This week has seen globally co-ordinated protests by self-absorbed members of the privileged middle class, who have been by gluing themselves to pavements, trains, planes and automobiles when not splashing public buildings with faux blood, dangling from bridges and making general pests of themselves under the banner of Extinction Rebellion and its mendacious claims of imminent planetary doom. That’s the public face of this latest apocalyptic movement, of which over the centuries there have been many. Perhaps more interesting is the underlying inability of the protesters’ rational selves to examine and critique their emotive selves, to see in their collective antics what amounts to a mass escape from the prison of reason. With such a societal pathology now rampant, it is both timely and instructive to revisit one of the pioneers, and the casualties, of the naïve neo-romanticism whose disruptive rejection of modern life, its power sources and convenience, is the flame burning bright in so many preening hearts.
Long before Greta Thunberg denounced growth, modernity and the pursuit of wealth, there was Christopher Johnson McCandless, whose tragedy plumbs a central human struggle as visceral as it is cerebral. Captured in the considerate and compelling account by mountaineer and author Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild (1996) and the extraordinary film adaption of the same name by Sean Penn (2007), McCandless’s short life may be witnessed as an allegory for a quintessential malaise affecting the contemporary Western world. The book is now taught widely across US secondary schools, although his life and demise is likely to be approached through a romanticised prism that echoes Krakauer’s account and McCandless’s own personality.
Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the story, McCandless abandoned his car, burnt his money, rejected society and made his way by hitchhiker’s thumb and boxcar to the wilds of Alaska, where he died slowly and painfully. Encompassed within the sweeping trajectory of McCandless’s twenty-four years is the human story of a young, disaffected Anglo-America and introverted ideologue. It is within this narrative that we encounter him as the unwitting flag-bearer for much of contemporary progressives’ — more accurately regressives — war on the very cradle of their nurtured existence.
McCandless discovered in his late teens that his father, a successful NASA engineer, had led a previous life when married to a woman other than his own mother and had fathered a child of whom Christopher had no knowledge. This was a psychological wound that proved insurmountable for the young and innocent teen. The fact that his otherwise sheltered upbringing had historical cracks in its foundation became the catalyst for the rejection of everything he had previously taken for granted. This refutation, once cultivated, extended well beyond his intra-family sphere, and by the time he had completed college it had morphed into a complete rejection of society at large. This phenomenon, as experienced by McCandless, is mirrored across contemporary Western society and its rising sea of new wave regressives. One need only observe the school kids following the messianic preaching of a troubled 16-year-old girl and her ‘end of days’ crusade to see the parallels.
The coming into being of McCandless’s and, indeed, contemporary societies’ dyscrasia and subsequent self-flagellation can be found in the romanticism which maintains that, in the beginning, there existed a utopia formulated through an all-benevolent relationship between man and the natural world, and that this is and should always be the preeminent order of things. That any suffering should exist at all must therefore attest to a disruption of the inherent beauty of this existence. For McCandless, this was the discovery that his parents were flawed beings who had wrong-headedly deviated from romanticised perfection. For regressives, it is the discovery, often at a most superficial level, that their whole society has arisen not from uninterrupted benevolence but, rather, from struggle, competition, conflict, revolution, upheaval and its consequent oppression of the marginalised and vanquished. Again, the genesis of the disaffection is a collective cognitive dissonance that will not allow for the acceptance that human nature is flawed from a moral perspective. Therefore, from such a perspective, it is the overlying social systems that must be accountable and which therefore need to be torn down.
No Western nation embodies the original and idealised hunter-gatherer societies, leaving a void of yearning for natural simplicity romanticised as the Noble Savage. McCandless was ultimately to learn the hard way that Nature is ruthless in exercising its power. But this is not the only lesson to be drawn from his tragic suffering in the wilds of Alaska. During the penultimate days of his life, Tolstoy’s dictum to ‘call things by their real name’ rings like an awakening alarm bell in the inner sanctum of his conscience. It is a clarion call lost to regressives who, to cite but one example, have taken the language around transgenderism to new worlds of convolution.
It is of more than of mere passing interest to reflect on the contrasts of the ideological underpinnings of the romanticism of the Noble Savage myth with that of corresponding Christian canon and Buddhist teachings. Where the Noble Savage defaults to the ideal in his interaction with the natural world, Adam is cast out by God for succumbing to the temptations of the natural world, while the Buddha spends a lifetime reconciling suffering as part of the natural world. Each of the three perspectives leads to differing understandings of the path to salvation. For the Noble Savage, it is through a primal relationship with Nature, for Adam it’s a redemption and reconciliation with God, and for Buddha it is through understanding and accepting the diminished place of oneself, or at least of one’s ego, in the greater cosmos. Perhaps all three perspectives share a place in the progress of humanity, but each decontextualized from the moral ambivalence of Nature, the cosmos and, indeed, the juggernaut of the modern technologically mediated world is bound to lead to a dislocated relationship with contemporary society. The one thing that both Buddhism and Christianity share as a bulwark against a deluded romanticism, as perceived through the Noble Savage, is the acknowledgement of a primal flaw in all humans irrespective of cultural backdrops. The fault lies in the eye of the beholder and cannot be cast onto the thing itself – unless you subscribe to new wave progressivism which, through the prism of Foucault’s postmodernism, inverts and subverts that very same paradigm and casts all fault at the feet of the other, to which one goes to great lengths to differentiate oneself.
