Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer , with its accompanying film and phenomenal soundtrack, often inspires wanderlust, especially in young men like Christopher Mccandless, the book’s subject. Chris, who died in the Alaskan wilderness, loathed society and the many constraints it imposed upon his personal freedom. Shortly after graduating from college, Chris vanished, dipping out of his life, thus far, to live in the wild, without modern necessities, luxuries or money. The beatniks of the 1950’s similarily denounced consumer culture in favor of minimalism: for the experience of life, you understand!
The Beat Generation was a literary movement following World War 2. It was started by authors who influenced American culture (as well as politics). Moreover, Beat culture advocated rejecting materialism and standard narrative values, in return for more spiritual development, the exploration of American and Eastern religions, experimentation with drugs and sexual liberation. It was bohemian hedonism celebrating diversity and creativity.
Explicit portrayals of the human condition were present in most work from that time. One core book to exemplify Beat literature is Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road.
On the Road and Into the Wild share more than a few common themes, for instance, personal growth and the pursuit of happiness. Jack and Neal’s adventures in On the Road are, moreover, comparable to Chris’s trek to Alaska. They even visited some of the same places.
While you could compare Christopher McCandless to author and narrator, Jack Kerouac, he more closely resembles the book’s second protagonist, Neal Cassady, who appears in several other books by Kerouac, as well as other authors. In real life, he was a bridge into hippie and other counterculture movements founded on Beat culture. Both Chris and Neal were raised in broken homes and hostile environments, both were greatly dissatisfied with society and both met the same fate.
Although Neal lived on after On The Road, to eventually drive Ken Kesey’s school bus across the country giving out free acid, he is, like Chris, psychologically alone. Both men isolated themselves out of desperation. The people Chris met on his road thought of him the same way Jack Kerouac thought of the eccentric Neal Cassady.
At the end of On The Road, Jack has moved on from adventuring, because, according to him, “the road” goes on and on. There is never enough to make someone happy. One can never experience enough life; the thirst for adventure is unquenchable.
Years later, Neal suddenly reappears in Jack’s life, however, Kerouac has found happiness elsewhere. After roaming the United States, succumbing to illness in Mexico, and a lot of introspection, he has a wife now. He leaves Neal to wander endlessly.
Put down your selfie-stick and unzip that backpack, hipsters. Jack Kerouac pacified Christopher McCandless’ existential crisis, way back in the ’50’s. With a little help from French philosopher (and one of my favorite authors), Albert Camus, I’ll explain how.
“We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The Myth of Sisyphus is an essay by Camus, in which he answers what he declares life’s only important philosophical question: should we commit suicide? Sisyphus is a Greek, mythological figure condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down to the bottom. Then he repeats the process for eternity. Camus concludes that “the struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
Likewise, we must imagine Jack Kerouac happy when On the Road ends. No one was truly free, even back in 1957, and integrating back into society after living as free as possible is never easy, so he didn’t have many options. He could’ve explored what other aspects of life were accessible to him or continued traveling as a poor beatnik. He had already experienced the Beat lifestyle, and, while it was fun while it lasted, he moved on before he could take it too far – before he wound up like Neal or Christopher McCandless. If Kerouac hadn’t found happiness elsewhere (in his newfound wife, I infer), he might have chased it to literal death.
Furthermore, if whatever venture Kerouac chose had made him irreversibly miserable, while the Beat lifestyle also made him unhappy, would he never have a suicidal thought? Chris did kind of subconsciously kill himself, after all. He couldn’t stand living in society, but couldn’t survive in the absolute wilderness. His ideology isn’t surprising, considering society, in fact, does keep us all in check to a (rapidly rising) degree. If we don’t want to share the demise of Christopher McCandless or end up like Neal Cassady, constantly trying to fill a void, the struggle, itself, must fulfill our hearts. Although societal life’s monotony is enough to drive anyone to suicide, our options are limited. Today, you can’t even do what the Beat movement did: travel without much care or responsibility. You could very well end up like Chris McCandless, or, more likely in jail. The indifferent absurdity of society’s many constraints can also, understandably, lead one to suicide. We must imagine ourselves happy, like Sisyphus.