In Search of Christopher McCandless

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There are many Christopher John McCandlesses that haunt the pages Jon Krakauer’s 1996 Into the Wild. There is Chris the cosmic voyager, a reader of Jack London who tramped about the Western United States in search of the “primordial beast” within him. This post-hippie searcher inspired innumerable young men and women from around the world to shed their bourgeois selves, setting out into the American wilderness to escape the crushing alienation of the post-modern world.  Sean Penn’s 2007 movie resurrected this image of Chris as a 20th century American Thoreau; Penn even seems to have transformed Christ into a Christ figure who goes about healing the relationships of hippies and inspiring confidence in the hearts of socially awkward trailer park-dwelling teenage girls. However, both Krakauer and Penn are not able to hide the other Christopher McCandless: a selfish, bratty, self-destructive bookworm who ends up hurting his parents in the worst way possible. It is these two sides of Chris that, when paired together, make him so deeply attractive, his life so frustratingly tragic, and his image so strongly American.

Jon Krakauer’s Into Wild stand out as  a “must read” and one of the most important cultural artefacts of 20th century America. On the other hand, the lowest points of Krakauer’s book are the worst parts of Jon Krakauer’s public persona in general. Krakauer is known for crashing into a controversial topic and, for the most part, presenting a brilliant documentation of the affair through Grizzly Adams gonzo journalism: since Krakauer himself is an outdoor Geek, he takes a lot of these issues very, very personally. Throughout Into the Wild, Krakauer lets Chris and those who were loved and hurt by Chris speak on their own terms. At times—especially at the end during “the potato seed controversy”–Krakauer defends Chris against the accusation, primarily by Alaskans, that Chris’s foolishness and stupidity led to his death. As a fellow outdoorsman who also clashed with his father and sought solace in the Alaskan wild, Krakauer wants the world to remember Christopher McCandless as a poet-mystic who made bad a decision to eat potato seeds at the end of his quest that was based on bad luck not poor planning. However, despite his efforts, we catch glimpses of a Chris who is moody, angry, selfish, melodramatic and, based upon his final postcards and letters, maybe even suicidal.

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Sean Penn’s 2007 movie paired with a brilliant but probably occult-laden soundtrack from Eddie Vedder follows Krakauer’s lead and depicts a playful and engaging Christopher McCandless who is running from his dysfunctional family in search of peace in the wild. There are little hints at Chris’s erratic behavior, selfishness, or possible mental illness. We see Christ shaving in the middle of California fruit fields and basking the sunset on the Oregon coast, but we do not see the Chris who bitterly “divorces” his parents and whose moods swings when he is not “on” in the voice of his very upbeat journal are related in Krakauer’s book by a homeless man. The movie ends with Chris’s horrific death, which then transitions to an ascension to heaven as the camera rises above the bus, seemingly with Chris’s soul as it rises to meets his maker.

Into the Wild is a tragedy in the Greek sense because Chris’s greatness does, at the same time, cause his downfall. It was Chris’s overweening will-to-power that enabled him to make it as far into the wild as he did. It was Chris’s courage and tenacity that enable to him to stay in the wild as long as he did. However, this great drive also drew its source from the same energy and power that fueled his rage and self-destructive egotism. It was the same libidinal energy that charged his body with restlessness and perhaps even a deeper mental illness.

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In the end, Christopher McCandless is an icon of America worthy of emulation and praise. At the same time, Chris’s selfishness, narcissism, and mental illness also qualify him as an icon of the American man. Dying in 1992 of a long, drawn out suicide during the beginning of the Clinton era in which at least the veneer of justice and honesty were expected of our political leaders and in which the majority of the citizens in the country had some commitment to the common good, Chris’s death seems much more tragedy and less farce. In 2015 in which everyone’s parents are divorced, everyone has lost his faith, and the amount of young American males on long, slow horrific suicides is very, very large, Chris’s death seems boringly typical.  However, ironically, in an age defined by mediocrity and cowardice, Chris’s virtues shine that much more strongly.

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