Friday, December 7, 2012

"Into the Wild" and the Pursuit of a Better Society

SPOILER ALERT! This essay contains many spoilers if you haven't seen the movie.

    In 1990, Christopher McCandless, a star student and athlete that had just graduated from Emory University, decided to run away from his suburban, upper-middle class life. Although the movie spends most of the time showing the adventures of Chris after deserting his home, there are very important clues that reveal what it was the drove a young man with what seemed like such a promising future to seek such a radical deviance from the traditional lifestyle of his milieu. Just as Freud’s study of mentally unstable patients produced insights the could be generalized to all humans, so can the extreme case of young McCandless reveal information about the widespread but relatively unacknowledged discontent of modern society.
    The protagonist of our story was too smart to be able to ignore the problems of the world he lived in. Most others didn’t share his views or weren’t capable of noticing, as he did, the causes behind the boredom, anger and depression prevalent among people.  Having identified contradictions between the paths society recommended and the miserable results they could produce, he had to turn to drastic alternatives for change. Indeed, this made him an eccentric person in his suburban town, leaving him lonely and misunderstood. In a way, Chris resembles the Trojan character Cassandra: both become desperate as they watch everybody enjoy, not knowing that their decisions will be the cause of their demise.
    “Into the Wild” is not narrated in a linear fashion, nevertheless this essay will approach the story in chronological order for practical purposes. At the beginning of the narrative, Christopher McCandless finds himself completed overwhelmed by the superficiality of culture. He just wants to get done with college, tired of the rigidity and the disregard for the practical that characterize formal education. Christopher greatly admired Emerson, who wrote in “Prudence” about the typical university scholar who “whilst something higher than prudence is active, he is admirable; when common sense is wanted, he is an incumberance”.
    Upon obtaining his degree, Chris is still unsatisfied. He is tired of his parents who he sees as the greatest exponents of the culture he detests, even though they are the ones that should be the guide in his life. Among the things that bother him are their obsession with their social status, their pursuit of money and material possessions, and the false image they showed to the world to cover the hypocrisies of their moral failings. In all fairness, his parents did love him, but they didn’t realize how much pain they were causing him.
    Almost everything in our society, including McCandless’ town, is centered consciously or unconsciously around obtaining the maximum amount of pleasure. It has frequently been claimed that we live in a post-ideological era, but in reality we have become so immersed in a complex hedonistic worldview that we don’t even realize it’s there anymore. As a consequence of this mindset, people constantly sustain neurotic efforts to maximize wealth, pleasure and happiness, which is most evident in the fact that so many people have become slaves of their jobs and studies. Even the US Constitution placed the ‘pursuit of happiness’ at the center of society hundreds of years ago. 
    The story starts getting into rising action as Chris takes off in his Datsun with no concrete plans in mind but to go away. He gives away twenty-four thousand dollars to Oxfam, burns his social security and informs no one of his whereabouts or plans. However, he sees that his freedom, although increased, is still limited. He has to deal with bureaucracy in the most unexpected places and some new acquaintances, despite being quite amiable, have already started forming judgments and holding expectations of him. Chris decides to say goodbye to them for some time.
   Traveling around South Dakota, McCandless becomes friends with a rural farmer and accepts his job offer, proving to be reliable and very hard working. A few months later, he is disappointed to see his pal arrested for satellite piracy, not so much because Wayne was a criminal, but rather because the government is more concerned with white collar crimes than other more important problems, such as the large number of people living in poverty.
    Seeing events as opportunities rather than problems, McCandless decides to continue his voyages. Chris gets severely beat up for train hopping even though he wasn’t hurting anybody by doing so. It is proof of his character that this doesn’t make him bitter or depressed, but instead he interprets it as part of the adventure in his struggle against the corrupted state of humanity. Somehow, he manages to reach his destination at Los Angeles where he gets a job at a fast food restaurant. He soon quits, unable to stay in a job that consists of mindless repetition in such a dull environment.
