Thursday, October 25, 2007

Into the Wild

Date: Oct. 24
Mileage: 31.3
October mileage: 531.5
Temperature upon departure: 39
Rainfall: 0.30"

Last weekend, Geoff and I went to see “Into the Wild” with several friends. As we were walking out of the theater, I was just about to rave about the movie when my friends lit into the film’s subject, Chris McCandless. The conclusion they drew was that Chris was a “total douche” and the actor who played him was “not believable” but the movie was “OK.”

We didn’t have a chance to discuss it much further, but I wish we had. Of all of the books I’ve read, Chris McCandless is one of those literary figures that stuck with me, like Edward Abbey or the pseudonyms of Thomas Wolfe (because I’m drawn to creative nonfiction and biographies, most of my favorite literary characters were living, breathing people.) Like any favorite literary character, I saw pieces of myself in Chris McCandless and empathized with his pain and his joy. I read Jon Krakauer’s book long after it dropped off the best-seller list. I missed most of the fallout and didn’t follow the pre-release movie chatter. So I had no idea McCandless’ life evoked so much widespread disdain. But it seems, if my friends' and coworkers' opinions are any indication, my view that Chris McCandless is “not a douche” puts me in a minority of Alaskans.

It makes sense to me that person is either going to identify with Chris McCandless, or they’re not. What catches me off guard is the venom. Why hate him? Because he was stupid? (Given his success in his education, I think it would be hard to argue that he was stupid.) Because he was selfish? (Selfishness is such an omnipresent personality trait. I think it’s arguable that everybody is selfish in their own way.) Because he was naive? (Also such a common and life-shaping quality that it’s practically a virtue.) Because of the cruel way in which he cut off his family? (I think this is the great tragedy of the story, but I can step outside myself and recognize how a person could feel so alienated, and so trespassed against, that they felt they had no choice.)

Maybe people simply dislike him because he died, needlessly. People die of self-destructive means every day. People die from alcoholism and drug abuse; they drive recklessly and take dangerous chances. People make bad choices. People make fatal mistakes. But rarely do they draw so much ire ... or so much fame.

I wonder if that may be the anger's source ... the fame. What makes Chris McCandless so special? He certainly didn’t do anything new or original, especially in the eyes of many Alaska settlers, who have been tromping off into the subarctic wilderness and making their own way for more than a century. The fact that McCandless was an outsider, and completely unprepared, makes his canonization all the more infuriating. So many Alaskans were successful in their own “into the wild” endeavors, and remained anonymous their entire lives. When Chris died, he lost his anonymity. And with that, he evolved into something like a patron saint to the vagabonds and vagrants at heart, the people who are disillusioned with society and curious about what it would be like to give up on it completely - but don’t have the courage to do so.

I neither resent Chris McCandless’s fame, nor do I think he’s a “saint" or a “hero.” I think he was a really compelling person who espoused some of the ideals I cherish (not unlike Edward Abbey) but took an extreme path I would never take. Extreme actions tend to evoke extreme reactions. Chris McCandless has a volatile place in American history because his simple but stark story causes us, whether consciously or subconsciously, to ask some unsettling questions of ourselves. His extreme convictions cause us to question our own faith. His extreme passion causes us to ask where our own passion lies. His extreme solitude causes us to take stock of our own relationships. His extreme death causes us to consider our own mortality. I think Chris angers us not because he failed in his quest to live what was, at least in his mind, a true existence. It’s because he succeeded.