Alaskan Individuation

Into the Wild‘ is a tragic story of the brief life of a gifted American called Chris McCandless who abandoned his family and set off on an inspiring, wreckless odyssey in to the Alaskan wilderness. This journey of internal transformation has similarities to the ‘guided discovery’ of therapy.

Jon Krakauer’s novel ‘Into the Wild’ (1996) explored the motivations of a man who traversed the plains of Alaska. Adrift from his family in Washington, McCandless (February 12, 1968 – August 1992) decided against a ‘proper career’ and instead set-off on the Stampede Trail. The book and film reveal a journey where he sought, perhaps, to find his natural ‘self’ in the wilds of Alaska.

As a believer in the value of ‘not knowing’, I was deeply struck by Krakauer’s portrayal of McCandless’s Socratic courage, perhaps his ‘foolishness’ in embarking on a journey that was practically unplanned and un-researched. This process is like the exploratory nature of psychotherapy where two people go off on  journey together.

And choosing Alaska and the deepest sense of ‘being in nature’, Chris almost regressed to being a ‘hunter-gather’, symbolically burning his money and setting out on something that Jung would perhaps call a too-early attempt at ‘individuation’. Perhaps this was a failure of individuation in that McCandless was hypnotised by nature – it ‘captured’ him.

Having just graduated from Emory University, Chris, who re-named himself ‘Alexander Supertramp’, abandoned all received notions of ‘success’ choosing another form of suffering: being at one with the bleak yet amazing Alaskan wilderness. He attempted, I think, to avoid what James Hillman described as the tyranny of modern technology. Instead Alex would live off the land, and hunt for his food and pick berries by the way.

Krakauer, in his book, explored Chris’s attempt to shape his own psychology. It seems there was an internal battle to ‘be himself’ and not a social construction. Some say that Chris had an ‘Oedipal’ battle with his father, and from this, came about a sense of reckless omnipotence. He was setting out his own stall. I think, perhaps, all young guys go through this stage of an almost ‘grandiose’ psychical development. Some submit to social pressure; other rare birds take flight and seek out personal autonomy. Alex Supertramp took a step further and, arguably, this was his ‘individuation’ where he sought ‘union’ with nature; and not just an adolescent trip into the outback.

Of course, none of us, met McCandless and we have only the author to guide us. Sean Penn’s film ‘Into the Wild’ documents the vagaries of Alex’s experiences hitch-hiking and walking from tundra to mountain, over river and killing squirrels and even a moose. But this wasn’t a solitary trip, McCandless was sociable and affable; he was intelligent and resourceful. Along the way he met many people who were also struck by his ‘peur aeternus‘ or ‘eternal adolescent’ nature.

Alex’s innocent ways play with our own sense of being ‘stuck’ in life. We might feel he was foolish, immature and besotted by his own wonderlust: his ‘gap year’ gone wild. Maybe so. But also I think this moving story provides us with an understanding of our first decisions in life. And how each of our personal journeys are often set at too early an age; this may be particularly so these days with student debt and massive early responsibilities. Oh we have to grow up so quickly – and maybe, like ‘everyone else’, become proprietorial over animals and nature, rather than allowing nature to grow into our souls.

I shudder at this fork in the road. So early in life. Like a man forced to write his epitaph in rigid stone at the age of 20. As a counsellor and therapist, I see this journey-of-choices daily. I can make no comment about the terrain going forward although, in truth, i often see problems up ahead. I see the terrain turning into a wilderness and there are moral difficulties in setting oneself up as a ‘Guide’. For who am i to guide another person in their process of individuation?Better, to be ‘in relationship’ with someone, offering companionship and a sense of humour.

For Chris McCandless, we can perhaps see, he has chosen a solitary journey: what Freud called ‘Oceanic Oneness’. Or has he? In fact his companion or mistress is Mother Nature: the Alaskan Mother draped in her white, snowy finery. What is interesting is how mother nature can entrap certain types of young people: what we might called those with a ‘mythoepoetic’ nature within themselves, the ‘Chthonic’ types, the Franciscan wanderers who give away their money and dance naked in the sand. Is there a certain type of person ‘captured’ by the external forces of the earth? I think so. These are the alchemists, the ‘purists’, the Holy Fools who try to transform themselves from base metal, using the alchemy analogy, into pure gold.

For some, this is the only way: their Tao. For others, the modern world is completely sufficient and provides all the necessary baubles. The tragedy, in this story here, is that Chris McCandless dies. Where? In an old abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail. He died of starvation and the first picture (above) is his own self-portrait just before he curled up in the sleeping blanket his mother made for him. He cried out “Mum, Help me!” and, the story says, his mother in Washington woke with a start, hearing these words in her dreams.

Why did McCandless die? Some argue he was foolish, he hadn’t prepared and he underestimated Alaska. Moreover Krakauer’ writes that he was poisoned by foraging for the wrong seeds. He ate them and thus became emaciated and lost the remnants of his energy supplies. In some ways, however, he had already lived out his life; this was something he himself expressed in the journal he kept. The title ‘Into the Wild’ expresses a dual journey in the individuation process. A journey ‘into oneself’, which may be an internal wilderness, a desert, a dark place producing a pessimistic outlook. The other side of this is how a person may attempt to become ‘mystically’ reborn inside the soul of nature, to incorporate nature into oneself.


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