Monday, August 11, 2008

Into the Wild, Out of Logic

For several years, I have been avoiding reading Into The Wild. Around the time of its release, someone relayed the story to me, and my reaction was no more than simple, knee-jerk irritation. I have long since stopped caring about bestseller lists as a measure of quality, but I'm usually vaguely aware of what's on them, and I didn't get why people were so high on the kid's story.

My successful not-reading-dumb-books streak came to an abrupt end this week.

My second theology course, The Problem of God, has Into the Wild on its reading list. I have already bought my books for the semester, and have been working on reading what I can, particularly for my Terrorism class. Though the Terrorism books are fascinating, eventually the Taymiyyas start blending into the Qutbs and it gets a little messy in my brain, so I interspersed Faith, Reason and the War against Jihadism and Inside Terrorism with some Into the Wild action, mostly because it was sufficiently portable. On the upside, I now understand why people were hoodwinked into inspiration by this guy's story. Jon Krakauer presents the story with that air of pseudo-mysticism that appeals to a certain kind of person with a boring life who wants some kind of magic handed to them without needing to seek it out or consider the options around them. I wish I could be nicer about it, but frankly, that's what it is. Throughout the book, he hints at spiritual relevance, but constantly pulls back in a "I'm leaving the final analysis up to YOU, Dear Reader" posture that absolves him of any kind of consequence.

The story, for those not familiar, concerns a boy named Chris McCandless, who was from an upper-middle-to-upper class family in the DC area. After graduating college, he eventually gave away most of his worldly assets, and began traveling the United States, abiding by a sort of Thoreauean, solitary hippiedom. He ultimately decided to go to Alaska and live off the land. Regrettably, he was to absorbed in his hyper-dematerialistic existential dogma to bring appropriate equipment with him, and he died in the wilderness.

Here's the thing about faith. Faith is necessary, and it is essential to the human spirit. I speak here of general faith...a belief in SOMETHING, be it God or the mere fact of your street address. Faith in God is trickier. Obviously, there are wildly divergent ideas of God, but rarely (if ever) do you find the concept of God as a physical, humanoid entity roving the streets with the rest of humanity (excepting Joan Osbourne songs). Believe in God. Believe that He'll make sure it comes out right in the end, that He'll take care of you if you live well. Do not believe that He will grab the back of your shirt if you willfully step off a curb into traffic. Regardless of your chosen deity or your means of worship, to hurl yourself without consideration into dangerous situations is pure idiocy. Chris McCandless' death could easily have been prevented with a library card, a trip to a wilderness camp, or accepting any of the numerous gifts of equipment that were pressed on him by the friends he made on his journeys. If indeed McCandless believed, as Krakauer insinuates, that God would see him through his nature experiment, he is to be pitied and nothing more. Whether a gift from God or not, we have free will, and we are responsible for our welfare on abandon that responsibility while claiming to be a servant of God is to prove you don't even begin to get the point.

Krakauer's presentation does not help in the slightest. He frequently references God or hints at religious significance, but never truly explains how and if these religious aspects of the story were causal or just random side effects of McCandless' juvenile self-exploration. Krakauer also makes the mistake of letting too much into the story...the admiration we're apparently supposed to feel for McCandless is constantly jarred by the inclusion of missives and statements from McCandless, which uniformly sound like they were produced by a petulant child. It belies a juvenile, often uninformed worldview, and while this immaturity explains much about his utterly unprepared foray into the violent Alaskan wild, it cuts the legs out from under any attempt to associate religion or spiritualism with the adventure.

I am curious to see where this course will go with the book. I am desperately hoping that I won't be expected to see him as a great existentialist hero, because that's...not possible. Had he taken the time to pack a set of flares...had he read some survivalist books...had he exercised a single piece of the sense his God gave him, I might be more willing to look to him for spiritual inspiration. I hope that the professor approaches this book as a tool to consider how far one's faith should be allowed to go - after all, the class IS called "The Problem of God."

Not every tragic story has a great, life-changing lesson attached to it. Sometimes bad things just happen. Sometimes they happen because you make bad choices.


  1. Strangely enough, I thought this book had NOTHING to do with God. I read it as a kid who was really confused about who he was and thought that some time alone in the wilderness would help him figure everything out. I think Krakauer is the one who interjects God into the equation.

    Also, the entire time I was thinking that he was stupid, blah blah blah, but ultimately I was sad that he didn't have the chance to set himself straight, although I do believe that part of him went there to die. I think it was his destiny.

    So maybe Krakauer is saying that it was God who led him there, knowing that he would never feel right about what had happened in his life.

    I want to be in your class.

  2. I find that renunciation of the material world tends to be a problem of the wealthy and decadent. After all, it was a multi-millionaire who wrote "Imagine no possessions." Even Buddha started out as a prince. Maybe it's because I am philosophically a mechanist but I tend to view such people pretty cynically. Perhaps man does not live on bread alone but neither does he do very well without it.

    That's not to say that experiences apart from the routine of modern life aren't valuable. On the contrary, I think it would benefit everyone to experience the simple or basic life for some time. I think everyone should take it upon themselves to, at least once, produce some food from source to table. For meat eaters like me, that means butchering an animal (on my to-do list). I won't try to infuse the experience with some kind of mystical woo, but if nothing else it forces you to understand the necessities of life that underpin the advanced (and quite desirable) living we enjoy normally.