15 July 2008

Into the Wild (Follow up for LitLove)

In the comments on this post regarding Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, Litlove wrote:

That's a very interesting review, Cam, on what is clearly an engaging book. For some reason I was most intrigued by your comment that the mistakes Krakauer made weren't important, unless in a theoretical discussion of truth and veracity in biography. I found that an interesting thing to say about a work of non-fiction, and biography in particular where extracting the 'truth' of the situation is supposed to be paramount. I wondered if you might say a bit more about why the inaccuracies didn't matter?

I understand why one would question why I didn't think that alleged mistakes by Krakauer were important. So, at Litlove's request, I will expand on that thought.

First, I think that truthfulness and factualness is important in biography and memoir. There have been several uproars in recent years regarding some authors bending of the truth in order to make a memoir more interesting. In some cases, what was presented as facts were so stretched as to be yarns completely woven from whole cloth. It probably isn't even necessary to mention specifically James Frey's Million Little Pieces as an example, so loud werer the outcries over the fabrications in that book. A Million Little Pieces spawned a million comments over the internets and other media, and I don't intend to delve into that topic here, other than to state that I do think that it is important to report facts as accurately as possible, although I realize my previous comment may lead one to assume that I don't think it is necessary, except in a theoretical way.

However, the issue that I have is with some commentaries that I read (after reading the book, and, unfortunately, I didn't save links or references to quotes), which suggested that Krakauer was sloppy in his conclusions regarding the death of Chris McCandless. McCandless died of starvation after living in solitude in the Alaskan wilderness for over 100 days. Some believe that he accidentally ate too many of the mildly toxic seeds of the wild potato plant, or had carelessly mistook the similar-looking but more highly toxic wild sweet pea as being the edible wild potato. Krakauer suggests that it was a mold that grew upon the seeds that he ate, rather than the seeds that brought about a metabolic condition that allowed the weakened McCandless to starve.

Is Krakauer stretching here to make his conclusions about McCandless hold true? Perhaps one could argue that. However, I think his discussion of the actual causes of McCandless' death would not weaken his argument if excluded. If anything, Krakauer's lingering questions about the death support that argument that Krakauer was determined to figure out the why of Chris' death, more than the how. One of the ideas countering the McCandless myth is that he had a deathwish and went into the wilderness to die. Krakauer's work doesn't support this idea of a suicidal journey; it earnestly tries to defend the opposite.

But, little is known about the days McCandless spent in the wilderness. He had no contact with any other human being, and left only scanty notes and a few photographs. Any story about his life in the Alaskan wilderness would have huge gaps without some suppositions. The root cause of his death will remain a mystery. His mental state and his intentions for going into the wild will never be known.

Why do I think that it doesn't matter? As I wrote in my first post, I think this book is as much about Krakauer as it is about McCandless and other young adventurers like them. Krakauer makes no attempt to hide his involvement in this story. Although he never met Chris McCandless, he felt a strong affinity for him, felt that they were driven by similar motivations. Krakauer even devotes two chapters in the book to his own adventure attempting a solo climb of a mountain known as The Devil's Thumb. He uses these chapters to draw parallels between his life and desires and McCandless.

I knew that people sometimes died climbing mountains. But at the age of twenty-three, personal mortality -- the idea of my own death -- was still largely outside my conceptual grasp. When I decamped from Boulder for Alaska, my head swimming with visions of glory and redemption on the Devils Thumb, it didn't occur to me that I might be bound by the same cause-and-effect relationships that governed the actions of others. Because I wanted to climb the mountain so badly, because I had thought about the thumb so intensely for so long, it seemed beyond the realm of possibility that some minor obstacle like the weather or crevasses or rime-covered rock might ultimately thwart my will.
. . .
It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate the mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.

As a young man, I was unlike McCandless in many important regards; most notably, I possessed neither his intellect nor his lofty ideals. But I believe we were similarly affected by the skewed relationships we had with our fathers. And I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of the soul.

The fact that I survived my Alaska adventure and McCandless did not survive his was largely a matter of chance; had I not returned from the Stikine Ice Cap in 1977, people would have been quick to say of me -- as they now say of him -- that I had a death wish. Eighteen years after the event, I now recognize that I suffered from hubris, perhaps, and an appalling innocence, certainly; but I wasn't suicidal.

At that stage of my youth, death remained as abstract a concept as non-Euclidean geometry or marriage. I didn't yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who'd entrusted the deceased with their hearts. I was stirred by the dark mystery of mortality. I couldn't resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. 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.

In my case -- and, I believe, in the case of Chris McCandless -- that was a very different thing from wanting to die.

--Into the Wild Chap 15, p151, 155-6.

I think these paragraphs are at the heart of this book. It is the desire, the compelling urge, to "steal up to the edge of doom and peer over the brink" that is central to this book, not the medical reasons why McCandless perished by starvation.

1 comment:

litlove said...

Cam! How wonderful! I came back to see whether you'd answered the question I left and I find myself richly rewarded. Thanks very much for this post which does indeed make your thoughts clear to me. And I agree - young men DO think they are immortal on the whole, particularly ones who want to climb mountains.