnish artist Terike Haapoja and writer Laura Gustafsson in 2014; the pair’s latest collaboration, the elegantly devastating Museum of Nonhumanity; a 1913 painting by Franz Marc, The Wolves (Balkan War); a 1987 photograph by Josef Koudelka of a lupine dog in Parc de Sceaux, south-west of Paris; the writings of Sarah Maitland, Mark Rowlands, Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway; Moshe Gammer’s The Lone Wolf and the Bear; Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time; the series of Reliquiae journals published by Corbel Stone Press. In 2015-16, I was working on an exhibition of art and archive material relating to the division between the suburbs of Finland and what is called “the wild”. The wolf became something of a preoccupation. The exhibition, however, was cancelled, and so this Wolf Crossing season became a new way to keep some of those thoughts alive.
We launched the Wolf Crossing open call in November and were quickly overwhelmed by the number and quality of the submissions. I’m very grateful to contributing editors Crystal Bennes, Camilla Nelson and Hestia Peppe for their work in fine-tuning the open call and all The Learned Pig’s contributors for helping to spread the word. We received around three times as many submissions as for our last open call, Clean Unclean, in 2014-15.
An anonymous poem emphasised the similarity between Chechen fighters and wolves: hungry and outnumbered but free from the shackles of communist Russia.
Over the next few months, we will be publishing a packed programme of editorial across The Learned Pig: essays and art, photography and poetry, fiction, non-fiction, music, interviews and illustrations. There are crossings from Britain to Spain, and from Spain to America. Questions of quotation, translation, or immigration are never far away. The paintings of Phill Hopkins engage directly with the economics and politics of crossings. So does the travel writing of Ellie Broughton, penned in the aftermath of Brexit. But the politics of most contributions are for the most part indirect or unspoken. Perhaps the wording of the open call suggested other, more fertile directions; perhaps it reflects the fact that, while much contemporary nature writing concerns itself with the entanglement between the natural and the human, for many, nature still remains a place to escape to.
Unsurprisingly, comparatively few contributions detail an actual encounter with a real, living wolf – right there, in the flesh. CC O’Hanlon has a spectral, night-time experience with a lone wolf in a vineyard in the Charente; Jonathan Ingram is snuffled by a wolf while out running in Connecticut; and Louise Pallister watches as a zoo-bound wolf springs to life at the prospect of human prey. This scarcity of direct encounter reflects the plight of the wolf – hounded (often literally) from Europe, extinct in the UK. Newspapers like to say that wolves are on the rise again, but only from the nadir of the 1980s and ‘90s. This scarcity also reflects The Learned Pig’s own readership and contributor demographic: mostly European, North American, white, urban. Russia and Kazakhstan are home to the most of the world’s wolf populations. None of our contributors live in either.
For them therefore, as for many, the wolf will never be an animal encountered directly. It is, instead, a symbol, a motif, a metaphor – running through the literature of the past (as in the essays of Erin Cunningham or Liam Lewis) or resurrected as a modern myth, as in Lucy Menon’s revisionist fairytale or Florence Sunnen’s supermarket transformation. Like the wolf itself, this symbolism has roamed far and wide, never precisely under human control. In fact, in many places, the symbol of the wolf has been precisely about control, or lack of it. The wolf has, in many places, come to stand for everything wild, and its fortunes have therefore fluctuated with changing conceptions of wildness: from something to be feared, flushed out, and exterminated to, suddenly, now, a symbol of all that has been lost, of what mankind has destroyed in the name of progress or civilisation. Now that it has all but disappeared, the wild is suddenly to be cherished.
In other places, identification with the wolf follows an inverse trajectory. In Chechnya, the wolf had long been a symbol of bravery and loyalty. In the apparently endless fight against Russian oppression, Chechens actively championed an image of themselves as wolves. An anonymous poem widely memorised during the Soviet era emphasised the similarity between Chechen fighters and wolves: hungry and outnumbered but free from the shackles of communist Russia. As the Russians redrew national boundaries, suppressed the native language, forcibly relocated Chechens to Siberia and introduced Russian settlers in their stead, the wolf remained a vital symbol. “The wolf is the only creature that dares to take on someone stronger than himself,” wrote Chechen author Lema Usmanov, “And he always dies facing his enemy.” After independence, the wolf was chosen as the emblem of the new republic. Then the Russians returned.
