About Wild Animus
The Magic of Love
Q: Wild Animus tracks the obsessive quest of Ransom Altman, who, on leaving college, rejects a normal life, vowing instead to live—with his girlfriend Lindy—in a world of “inexhaustible desire.” Can you tell us more about your protagonist?
RS: It’s a unique time for most of us. That period between 15 and 21 years of age. We discover what the magic of love is about, and what surrender is about. Ransom is making that discovery, and he arrives at some extreme conclusions.
Q: Would you say, keeping with the imagery of the text, that being in love is sort of like being chased by a pack of wolves?
RS: The notion that in love there is an element of self-destruction—a yielding up of the self in order to realize a participation in something greater—is familiar to many of us. Ransom perceives that if there’s going to be surrender between two individuals, then there will be a hunter and hunted. He develops a mythos around that, and tries to live it out.
“Everything in our urban world is human-sized. That fools us into a human-centric view of creation. The Alaskan wilds are a great antidote for that.”
A Human-Centric View
Q: Is that why Ransom and Lindy head north to the Alaskan wilderness—to have an encounter with the hidden depths of the human heart?
RS: Wilderness is the place where superficialities are stripped away and what’s fundamental rises to the surface.
In the wilds, you can get a visceral sense of what the world was like before human civilization arose. The big mammals are important. The breadth of scale is important, especially in the mountains. At your feet, you see tundra plants that are miniscule. Then you look up at icefalls that rise a mile into the sky, or ranges that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Everything in our urban world is human-sized. That fools us into a human-centric view of creation. The Alaskan wilds are a great antidote for that.
A Grand, Precarious Existence
Q: Ransom becomes captivated with animals in the wild—specifically Dall sheep and wolves. Do these animals also appeal to you?
RS: Of the mammals on our planet, Dalls live at the elevation limit. To see them—between storms, on these precipices at five to eight thousand feet—it’s incredible. Their world, the vistas they see, the life they lead— It’s a grand, precarious existence. Full of danger.
Wolves are part of that world. Coursing through the mountains, looking for prey. If you’re hiking and climbing in a place like Mt. Wrangell, you’ll see Dall sheep regularly. I’ve been fortunate in getting very close to some of them. The experiences were memorable.
As for wolves, I spent a fair amount of time with a couple of packs in northern Minnesota. I was assisting David Mech, the wolf researcher, and had an opportunity to experience them at close quarters.
“What could be more natural than for humans to identify themselves with an animal that seems to mirror their temperament? Detroit has used this for years to sell cars.”
Q: Would you say that Ransom’s imagined transformation into a wild creature, though extreme, takes its cue from our human tendency to identify on a deep level with animals?
RS: The world is like a big chest full of totems, and we get to pick out one that suits us. Every emotional state open to our experience can be witnessed in other animals. And different animals accentuate different states. What could be more natural than for humans to identify themselves with an animal that seems to mirror their temperament? Detroit has used this for years to sell cars.
Dog lovers decide which dog has the emotional makeup that suits them. “This is me! I’m a German shepherd,” or “I’m a dachshund,” or “I’m a beagle.” Of course, pet selection is more complicated than that. Often people choose a dog in opposition to their temperament, or to complement it. The amazing thing is the diversity: from the amiability of a spaniel to the viciousness of a Doberman.
Creation has done the same thing with the lifeforms on planet earth. If you look at any wilderness setting, you see a diversity of temperaments. A predator has one temperament, a grass-eater has a different one. If we take our own natures and regard them in that light, we can have a better understanding of who we are and who we might be.
Dismantling the Self
Q: Theories of animal behavior figured significantly in the thinking behind Wild Animus—particularly those related to courtship in nonhuman species. Can you elaborate?
RS: The way they act is the way we act. We’re cut from the same cloth. There are mysteries that are less mysterious once you look beyond the human race. In the ’70s, when I was trying to understand my own crazy state, I was deeply troubled by the answers I came up with. Then I read Tinbergen, and realized that it wasn’t madness. It was science.
The ethology literature is full of descriptions of animal behavior during courtship in which the animals put themselves at risk. The impulse to make the self vulnerable—to surrender—isn’t unique to the human race. It could hardly be otherwise. Self-preservation means defending the self. But in order to have offspring, you have to mate, and in order to mate you have to get intimate with a stranger. In the wilds, that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for us, too. We’re all really strangers. But, because our hearts are with those who risk everything for love, their death wishes are wonderful to us.
What it means to make yourself vulnerable, to participate in the dismantling of your self in order to realize a larger self in love— That’s pivotal for Ransom.
A State of Surrender
Q: That covers the “Wild” part. But what/who is “Animus”?
RS: Ransom is an idealist. He values ideas as paramount, more important than life itself. He commits himself to live in a state of surrender in a world “where the molten heart is always flowing,” which is his way of saying, “I felt a certain way during the moment of surrender with this love of mine, and I would like that state to be continuous and ongoing. Endless.”
That may not be a realistic view of things. But that is his objective, and Animus is his way of instantiating that as a goal or summit for his aspiration.
Q: Is Ransom inspired by a transcendent truth, or prey to a misguided fantasy?
RS: At some level, Ransom’s brand of idealism doesn’t work. But sometimes the greatest aspirations lie right beside the greatest pitfalls. And who isn’t in love, really, with great ideas?