LUMPENPROLETARIAT—GONZO: Unless you’ve been living under a rock—which, admittedly, for all the joys and rewards of domestic life and parenthood, life sometimes feels like—then, you’ve probably heard of Jon Krakauer‘s 1996 American non-fiction bestseller, Into the Wild. If not, then, you’ve likely heard of Sean Penn‘s 2007 film of the same name, starring Emile Hirsch and based on Krakauer’s book. Or you may have encountered other related documentaries. Some of us, at the very minimum, have. One, which made a notable impression on your author, documented Sean Penn and Jon Krakauer stopping by some remote Alaskan liquor store before traversing the same rivers and trails described by Krakauer, trails which venture off into the wild. And, looking for the scissors and tape this morning for some last-minute gift-wrapping, I happened across Krakauer’s book on my kid’s desk. Of course, I had to read it immediately (in moments between being present for the gift-wrapped family vibe).
Jon Krakauer painted a fascinating portrait of the enigmatic and tragic young man, who was born Chris McCandless but became Alexander Supertramp. Of course, as filmmaker Ron Lamothe has argued, we cannot take Krakauer’s conclusions as irrefutable fact or gospel, especially not from the first edition of Into the Wild circa 1996.
As Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison and Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara and countless people of colour, women, and others who lived and died in obscurity have come to find during that formative transition from childhood to adulthood, without a doubt, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It is how we respond to that realisation, which influences our character and the shape of our actions, which will flow therefrom. Do we acquiesce? Or do we rebel somehow? But, if we assume, as perhaps Ian‘s or Kurt‘s or Jim‘s parents seem to have assumed, that the capitalist-mode-of-production template for life, which awaits us all in our cloistered modernity, as we emerge into adulthood, if we assume this will always give meaning to human life, then the most sensitive souls among us will continue to be tragic symbols of longing for an apparently fading humanity or personal autonomy, as the rest conform or acquiesce or deal in half-measures of naive amelioration, the kind which Jonathan Kozol decried in Savage Inequalities, as our society heads into the brave new world of a petris dish existence.
Conformity to a petri dish existence is the opposite of the call of the wild. Opposition to a petri dish existence and the subversive call of the wild are what seem to have animated Alexander Supertramp. If he shunned the trappings of suburbia, and inner city life as well, it wasn’t because he was some sort of misanthrope. But it can be incredibly difficult for a principled young person to reconcile the ideals of humanity, which are taught in school, particularly at the college level, with the cynical crassness and vacuousness one encounters in the real world, that is to say in the realm of capitalist modes of production. But, away from the mainstream world of cookie-cutter houses and, as Ian Curtis sang, avenues all lined with trees, Alexander Supertramp found human beings of extraordinary humanity. “I meant it when I said you had one of the highest characters of any man I’d met”, he wrote to Wayne Westerberg, a man who would become one of Alex’s most cherished friends (33). Krakauer described Alex as having grown “enamored” of small-town life in Carthage, North Dakota, “a back eddy, a pool of jetsam beyond the pool of the main current”, and “its plebeian virtues and unassuming mien” (18). Writing in a stilted third-person of his Alexander Supertramp experiences, Chris McCandless wrote about his time in Mexico: “Alex finds the Mexicans to be warm, friendly people. Much more hospitable than Americans” (35). Krakauer also described McCandless and “his affinity for the lumpen” (33). McCandless wrote of Alexander Supertramp’s arrival in Las Vegas: “He lived on the streets with bums, tramps, and winos for several weeks” (37). Krakauer continued:
McCandless had been infatuated with [Jack] London since childhood. London‘s fervent condemnation of capitalist society, his glorification of the primordial world, his championing of the great unwashed—all of it mirrored McCandless’s passions. Mesmerized by London’s turgid portrayal of life in Alaska and the Yukon, McCandless read and reread The Call of the Wild, White Fang, “To Build a Fire“, “An Odyssey of the North“, “The Wit of Porportuk.” He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London’s romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness. McCandless conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he’d died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic, maintaining a sedentary existence that bore scant resemblance to the ideals he espoused in print. (44)
One may be reminded of the tragic tale of Timothy Treadwell, who similarly rejected (capitalist) society in favour of a doomed desire to commune with nature and, more specifically, wild bears. Of course, Treadwell appeared to have suffered from schizophrenia, or some form of mental illness, unlike Alex. And Treadwell didn’t necessarily yearn for solitude, as he convinced a woman to accompany him on his final Alaskan sojourn in bear country, which would prove fatal for them. But one thing is clear about Alexander Supertramp; like Jim Morrison before him, he completely rejected his father’s complete conformity to the status quo. In Jim’s case, he was born the son of a Navy admiral, who was involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident (or false flag attack). In Alexander Supertramp’s case, he was born the son of “an eminent aerospace engineer who designed advanced radar systems for the space shuttle and other high-profile projects while in the employ of NASA and Hughes Aircraft in the 1960s and ’70s” before going into business for himself (19-20). Graduating from university with honours (like me), he was unresponsive to his invitation to become a member of Phi Beta Kappa (also like me). Jim Morrison, for his part, famously skipped his university graduation ceremony and shunned his college degree. They say, you better ask somebody. But, no longer under the influence of parents slaving away in the capitalist grind, who would influence you to pursue the same, an idealistic youth (or adult re-entry student) would view such invitations with suspicion. The idealist shuns the rat race. But how far can one run to find some kind of utopia? And, as Sean Penn, playing First Sgt. Edward Welsh in The Thin Red Line, poetically asked of his idealistic charge: What difference do you think you can make, one man, in all this madness?