    Another setting that demonstrates the madness of dedicating most of one’s efforts to try to maximize pleasure is L.A. . Cities are typically loved for the great availability of entertainment and all sorts of products and services. However, the typical urban dweller, in his attempts to increase his wealth to enjoy more pleasures, becomes ever more neglecting of his wellbeing and drowned in work. City inhabitants are willing to tolerate the pollution, the stress and the schizophrenic-life pace to get the benefits of living in the city. Unfortunately, they get accustomed to unhealthy lifestyles that, ironically, make them less happy than those who live a simpler and more natural life.
    After leaving the city he meets again with some friends he has made during his traveling. Living with them in their small hippy community is an attractive young girl who starts to develop a crush on Chris, or Alexander Supertramp, as he is now known. Even though it seems like McCandless had feelings for her too, he displays a very unconventional wisdom: Chris knows that “falling in love” is not the same thing as real love. Infatuation, is just another hidden form of hedonism. Emerson wrote in “Prudence” that “genius is always ascetic; and piety and love”. It’s not that Chris didn’t care for the girl, he just knew that at some point the passion would be gone, and once that happened he didn’t want to commit himself to a relationship yet, knowing that he was still seeking that transcendent experience in the wild.
    At his next stop, Alex becomes very close to a lonely and depressed veteran, Mr. Franz, who tries to bring McCandless into organized religion. However, it is McCandless that ends up transforming the retiree. Chris shows him that he doesn’t need to go to a church to feel a connection to a higher life, in fact, his conservatism is preventing him from doing so. Slowly, Mr. Franz starts to break out of his routine and vitality is restored into his life. Unfortunately for the reborn man, Christopher still feels like he needs more freedom and genuineness that can only be achieved by spending some time alone in nature, a purifying experience. He has had Alaska in mind for some time now, so he gets the things he needs and heads north.
    The events with Mr. Franz are quite revealing. Until the twentieth century, organized religion provided most people with strength and gave meaning to their life. However, traditional religion has become increasingly disconnected from people, and in their disappointment, many of their followers have been turning towards an agnostic hedonistic lifestyle, perhaps not on paper, but in practice. Many people are unfortunately torn between false spirituality and no spirituality at all. Alexander Supertramp possessed a real and profound spirituality.
    Chris arrives at an isolated terrain in Alaska where the story reaches its climax.  Here, he lives completely authentically, alone in nature. McCandless does not go without his struggles up there, but these form part of the freedom and the aesthetic transcendence he experiences in nature. Unfortunately, Chris starts to feel sick and realizes that he had mistaken a poisonous plant for an edible one. Reaching the resolution, Chris looks back gratefully on the wonderful life he has lived, knowing he is approaching death.
    Despite such ending, it is nevertheless important not to confuse the young hero with a hermit, a misanthrope, or a na├»ve idealist. He had written in his notebook that “happiness is only real when shared” and  it was in his plans to return to civilization and write a book about what he has learned. As said before, living in the Alaskan wilderness was only meant to be an experience where he could cleanse himself of the troubles of his previous way of life, not a permanent lifestyle. Maybe, he should’ve played it a bit safer.
    The conclusion that can be extracted from “Into the Wild” is that being a slave of the pain-pleasure ideology makes people build up defenses, become aggressive to others and stay trapped in their comfortable and boring lives. Most people unconsciously know something is wrong but they can’t put their finger on it, much less imagine alternative possibilities of change at the very root of their lives. However, according to Emerson in “Prudence” “appetite shows to the finer souls as a disease”. This appetite is not limited to materialism, but can also include the desire for fame and status, sexual obsession, among others.
    People are not completely determined by society, so we must bring greater awareness of deeper understanding of societal problems into the collective consciousness. I propose an oversimplified, two-step solution inspired by Christopher McCandless. First we must learn to recognize how the hedonistic ideology penetrates so many aspects of our lives and that this mindset is unsustainable, inevitably leading to failure (typically in the form of a depression or  ‘existential crisis’). Secondly, we should move towards better guides for life which do not deny pleasure and happiness as important, but recognize them as second-order values, and which embrace, above all, love for oneself and for all others, even enemies. In the long run, anger ends up consuming the hater as much as the hated.