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Thursday, 23 October 2014

A spiritual Journey

 My brother is a man of strong opinions and impeccable taste so when he urged me to see ‘In to the Wild,’ and when, by pure serendipity, it was on television the following day….well, I had little choice.
It was an interesting experience because, like him no doubt, I was immediately seduced by the American wilderness and was – for a very brief time – body and soul with the protagonist Christopher McCandless – or as he preferred to call himself – Alexander Supertramp. 

For those new to the story the film is based on the life of Christopher McCandless who graduates from Emory University to please his dysfunctional parents, then abandons all his possessions and donates his life savings - $24,000 – to charity. He hitchhikes across America with the ultimate aim of living in the ‘pure’ wilderness of Alaska. Along the way, he meets so many generous souls who in their very different ways befriend and try to reach out to him. He rejects each of them and by now I’m realising I don’t like him very much. I think this is what makes the film so good. Like all great tragedies, it allows the viewer to reach their own conclusions. 

I confess I had my doubts about him when he gave his money away, which gets close to the heart of the issue. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.. Matthew 6:21 His champions might see my reservations as the typical materialistic response of one trapped in the shallows; snuffling for  treasure amongst the cockles and whelks. For Chris McCandless the awe inspiring beauty of 'Nature' was his treasure, something to be sought at any and every cost.

 Even so, as the film progresses, you’re struck by how – well – unlikeable he is. This may be a trait of all monomaniacs – revolutionary, political, creative, or scientific. There is little or no room in their hearts for anything that might dilute the grand passion and Christopher McCandless has no room in his heart for anyone who might step in his way. He’s never rude or ungracious but he has a callow and Teflon coated soul. This of course is just one response the film allows, along with an overwhelming sadness that he realises on his last breath what he has lost.

Nature might be a random construct of consequences, a reflection of God’s creativity, or both. Whatever the case, nature makes for mind-blowing magic, but in itself nature is also uncaring. It is beautiful, but just like fine whisky it is not the answer to everything, as Chris McCandless tragically learnt too late when he recorded that true happiness was only found when shared with others

Before Chris McCandless entered Alaska he weighed a hundred and forty pounds, or ten stone. When found he weighed sixty seven pounds or just under five stone. He paid everything in search of his 'treasure'. Was it worth it? It might have been, though not for his family. In that respect 'the wildnerness' proved a false god.

What’s really fascinating is how many different responses there are – to the original book by Jon Karakauer and to the film. Romantics and rebels can see in it ‘a rites of passage in our culture.’  They can empathise with his hatred of modern life and its easy pleasures. An earlier generation got off on the film Easy Rider. Most returned to their studies or mortgage. Some drifted into a similar monomaniac quest for an alternative, more meaningful life style – aided by drugs. What unites them is how ‘idealism’ segues into selfishness.

I belong in the less sympathetic group. I respect his resourcefulness and sense of adventure, and wince at the ‘spoiled white brat’ tag some have labelled him with. We’ve all been through that phase in our lives. Well, many of us, and on their deathbeds some may wish they'd had a more Janis Joplin/Hendrix kind of life, and judge McCandless differently.  But why does the ‘mystery’ of his flight to the wild and ultimate death intrigue so many people? We seek explanations. One writer discerns OCD in his actions, another Aspergers. Why not go for aToxoplasma gondii?

For a fine and interesting analysis of  Christopher McCandless's death (and it wasn’t a simple case of starvation) go to the New Yorker article by Jon Karakauerwho highlights Ronald Hamilton’s research on Vapniarca and the seeds of the grass pea Lathyrus sativus… Read it to find out more. And to the person who led me on this journey - thank you.

He had these books with him:
Tanaina Plantlore' by Priscilla Russel Kari
'Education of a Wandering Man' by Louis L'Amour
-Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
-Death of Ivan Ilych (Tolstoy)
-Call of the Wild (London)
-White Fang (London)
-Moon-Face (London)
-Brown Wolf (London)
-To Build a Fire (London)
-Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak)
-Terminal Man (Michael Crichton)
-O Jersualem! (Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre)
-War and Peace (Tolstoy)
-Walden (Henry David Thoreau)
But took only a small caliber rifle, no map and no axe. For some this reveals a spiritual journey. Ray Mears he wasn't. 


Maria Zannini said...

I remember reading about him. I also found him unlikeable and dangerously idealistic which apparently he realized too late.

Who goes into the wild without an axe, knife, and provisions? The only reason he lasted so long is because people pitied him.

Or maybe I missed the whole point of his venture. It just seemed foolish and shortsighted.

Re: ...true happiness was only found when shared with others

No truer words. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to figure that out.

DRC said...

I haven't seen this film or heard of him before. And Maria's right. Who goes out without provisions? As much as I love the great outdoors I don't think I'd give up everything to live in the wilds. I like my creature comforts too much :)

Mike Keyton said...

Maria, tragically he found out the hard way and had he somehow survived by not poisoning himself he may have grown into a much wiser man - it's a gift that comes - but not always - with age.

When I was travelling through America I made a similar mistake but on much, much smaller scale. A mistake I regret nevertheless. I was so obsessed with getting the perfect pictures without 'human pollution' I chose mountains and trees instead of the new friends I'd made on the trip. I so regret that now. I would love to see those faces again. It is about sharing with people

Mike Keyton said...

Dawn, I recommend the film. The scenery is breathtaking and the story exerts a hypnotic grip. It won quite a few awards.

Claudia Del Balso said...

Hi Mike,
You're the second person that recommends this film. Although I love nature, I was hesitant about watching it. I thought I was going to see something sad as the death of a deer or some cute furry thing ;)
I am a sucker for animals and even as a kid, I cried watching "Orca, the Killer Whale" and "Benji". LOL!! I still do.
So, thank you for providing in depth details about this film.