Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness–a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.
So begins White Fang, Jack London’s fine novel about the taming of a wolf-dog against backdrop of the Yukon territory of Canada, a novel of man’s struggle against the Great North. The common theme in much of London’s writing was the harsh unforgiving wilderness of the Northwest and man’s attempts, often futile, at taming it. For as long as something untamed has existed, man has wanted to explore it both as a platform for possible riches and as a vehicle of exploration into the self. The lure of the wilderness is powerful. Jacques Barzun in his epic historical work From Dawn to Decadence speaks of Primitivism and Emancipation as overarching themes of Western Civilization, ideas that appear continually with force throughout the last 500 years in Western culture. Primitivism is the desire to return to a simpler age than the advanced one we currently live in. Contrary to common belief, an appeal to Primitivism is centuries old. Emancipation, the freedom of the individual to explore his rights and abilities is another theme common to our civilization. We want to find ourselves, explore our inner child, discover our inner greatness unshackled by the contraints of civilization and a well paying job. Emancipation and Primitivism often go hand in hand in literature, the arts and the dreams of people sitting at desks staring at computers the world over. The idea of dropping everything and living life to its fullest is deceptively alluring.
This idea is central to Chris McCandless and the film Into The Wild. McCandless was (if you haven’t seen the film and hate spoilers, now would be the time to forget the tense of the last verb and go watch the film. I’ll still be here when you get back.) a young man who upon graduation from Emory University in 1990 gave away his entire savings and set out on a cross country trip that would culminate with a trip into the Alaskan wilderness two years later. McCandless’ story is expertly told by Sean Penn in the film. The viewpoint is entirely sympathetic to McCandless’ desire to drop out of the advanced society he seems to hate and glowingly details this return to Primitivism as a way of finding one’s self.
Most of us have dreamed of throwing caution to the wind in an undertaking modest society would find uncomfortable at best and insane at worst. Hiking the Appalachian Trail, swimming the English Channel, mailing the keys to the house back to the bank and driving down to Mexico to see if we can find Andy Dufresne sanding a boat on some windswept sparkling white beach. The desire to give up everything and hit the reboot button is ingrained in our collective psyche, almost instinctual (or maybe that’s just Microsoft’s world wide dominance since that’s the only way to cure a Windows PC sometimes). We find the thought of starting over strangely compelling. Of course the reason for that is it’s easier to start over than it is to fix something broken. This idea that if we could just start over, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes and things would be different is strong. None of us like to admit failure. Detachment from those failures, whether our own or others, is a strong impulse.
McCandless’ story is this desire for detachment from the problems of the past writ large. This is not the story of someone who decided to climb Everest or hike the Appalachian Trail. This is the story of a young man who felt betrayed by his parents and their treatment of him, not unjustifiably so. That betrayal manifested itself as total detachment from the society he saw as corrupt and wasteful. He took the easy road, severed all human ties with his parents and became a nomad. Early in the story, McCandless believes that happiness can be achieved without permanent human relationships. His love of nature and the world is highly Romanticized. He uses his belief that people are naturally terrible to each other as a springboard for his detachment. Only later, far too late, does he realize that happiness is most powerful when shared and that in fact it is Nature that is harsh and unfeeling. He wasn’t an adventurer contrary to his wikipedia page description. He was a reckless idealist, unprepared for almost everything he encountered who was fortunate in the two years running up to Alaska.
His story is compelling on several fronts. The generalized idea of dropping out to find oneself goes back 500 years or more and has a strong literary history in Thoreau, London and others. Here we have a man who left the creature comforts of his known existence and did just that. The moral themes of the story are also compelling. McCandless is said to have a powerful moral compass. He never forgives his parents for the lies and abuse. He refuses to sleep with an underage girl instead choosing to share in something she loves. He seems to touch everyone’s life for the better that he meets. Yet when it comes to his own survival, he chooses to leave it largely to chance. He walks into the Alaskan wilderness armed with a bag of rice, a fishing pole he doesn’t seem to ever use, a book on edible plants and a .22 caliber rifle. This is tantamount to suicide and one could argue a strongly immoral choice. This isn’t Thoreau living in a cabin in the woods. McCandless is woefully unprepared for the harshness of his chosen path. This isn’t a man dropping off the grid. It’s misguided idealism in place of adventure.
Eventually, he comes to the realization that human relationships are necessary for true happiness. As in any good tragedy, this realization comes too late. When he tries to return to civilization, the river he crossed in early spring is full with snow melt. He finds his way back to the camp he had been staying in and slowly starts to spiral into starvation and madness. His total lack of preparation leaves him uninformed of the fact that a quarter of a mile from where he tried to cross the now raging river is a hand cranked tram on which he could have easily crossed. He returns to his camp to eventually starve to death.
Is Chris McCandless a tragic hero? Aristotle said that the tragic hero has to be a man “who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” On the surface, McCandless’ tragic flaw is manifested in his total lack of preparation. Even a minute amount of knowledge about the area he was hiking into would have prevented his death. Even a tiny bit of critical thinking could have told him that a bus didn’t end up in the Alaskan tundra on its own (he lives in an abandoned bus for the 4 months he is there). We have a young man who seems exceptionally intelligent without the foresight to have a backup plan. His desire for total emancipation from civilization seems to divorce him of the ability to be prepared for not just the worst circumstance but even a slight bump in the road.
The scenes in the movie are breathtaking and the very real sense of adventure you get from McCandless’ travels is powerful. You do come to feel a strong sense of pity for him as the story unravels. That pity is twofold in nature. On the surface, the eventual realization concerning happiness and his inability to make good on that realization evokes the pity common with all tragic heros. But I found myself pitying him in a more subtle way as it relates to his apparent inability to form lasting relationships. People are just passing through his life and vice versa. The armchair psychologist could say that is a direct artifact of his relationship with his father. However, lots of people have crappy relationships with their parents and still live normal, adjusted lives. In McCandless and his realization of the tragic hero archetype, we have this more fundamental flaw at the heart of things. His lack of preparation in all things is a physical manifestation of his inability to form lasting relationships not just with people but with situations, locations, careers, etc.
That is why McCandless was a tragic hero, one that speaks to the rest of us in a meaningful way. Chris McCandless dies in the Alaskan wilderness because he couldn’t ever get over the fact that his father lied to him (and was possibly violent but the key theme to the story seems to be the lies). His desire for Emancipation leads him to walk into the wilderness without a map, a real weapon or even adequate shoes all because of this misguided desire to rely totally on his wits and abilities. The irony is that with the exception of his father (and that scary train guy), every other person in the story is fantastically good to McCandless. Yet he never realizes this in time to change. We associate with McCandless our own desire for Primitivism and Emancipation from problems created by people in our lives. But this is a mistake. Far better though harder to resolve the things that cause these desires.
Into The Wild is a great movie, one that raises age old questions of what it is to know one’s self. It is a story of tragedy, one beautifully told with the Primitivism of the Alaskan wilderness as a backdrop. You find yourself rooting for McCandless as you do with any tragic hero and his tragic flaw raises many of the same questions Thoreau and London did in their writing. It is a fascinating modern tale of the tragic hero.