Sunday


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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Experiencing Affliction

17 October 2009

Saturday


Simone Weil, 03 February 1909 to 24 August 1943

Simone Weil, 03 February 1909 to 24 August 1943

I can remember with surprising clarity a conversation that I had some many years ago (about fifteen years ago, give or take) with a former roommate. We shared a third floor apartment on Belmont Street in southeast Portland with a window that looked down directly on the Belmont Inn, and shared a good many intense conversations, but this conversation in particular stands out in the my memory.

We were discussing the experience of prejudice and intolerance, and I maintained at the time that one could reproduce the conditions of intolerance and obtain a more or less authentic experience of prejudice, citing Black Like Me as an example of what might be called experimental role playing. My friend maintained that this would not be an authentic experience of prejudice because one knows even while one is experiencing the prejudice that one can voluntarily end it at any time, whereas the authentic experience involves a consciousness of the permanence of the condition. This observation is based upon a distinction between voluntary and involuntary experiences of affliction.

Job experienced involuntary affliction, and then had to listen to his 'friends' tell him that it must have been his fault. Very frustrating, no doubt.

This old conversation came back to me today as I was listening to a biography of Simone Weil by Francine Du Plessix Gray. The biography recounts how Weil, who after a comfortable childhood attended the École Normale Supérieure (the most elite of all French schools), became a teacher of philosophy in a girl’s secondary school. This, however, did not satisfy Weil’s need for suffering, and while, as a philosopher, she should have been aware of the distinction between voluntary suffering and involuntary suffering, she determined that she would suffer as the working class suffered.

'We shall send the Red Virgin as far away as possible so that we shall never hear of her again.' Director of Career Placement at the École Normale Supérieure.

Like many early twentieth century intellectuals, she began with strong communist sympathies, though the Soviet brand of communism did not live up to her moral ideals and she turned against it. Eventually she had a mystical experience and turned to Christianity, but, before this, her strong leftist views and her need to experience the difficulties and privations of ordinary working class people led her to ask for a year off from teaching, during which time she obtained jobs for unskilled factory labor. I will admit that I took a dim view of her experimental sociology and voluntary suffering as a factory worker, and for the same reason that my friend had pointed out years before.

Simone Weil felt the need to experience the conditions of the life of the industrial proletariat, so she joined their ranks for a year. In her notebooks of this period she wrote: 'When I think that the great Bolshevik leaders claimed to be creating a free working class and probably not one of them -- surely not Trotsky, and I don't think Lenin did either -- ever set foot in a factory and hence did not have the faintest idea of the real conditions which determine the servitude or freedom of these workers -- politics seems a sinister farce indeed'.

There is something spectacularly theatrical about a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure taking a job in a factory and allowing herself to become so reduced in circumstances that sufficient money for food became an issue. She had professional parents, and she had an elite degree, but chose — for a year, at least — to live the life of the underprivileged. “Chose” is the crucial term here, for the episode was voluntary. I don’t say that she didn’t learn from it, and I don’t say that it didn’t change her life and her outlook, but it was not the experience of someone who has to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow because they have no other options. For such an one, factory labor is not a one year essay in experimental sociology, it is a life sentence.

'Slowly and with suffering, I have reconquered through slavery my feeling of the dignity of being human, a feeling that this time did not reside in anything external, and was always accompanied by the consciousness that I had no right to anything, that each instant free from suffering and humiliations was to be received as a grace, as the simple result of favorable luck. This slavery is defined by two factors: speed and orders.' Simone Weil

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).

Christopher Johnson McCandless, AKA Alexander Supertramp, like Simone Weil, submitted himself to an ordeal. In both cases the need to experience voluntary suffering was fatal.

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.

The voluntary suffering of a rigorous quest has been a part of Western civilization since its beginning.

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.

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Krakauer on McCandless

7 October 2009

Wednesday


Christopher Johnson McCandless, AKA Alexander Supertramp

Christopher Johnson McCandless, AKA Alexander Supertramp

I usually don’t bother with bestsellers (even when they’re more than ten years old), but I’m now listening to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, about the short and strange life of Christopher J. McCandless, whose claim to fame was being found dead in Alaska after tramping around the American West for a few years. The second most prominent character in Into the Wild is the author of the book, John Krakauer himself. I don’t count this a bad thing that the author injects himself into the narrative. On the contrary, I think it makes for an honest account to come clean about one’s interest in one’s subject matter. Krakauer wrote a passionate book because he obviously felt an immediate affinity for Chris McCandless. It is sympathy based on shared experience that makes it possible for a biographer to employ what Collingwood called the a priori imagination to enter into the life of his subject.

Into the Wild CD

Just before Into the Wild I listened to Dave Cullen’s well-reviewed Columbine, about the Columbine school massacre of 20 April 1999, which revealed all-too-clearly the author’s inability to inhabit the skin of his subjects. The a priori imagination has its limits: it is facilitated by sympathy and shared experience; it is frustrated by differences in temperament and inclination. Dave Cullen’s book is passionate in its own way, but you can feel Cullen’s struggle to try to get into the heads of the killers, and the careful reader will spot the points where, despite his efforts, he manifestly fails to do so.

