30 May 2012

The Embarrassment of Being Earnest

Over a few days this past week -- mostly while packed into a car also containing my mother, my sister, her friend, Heather, and the dog, en route to and from the Red River Gorge where we were doing some small-scale backpacking -- I read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, just something I'd pulled off Heather's bookshelf for the journey. Everybody knows the story, I suppose: young man enthralled by Tolstoy, Thoreau, and his own depth of spirit sets out to make it entirely on his own, living off the land and then dying on the land after a mercilessly swift series of miscalculations. Krakauer attacks the situation with sympathy, especially in a middle chapter dissecting the chorus of sneering voices who chastised Chris McCandless for his foolish death.
From the available evidence, McCandless doesn't seem to have been an especially likeable person. I would, I think, have clashed with him across the seminar table in college, constantly prickled by the suspicion that beneath the discord our deepest convictions sang in unison. His notes are full of ardent underlining and rampant self-glorification. He seems to have treated other people highhandedly and with insufficient respect for their reality. But I don't think that fully explains why lives and deaths like his are held in such contempt, because there's also something defensive, reactionary, in the tone of the castigators.

There are certain lives that are popularly read as an act of judgment against mainstream existence, whether those living them would ever formulate such a judgment or not. The smoldering annoyance provoked by this continual imaginary judgment comes out against the less dramatically ascetic as well: there is for instance the scorn tossed at vegans, straight-edge kids, non-drivers (to name only categories of which I am or have been a member). And I've just as often fallen on the other side: how often have I rolled my eyes at the fasters, the neatniks, the taut creatures who organize their days around workouts?

All these people have given their lives a certain tentative form, and the more committed, like McCandless, a much stronger one. Such forms omit deliberately things widely considered worth pursuing; they refuse to frame their neglect to obtain these things as a failure. And, often accidentally, they function as statements, as argumentative positions that would be very uncomfortable to engage seriously in debate. So their deliberate omissions must be reframed as failures. They must be drawn into comparison and competition with the critic's normal life, which is shaped without much conscious intention by the essentially economic imperative of continual growth, acquisition. Any answer to the critic's challenge will typically serve only to make the defendant appear as fanatical, judgmental, and foolish as everyone has suspected all along.

Therefore it's better to be silent, assuming one doesn't in fact possess the strain of messianic zeal that made McCandless apparently insufferable. I yearn to go unnoticed when I turn down the cheesecake, just as in high school I gave only a cheery "no thanks" to whatever bottom-shelf bottle was being passed around, just as I demur on any number of more sensitive and deeper-seated subjects. I keep the scope of my convictions very small. They do not trespass on anybody else's life.

"Would you believe -- could you hear without laughing  . . . that for years my secret ambition . . . was to stand up fearless and honest like Joan of Arc or Galileo --
         "And suffer for the truth?"

So says one of Joanna Russ's characters in The Female Man, and my laughter is only the laughter of sympathy. After I considered that martyrdom and ensuing sainthood might not be as accessible a career path as I'd hoped at age five, I still retained St. Joan as a role model and thought perhaps I'd enter a convent. At fifteen I'd abandoned religion or the other way around, but I still tried my hardest to find a way to accept the Christianity a friend of mine was trying to lead me back into by way of Chesterton and Anselm. I walked around under low, oppressive clouds for two weeks after smacking into what seemed the inarguable blank wall of Spinoza's Ethics, which casually and coldly did away with any meaningful conception of free will given its premise of an omniscient god. (It's not really much better if you omit the deity and start from a scientific, mechanistic standpoint, but the whole thing seems less invasive, somehow.) The knowledge nauseated me. Color was drained from every interaction until it crept slowly back of its own accord, as sleep must come after a long string of insomniac nights.

I mean to say that truth was of direst importance. I tucked a letter into the library volume of Spinoza beseeching anyone who'd gotten around the problem to assist me; I passed notes on the question to a bemused, unhelpful friend in class; I wrote a term paper for my community-college philosophy class that was little more than a wail in the general direction of the heavens and my professor. I got an A, but no answer. 

I thought I'd be a philosopher, probably (and just the mention of the word brings on a phantom chorus of cackling about useless degrees). When I finally decided not to swear off college, I went to the mountains and talked and talked about truth for four years. To get in, I wrote entrance essays on riding my bike (which my high school English teacher all but called boring) and on Robert M. Pirsig's work of pop philosophy Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I took very seriously, not knowing how little respect it was accorded. My youth is a chain of embarrassments, and not in the regular way of awkward and troublemaking teenagers everywhere.

But I also got a little more urbane at college, aided by friends who knew how to deeply enjoy ephemeral things and make cutting remarks in amusing ways. I'd never been a pure crusader for truth, anyway -- too lazy, too easily distracted. Imperfectly, I became civilized.

So I'm arch, I'm diffident, by nature and cultivation both, but push most any button and watch buckets of earnestness come pouring out. Just get me on a long car ride alone or a walk in the woods or at the edge of the shore at night and you'll easily harvest enough material to embarrass me further for years to come. For instance, I'm readily seduced by thoughts of wandering away into wilderness ready to prove my self-sufficiency. I loved many of the fellow creatures who accompanied me up and down sandstone slabs and switchbacks in Kentucky, but I also ached to travel those same paths in solitude and silence.

(Part of the appeal of being alone in the wild is, I think, the near-impossibility of really doing wrong. Most of my crimes against what I feel to be my better nature pertain to other people, or to making poor use of my time. There are no other people out there, and only a limited number of ways to spend one's time, all of which seem intrinsically worthwhile, if not virtuous. A very bright and morally simple reality presses in from all sides, leaving little room for error.)

A wary thrill rises in my chest when I meet a fellow natural pilgrim. My friend Kari once noted that she tended to date "Levins" -- after the Tolstoy stand-in in Anna Karenina, the spiritual seeker, agriculturalist, and railer against falseness. I seek them out too, on the page and as acquaintances; I wrote my senior thesis on Dostoevsky's Alyosha Karamazov and Prince Myshkin, two exemplars of tormented earnestness. But I also keep my distance from them a little, aware of how easy it is to be written off as a kook, to make oneself completely unlikeable in the rigidity of one's chosen path.

It's an odd mix: in many ways my character is built for strong belief. There just isn't much content with which I can, in good faith, fill those channels; it's a dry, impoverished truth I've ended up with after a youth spent trying and failing to make various doctrines add up. But my thirst for those big nouns -- the good, the true -- remains, ready to embarrass me and annoy any of the more sensible souls who come into contact with it.


  1. Please, don't ever stop writing this blog.

  2. Thank you, anonymous friend! Such directives are not only flattering but very useful to me (as the gaps between posts here suggest).