Jack London, The sea wolf


Published by Diogenes, 2001


You do not have to introduce the Sea-Wolf. Most of us remember Raimund Harmstorf, who in 1971 squashed a potato with his bare hand in the title role of the four-part television adaptation of the same name. The model for this book was provided by Jack London, known to us as the author of countless thrilling novels. With his Sea-Wolf he has created a hero who gets under the skin and sticks in the mind.


He is strong, intelligent, handsome, self-confident and absolutely unscrupulous. To Captain Wolf Larsen, as the sea-wolf is called by his common name, no life other than his own is important. Anything useful to him is good; anything that compromises him is bad. He is living his life by this simple maxim, without caring about anything at all. And so, he treats the castaway Humphrey van Weyden as ‘human material’ fate has provided him with. He does not put him ashore, in accordance with customs and decency, but rather fills his own ranks with him. First as a cabin-boy, then as a helmsman. After all, Larsen is fascinated by the idealistic intellectual. He wants to convert him to his own Darwinian approach to life. He wants to break him and make him become a devoted supporter of materialism.


Humphrey van Weyden resists, not only in words, but in deeds. He is the counter-draft to Wolf Larsen. He believes in his ideals, a human soul and the dignity inherent in every man. He remains decent and lives the Christian maxim that the true nature of a person reveals itself in the way he treats his enemies.


When the tables turn and Larsen – blind and paralyzed – is left at his mercy, van Weyden treats him as a human being, cares for him, nurses him, even though Larsen tries to kill him. During a storm, Larsen dies and van Weyden gives him a decent burial. It is not the strong, unscrupulous sea-wolf who prevails but the humanity of a van Weyden.


With his book, Jack London rejects Nietzsche and his concept of the superhuman, which was and still is a much-discussed idea. At the end of the day, neither strength, intelligence, self-confidence nor knowledge can prevent Wolf Larsen from falling. Thus, at some point in life, even the strongest, the most intelligent person will face a situation when he will depend on the help of others. As fascinated as we may be by the concept of a superhuman, as ridiculous and pitiful such a superhuman becomes once he has lost his strength due to illness or old age.


And here we have arrived at the immortal message of the Sea-Wolf, which should be part of the compulsory reading for our era so obsessed with youth: strength fades away. Everyone will rely on help eventually.


And if you are unwilling to admit it, you will end up like Raimund Harmstorf, the Sea-Wolf actor who had squashed potatoes with his bare hand once and hanged himself in 1998 because he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and psychosis.


Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Annika Backe

Signet Sunflower Foundation