Perhaps, that’s the problem. There is only the odd person of conscience here and there. But, overall, the Western tribe has gone mad, or fallen asleep. Reality is far too much weight to bear for a single pair of shoulders, or even for many when they exist in isolation. Let’s read Into the Wild, cover to cover, and learn more.
UPDATE—[2 JAN 2017] Okay, now that we’ve read the book (first edition, in my case) or seen the movie, here come the spoilers. (Stop reading now, if you haven’t.) In the two decades since the first edition was published in 1996, there has been growing interest in the story of Chris “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless. As new information has been made public, it seems McCandless suffered a much more horrible death than anyone imagined. The debates around McCandless’ idealism, or incompetence, or whether he is worthy of the posthumous attention he has received, has kept him in the public imagination. For those, who understand what it’s like to be, or to have been, maladjusted, McCandless’ story has always had a deeper resonance. For Krakauer, his interest in McCandless didn’t end with the success of Into the Wild, an American national bestseller. He has continued to devote time, energy, and resources into solving the mystery of McCandless’ tragic death by starvation. Given the parallels Krakauer recognised between McCandless’ life and his own, as well as the immense research he conducted for the book, he has never believed McCandless commited suicide.
A September 2013 article by Krakauer in The New Yorker has brought new information to light, which suggests that McCandless actually suffered a form of paralysis in his final days brought on by the consumption of wild potato seeds, which are safe to eat in a well-nourished person, but can be toxic to someone on the verge of starvation, which McCandless seemed to be at the time. Krakauer cited Ronald Hamilton’s paper, The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless:
It might be said that Christopher McCandless did indeed starve to death in the Alaskan wild, but this only because he’d been poisoned, and the poison had rendered him too weak to move about, to hunt or forage, and, toward the end, “extremely weak,” “too weak to walk out,” and, having “much trouble just to stand up.” He wasn’t truly starving in the most technical sense of that condition. He’d simply become slowly paralyzed. And it wasn’t arrogance that had killed him, it was ignorance. Also, it was ignorance which must be forgiven, for the facts underlying his death were to remain unrecognized to all, scientists and lay people alike, literally for decades.
So, it seems McCandless did, indeed, starve to death, but only because he was suffering from a form of food-poisoning paralysis, which rendered him incapacitated. And it wasn’t because McCandless was incompetent, or arrogant, as some have suggested, that he didn’t have adequate respect for the land. Yes, it’s true that he went in underprepared, but had it not been for a plant toxicity, which was unknown to “scientists and lay people alike”, he would’ve survived his Alaskan odyssey. He died because of an unknown crucial fact about the wild potato plant. The academic and “exhaustively researched field guide to the region’s edible plants, Tanaina Plantlore / Dena’ina K’et’una: An Ethnobotany of the Dena’ina Indians of Southcentral Alaska, by Priscilla Russell Kari”, which McCandless relied on, didn’t report that fact. In a sense, it wasn’t the wild, that failed him. It was his faith in books over experience. As Krakauer noted in 2013,
Had McCandless’s guidebook to edible plants warned that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contain a neurotoxin that can cause paralysis, he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the wild in April, and would still be alive today.
