Saturday, September 28, 2013

In 1990, a 22-year-old student named Christopher McCandless graduated from Emory University with a degree in history and anthropology.  He was in possession of a substantial trust fund, which his family hoped he would use to attend law school.  Instead, he donated the fund to charity, ceremonially burned his remaining cash, cut off all communication with his friends and family, and became a drifter, hitchhiking across the US, taking odd jobs, and renaming himself "Alexander Supertramp".  By late April 1992, he had found his way to Alaska, where he decided to head into the wilderness to live off the land, despite being woefully ill-equipped and completely lacking in wilderness survival skills.  He was dead of starvation by summer's end.

Viewed as a case study, this simple outline strongly suggests a tragic but depressingly familiar pattern:  the early stages of severe mental illness, symptoms of which typically appear during young adulthood, and can include identity confusion and compulsive, antisocial behavior.  But when a writer named Jon Krakauer somehow got ahold of McCandless' story--including a diary disjointedly documenting his wanderings--he found McCandless' professions of anti-materialism and alienation from society more inspiring than disturbed.  In tribute, Krakauer penned a long article on McCandless' fatal journey, which he later turned into a book called Into the Wild, the latter also inspiring a film adaptation directed by Sean Penn.  In both the book and film versions, McCandless is portrayed as a brilliant, idealistic young man disgusted with conventional society and eager to "find himself" through renunciation of material comforts, rejection of social mores and obligations, and solitary communion with nature.  Even his most erratic behaviors--that is, the ones that most strongly suggest mental disturbance--are portrayed rather as examples of his determination and purity of purpose.

Particularly prominent in Krakauer's telling of McCandless' tale is his theory that McCandless died of starvation not due to inability to fend for himself in the Alaskan wilderness, but rather because of the effects of some poisonous seeds he'd been eating, believing them to be safe.  An earlier hypothesis about the particular plant and toxin responsible having been proven incorrect, Krakauer has recently proposed an alternative culprit, and claims to have laboratory evidence supporting his new theory.

But Krakauer's obsession with the precise details of McCandless' death is misplaced.  It seems as if Krakauer believes that if he can only prove that McCandless died accidentally by ingesting the wrong seeds, then his entire thesis about McCandless being an inspirational hero rather than a deeply confused young man will be vindicated.  But let us suppose for a moment that Krakauer is correct, and McCandless had indeed succumbed to the toxins in some seeds he had eaten.  What would have happened if by some good fortune he'd managed to avoid those seeds?  One possibility is that he'd have continued his quest to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, and most likely subsequently perished in the harsh Alaskan winter, which he was completely unprepared to survive.  If there's a meaningful difference between that outcome and the actual course of events, I'm afraid it's lost on me.

Krakauer, on the other hand, apparently believes that "he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August",  and gone on to live a more or less normal life.  That's certainly possible--and would perhaps even have been probable, if McCandless had in fact been merely a na├»ve adventurer rather than a deeply troubled young man.  On the other hand, what would we make of McCandless' story--and Krakauer's reverent retelling of it--if it turned out, in the end, to be nothing but a rather reckless lark, a brief interlude of "wild man" survivalism in an otherwise unremarkable life story?

Krakauer's take on McCandless thus rests on a fundamental contradiction:  if McCandless' journey into the wild was a great and admirable quest, then we must acknowledge that it ended in abject failure, and draw the obvious conclusions.  On the other hand, if it was merely the tail end of a two-year spree of irresponsible youthful naivete, then why on earth would it merit Krakauer's heroic treatment?

Of course, it's not McCandless' death, accidental or otherwise, that truly inspires Krakauer's admiration.  Rather, it's McCandless' professed philosophy, which amounts to little more than a kind of obsessive worship of the self.  In his two years of wandering, McCandless shows no interest in any outward-directed higher purpose, such as helping humankind, increasing his understanding of the physical universe, or even connecting spiritually to a deity or deities.  His journey is a strictly internal voyage of self-discovery through isolation, contemplation, and rejection of all personal responsibility or obligation.  To most responsible adults, such a mission would not seem inspiring at all, but rather dull and self-indulgent (or, quite possibly, mentally unbalanced).

And that is why McCandless' alleged accidental death is so significant.  Had he succumbed to obvious reckless incompetence, or else lived to continue on his self-absorbed path, or even abandoned his life for a more conventional one, the pathological nature of his self-absorption would have been readily apparent.  By constructing a tragic accidental death for him, Krakauer was able to recast him as a heroic martyr to the religion of the self, where otherwise he would have been merely a living testimony to the falsity of its promise.