“There is no such thing as society”, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once famously declared. This was a cry of capitalist individualism – polemical, to be sure, but true to her outlook. Others have found the opposite: that society is all too real, an oppressive nest of deceits and compromises best kept at arms length. The hermits of early Christianity sat upon columns in the desert for months on end, or retreated to caves far up in the mountains, to accomplish this. For many young people in modern times, freedom has been found in a similar (if less painful) isolation, in cutting the umbilical cord of civilization and all of its responsibilities and duties, and venturing across country in search of new experiences.
One such was Chris McCandless – compellingly played by Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, John Krakauer’s recounting of McCandless’s two-year adventure hitch-hiking and camping across early 1990s America. In his diary and his letters, as well as in conversations with the people he met on his travels, McCandless portrayed his adventure as an idealistic search for authenticity, a rejection of the shallow materialism of his parents and the hypocrisy and lies of contemporary society. Yet his romantic odyssey ended brutally in his death by starvation, brought on by mistakenly eating a poisonous root. He had spent a season camping in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan back country; his body was found two weeks later by moose hunters.
This marks the second recent biopic involving death in the Alaskan wilderness – the other being Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which focused on Timothy Treadwell and his doomed attempt to live among and commune with Kodiak grizzly bears. After spending several summers creating self-narrated documentaries about the bears he shadowed, Treadwell and his girlfriend were torn to pieces and partially consumed by one of his subjects. There is a certain amount of consumer demand, it seems, for stories that depict the awesome beauty of nature, and its equally awesome ability to kill us. And while for Canadians almost any place more than one hundred miles north of one of our cities serves as our own potentially lethal wilderness (black bears wander across the doorsteps of Canadian summer cottages with some frequency), for Americans – whose continental states seem almost completely interlaced with roads and railways, a town occupying every grid square on the map – it is the state of Alaska that has assumed the lonely role of High Representative of the Untouched American Wild.
As Penn’s film shows, finding true solitude and complete independence isn’t easy in modern America. McCandless starts out in a battered Datsun, which he soon loses to a flash flood in the desert. He burns all the money in his pocket, and starts hitch-hiking instead, becoming a “leather tramp” – as Catherine Keener’s sad and soulful hippie dubs him. Yet while he manages to acquire enough meals from the people he meets, the need for money doesn’t vanish, and he finds himself working odd jobs: driving a combine harvester owned by a farmer/entrepreneur played enthusiastically by Vince Vaughan, or flipping burgers at MacDonalds. He even hovers, momentarily tempted, at a Los Angeles welfare hotel, but when finally assigned a bed senses the psychological trap and breaks free again, returning to the road. Yet civilization doesn’t seem to want to let him go. Kayaking down the Colorado River, he finds its end in an artificial delta of concrete canals. More than once, he looks up at a clear blue sky marred by a commerial airliner blazing contrails behind itself.
When he finally reaches Alaska, keen to start his “great Alaskan adventure”, he bums a ride to the end of a remote road and accepts the effectively permanent loan of a pair of sturdy rubber boots from the truck driver. McCandless plods through the back country, fords a river, and discovers a “magic bus” abandoned on a bluff. He moves in, and promptly begins civilizing the nearby wilderness, carving hunting trails to and from the bus and building an outdoor shower for himself. The human instinct to impose order on nature’s anarchy is strong within him – he may be escaping civilization, but he’s bringing it with him, too.
In Alaska, McCandless comes face to face with an authenticity of the most physical kind. Only modestly successful as a hunter – he manages to shoot a moose once, then loses all of is meat to putrescence and maggots – he steadily eats his way through his supply of rice. With the coming of spring he is trapped by rising waters that make his winter ford impassable. Meanwhile, large game vanishes in its migratory way, and he is reduced to stamping his feet in frustration and yelling at the empty landscape, “Where are all the fucking animals!? I’m fucking hungry!!!”
This is authenticity. Stripped to our essence, we are animals, and we need to eat. At the most savage level of existence, our hunger is what drives our waking lives and fills our dreams. It is authenticity, but it is not nobility, nor is it philosophy or poetry. These things require surpluses, enough food and shelter to see us through many days of life, to allow us to devote time to thinking, reading, conversation. This is the trade that civilization offers: hypocrisy and compromise in exchange for culture and comfort and time to be fully human, rather than merely animal.
In the ancient world, men knew this truth, perhaps better than we. After being shipwrecked in the sea for days, Homer’s Odysseus describes the overwhelming power of hunger as he dines with the gracious Phaeacian king:
… I could tell a tale of still more hardship,
all I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will.
But despite my misery, let me finish dinner.
The belly’s a shameless dog, there’s nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget –
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding,
“Eat, drink!” It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, “Fill me up!”
– The Odyssey, Book 7 (trans. Robert Fagles)
Like Into the Wild, the Odyssey is a picaresque of a lone hero’s wanderings, and of the ways he is helped or harmed by the people he meets along the way. But while McCandless with his wanderings is trying to escape society, Odysseus is trying desperately to return to it, to his home and family, to his rightful kingdom, to comfort and peace. Of course, while Odysseus is the wiser of the two, he learned this wisdom the hard way: by going off to war as a younger man and spending a decade fighting it and another decade trying to complete his journey home. Who’s to say that when Odysseus first boarded his ship to Troy, that his mind and heart weren’t more than a little like Chris McCandless’s? Odysseus was lucky to survive his war, and to have time to grow wise. McCandless died just as his own adventure, cruel as it had become, had begun to teach him something.