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Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Wild Children (originally published 4/02)

For centuries, philosophers, scientists, and artists have grappled with a tantalizing question: what makes us human? Is it merely a matter of biology? What if a human infant were kept apart from all contact with other humans? Would he or she be recognizably human in ten or fifteen years? Obviously, scientists can't perform such an experiment. To subject a child to such abuse deliberately and under controlled conditions would say more about the humanity of the scientists than about the humanity of the subject.

Occasionally, however, a crude and uncontrolled form of this experiment occurs naturally. Documented cases of feral children, raised in the wild or otherwise cut off from human contact, are rare but not unheard of. When such cases come to light, scientists are left to wrestle with the ethics of capitalizing on the situation for research purposes.

Storytellers, on the other hand, are free to explore the question by creating fictional characters whom they may exploit as they please or by fictionalizing the lives of actual people while availing themselves of literary license. The literary tradition of "wild children" goes all the way back to the myth of Romulus and Remus, the fabled founders of Rome, who were nursed and raised by a wolf, according to legend. Other literary feral children include Tarzan of the Apes and Mowgli from Kipling's "The Jungle Book."

The recently released film "Human Nature" draws on this venerable tradition by following the tribulations of a research scientist, played by Tim Robbins, who is attempting to humanize a feral man who was raised in the wild. If you're intrigued by stories of this type and by the moral questions they raise, there are two foreign classics that you should look for on home video.

"The Wild Child" (1969). In January of 1800, near a village in the south of France, a boy who appeared to be about 12 years old was discovered living in the wild. He was mute and showed no sign of having ever known the society of other humans. The experts who examined him believed him to be unteachable, but a young doctor named Jean-Marc Itard believed otherwise. He arranged to care for the child, along with a hired housekeeper, and to undertake the task of teaching him. Although he wasn't entirely successful, the teaching methods he developed would later become, in part, the basis for the Montessori educational program. This film version of the true story of the "Wild Boy of Aveyron" was written and directed by French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. It was a personal film for Truffaut, who had himself been the product of a miserable childhood. He had been rescued from an almost certain life of petty crime by film critic Andre Bazin, who exploited young Truffaut's love of cinema to turn his energies into more productive avenues. In "The Wild Child," Truffaut seemed to be acknowledging his debt to the man who had tamed his own wildness.

"Every Man For Himself, and God Against All" (1975). Like Truffaut's film, this German picture is based on a true story from the 19th Century. The film's subject, Kaspar Hauser of Nuremberg, Germany, didn't grow up in the wild, however. Instead he was deliberately kept confined in a dark room by a shadowy figure who brought him food but never spoke to him. No one knows why this was done, although there has been speculation that Hauser might have been an unwanted royal offspring, who could have claimed the throne of Baden if he were allowed to live a normal life. In any case, he was mysteriously released in his late teens, utterly unprepared to fit into society. He proved to be quite teachable, but he never fully adapted to social norms. The film version of Hauser's story is by Werner Herzog, one of the fiery and driven young filmmakers who breathed new life into the German cinema during the 1970s. Interestingly, his viewpoint is different from Truffaut's. Hauser is presented as a kind of noble savage, whose unspoiled spirit is in many ways preferable to what society would impose on him. Truffaut, on the other hand, comes down clearly on the side of the civilizing process as the greater good for his wild child.

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