Monday, March 21, 2011

Fiction's Philosophy

The Price of Solitude

In literature as well as the real world, characters and people might deal with their world by seeking isolation, but perhaps their philosophical view of the reason for life comes from a desire to avoid the very contact they fear.

Man’s quest to not only explore, but conquer nature is practically as old as well, man himself. Many have succeeded and many failed, although their quests may have been driven by a yearning for solitude or ways to cope with social contact. For some, their failure was due in large part to inadequate preparation or research, a miscalculation in direction or weather patterns, or just plain bad luck. In the cases of both Aron Ralston in the movie, 127 Hours, and Christopher McCandless in the movie, Into The Wild, I dare to ask if the tragedies that befell the avid adventurers and naturalists were due to something even more insidious than not choosing to alert their friends or family as to where they were going.

Both men made decisions that ended with tragic results. Ralston made the agonizing decision to amputate part of his right arm after his hand and wrist wound up being pinned against a canyon wall after an eight hundred pound boulder tumbled loose as he was descending a portion of Blue John Canyon. Ralston’s story was also described in the book Between A Rock and A Hard Place. Chris McCandless’ story was movingly captured by author Jon Kraukauer in the book and movie with the same name of, Into the Wild. McCandless wound up forsaking all of his worldly possessions and trekking all the way to Alaska where he hoped to enjoy a solitary existence of living off of the land. He met a tragic and untimely demise when he accidentally ate a poisonous plant that he believed was safe.

While no one can argue that both Ralston and McCandless had a genuine love of nature and appreciated the freedom and the beauty of the lands they explored, they both craved the solitude of the wide open spaces they were a part of. In both Between A Rock and A Hard Place and Into the Wild, Ralston and McCandless comment frequently that they looked forward to being alone, away from either the boredom, mundaneness or in Chris McCandless’ case, the pain, heartache and chaos of everyday life.

For Ralston, his need to be alone against the elements seemed to come from his supreme confidence in his abilities as a climber, medic and overall naturalist and adventurer. It was also a desire to see how long and how far he could push himself. There was an air of invincibility and a slight arrogance within him. A feeling that he had taken all that nature could dish out and was still standing. For Ralston, it seemed that there was no situation he couldn’t handle while out in the wild. For Ralston, family and relationships were pushed aside for more adventure and more solitude.

McCandless’ motives for burning his money and most of his other worldly possessions and heading to Alaska seemed to be due to his disillusionment with the conventions of living a “regular” life. He held a great deal of resentment and harbored many internal scars toward his parents, who he felt were pressuring him into living a materialistic, typical American lifestyle. For McCandless and his na├»ve idealism of challenging himself and living off of the harsh Alaskan land, solitude in the Alaskan wilderness also meant not having to deal with the stresses and vapidness of everyday life. It also meant having minimal contact with others. Minimal contact meant not having to deal with the baggage, and in McCandless’ mind, the inevitable hurt and disappointment that came with establishing a connection or a relationship with someone.

But in the end, when both men were slowly, agonizingly dying, they both had the same epiphany - that in the end, it wasn’t solitude that they were craving. But rather, it was the relationships and bonds that they had forged in life with friends and family that had meant the most – relationships that both men had ultimately forsaken for their own selfish or fearful reasons. Before summoning the strength to make the brazen decision to amputate his arm, Ralston wondered if his sudden enlightenment was his body’s final desperate attempt to persevere or if it was a final, cruel lesson about his life and how he lived it.

Unfortunately, Christopher McCandless would not have the opportunity to follow through on his realization. He died from starvation near Denali National Park and Preserve, alone in a beat up school bus that he used as a makeshift form of shelter. One of McCandless’ final statements as he lay near death and was barely able to move was the following, “Happiness is only real when shared.”

Despite losing part of his right arm and nearly bleeding to death, Aron Ralston would be the only one to heed McCandless’ advice and learn from his mistakes.

- Hamilton Maher

"127 Hours" image courtesy of
"Into the Wild" image courtesy of

1 comment:

  1. Chris McCandless may have had a short life, but he certainly had a fulfilled one: