The Dangerous End of Literature

“The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and these remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.”

Walker Percy,
The Moviegoer


Theodore Roosevelt once said of reading that “(We) all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”

If we could profit from literature, it would be, more than anything, of understanding the human condition — Man’s needs, his troubles and tragedies, his comedies. Literature also points out to the systems of our condition — What doesn’t work and what could be fixed for man to be more free, although it doesn’t normally serve up a tray of solutions.

It’s not wrong to feel a certain way about how things are. But there is a danger in being too engrossed in an endeavor or a worldview. There’s a danger in thinking you’re different, totally different and undeserving of rules — To the point where you become disconnected from the world, and from reality — Which is the opposite of what literature is supposed to be about.

There are extents where you shouldn’t take literature, well, too literally. There are times when it’s necessary to remember that stories are just stories.  They are plotted, filtered, edited, and refined to sound as good as they could be. They don’t always reflect how life actually is.

Sometimes art can only make things worse.

Because art is for life. Never the other way round.

The Into The Wild story of Chris McCandless is a classic of a disconnected young man who donated all of his college savings to charity and embarked on a romanticized vagabond life in the Alaskan wilderness, saying that he “didn’t want to see a single person, no airplanes, no sign of civilization”. He wanted to prove to himself that he could live on his own, without anybody else’s effect. He buried his name and lived by the alias “Alexander Supertramp”. With lackluster survival and hunting skills, he set foot on his travels to find answers to his problems, but instead only found starvation and a lonely death.

McCandless was more than an avid reader. He insisted on living out the ideals of classic writers such as Emerson and Jack London. Absorbing London’s works, McCandless read and reread The Call of the Wild, White Fang, To Build a Fire, An Odyssey of the North, The Wit of Porportuk — So much so that he seemed to forget that these were all works of fiction which had more to do with London’s imagination than the actualities of life in the wilderness. In reality, London spent just a single winter in the North. He bore little resemblance to the ideals he portrayed in his writing.

To support himself for Alaska, McCandless worked a few jobs when necessary, making new friends along the way. Some of them even acting as parent figures for him — Something he didn’t have back at home.

One of his encounters, Wayne Westerberg said of McCandless, “You could tell right away that Alex was intelligent. He read a lot. Used a lot of big words. I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often. A couple of times I tried to tell him it was a mistake to get too deep into that kind of stuff, but Alex got stuck on things. he always had to know the absolute answer before he could go on to the next thing.”

Many of the friends he met on his journey tried to save him from his existential angst, lovingly attempting to bring him back to reality. On the contrary, McCandless imparted his wisdom on them, envisioning to them what life should be about.

To quote Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild, “It would be easy to stereotype Christoper McCandless as another boy who felt too much, a loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense. But the stereotype isn’t a good fit. McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary : His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path : McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself — More, in the end, than he could deliver”

A reenactment of one of McCandless’s conversations with Westerberg in the movie is one worth a ponder — In the scene, McCandless excitedly tells Westerberg of his Alaskan dreams — Being “all out there” on his own with no map or watch, and maybe after that, writing a book about his travels and about “getting out of this sick society”.

He explained to Westerberg, “You know what I don’t understand? I don’t understand why people are so bad to each other, so often. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Judgement. Control. All that.” — To which Westerberg questioned, “What kind of ‘people’ are we talking about?”

In a sense, McCandless was right. There are plenty of things wrong with society — People  do horrible things to one another. But he made the mistake of equating society with individual people, and because of that, he isolated himself completely. Over and over again in his journey to Alaska, he met loving, understanding, and non-judgmental people who offered him companionship. He was so eager in his search for a higher meaning that he failed to see that it was right in front of him all along.

As McCandless was dying from starvation, he made a final scribble in his copy of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Next to the passage, “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness…And this was most vexing of all”, he noted, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED”.

McCandless’s failure to find meaning and beauty in the small, everyday things is common among intelligent and young people like himself : Mature and clever to see the evils and hypocrisies among society, but not enough to realize that they are not alone in what they feel.

It’s also just as how it is illustrated in Samuel Beckett’s play, that we very often wait for our own Godot that may never arrive, and we forget that the here and now of life is what gives it meaning.

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