Beyond, the purely philosophical lessons contemplated above the casual observer of McCandless’s story is blessed with another fundamental revelation far more profound than those accessed through an intellectualist approach alone. It would seem that Sean Penn, as director of the remarkable film adaptation of Krakauer’s book, had perceived the ingenuousness of the essential human predicament captured in McCandless’s story and with it the core of its humanity. In the film, Penn departs from Krakauer’s book to break McCandless’s journey into four fundamental human epochs; Birth, Adolescence, Manhood and, finally and most profound of all, the getting of Wisdom. During this final phase of McCandless’s rambling journey through North America, always with one eye on getting to Alaska, he meets with old-timer Ronald Franz (a pseudonym created by Krakauer to protect the real identity of a frail old man) while camped at Oh My God hotsprings near Salton City, California. During his extended company with Franz, McCandless learnt of the old man’s misfortune at having lost his wife and only child to a drunken driver while stationed in Okinawa with the US military. The penance for Franz was a life sentenced to solitude and quiet contemplation without what was the most precious thing of all – his relationship with his lost wife and child. McCandless, in a letter to Franz filled with the hubris of his revolt at society, renounces human relationships and implores
You are wrong if you think joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.
In Penn’s movie adaption, when Franz and McCandless part and go their separate ways, Franz offers to adopt McCandless as a grandchild in lieu of his estranged relationship with his parents. The ensuing scene strikes me as one of the rawest and heartbreaking in the cinematic pantheon and is closely matched by another, earlier in the film, of a very old man McCandless encounters on the phone to his estranged lover.
A handful of months later, McCandless found himself wasting away in an abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail in the Denali National Park, miles from the nearest settlement of Healy, where he is beset by a poisonous dysentery and malabsorption syndrome thought to have been brought on by mistaking the edible wild potato with the inedible wild sweet pea endemic to the area. It has also been postulated that the seed of the wild potato is possibly poisonous and may have contributed to his acute ill health, along with the consequences of ingesting hallucinogenic and toxic mushrooms. However, McCandless descent into a parlous predicament cascaded over a much longer period during his 112 days in the Denali National Park. The reality of hunting game and gathering wild food had been romanticised like everything else in nature by McCandless, but the reality of scarce game and little plant materials of high nutritive value left him constantly malnourished and with persistently diminishing energy. The unbroken solitude affected his mental health and he spiralled into an ever less rationale existence. When the snows melted sufficiently, he sought to walk back out the way he had walked in only to find the ominously named Savage River in such a swollen torrent that it was impassable. Retreating to the abandoned bus, McCandless final descent into death had almost become inevitable. When he reached 100 days he wrote
… in weakest condition of life, death looms as serious threat. Too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in the wild.
Twelve days later he was dead.
When the young man’s body was discovered some nine days after his death by hunters, a number of books were found with him. Favoured authors included Jack London, Leo Tolstoy and Henry Thoreau. In a volume of Dr Zhivago McCandless had penned in the margin “Nature = Purity”, as if to highlight the siren call of the Noble Savage. Yet it seems over the course of the sabbatical on his ‘Magic Bus’ a change had come over him. Perhaps the getting of wisdom had indeed commenced. In Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness, McCandless highlighted the following passage
He was right in saying that the only certain happiness is to live for others … have lived through much, and I now think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbour – such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps – what more can the heart of a man desire?”
In acknowledging this passage, we find a more reflective McCandless, one who is willing to concede that it is through the agency of family and community and one’s interaction with them, even down to industrious labour and its hard-earned rewards, that contentment may be glimpsed.
Like McCandless’s extremist romanticism and utopian ideology – motivated by an inability to reconcile his less than perfect parents and resultant disaffection — much of a whole generation of so-called ‘progressivist’ ideologues seek to tear down the perceived evils of Western civilisation, albeit from their own privileged nest within it. Incapable of reconciling the flawed nature of all humanity, no matter where its’ origins, they effectively bite the hand that feeds them. Whether it be the denunciation of capitalism and the blinded mirage of an equal-outcome society, through corrupted Marxist epitomes or the inherently toxic culture of identity politics that insists on victim narratives, and a narcissistic appreciation of race, sexuality and gender. The net effect is a wholesale dividing of society and a kind of sanctimonious idealism that found its way into McCandless’s heart only to be crushed by the stark realities of nature, which is manifestly blind to idolatry and ambivalent about the existence of humans. A passage from Thoreau’s Ktaddn highlighted by McCandless reads
There was clearly felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place of heathenism and superstitious rites – to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we…
It has now been 27 years since Christopher Johnson McCandless walked into the wilds of Alaska unaccompanied. When he first made contact with the vessel of his ultimate demise, that abandoned bus in the middle of the forest, he scrawled the following on some plywood inside the bus
Two years he walks the earth, no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager…and now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution….no longer to be poisoned by civilisation he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.
As he lay dying under the blanket of his own ideological betrayal, unable to reconcile and make peace with the imperfections of his loving parents, cloaked in the masquerade of the romantic noble savage for which he now wished to emancipate himself, he scribbled in the margin of Dr Zhivago
HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED
Too late, McCandless had perceived the errors of his way. As for the legions of new wave regressives no less enraptured bv the myth of the Noble Savage, perhaps a related fate awaits them. But at what cost to those who remain behind?