Thursday, March 30, 2017

Into the Wild

It's become a new site of pilgrimage over the years since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild first told the story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp -- the abandoned Fairbanks City bus, #142, that stands a in a clearing a couple hundred feet off the legendary Stampede Trail, a track first blazed by a miner to his claim back in the 1930s. If airfare to Fairbanks and a ride to the trailhead aren't on your calendar, or in your budget, you can even see it on Google Earth, where it's marked "Stampede Trail Magic Bus," a name which invokes another, mobile bus, a.k.a. "Furthur," aboard which Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, and others of the Merry Pranksters embarked upon trips of another kind in the 1960's. This bus had been towed (along with another now gone) to the site as temporary shelter for workers years before, and had been fitted with box-spring beds and a stove; when the work was done, the bus was abandoned.

It now has a granite plaque, placed by his family, marking the bus as the end of the trail for McCandless. When his body was found there by moose hunters in September of 1992, his family had not known his whereabouts or even heard from him, for more than two years. A young man full of promise, an A-student with a degree from a top college, no student loans, and a $25,000 start up savings from his parents, he seemed like a young man who had it made. And yet, before he departed on his curious quest, he'd given all that money to charity, burned the cash in his wallet and (soon after) abandoned his car. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he traveled by hitch-hiking, crashing on couches, and working -- apparently hard and well -- at a series of farm jobs. He made friends everywhere he went, and yet at the end, he didn't want anyone to go with him. Krakauer, a journalist for Outside Magazine, was hired to do a story, which he did (it appeared in 1993), but he was still unsatisfied. Tracking down more of McCandless's friends -- some of whom contacted him after seeing the article in the magazine, helped fill out the picture, while Alex's few leavings -- postcards to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of books, and such -- offered the bare outlines of a journey.

Into the Wild, the resulting book, became a huge bestseller, and in 2007 was adapted as a film by Sean Penn. And yet, despite the book's immense popularity, readers have remained divided: for some, McCandless is a true hero, a voyager of the spirit whose restless trek symbolizes everything great about the human desire to explore the world -- while for others, including quite a few Alaskans, he's just one of the apparently endless stream of inexperienced, foolish, and just plain stupid people who head out into the wilderness without the knowledge, skills, or materials essential to surviving. The debate is not an entirely new one; as Krakauer observes, a similar argument has long raged over Arctic expeditions such as that of Sir John Franklin, which -- though sanctioned by the British Empire and provided with what was though the best equipment -- canned food, two enormous ships, flour, buscuit, and rum -- proved unable to survive in the harsh Arctic climate, even though, a few miles from the stranded ice-bound vessels, Inuit families were enjoying a rich meal of seal meat and muktuk, and bouncing healthy babies on their knees in their snug igloos.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Exploration as Sacrifice

Rudy Wiebe has Sir John Richardson put it succinctly: "They must want more than they have. That is civilization." For centuries now, western societies have been dominated by the economic system and philosophy of capitalism. Capitalism holds it as an article of faith that everything can and must grow; as a result, the majority of all profits must be plowed into expansion, to make more things, and thus more profits. Such a system depends, of course, on things such as cheap labor, and at some point -- later if not sooner -- will run aground should it ever produce a prosperous global community with no one left to exploit. But of course, by then, everything will be done by robots -- right?

But there has been another way of dealing with profit, that is whatever is excess, "more than one needs," and that is to destroy it. The French social theorist Georges Bataille, in his masterful but little-known magnum opus, La Parte Maudite (The Accursed Share), looked at several human societies in which the value of labor and/or goods was deliberately, sometimes spectacularly, sacrificed. The Mayan civilization that raised pyramids to the sun also raised human hearts, freshly ripped out of human chests, to that same deity. They also took many of their most precious jewelry and ornaments and threw it into pits, from which modern archaeologists have reaped a treasure. Bataille's second example are the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, such as the Kwakiutl, with their tradition of potlach or "give away." Wealth, for these people, consisted of how much one was willing to give away; to give away everything and impoverish the self was the ultimate measure. Thankfully, those who were thus self-made destitutes had only to attend another potlach to recover at least some of their former belongings. His third example is the culture of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism (prior to the Chinese takeover). In Tibet, nearly 25% of the population were monks and nuns, and another goodly share of the populace were involved in directly or indirectly supporting them. With such a significant population producing no food, durable goods, or other services, what was sacrificed in Tibet was, essentially, labor itself.

Bataille associated sacrificial cultures with an ancient awareness of the superabundance of the sun, but also observed that western civilization, prior to and up through the industrial revolution, also valued sacrifice in various ways. War, for one, could be regarded as a form of sacred sacrifice, one raised to a horrific level of perfection in the trenches of World War I. Even the domestic "war effort," in WWII, loudly proclaimed the virtues of sacrifice -- both by direct measures (ration stamps and restrictions on raw materials) and ideological ones (the planting of Victory Gardens, scrap metal drives, and (in Australia) a campaign against too much spending, led by the swastika-branded "Squander Bug.")

It's fascinating to see exploration in a similar light. True, in the colonialist tradition, early modern exploration was followed by -- if not directly constituting -- the exploitation of the people and resources of the newly "discovered" territories. And yet, as the various empires of the world covered its surface with their flags and maps, there remained a few places where -- precisely because it did not appear that there was anything of value -- exploration could resume its proper beneficent scientific place. The millions of pounds that the British government spent on Arctic expeditions fits this bill, as does similar expenditure (some of it indirect) on the quest for the pole. But perhaps best of all, the exploration of space -- which involves vast sums, and very little prospect of remuneration -- constitutes a sacrifice of this kind.

