On revenge, freedom and love. (Spoiler Alert)
The protagonist of “Into the Wild”, a book (written by journalist Jon Krakauer) and major motion picture is a boy named Christopher Johnson McCandless, or “Chris Supertramp”, who ran away from home to become a “tramp” – a travelling, homeless wanderer. Having read the book and watched the movie, I feel compelled to express my thoughts and reactions to the sad case of an idealistic intellectual who died alone in the wilderness. Why? Because I am somewhat similar to Chris and have been close to dying too. Let’s jump right into it:
Chris had the scary attribute of being able to take his thoughts to their logical consequences. Perhaps he was unable not to. An uncompromising integrity. He was brave, romantic and extremely stubborn. The kind of person likely to make a good story.
First, a personal perspective on Chris and the happiness he attained during his adventures. Imagine the intensity of his experience. The strength of spirit he must have cultivated to keep himself committed to his plans while living on chance and the help of others. The fulfillment of striving for and attaining freedom, driven onwards by a deep anger. I can relate to his frustrations with society to such a degree that I, while watching the movie, started justifying some of my own actions from about 5 years ago, when I was an adept shoplifter and danger-loving graffiti-writer. I was a bit more social than Chris was, as I spent lots of time with my community of smokers and rebels. But I smoked alone, painted alone and stole alone too, and the story of Chris, who mostly traveled alone, causes those memories to flash again and again.
Krakauer, who recounts some of his own adventures in the book, describes how he experienced being alone in nature. “Because I was alone, even the mundane seemed charged with meaning. The ice looked colder, more mysterious, the sky a cleaner shade of blue… infinitely more menacing than had I been in the company of another person. My emotions were similarly amplified, the highs were higher, the lows lower” – he relates this to Chris, saying “To a self-possessed young man, inebriated with (or, “drunk with”) the unfolding drama of his own life, all this held enormous appeal.” This intensification of experience in solitude was one of the key driving forces behind Chris’ rather extreme choices. He felt more real, more in touch, while being alone. In contrast, Chris found that being with and becoming attached to other people, especially his family, ruined that clarity. I have spent many nights in Copenhagen on top of some roof, having climbed up the scaffolding, with cigarettes, dark chocolate and paint in my backpack, looking out over the city, searching for exactly that clarity, that peace, alone. Where I subscribed to hip-hop counter-culture and anarchistic ideologies, being engaged in a personal, active war against capitalism, Chris was a reader of classics (Tolstoy) and philosophy (Thoreau), fascinated by the wilderness and using withdrawal as his primary tactic.
Here is another quote from the book: “The wilderness appealed to those bored and disgusted with man and his works. It not only offered and escape from society, but also was an ideal stage for the Romantic Individual to exercise the cult that he frequently made of his own soul. The solitude and total freedom of the wilderness created a perfect setting for either melancholy or exultation.” For me, that wilderness was first Copenhagen by night, then the deserts of the Midwest in USA, where I underwent ‘Wilderness Therapy’ – two months of trekking through nowhere in a small group.
What about the family? Chris’ parents and family suffered immensely during the 1,5 years between his disappearance and death. Mine suffered during the 3 years I went from being quiet and introverted to being quiet, introverted and criminal. From an individual point of view, it seems safe to say, that Chris was satisfied with his way of life, not at all regretful (perhaps not until the very end), while I was ashamed of myself the whole time, even before it all started. However, from a family point of view, Chris opted out and blew a giant hole in the social structure composed of his authoritative and deeply, mutually resentful parents and his sister, who continued to support Chris despite being pained by his neglect of her and everyone else. Similarly, I put my sister in a lose-lose situation, by sharing my secrets with her and leaving her torn between my demand for loyalty and our parent’s demand for the truth about me. It is painful to think about. I was the direct cause of their grief and worry.
Chris was also neglectful of his friends at home. He doesn’t write or contact anyone. But this is understandable, when keeping his point of view in mind, that the primary source of happiness isn’t -and shouldn’t be - relationships to other people. I firmly disagree with that today, but back in the day the question would be invalid – because I didn’t believe that I was worth anything. Try having a relationship with zero. Other people might be happy from relationships, but as far as I was concerned, I hated my life. I even wrote that on my bedroom wall. “I hate my life” in big, black letters with a XXL Classic Molotow spray can. Every time I was reminded of my parent’s love, I only felt a deeper wish to disappear.
