Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature: With the Complete Text of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Lucien Malson

272924“Man’s genetic inheritance is quite formless until it has been given a shape by social forces, yet the direction of these forces themselves may always be changed by the intervention of consciousness” (24)

Fundamentally Marxist and existentialist argument against ‘human nature’ (and against racism (19), Malson’s Wolf Children offers further context for the late 50s and mid 60s assaults on transhistorical naturalisms in Foucault and other thinkers. The roots of Butler’s Gender Trouble, inter alia, can be found in here.

Malson–better known as a jazz writer!–is irredemably humanist. Humans alone, per Malson, can be completely altered; only humans can really be said to use tools (32), to have true intelligence (and here he uses Merleau-Ponty), or to make gifts. The savage character of feral children proves the open character of human: it is not that feral children ‘revert’ but rather that they lack what humans need to be human, namely, a society of their peers: “deprived of the society of others man becomes a monster. He cannot regress to his pre-cultural state, because such a state never existed” (35). Without hailing, without the symbolic, without historical thrownness, there is no human, at least per Malson: “the search for human nature among ‘wild’ children has always proved fruitless precisely because human nature can appear only when human existence has entered the social context” (12). “Pure thought” no more exists than the “purely human” (18); there is no universal human nature, nor are there “naturally existing” ethnic differences.

Truffaut clearly read this book: it’s the basis for his Wild Child, but also includes an anecdote of a child surviving a defenestration that appears in L’argent de poche.

The book includes Itard’s account of Peter of Aveyron, taken from the 1802 English translation.