And exploration has one other feature that resonates with the need for sacrifice: loss of life. Franklin's expedition is the most potent example, but it was a rare Arctic voyage that did not lose at least a few good men; the U.S.-led Greely expedition (1881-1884) lost all but six of its 21 men, with widespread allegations of cannibalism.  The US and Soviet space programs suffered a number of casualties, beginning with the Apollo 1 command module fire fifty years ago (3 dead), followed by the 1986 Challenger disaster and the 2003 disintegration of the shuttle Columbia on re-entry. The speech -- written by Peggy Noonan and delivered by President Ronald Reagan -- memorializing the Challenger astronauts is widely regarded as one of the finest speeches of its kind; Noonan's choice to evoke the earlier voyager Francis Drake firmly cemented it within both the tradition of "knights-errant" of the sea, and that of sacrifice:
I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Woman in the Polar Night

In his introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night, Lawrence Millman notes that is author, Christiane Ritter, had no interest in any of the "Arctic Grails" that drove most northern explorers -- the northwest passage, the pole, or the discovery and naming of some unknown spot. And yet, he notes, she could appreciate the Arctic in ways that those "great explorers," with their "Grail-oriented blinders," could not. Hers was an exploration, not of lands to be named or passages to be navigated, but of the inner nature of life and consciousness in a world in which everything that she -- along with most people of her class and background -- took for granted as much as the air they breathed. It's an exercise in long subtraction: the subtraction, at first, of creature-comforts and little things, then of greater ones, such as predictable food, predictable weather, or the ability to just go get another something when something important breaks or is lost, and at last the subtraction of human company itself.

It's notable that her journey begins in relative luxury, aboard a German cruise-ship with its deck-chairs, its "illuminated coffee lounge," and snug, comfortable beds -- just the sort of cruise ship that presently navigates these regions, though now they are even larger and more luxurious. It's a perfect contrast to the life that awaits her in the little hut with its felt roof, ancient broken stove, and puttied-shut windows. Her sojourn begins in endless day, continues through seemingly endless night, and becomes for her an almost cosmic sort of rebirth, a witnessing of life's great circuit that forever changes her perspective on civilization. Indeed, as Millman notes, not long after her return home, after her family estate catches fire and burns to the ground, Christiane is not perturbed or mournful, but secretly grateful. For the fire had done what ice did: reduced her life to its essentials. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Lost City of Z

Lost cities used to be the stock in trade of fanciful maps of parts of the world that had never been explored. From the "Seven Cities of Gold" that lured the Conquisatdors, to "Agartha," a city at the center of the earth (reached in some versions via Symmes's Hole), to Seron, a city supposed to have been founded by Noah the moment he stepped out of the Ark, these imaginary metropoli dotted the maps of the ancient and early modern world. As the modern era of exploration dawned, and previously unknown cities were discovered amidst the jungles of Cambodia (Angkor Wat, 1860) and Belize (Xunantunich, 1895), the thought that perhaps some of the cities of legend and rumor actually did exist became a compelling one. And perhaps no one was more drawn to them than Percy Fawcett, a British geographer-adventurer whos idée fixe was to discover the city he named "Z," which he believed might be the famed "El Dorado," a lure for explorers since the time of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Which brings us to the present volume. David Grann is -- as he points out himself -- no explorer. Unlike Fawcett, whom he describes as ribbed with rippling muscles, he's more the "98-pound-weakling" type, a balding homebody whose initial interest is just a professional one as a journalist. But, as with the Franklin story, the Fawcett mystery has a viral way of infecting its hosts, producing a state of mind which can only be treated (though perhaps never cured) by going to the very places where Fawcett was last seen.

A fair amount of the early chapters, alas, are mere fluff. As exciting as it is to do research in primary-source archives, sitting at a desk with papers for hours doesn't necessarily make for page-turning reading. Grann also takes the approach -- a mistaken one, I feel -- of giving us Fawcett's entire career in semi-fictional flashbacks in which what's missing in the historical record is imagined and reconstructed. None of it amounts to much until we draw near to Fawcett's final, fatal expedition; this is where the real drama begins. That Fawcett would take his eldest son, as well as that son's closest friend, speaks to a rather unusual set of criteria -- the theory that strong emotional bonds would support and magnify the relatively limited experience of the expedition's younger members.

Enough is known to say that the bond between Fawcett's son Jack and his best friend Raleigh Rimmell, was the first to fray. Young Raleigh was swept up in the hullabaloo and hype that smoothed the months leading up to the expedition -- but once actually embarked upon it, he soon became sullen and overcome by lassitude. From earlier chapters, we've already learned that Percy Fawcett would press his men to carry on to the point of illness and death; would have done the same with his own son, or his son's friend?

On the fate of the expedition after it passed from contact with the western world we learn little -- Grann tells tales of multiple searchers and theories as to what happened, which in the end become a bit of a jumble. What's arguably the most fascinating claim of them all -- one based on a skull recovered and thought to be Fawcett's, until its identity was disproven using the explorer's spare set of dentures -- merits scarcely a page. And in the end, Grann offers up a seeming-resolution that ends up feeling anticlimactic, however interesting its archaeological evidence.

But you must be the judge: how does this tale differ, in its substance and its telling, from the Franklin stories, or the fabulous tales of Poe? Is it worse to lose fingers and toes to frostbite or to have various worms and parasites burrow and make one's flesh fetid? Or are both tales not much more than a sort of vain machismo against an unrelenting, and ultimately indifferent, natural world?

Your thoughts below.