Into The Wild - Jessica Mason McFadden Pt1          

Fairbanks Bus 142

McCandless and the Metamyth:
The Wild Collisions of an Isolation Myth Inverted

Jon Krakauer’s interest in the life story of Chris McCandless might have originated in the realm of relative obscurity but it no longer stands in isolation. To the contrary: it has become a place of collective fascination, conversation, and conflict. Krakauer has a hand on the myth of McCandless, on its inception, reception and longevity, yet, at the same time, the myth has a life of its own outside of Krakauer’s framing. This reveals a characteristic quality of the myth— it is a work of creation that recreates itself into perpetuity or obscurity. Mythos is as much the act of storytelling as it is, in the traditional sense, the entity of a story, for what is a story without the act of telling?

Judith Butler refers to action, in her theoretical work on gender, as that through which representation is reproduced. Within this reference is her definition of gender as a reproductive and continuous act. More specifically, history and its particulars are reenacted through performative gender acts, she asserts in her pivotal essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Butler’s theory can be applied to mythos, as I’ve suggested that it is only useful and relevant through its retelling across time and in the now. If we, as storytellers and story-receivers and -believers, accept that myth, like gender, is a performative act, then with it comes a sense of renewal and shared responsibility. Krakauer’s myth of McCandless, after all, is layered with his idea of McCandless’ own myth: as an author, he aims to tell a story in his own words that he believes belongs in some way to McCandless. As a result, we are practically forced, when reading Into the Wild, to consider two myths happening, or being told, in tandem and in one single unit. The work of any author, by this definition, is the act of meta-myth-making. Thus, the implications of this collective telling abound, forming a movement, a mythical concerto in which McCandless-as-a-character-in-his-own-myth, McCandless-as-a-character-in-Krakauer’s-myth, and McCandless-as-character-in-our-renewed-myths play in major and minor chords, in both discordant harmony.

The story of McCandless, like the story of anyone or anything else, is a public domain arisen from the mythical origin of the individual consciousness imbedded in a collective consciousness. His is particularly powerful, perhaps because its narrative puzzle pieces do not match up nicely, or normatively, enough with other myths or with current trends in the general population. The myth of the outlier, the rugged individualist who seeks through a trip away from civilization and into Alaska to actualize the myth of outlier existence, is not an isolated myth nor is McCandless an isolated character; however, we share myths like we share identities and geographies: collectively, despite the inner isolation we feel on an individual level. The McCandless Myth reflects, too, that despite their pervasiveness in our lives, our collective mythic-identity acts do not transcend the experience, mythical or otherwise, of isolation. Ironically, isolation is the inverse of mythtelling; there can be no myth without connection. It is, therefore, important to consider the ways in which the McCandless Myth functions to situate and expose the myth of individualist isolation within collective action and to examine the ways in which myths are locations of cultural and cognitive collision.

Krakauer begins the novel with Chris McCandless’ last note; yet the first narrative voice that is introduced belongs to Gallien, a traveler who gave “The Hitchhiker” (Alex/Chris) a ride and transported him as far as a few miles into the Stampede Trail. Gallien reports that Alex McCandless happily refused his common sense offerings, saying “‘I don’t want to know what time it is. I don’t want to know what day it is or where I am. None of that matters’” (7). Shortly thereafter, Gallien comments that he figured that if Alex felt hungry he would simply walk out of the woods to the highway, because “that’s what any normal person would do” (7). Accounts of short journeys with one form or another of McCandless, like Gallien’s, are not necessarily intended to be taken literally or used for any kind of detective purposes. Rather, they create questions, poke holes in rationalities, and build gaps in the narrative. Consider that we’re informed about McCandless through Krakauer’s account of Gallien’s account of Alex. Mythical McCandless comes through the narrative like a matryoshka doll: all, somehow, carved and painted copies of McCandless but not one is an original.

Through this mythical matryoshkan McCandless, we’re introduced to both the collective nature of relaying and the way in which such relaying addresses cultural issues of normality. There is power behind this collective myth because it questions, conflicts with, and outrageously laughs in the face of contemporary Western societal values. Some mythologists interested in McCandless will find his story tragic, while others will scoff at it and brush it off as a cautionary tale of foolishness and oddness. Myths of power that reincarnate chronically are controversial and mysterious. In order to be this way, the myth must enact a transgression against cultural norms. Krakauer’s genius is in his ability to deliberately engage in collective storytelling. It happens whether authors try to do it or not, but Krakauer’s method is one that consciously draws itself to opportunities for discord, mystery, and intensity. He’s a meta myth-maker, a myth-maker who intuitively or through study knows the perpetual motion and chaos of myths.

From the get-go, Krakauer gives credence to the idea of a collective mythos-in-action; his own story does not solely belong to him nor does he intend to express McCandless one-sidedly through his lens. Instead, Krakauer creates a mythical collage of perspectives on McCandless, including snippets of McCandless’ own account of himself. This narrative method reveals the shared nature of and responsibility that comes with a given story or mythical figure. Whether or not McCandless was aware of it, in his journey, he inserted himself into a string of stories with a number of common themes and became a mythical figure in the process. His choices and written words, in Krakauer’s novel, become a vital part of the myth, but are not more important than any other voice in the disharmonious mythical choir.

Even the dual nature of McCandless (as Chris and Alex) serves to dismantle the notion that we are in control of our own myth and reestablishes the recognition of collective storytelling— he, our mythic protagonist, is at least two: Alex to some, Chris to others, McCandless, still to others. His partitioned nature suggests that he is not an entity but a compilation, and this is one powerful reason to trust that there is much to be learned in this myth that goes beyond an unorthodox trip into the alienation and isolation of Alaska. McCandless, after all, seeks unity with the Alaskan wilderness while deserting his known surroundings and connections. Aside from raising questions about an individual’s motivations, the juxtaposition of his journey teaches us, narratively, about juxtaposition in relation to the nature of the myth. When reading Into the Wild, there are opportunities adrift from the surface to read beyond motives, characteristics, and decisions. If we read such narratives with an interest in plot and character development but without being bound to literal mythological devices, we can begin to engage the deeper modes of connection at work. The rhetoric of McCandless’ shared myth reaches, not completely away from but, deeper than his upper-middle-class environs, his father’s betrayals, his copy of War and Peace, his rejection of survival gear, or the cause of his death. While all of those details matter and the story could not exist without them, its function within the genre of a mythical and mythically-minded human race tells us more.

Jessica McFadden Part 1

Jessica McFadden Part 2

Jessica McFadden Part 3

 

 


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