Thursday, March 20, 2014

True to being

Christopher McCandless, immortalized in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, was an idealist and a romantic. He saw the world he grew up in as materialistic, corrupt, superficial, consumed with banality, dissociated from its truth. He believed by “going Galt,” by divesting himself of society’s trappings he could discover his essential nature.

After college graduation McCandless forsook his belongings, his car, his money, his relationships, and his name, and he tramped around the western United States for 2 years. He never stayed in one place for very long. The remoter, the better. Logically, he came to view the majestic wilderness of Alaska as his ultimate baptismal pool, where “the climactic battle to kill the false being within,” in his words, would be won.

So, to Alaska he went in the spring of 1992. He survived in the Denali Wilderness for a time, but he eventually succumbed to the elements and starved to death. He was 24 years old.

In the biographical movie Sean Penn made about McCandless’s life, McCandless tells his friend Wayne Westerberg:

“I’m going to be all the way out there on my own. No watch, no map, no axe, nothing. Just be out there in it... you know, in the wild.”

[Westerberg:] “What are you doing when you’re there?”

“You’re just living, man. You’re just there in that moment... Maybe when I get back I can write a book about my travels, about getting out of this sick society... You know what I don’t understand? I don’t understand why people—why every person is bad to each other so often. It doesn’t make sense to me: judgment, control, all that...”

“What people are we talking about?”

“You know: parents, hypocrites, politicians, pricks.”

McCandless’s anger at society is relatable. The earth is fallen. Worldly concerns bend you if you’re lucky, break you if you’re not. To cope, many relish the simplicity of being alone in nature. There are two kinds of anger, though: righteous anger and retributive anger. McCandless’s anger is the latter. It’s the wrath of a boy turning his back on a world that fails to meet his high standards.

“What people are we talking about?” Westerberg asks. The hell his drinking mate describes does not reflect the homely South Dakota parcel they find themselves on. There are no parents, hypocrites, politicians, or pricks. There are only the lives they make for themselves, which as it turns out are pretty good, and the people they make it with, who are pretty good, too. The dissonance points not at the world as the cause of McCandless’s frustrations, but at himself.

Weeks before he died, McCandless highlighted this line in Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness: “He was right in saying that the only certain happiness is to live for others.” If this struck McCandless as true to being, it’s sadly ironic. He spent the final years of his life doing the opposite, shunning the company of others, getting lost inside himself in the minimal context of the wilderness, searching for happiness in the one place he would not find it. The answer was before him all along, he was just too proud to see it.

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