- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.4 (2005) 681-686
[Access article in PDF]
Humanity Gone Wild
James A. Steintrager
How have the boundaries of humanity historically been constituted? This is the question that drives all four of these studies. The general answer they give is that this occurs through negation: those who are not, for whatever reason, granted fully human status define what it is to be truly human. To Locke's constant reference to "idiots, children, and savages" as counterexamples in his aptly titled An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, these works add that amalgam of all three, the wild child, along with the physically disabled, women, apes, and a variety of other not-quite-humans. Yet inasmuch as such creatures resemble those who are fully human and claim a share of their characteristics, they tend to trouble the boundaries of humanity at the same time they establish them. [End Page 681]
The starring group of Michael Newton's Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children is clear. The individual cases most relevant to the eighteenth-century specialist are, in order of appearance: Peter, who emerged from the woods of Hanover in 1724, ended up as a living curiosity in George's London court, and found himself abruptly retired to the countryside; Marie-Angélique le Blanc, who was captured in the forest of Soigny in 1731, went on to converse with nobles and philosophers, then lapsed for the most part into obscurity; and Victor, who, after failed attempts, was finally taken in Aveyron in 1800, becoming the subject of Jean Marc Itard's pedagogical and scientific ministrations. Before coming to these celebrities, however, Newton with broad brushstrokes introduces his reader to the longstanding fascination with feral children: Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf, the folk tradition of Valentine and his brother Orson, Kipling's Mowgli, right up to recent human-interest stories about wild boys in post-Communist Moscow and strife-torn Uganda.
As to the endurance of this interest in feral children and their relations (e.g., extraterrestrials), Newton suggests that their hold on us resides in their promise to provide an answer to the question of what the human is. The different ways in which this question has been formulated and sometimes answered make up the remainder of the study. With Peter of Hanover, we see the insertion of the feral-child myth into the framework of the new science, where it provokes the issue of the place of the soul in an empiricist, materialist world. With Memmie le Blanc, the wild child becomes increasingly racialized and thus bears witness to the racialization of humanity itself. With Victor, Itard is forced to reexamine his assumptions about human malleability—the inheritance of Locke, Rousseau, and Condillac—as his pedagogy fails. Then we come to Kaspar Hauser, a mysterious youth who some suggested was the legitimate heir to the throne of Baden and others thought a willful imposter cashing in on the interest in foundlings. With Hauser, we arrive at the Romantic interpellation of the wild child as wonder, and it is noteworthy that Newton more than once puts his historical theses aside and acquiesces in the notion that feral children ultimately fascinate us because they tap into our sense of the marvelous, making this one of the true, positive marks of humanity. There is a tension here between historical method and a desire to draw universal conclusions that...