So, it seems McCandless wasn’t the arrogant idiot, who didn’t have enough respect for the land. It seems it wasn’t hubris, which killed him. It was simply the unknown, the wild. If McCandless was unprepared for his Alaskan Odyssey it was chiefly in his lack of a topographical map. In Krakauer’s first edition of Into the Wild, he described how McCandless’ journals indicate that, once McCandless decided to return to civilisation to actuate the epiphanies he gained in the wild—whilst hunting and gathering and reading books—the Teklanika River had become unpassable, which forced him to return to his campsite and stay beyond the more bountiful summer season in the hopes that the glacial melt would subside enough for a safe crossing. Krakauer described his experience with crossing the Teklanika at full flow exactly one “year and a week after Chris McCandless decided to not attempt to cross the Teklanika River” (173):
Unlike McCandless, however, I have in my backpack a 1:63,360 scale topographic map (that is a map, on which one inch represents one mile). Exquisitely-detailed, it indicates that half a mile downstream, in the throat of the canyon, is a gauging station that was built by the U.S. Geological Survey (173).
This gauging station has “an inch-thick steel cable spanning the gorge, stretched between a fifteen-foot tower on [one] side of the river and an outcrop on the [other], four hundred feet away” (173). This cable is outfitted with an aluminum basket suspended from the cable with pulleys. And the basket, capable of carrying more than one person, was fixed on McCandless’ western side of the Teklanika River. So, McCandless would not have even needed to perform a Tyrolean traverse, as Krakauer did with rock-climbing hardware in order to pull himself across the Teklanika and free the aluminum basket, so that his three companions could also cross. McCandless would have simply found the basket waiting for him on his side of the river. But, of course, with a map in hand, one would not be walking into the wild. One would be walking into charted territory. For McCandless, that would’ve been cheating. McCandless refused an airplane flight out to Alaska from a friend he met on the road, who was concerned for the young man’s safety. McCandless insisted on hitchhiking and roughing it all the way to the Alaskan wild.
By design McCandless came into the country with insufficient provisions, and he lacked certain pieces of equipment deemed essential by many Alaskans: a large-caliber rifle, map and compass. This has been regarded as evidence not just of stupidity but of the even greater sin of arrogance (180).
An interesting aspect of Into the Wild is the revelation that McCandless’ death was not unique. Various examples are given of others, who sought supreme communion with nature, which proved fatal. Some had been arrogant and careless. But McCandless was different. “McCandless’s arrogance was not of the same strain” as those historical examples, who “regarded nature as an antagonist that would inevitably submit to force, good breeding, and Victorian discipline” (181).
Instead of living in concert with the land, instead of relying on the country for sustenance as the natives did, [those types] attempted to insulate [themselves] from the northern environment with ill-suited military tools and traditions. McCandless, on the other hand, went too far in the opposite direction. He tried to live entirely off the country—and he tried to do it without bothering to master beforehand the full repertoire of crucial skills (181-182).
It probably misses the point, though, to castigate McCandless for being ill-prepared. He was green, and he overestimated his resilience, but he was sufficiently skilled to last for sixteen weeks on little more than his wits and ten pounds of rice. And he was fully aware when he entered the bush that he had given himself a perilously slim margin for error. He knew precisely what was at stake (182).
This need for testing oneself “in ways, as [McCandless] was fond of saying, ‘that mattered'” is where Krakauer’s personal insights prove invaluable to understanding Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless, whose ideals could only be consummated in such a way (182). “McCandless, in his fashion, merely took risk-taking to its logical extreme” (182). As Krakauer has described from his own personal experiences with the Stikine Ice Cap (133-156), individuals, who have engaged in high-risk activities, which verge on the spiritual or transcendental, know that such activities are not necessarily examples of suicidal behaviour.
It would be easy to stereotype Christopher McCandless as another boy who felt too much, a loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense. But the stereotype isn’t a good fit. McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself—more, in the end, than he could deliver.
That is the admirable reality about Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless, which exemplified a naïveté, which ultimately proved fatal; but it also exemplifies for the whole world a wisdom beyond the young man’s years, from which we all may learn. Krakauer’s book only scratches the surface of that wisdom. To gain a fuller sense of McCandless’ insights, since he didn’t survive his Alaskan odyssey to write about himself, we must read the books he read, travel some of the roads and trails he travelled, get outdoors, and heed—to whatever degree we can manage—the call of the wild.
[Into the Wild book cover image by source, used via fair use.]
[25 DEC 2016]
[Last modified at 09:24 PST on 3 JAN 2016]