Why I didn’t do this sooner in my career I don’t know. I begin 9th grade English with The Odyssey – the epic poem by Homer. Even with the watered down version in our anthology, the classical lessons in it about human nature and behavior are relevant and useful. I constantly refer to The Odyssey as a 3000 year old piece of literature just to hammer home the point that human nature hasn’t changed that much and the older lessons are sometimes the better ones. The members of The Remnant in my classes (yes, even in a school like mine they’re there) are instantly intrigued when I explain to them that the elite boarding schools analyze human nature and then use that knowledge to manage the masses. I decided to follow The Odyssey with the story of Christopher McCandless, and the parallels are wonderful.
The Odyssey is instantly recognizable as the standard bearer for the journey being more important than the end result. It is the means, not the ends that matters. On the first page we learn that Odysseus makes it back to his troubled house in Ithaca alive and alone. Jon Krakauer does the same thing in “Death of an Innocent“, the original article about Christopher McCandless. Purposeful or not, this odd pairing of authors does the same thing by introducing the end of the story first – thereby tipping their hands and letting the reader know that it is the journey, the path, the decisions made and the behavior therein that is paramount. Christopher McCandless personified this idea by creating an open ended journey that culminated with his death in Alaska. He maintained integrity throughout as he constantly sought experiences that would make his journey more worthwhile and meaningful. The tragic irony of the McCandless story is that his decision to end his journey in Alaska was the decision that brought him down as it cemented his permanence in the lexicon. Odysseus is constantly creating difficulty for himself by succumbing to his human frailties and those of his crew. It doesn’t help that a couple of wily goddesses wish him to be their plaything and he is held up as he attempts to “escape” their embraces – literally and figuratively.
Analysis of Human Behavior
One of the tragedies of classical literature falling by the wayside is that today’s young people don’t get the full complement of lessons about Human Nature. What are the most important qualities a person could have? What is important in life? What is truth? What are the major human flaws that must be overcome? The Odyssey and “Death of An Innocent” are the perfect vehicles by which to discuss the necessary skill of thinking independently. McCandless stays on a unique and dangerous path as a vagrant / hobo while traveling the US. He is totally free to exist – away from what he sees as the corruption of society and the limitations of the regular people within it. Odysseus is constantly freelancing as he tries to return home to Ithaca – he gains respect from the gods for his ability to think. The ability to think critically and independently comes to the fore while both of the characters face danger. It also is a necessary component of their dealings with ‘regular’ people. Odysseus has to handle his less than capable crew, McCandless has to cross paths with less enlightened folk. Being smart and thinking for yourself are qualities that make a person dangerous to the establishment as well as able to navigate the difficult and frustrating roadblocks in the labyrinth of life.
- Humility is a virtue – self absorption can lead to an unhealthy single mindedness. Odysseus is arrogant before the gods, and McCandless is not fully respectful of the power of nature.
- Call things by their real name – the movie “Into the Wild” brilliantly latches on to this idea toward the end. McCandless is ready to rejoin his family, eschew his fake name and go back home. Perhaps if we’d stop trying to fool others and fool ourselves we’d be better off. I’m reminded of the quote about Tolstoy, one of McCandless’ favorite authors, by G. K. Chesterton: “The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic; and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism; they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. …The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism — the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.”
- The Return Home – McCandless is ready to go home, and actually tried. Odysseus makes it home after 20 years away, and he has to eliminate the suitors and win back his wife. It is this basic truth of family and home that both men sought to regain.
There is a natural progression from The Odyssey to the McCandless story. It is a fascinating juxtaposition of a 3000 year old work of fiction to a 25 year old non-fiction article. The stories are good, but that isn’t the most important aspect. The thing on which to focus is how the authors have analyzed human behavior, and taken an honest shot at trying to explain why we do the things we do. It is the ‘long discussion’ that has been going on for thousands of years.
Here is a short Q and A session after a screening of the movie “Into the Wild”. Krakauer’s remarks are particularly noteworthy.