Weil and McCandless: Another Parallel
8 January 2012
In Experiencing Affliction I drew some parallels between the lives of Simone Weil, the French philosopher and Christian convert who died during the Second World War, and Christopher McCandless (AKA Alexander Supertramp), the American vagabond and seeker who died in the Alaskan back-country. This is what I wrote:
I was also reminded of Chris McCandless, of whom I recently wrote, who also came from a privileged background and received an elite education but turned his back on this. Weil the European went into the wilds of industrialized society; McCandless the American sought the faceless anonymity of the untrammeled wilderness. The environments could not have been more different, but the drive to prove that one can survive on one’s own is almost frightening in its similarity (as is the drive to self-mortification).
I have written elsewhere that the accomplishments of the elite and the privileged are always tainted by the fact that what they have attained has not been earned. But it is apparent that there are always a few honest individuals among the privileged who are acutely aware that their position has not been earned, that it is tainted, and the only way to prove that one can make it on one’s own is to cut one’s ties to one’s privileged background and strike out on one’s own.
A quest of this intensity is not the result of ratiocination or rational calculation. It is emotional and intuitive, instinctive and visceral. Few if any would risk their life, or lose their life, on the basis of a rational calculation. One calculates a risk precisely because one wants to come out on the winning side, although one may well still be wrong and end up losing. But a spiritual quest is made of different material. It does not answer to rational calculation, and it would not recognize the limitation my friend recognized years ago, and which I only today found in myself.
Weil, like McCandless, died young from the rigors of her quest.
Since I wrote the above, much more information has become available on Christopher McCandless. There is an official website now, Christopher McCandless, and another book has been published, Back to the Wild. Krakauer’s book on McCandless, Into the Wild, also made into a film of the same name, several times refers to McCandless’ journal, but the journal itself was not made available except in brief quotes. I gather that more quotes from McCandless’ journal appear in Back to the Wild, but I haven’t looked at the book myself yet. One would suppose — at least, one would hope — that his journal would be scanned and made available. In fact, some pages have been scanned, and you can see them on the Pictures page of the official website.
When I was once again thinking of the parallels between Weil and McCandless recently I realized how Weil’s factory journal and McCandless’ wilderness journal resemble each other. I had previously written that, “Weil the European went into the wilds of industrialized society; McCandless the American sought the faceless anonymity of the untrammeled wilderness.”
The way in which these journals of radically different experiences — radically different, but conceived alike as a rigorous quest — resemble each other is in their being reduced to the necessities of life. Here’s what Krakauer wrote about the last pages of McCandless’ journal:
The entries in McCandless’s journal contain few abstractions about wilderness or, for that matter, few ruminations of any kind. There is scant mention of the surrounding scenery. Indeed, as Roman’s friend Andrew Liske points out upon reading a photocopy of the journal, “These entries are almost entirely about what he ate. He wrote about hardly anything except food.
Andrew is not exaggerating: The journal is little more than a tally of plants foraged and game killed.
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild, p. 183
Though she died relatively young, Weil left quite substantial writings, including extensive notebooks in addition to the pieces she published in her lifetime or left complete. However, the notebooks she wrote during her time doing factory labor are little more than an account of her labor. One suspects that the more substantial reflections from this period were written on her days off.
Weil did, however, explicitly reflect on suffering, at one point writing:
“God does not send sufferings and woes as ordeals; he lets Necessity distribute them in accordance with its own proper mechanism.”
Simone Weil, Notebooks, Vol. II, translated by Arthur Wills, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956, p. 403
But Weil was not content with the sufferings and woes distributed to her in accordance with “proper mechanisms,” and neither, apparently, was McCandless. So each went on a quest, and in each case the quest ended in premature death. Of death Weil wrote in her notebooks:
“A great mystery lies in the fact that human beings die when they have not yet entered into eternity. But this is because death forms part and parcel of blind necessity.”
Op. cit., p. 333
In both of these quotes from Weil she invokes necessity, but she defied natural necessity when it came to suffering, and I would argue that this defiance also issued in the natural necessity of death being unnecessarily early. She not only defied her family and her position in society, she defied her own understanding of the world in order to die before her time.
What comes of unnecessary suffering? What is the fruit of voluntary suffering? Very little. Whether unnecessary suffering is caused by another and borne heroically by the sufferer, or it is voluntarily sought and borne joyfully in a quest of self transcendence, it does not inspire us to greater things, but reduces us to necessity, and sometimes reduces us below necessity to death. We abhor suffering when we see it inflicted; we should equally abhor suffering when it is self-inflicted.
When Weil and McCandless put themselves in most dire straits, their thoughts, like their lives, were reduced to mere necessity. Would that both had chosen to live.
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