Jon Krakauer: “Into the Wild”

I was predisposed after a few pages to be unsympathetic to the protagonist, Chris McCandless. McCandless, for those who have neither read the book nor seen the film, was a well-off surburban white kid who went to good schools (Emory, no less, for college), who decided that society sucked and took off rambling on his own, eventually going to Alaska with few provisions, where he met his end.

The read was interesting, not so much for the subject matter–the most interesting parts of the book dealt with the people McCandless met on his way rather than any of the ostensibly primary figures–but my reaction to it. I started off with a great antipathy toward McCandless. As I read, that antipathy diminished noticeably, replaced by an increasingly intense antipathy toward the author, Krakauer. Never had this experience with a book before.

It’s probably not good to speak ill of the dead, but I need to begin with McCandless for my critique to make any sense. Interestingly, fairly early on in the book Krakauer, who had first wrote about McCandless in a piece for Outside magazine, details negative reactions to the subject of that piece. Fairly uniformly, they come from Alaskans who feel McCandless was nuts, stupid, or disrespectful at some level of the “wild” he went into, underestimating the difficulty of living more or less off the land in rural Alaska. None of these critiques is without merit at some level, particularly, I’d think the third.

McCandless thought that modern consumer capitalist (my words, not his) society is bunk, and he was right. He seems to have had some awareness–as far as I can tell from what Krakauer includes an intellectual awareness but awareness nonetheless–of racism, and intellectually, this is at Emory, he put himself on the right side of that discussion. The problem is that well-off, well-educated white people who think that the system is bunk have no right–read that, no right whatsoever–to do anything but get their asses right inside the system and try to help the people whom the system is screwing most egregiously. McCandless’ case is compounded that he was from a Washington, DC suburb and his father worked for NASA. McCandless very likely could have mobilized a lot of personal connections to get involved on the inside.

Krakauer suggests, based on some of McCandless’ last diary entries, that he had decided that his rambling days were through. It’s entirely possible, then, that he would have returned to the lower 48 and gotten down to the real work of trying to fix things. That said, it is a typically but no less unacceptably white (and upper/upper-middle class white) reaction to injustice to take off from discomfort and feel oneself free. That is to say, the typically white response (not exclusively white by any means) is a selfish one. Anyone studying race critically will tell you that while our racial system is obviously unequal, the privilege it doles out to whites is not freedom. White people think that they can be free by running away. We can’t, and that more than anything was McCandless’ mistake, aside from up and dying of it.

The villain of the story, however, is not McCandless, but Krakauer. His metier, part outdoor/part travel narrative journalist, is ripe for willful ignorance about all kinds of social relationships. Without doubt, his trade could be done well: I know a travel writer, but he thinks critically about his own position vis-a-vis his destinations and more importantly the people who live in those destinations. Going far away is, like everything else human, a social relationship. Krakauer has no clue about this. I knew this when I read the following lines, worth quoting:

McCandless may have been tempted by the succor offered by women, but it paled beside the prospect of rough congress with nature, with the cosmos itself (66).

Those are the words of a lonely, lonely man. Which “women,” Krakauer? This is a man who can’t distinguish woman from woman. His choice of words in this case is way, way too revealing, not so much for the words themselves, but because he reserves archaic language for the points at which sex comes up. You don’t in his book, get “succor” from a well-earned beer after a hike or something, or get together with the gang for some “congress.” Why the change in tone, Krakauer? Uncomfortable? Jackass. There is, indeed, a pattern in the book. It gets better (i.e., worse) on 156:

The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex.

I honestly don’t know who to despise more: Krakauer or the editor who let that sentence get through. Regardless, these are not the words of a man who gets laid with any consistency, or at all. Women’s bodies–and this underlies the whole book–are in Krakauer’s mental universe, foreign. Just like the “wild,” so-called.

This is the thing. Getting out of a city is well and good, very good as a matter of fact, because as a species we did not develop to live with concrete and cars. Smarter people than me–or, at least, people with more time on their hands to cover it at length–have, however, amply documented the patriarchal tendencies of certain (large) swaths of the get back to nature movement, in addition to the white supremacist/colonialist tendencies, in the United States (my country and therefore my problem), all the way back to Muir, whatever else you will say about the man. You may be pleased that Teddy Roosevelt set up the park system, but you’d be wrong to imagine that his motives were pure, because they weren’t.

To Krakauer, “the wild” is away, somewhere to where one goes. It’s mysterious, forbidding, and other, just like a woman’s body (in his obviously screwed-up psyche). The problem is, any of these places that well-off white people drive their 4WD Subaru station wagons to for some communing with nature are, to some peoples, home.

“The wild” isn’t wild. It’s a system like any other, and as historians have demonstrated–as if this needed any proving if you paid attention to indigenous people–human beings peopled the entire globe by not later than 1000 years ago, and that’s a very, very late date. Some peoples lived more densely on the land than others. When Europeans from a relatively densely populated society come to places that are more sparsely populated, they see “empty space.” Ask the people to whom that land belongs (or vice versa, one might more properly say), and they’ll tell you that the land is not empty, not other, and certainly not wild. There are specific ways in any environment that human beings can survive without carrying their food or using rifle. To Krakauer, though, the land is everything minus the people. Very simply, this is to totally misunderstand everything one needs to understand.

A last gripe: Krakauer explains McCandless partially through the use of a long, autobiographical sketch. This is when I knew he was even more selfish than McCandless, by a longshot.