Into the Wild book cover

I can easily imagine someone being indignant and scandalized that I mention Chris McCandless and the Columbine killers in the same context, but it’s not really that much of a stretch. It is obvious from the portraits of them that all were angry young men. Sure, McCandless is smiling in in last photograph when he knows that he is going to die, and Krakauer writes that, “He is smiling in the picture, and there is no mistaking the look in his eyes: Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God.” He found peace, but he had to punish his family with his absence and silence in order to find that peace. This is somewhat less vindictive than mass murder, and certainly morally preferable, but it is a difference in degree, and not a difference in kind. The idealistic temperament is intrinsically punitive.

The last photographic self portrait of Chris McCandless, holding his farewell note and waving to the camera.

The last photographic self portrait of Chris McCandless, holding his farewell note and waving to the camera.

All these angry young men were precociously intelligent, and really didn’t know how to make a place for themselves within the bureaucratized and institutionalized world of technological civilization. McCandless wasn’t just another vagabond, he was a vagabond as a matter of principle. Among the pleasures of Krakauer’s book are the many quotes from books that Chris McCandless had taken with him to Alaska in his backpack, passages underlined by McCandless in Tolstoy and Emerson and others. People took McCandless for a tramp at first sight, but it is obvious from the book that when he opened up it must have been a shock to discover that he was educated and articulate and had chosen his unconventional life as a matter of intellectual conviction, which is a rare thing.

Jon Krakauer wrote a compelling book about Chris McCandless because of his personal interest in the story, which grew out of his personal experiences.

But erudition, intelligence, and an ability to articulate one’s insights into life, admirable though they are, are not enough. One can be well read in the classics, and have great insight into the way the world works, and still get things wrong. Angry young men often mellow with age, but when they die as angry young men and leave only the actions and the opinions of angry young men, they never give themselves the chance to mellow, and they stand as symbols to angry young men ever after. The written word never mellows: Litera scripta manet (as it says on the Reed College library book plate).

Burning one's money is a dramatic gesture, and precisely for this reason it is not an entirely honest gesture. Life here imitates performance art, and the line between the two becomes blurred.

In many of the incidents described by Krakauer, as well as the journals and photographs left by McCandless, there is something theatrical, something smacking of superfluous and self-conscious symbolism, like making a fire with one’s remaining currency. McCandless, like Wittgenstein, gave away his money and intentionally impoverished himself. It is a perennial impulse that often converges on a perennial gesture. The idea of it is noble, but few have the nobility to pull it off with grace and honor. This is insufficiently appreciated: one can glimpse a noble ideal, and make a gesture in that direction, perhaps even a profound gesture. But life is more than gestures. After the gesture, one must go on living or make of the gesture also a farewell to life.

There was a pervasive idea in the pre-modern period that truth is to be found at the fons et origo of the world. The world as it is, the world as we find it, was thought to be corrupt, decadent, and nearing its end. Truth was not to be found in such a world. Truth was to be found by going back into the past, and especially back to the primordial origins of the world. It was believed the the Golden Age of man was long past, and as the clock of history ran down matters only became worse, and the further distant we grew from our origins, the further we grew apart from truth.

One of the more absurd consequences of this idea was the fetish for “ancient wisdom.” Our medieval forebears did not believe that knowledge increased as civilization progressed, because they did not believe that civilization progressed. Civilization, for the medieval mind, was in permanent and terminal decline until the end of days. To find wisdom, knowledge, and truth, then, one did not look to the latest book, but to the oldest book. To feed this desire for ancient wisdom, ancient wisdom was created from whole cloth. Books were written and credited to the authorship of ancient sages like Pythagoras or Hermes Trismegistus. Puerile and mediocre nuggets of “wisdom” were passed off to credulous seekers who thought that what they were reading was profound because it was old, though it was in fact neither.

All of these ideas are familiar sentiments today — too familiar, frighteningly familiar. Despite our modernity, there are regions of the mind that are still thoroughly medieval. The modern version of the idea that truth is to be found in the distant past, dimmed from our sight, inaccessible, and therefore all too easily romanticized, is the idea that truth, wisdom, and knowledge are to be found in a primordial experience. The primordial experience as we imagine it today is the experience of nature, and especially nature in the form of the untrammeled wilderness. Many seekers of the modern world, from the “back to the land” movement of the 1960s counter-culture to contemporaries who see themselves following in the footsteps of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, imagine that only by abandoning civilization and going into the wild can one be truly alive and come face to face with the truth of the human condition. I do not doubt that some people do, in fact, find the truth they are seeking through an encounter with the primordial, however the primordial is conceived, but as a general proposition the ideal of primordial truth is illusory more often than not.

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