Finally, what cares society about it all? Shouldn’t Chris be “educating himself? Making something of himself?” (Ron Franz asks Chris). Chris is a harsh critic of society. On being offered a new car by his parents, he very expressfully explains that he doesn’t want stuff. He loathes the culture of his parents and disregards money, saying that “it only makes people cautious”, here also implying his dedication to a dangerous lifestyle. My relationship to money was this: Don’t let them have it. Buying things is (almost always) evil. I felt clean and proud whenever I stole something, and dirty, dissatisfied, whenever I bought something. I felt so fiercely that companies were inexcusably evil. Actions justified. As time went by, I only got angrier and more ashamed.
Chris says that “the prime source of nourishment for the spirit of man is new experiences” – he is imploring Franz to start traveling, and stop being “a stubborn old man sitting on his but”. Recently, after I said that traveling hurts the world because fuel is dirty, my friend countered, “but traveling makes people better and more open, improving humanity”. All else aside, including environmental concerns, then if this is true, and I think it is, society gains from the adventures of it’s antagonists, who attempt to free themselves from it (assuming that these adventurers return to society at some point). But obviously, society gains more economically speaking from conforming individuals who pay more tax. Personally, my travels and experiences, including going to rehab in the States, have utterly transformed me – look who I am today, barely able to recognize the person I am writing about. Who were you five years ago? Undoubtedly, the things we are least proud of, the things we were surprised most by and the sheer variation of our experience shapes us in as profound ways as our daily rituals, our habits and our long-term commitments.
My feeling about Chris is that the more he rants at his father, the more his idealism loses my attention, and the more his neglected emotional needs come to the fore. His idealism seems to be making up for a lonely heart. I think that’s true for many people. Myself included. The big fight against society is (more or less) a manifestation of emotional needs not being met. Chris had an internal battle going on in his polarized mind between his lofty intellectual ideals and critical thinking, and his tormenting emotional demands. He sustained so much anger for so long against his father and society. I really can relate to that. “Lastingly resentful” is a near translation of a fantastic Danish word – “indebrændt” – that describes the continual feelings of hate and disgust I felt for society when I was a teenager, and that I imagine Chris to have felt as well. From that mindset, from those feelings, it would be easy to glorify Chris, because he took them to their logical extremes: Leaving the family, isolation from society, self-fulfillment (an oxymoron) and self-sufficiency, even socially speaking. In this way, his romantic philosophy was very self-centered. I wanted to go the same length as Chris when I was in that rage, because it seemed the only way to do justice to that experience of the world and myself in it. But from the place I am now I pity Chris instead of glorifying him, just as I pity the person I was 5 years ago. What a poor kid. What a sadness that youth are sometimes shaped (by their parents) to become tormented, extreme, anti-social, society-hating risk-takers and bond-breakers. Selfish. But being selfish because at the time it served a crystal-clear purpose of self-protection in a family that didn’t allow self-expression and emotional freedom. The path of anger leads to sorrow. Everybody lost when Chris died. Everybody was punished. I remember ruminating endlessly about how people would mourn my death. It was a comforting fantasy, a way to feel some kind of worth. Now it makes me shudder. I would miss them too! I want to be in relationships! To have friends and be with family!
I would feel sorry for even the cleverest intellectual on earth if he couldn’t feel himself. How great can you be if you can’t look at yourself honestly? If you can’t be present with yourself and your entire experience?
Chris was such a good person. As nearly all people he was well-intentioned. And as very few people he was radical. But he could not open himself to people, he was distrustful of allegiances and he hated attachments. Carrying enormous pent up rage and grief, he was driven away from the people who thought they loved him, and really did love him, no doubt. His life was a rollercoaster of ecstasy and suffering, ending in tragedy.
In the book, many people criticize Chris for being “green” (having no experience) and having a death-wish when he went into the wilderness unprepared. Everything was his own fault. I don’t despise him for his recklessness, although I agree that his actions were totally stupid from a survival point of view. I know the feeling of contempt for safety, the urge away from all insurance policies and the choking feeling of complete social security net surrounding. “DON’T PROTECT ME, *********S!”…
But although I need to prove myself as a man and to be reckless in the world, I have also realized through my experience how deeply painful and selfish reckless behavior can be. “My whim before the world and it’s rules and it’s people, who might miss me!”, yells the reckless person. As so often, a balance is needed between opposites. The completely controlled person is already dead. Courage is the fuel we have to explore our freedom and rip open our habits and conformity. Our patterns need revision, even upheaval, but our relationships need maintenance and stability. I admire daring souls. But remember the point of return, the meeting after a war or a jump or a kiss, when life can be remembered and shared and enjoyed. Remember the value of returning. The faces of the people who wish to see you again.