February 04, 2005

More agitation, please

In Through The Tears below, I mentioned John Krakauer in passing, and his book Into The Wild. When I read this intense, remarkable book, I spent days remembering my time in Madagascar and Masoala; and it also left me drained for days. It had been years since I had been so deeply moved by a book, and none since have done the same.

Into The Wild traces the story of Christopher McCandless, a 24 year old who vanished days after he graduated from Atlanta's Emory University in 1990. His family heard nothing from or of him for over two years; until, in September 1992, he turned up. Deep in Denali National Park in Alaska, he lay dead of starvation. From a laconic journal McCandless had kept, from five rolls of film found with him, and by following a trail of lives he had touched in travelling across the American West, Krakauer pieces together what happened to this sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent man in those two years.

Essentially, McCandless gave up his previous life and turned into a tramp: hitchhiking around the US, doing odd jobs, living among the men and women who drift along the margins of society. At one point, apparently on an impulse, he bought himself a used aluminium boat and paddled down the Colorado River, across the border into Mexico and to the sea. He spent a month on a deserted beach, subsisting on no more than five pounds of rice and the fish he was able to catch.

This vagrant life climaxed in April 1992, when McCandless set off for what, to him, was to be his greatest test, his finest moment. He walked into the Alaskan wilderness, intent on surviving there alone. Though he was aware that the experience might kill him, he was also exhilarated to embark on his great Alaskan odyssey. I now walk into the wild, he wrote to a friend as he left.

Sadly, the odyssey ended less than four months later, in illness, starvation and death.

Why would Chris McCandless choose to so spectacularly renounce a comfortable upper-middle-class life? I won't tell you the answers Krakauer comes up with: you should read the book yourself.

But Into The Wild is compelling most of all because of the parallels Krakauer sees, in his own life, to McCandless's tragedy. Seeking an escape from the comfortable existence that might easily -- too easily -- have been his, Krakauer had, through his life, deliberately sought out dangerous and difficult challenges.

He writes of one of them in slow, wrenching detail: a solo ascent of a dizzying Alaskan peak, the Devil's Thumb, that took Krakauer several weeks. His passion for climbing suffuses his account of that terrifying ordeal, but there's much more there than just passion. There's a searching, unsparing analysis of the very meaning of undertaking such ordeals.

His more recent book, Into Thin Air, examines similar themes. On May 10 1996, several climbers died in a storm high on Mt Everest. Krakauer was there that day, as part of a commercial expedition to the peak, commissioned by Outside magazine to write about the ascent. The book is his account of the disaster. It explores the mistakes, the egos, the money, of high-altitude commercial climbing. It also provokes thought on the differences between the Western view of Everest -- a monumental challenge, a foe to be conquered -- and the Eastern view (the Sherpa view, but perhaps no less an Indian one): that it is just another incarnation of nature. Immensely imposing and deserving of respect, yes, but a partner in life and to be treated that way.

Whether it's climbing or vagabonding through the wilderness, the same thread runs through both books. Krakauer delves into the intensely personal appeal, the meaning, the import, of walking the edge of danger. In Into The Wild, after the account of the Devil's Thumb ascent, he writes: I was stirred by the dark mystery of mortality. I couldn't resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman's sex.

In that terrifying danger, somehow, is great passion. Wonder. Mystery. Life.

As a young man, writes Krakauer, I was unlike McCandless in many important regards. I possessed neither his intellect nor his lofty ideals ... [But] I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of the soul.

I brooded over those words for a long time, conscious of the chords they struck within me, memories of my Masoala trek coming to mind. Now I was unlike either McCandless or Krakauer in many other important regards: I never did have the intensity or the heedlessness, nor the intellect and ideals. Hard as I found that trek to complete, it wasn't remotely as difficult or dangerous as challenges they faced.

For those reasons, I don't want to overdo the comparisons.

But I can't help making them. Into The Wild set off echoes in my mind of my travels in Madagascar, enough that the book affected me more than I thought possible. For I think I know what Krakauer meant when he wrote of the agitation of the soul. I think I felt some of it, before Madagascar and Masoala.

And after going? Give me more of that agitation.

1 comment:

Sanketh said...

Hey Dilip,

Thanks for sharing this. I can identify with it at some level. I will definitely make an effort to read it.

Thank you
Sanketh