May. 9th, 2017

osprey_archer: (books)
I just finished Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a fascinating book about Chris McCandless, a young man from an upper-middle class family who gave away his fortune, spent two years hitchhiking up and down through North America, then hiked into the Alaskan wilderness and lived off the land (and a ten-pound bag of rice) for a hundred days before dying of starvation/poisoning from eating the seeds of a wild potato plant.

The animating tension in the book lies between the two interpretations of Chris McCandless and his death: was he an admirable spiritual seeker or an arrogant young idiot? Krakauer leans toward the former - I suspect the book would be unreadable if he didn’t; who wants to read two hundred pages of “I can’t believe this guy was so stupid!”? - but he gives the latter view its due, as in this passage about McCandless’s mother:

“As she studies the pictures [of Chris’s final days], she breaks down from time to time, weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep, betraying a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure. Such bereavement, witnessed at close range, makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow.”

Coming as part of a book that is, among other things, an apologia for high-risk activities (Krakauer himself is a mountain-climber) this passage has considerable power.

I’m temperamentally inclined toward the “arrogant young idiot” view: the amount of damage he caused his family (especially his sister, whom he claimed to adore) by disappearing and dying undermine the supposedly spiritual qualities of his journey. But Krakauer makes a good case for the other side, strong enough that I’m - not converted; but left ambivalent toward McCandless; maybe there’s something in his quest, after all.

(Although if there is something in McCandless’s quest, it probably still would have been there if he had sent his family the occasional postcard rather than dropping entirely out of their lives and thereby sentencing them to two years of constant grinding anxiety as they wondered where he was and if he was well.)

It helps Krakauer’s case that so many of the people who think McCandless was a fool seem to feel a sort of relish for his death, like they enjoy seeing people suffer and die for the capital crime of being unprepared. “Maybe McCandless reminds them a little too much of their former selves,” one of Krakauer’s outdoorsy friends muses, which I think is part of it, and perhaps there’s also an element of It couldn’t happen to me. If McCandless died because he was an idiot, then wilderness trekkers who take safety precautions like bringing along a topo map needn’t worry that misadventure will take them, too.

No matter what lies behind it, there’s something creepy and off-putting about that relish. Surely it’s possible to feel that his death is sad, even tragic, even if you think his quest is foolish and he should have been more prepared. Take the topo map, Chris, come on!


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