About a year ago I saw the Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s filmic treatment of the eponymous book by Jon Krakauer about Chris McCandless, a boy my age who left his family and all earthly security at the age of 21 to pursue a dream of living alone in the Alaskan wilderness. In 1992 he died of starvation in a bus that had been used for years by more experienced hunters and outdoorsmen on the Stampede Trail. His story is well known because of Krakauer’s book and the movie. The story and Chris himself attract a good deal of admiration and disgust—the latter generally comes from people who are aware of what it takes to survive in the wilderness. To them McCandless’s lack of preparedness was shockingly stupid and perhaps suicidal. For those who admire him, and I count myself among them, his courage trumps his stupidity. And even more important to me than his courage is the uncompromising nature of his desire. I see him as wanting to talk to God (although I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests that he himself viewed his quest as a religious one)—and I admire his wandering, day-to-day survival from the point at which he abandoned his car and took to the road on foot perhaps more than the Alaskan trek. I see Alexander Supertramp—his traveling pseudonym—as a pilgrim.
He was a literary sort and a great admirer of Tolstoy, another man who died a pilgrim, having renounced family and wealth. One book Chris brought with him to Alaska was War and Peace. I read it shortly after I finished reading Into the Wild, in search of the riches that someone like Chris would have wanted with him while experiencing darkness and solitude in his bus. I wasn’t disappointed. The book filled my winter with profound events of world history and the even more profound private thoughts of the main characters, like the confused and ever-seeking dissipate Pierre Bezukhov, the cynical and brave intellectual Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and his unhappy, devoutly Christian sister, Maria Bolkonsky, who is severely tried by her demanding and cruel old father and her certainty that the normal joys of life that a woman of wealth and nobility might hope for, a husband and children, will be barred from her because her father will never be able to part from her or tolerate a rival for her attention. With little refuge from day-to-day life except for her affection and devotion to her family and God, her inner life and her ideas about the meaning of existence become very well defined:
The longer she lived and the more she studied life, the more she wondered at the blindness of those who seek satisfaction for their desires here on earth, who suffer, and struggle, and toil, and injure each other, in their pursuit of an unattainable and intangible mirage—the source of endless temptation to sin—which they call happiness. Had she not seen her brother, who had loved his wife, aim at achieving happiness by loving another woman, while her father had yielded to wrath in opposing him because he thought the choice beneath him? . . . They were all suffering for each other’s wrong-doing, and risking their immortal souls to win joys that were as transient as a flash of lightning. “Not only do we know it by our own experience, but Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came down from Heaven and taught us that life is but a passage, a time or probation—and yet we will not cease to seek for happiness! No one has really grasped this truth,” said Princess Maria to herself, “except those poor pilgrims who come to me, with their wallets over their shoulders, up the back of the stairs for fear of meeting my father—not to escape ill usage, but to spare him a temptation to evil. To give up home and family, to renounce all worldly possessions, to wander from place to place under an assumed name in pilgrim’s sack-cloth, never to do any harm, but to pray—to pray—for those who despitefully use you as for those who feed and shelter you—that is the true life; life in the highest sense of the word!”
She goes so far as to purchase pilgrim garments and a sack, and she sets them by, a symbol of escape, of a life of true commitment to God (the renunciation of all safety and predictability—such a choice can be viewed as the ultimate passivity and compliance with fate). But she is a woman whose responsibilities to her life and those who depend on her—her father, her brother’s child—make greater claims than the lure of the pilgrimage. A nineteenth century woman, she must renounce renunciation.
As most of us who have contemporary lives and responsibilities do today. And yet, the siren song of the journey and the shedding of all acquired layers and ephemera of “self” calls, even to those such as myself who will quite possibly never heed it.