In Finland too, the wolf is tightly entangled with relations with Russia. During the civil war, which followed the Russian revolutions of 1917, working-class women were described as “she-wolves” by the White right-wing forces. The Reds were supplied with weapons by Soviet Russia; the Whites were spearheaded by Jägers, elite light infantry specially trained in Germany. Today, the situation has been flipped: the nationalist right look to Russia for support; the liberal left turn nervously towards NATO. Meanwhile, real wolves roam back and forth across the 833-mile border, only to be shot by hunters with high-powered rifles and special permits.
Inside Russia, the wolf has meant as many things as that vast territory has had ideologies. For the first-hand narrators of Alexievich’s dazzling complex, beautiful, heart-breaking Second-Hand Time, the wolf is capitalism, the wolf is Nazism. It is the “bruisers in tracksuits” who filled the streets after Perestroika, it is Stalin’s youth policy. Today, a gang of lavishly state-funded, pro-Putin bikers calling themselves the Night Wolves fight for Russia in the Ukraine and flog wolf-logo jewellery online.
By contrast, Diane Howse shows that the wolf need have nothing to do with wars and wildness. Her photo essay from Mount Mitsumine in Oku-Chichibu explores a traditional Japanese reverence for the wolf as a messenger of the spirits and a protector of crops from deer. A number of other contributors focus on the she-wolf: likewise a figure for a protective instinct so strong that, in the myth of Romulus and Remus at least, it crosses boundaries between species. Could this championing of the wolf’s protective streak encourage a renewed appreciation of an animal whose numbers have been plummeting since the Middle Ages? Or must civilisation always feel itself under threat?
“Politics supposes livestock,” wrote Jacques Derrida, somewhat gnomically, in “But as for me, who am I (following)?” The wolf crosses borders, frustrates the urge to define the world in terms of private property, to draw lines, erect hedgerows, fences, walls. The wolf, like the ghost, walks its own paths. But civilisation often begins with wild violence: Cain murdered Abel; Romulus slew Remus. In killing livestock, the wolf threatens politics itself. It arrives as a wildness that is not simply opposed to order but that crosses the very borders which order erects around itself. A wildness that always exceeds the wild.
The wolf crosses borders, frustrates the urge to define the world in terms of private property, to draw lines, erect hedgerows, fences, walls. The wolf, like the ghost, walks its own paths.
In this light, it’s worth taking another look at that Paul Noth cartoon: not, it turns out, a wolf dressed as a human, but a human in a wolf mask. The wolf, like the human, can cover its tracks. But, as Derrida suggests throughout The Beast and the Sovereign, if there is one thing that is “proper to man”, that differentiates us from “the beast”, it is precisely the capacity for bêtise – stupidity, cruelty, blind, unthinking, nonsensical, sadistic, animal idiocy. In the end, as one middle-aged woman in Second-Hand Time recalls Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany: “You’ll learn a lot from living through a war… There is no beast worse than man.” If this is a lesson we can learn from the words and images of others, then we ought to count ourselves lucky.
I look again into the eyes of the wolf, staring out from the top of the page. Rebecca Clark’s exquisite drawing is cropped right down to the essentials of the face-to-face encounter. What does (s)he see? How should I respond?
The gaze of those pale blue eyes feels at once accusatory, intimidating, vulnerable, curious. In Clark’s own words, the eyes “suggest a human – Western / Northern European – gaze that is both familiar and unsettling”. Clark tells me that pure-bred wolves do not have blue eyes: “pups are born with murky blue eyes which turn to bright blue at around three weeks. By around six to eight weeks of age, the pups’ eyes will turn green before reaching their adult colour”. Pale yellow, amber, orange, brown. Clark’s wolf could be a pup or a wolf-dog hybrid or something else altogether.
How should we respond? In the end, some divisions cannot be crossed. Each wolf is a wolf. But others can: in art or the imagination, if not yet out there in the world of reportable deeds. A wolf with human eyes. And still I will never know his thoughts, her thoughts, or how I ought to respond. Ethics do not exist as a grammar to be learned by rote. They begin here, each time in the question of the response.
The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season runs throughout spring and summer 2017. View everything published so far.
Image credits (from top):
Rebecca Clark, Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?, 2017, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 3.5 x 7 in.
Paul Noth, “He tells it like it is” cartoon for The New Yorker, 29th August 2016
Franz Marc, The Wolves (Balkan War), oil on canvas, 1913
Nadege Meriau, Untitled (Chasing Wolves), photograph, Finland, 2003