Friday, January 16, 2009

a teacher-farmer speaks out on McCandless and Krakauer

The following email from my friend Mark Tueting-- father, AP History teacher, and farmer-- has been reprinted with Mark's permission.


Your review sent me scurrying to Amazon to update my wishlist.

Before I hit anything of substance, I first have to ask for the source of the "eat the hell out of it!" quote -- I love it. I may put in on my classroom wall.

I had a few comments about Krakauer's analysis of the link between McCandless' asexuality and his "lust" for the wild, specifically:

McCandless's apparent sexual innocence, however, is a corollary of a personality type that our culture purports to admire, at least in the case of its more famous adherents. His ambivalence toward sex echoes that of celebrated others who embraced wilderness with singleminded passion-- Thoreau (who was a lifelong virgin) and the naturalist John Muir, most prominently-- to say nothing of countless lesser-known pilgrims, seekers, misfits, and adventurers. Like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire. His yearning, in a sense, was too powerful to be quenched by human contact.

I think (and what the hell do I know? if you are reading the musings of a semi-literate dirt farmer you get what you pay for) that Krakauer is confusing causation and correlation. I suspect that, even if Krakauer is right about the asexuality of the uber-transcendentalists he mentions -- Thoreau and John Muir -- we may be seeing an artifact of the sample group rather than a causal relationship.

In casting doubt about Krakauer's assessment of Thoreau and Muir's sexual compasses, I'll admit that I'm not a Thoreau or Muir scholar. But I get suspicious when people make the assertion that Thoreau was a lifelong virgin. I want to see some evidence. And that evidence is likely hard to come by. Even if there was a public declaration of virginity, I'd still be suspicious: Thoreau emerged as a leading light of a time period when the elite were trying to draw hard boundaries between the soul of man and brute reality. I suspect that affecting a public indifference toward sex would burnish one's reputation of being focuses solely on that "inner light" much beloved by Transcendentalists. I don't know much about Muir, but his contemporaneous zeitgeist implied that sex was something that interested the less refined (read: scary new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe). The upper crust, you see, was the master of its own id.

I'm even doubtful if we can truly know if McCandless was asexual (though there may be compelling evidence in the book, which, again, I haven't yet read). Perhaps McCandless was simply painfully shy. If the Sean Penn scene with the topless Copenhagen beauty is also in Krakauer's book and not a figment of Hollywood, the fact that he didn't openly ogle her might be an artifact of politeness. When a (probably experienced) young girl (played by Stewart) propositioned him, it doesn't necessarily follow from his rejection that he didn't want to sleep with her. If he lacked confidence in his own experience or abilities, fear of inadequacy might have held him in check. I suspect some of the attraction men have to chaste girls is that no one wants to be unfavorably compared to the last lover. Hell, McCandless may have turned her down, retired to his hermitage and masturbated himself into a coma -- it's doubtful that he would have recorded that sordid spectacle as marginalia in his copy of Walden.

Speaking of Thoreau, the fact that the primary source shows that he focused in on Thoreau's "Higher Laws" presents an interpretive morass. Did he scribble "Indeed!" next to a praise of chastity because he saw in Thoreau a fellow traveler and wholeheartedly agreed, or was he a lonely virgin boy trying to make himself feel better about his failure to achieve launch?

But for the sake of argument, I'll put aside those quibbles.

If Thoreau, Muir and McCandless were indeed asexual, it doesn't necessarily follow -- as Krakauer argues -- that their sexual lust was supplanted by the wilderness' seduction.

First off, I'm unconvinced that an appreciation for nature springs from the same well as sexual lust. I'm as interested in conjugal bliss with the wife as the next man, but I can also stand in my pasture and feel the magnificence of nature around me. I shudder at sounding sentimental, but there are times when the joy of the land is overwhelming. Passion for the diversity found in my grass polyculture fields in no way supplants my physical desire for my wife (or the more agape facets of our love). Evolutionary psychologists would back up my anecdotal experience, methinks.

If I'm right that the drives for nature appreciation and sex are separate, Krakauer poses a problem -- why have some of the most prominent naturalists been, apparently, asexual?

My guess is that there are plenty of sexual people who love nature, but that their more balanced lives lead them away from quiet lives of nature writing. Becoming a good writer demands tremendous commitment and dedication to what is usually a solitary pursuit. It's almost monomania.* So: Maybe Thoreau, Muir, and McCandless didn't arrive at their appreciation of the wilderness because of their asexuality. Perhaps their ability to communicate (at least in the cases of Thoreau and Muir) is superior because they didn't divide their attention between the vista and a warm coed.

I don't think that asexuality is necessarily a prerequisite either. There are nature writers out there who lead balanced lives. My two favorite nature writers, Micheal Pollan and Gene Logsdon, are married fathers who, inferring from their enjoyment of other sensual pleasures, probably enjoy a roll in the hay as much as the next guy.

Great googly moogly!** I was just going to send you a quick note and this darn thing has gone on and on. I've lost half an hour of paper grading time.

All my best,


* I'm a case in point. Although I appreciate good writing, I just don't have the drive or patience to make mine any better. I'm aware that my tone can swing erratically: In the asterixed paragraph, I go from contemplation of the origin of skilled writing to an easy light term like "warm coed." I imagine the tone could be jarring and I should spend some time contemplating how to make the two sides mesh better. In fact, I suspect I should clean up the "warm coed" phrase into something more serious. But I won't. 'Cause it amuses me. I'll never be Thoreau and I'm okay with that.

** There I go with the mixed tone again. Heh.



Kevin said...


1. A quick Google search re: that quote shows that it's attributed to various sources. More extensive research might reveal who the real source is... I might do that at some point.

2. I don't think Krakauer was saying that lust comes in only one form, and that it must be divided between love of woman and love of nature. Krakauer would probably agree with your feeling that one can both be sexual and be seduced by the wild. But what he wrote was: "McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire." In other words, Krakauer is positing a different species of lust.

3. Whether Thoreau was a lifelong virgin is probably verifiable-- at least, it's as verifiable as historical matters can be. I'm sure there's been plenty of research on this score, and that Krakauer isn't simply tossing out a wild claim. Biographers who have pieced Thoreau's life back together may have noticed he had little time or desire for female companionship-- who knows? My point is that there's probably some substance behind Krakauer's tossed-off parenthetical. The very incaution of the claim makes me think that Krakauer feels secure the claim has been substantiated.


wiseoldsage said...

Good Points! I read "Into the Wild," and it seemed many of the associative leaps were too far. I couldn't agree more on McCandless not exactly being a voluntary virgin. If you read "Into the Wild," it turns out that he nearly had sex in high school, but his parents woke up and shut it down. This would contradict that it was voluntary, or that he was "asexual."