As I’ve been reading Into the Wild, I’ve had a strong sense that McCandless’ journeys through the physical landscapes of North America were a means of searching an inner landscape that he yearned to explore. In this blog piece, Looking for Another Country, Dwight Longenecker writes that:
C.S. Lewis names this longing with the German word sehnsucht. He calls it “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” At the end of Pilgrim’s Regress he said it was, “That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
This longing remains dormant in daily life until it is sparked by a profound aesthetic experience. Suddenly the soul awakes, and the longing is fleetingly fulfilled. C.S. Lewis called this surge in the heart, this uplift “Joy”. This painfully exquisite joy comes unbidden and echoes in his heart like the sounding of the distant horn of a long lost hero.
McCandless was obviously deeply unsatisfied with a life that was unfulfilling. He went in search of the experience that would awaken his soul.
But how does one step into the inner landscape and discover what awaits there?
For the writer Pico Iyer, his first step was to spend time in a Catholic hermitage, where he was able to discover that stepping away from the tumult of the modern world inevitably helped him to be a better person. For more on this, read Krista Tippett’s “The Inner World is a great, undiscovered terrain.”
McCandless’ pilgrimage into the wild was perhaps a way to find a place where his existence made sense, and to find a place where he could become a better person. His journal entries reveal that he was captivated by the notion of truth. He was awed by the landscape through which he travelled. Omir Safi, in a piece title “Cherishing Rough Edges over Smoothness“, writes:
We connect to nature because we are nature. It is us. It is around us. We are inside her. When we are most un-natural is when we see ourselves as cut off.
Those of us who have not heard the call of the wild that McCandless obviously did still struggle to understand his reasons and motivations for doing what he did. We fail to understand the terrain he felt compelled to discover. We fail to hear the call.
Into the Wild is a reminder that we all have a untouched wilderness inside ourselves. What will happen if we try to understand “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what”?