Sunday, September 07, 2008

No, Rousseau, No

A friend loaned me the movie Into the Wild recently. I found it to be trite, typical romanticist nature worship, with a thoroughly unlikable protagonist - a spoiled college kid who thinks his parents are just, like, so shallow and materialistic, man, so he runs off on a two-year journey to the Alaskan wilderness where he starves to death, but not before arriving at the stunning conclusion that there's nothing particularly moral or impressive about living a narcissistic life removed from all human contact. Most of us manage to figure that out without leaving our family to agonize for years over our well-being, until they finally get news of the discovery of our corpse, but apparently I was supposed to be impressed by his determination to find authenticity. I was more struck by the way he didn't bother to tell his younger, adoring sister goodbye, nor contact her during his absence. In fact, several wiser people throughout the film attempt to make themselves available to him, but his head is too full of idealistic clichés (and too far up his own ass) to take notice.

In light of the fact that the above review is so inexplicably positive, I thought I'd dig up one written more than a hundred years before McCandless ever picked up a Jack London novel, but which nonetheless is far more penetrating:

You want to live “according to nature”? Oh you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and fairness, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power—how could you live according to this indifference? Living—is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative “live according to nature” meant at bottom as much as “live according to life”—how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?— In truth, the matter is altogether different: while you pretend rapturously to read the canon of your law in nature, you want something opposite, you strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose and incorporate your morality, your ideal onto nature, even onto nature, you demand that it be nature “according to the Stoa,” and you would like all existence to exist only after your own image—as an immense eternal glorification and universalization of Stoicism!


  1. Where is that quote from, may I ask. Sounds like an ancient Roman? Rather damnable of the whole nature as god, romanticism thing, isn't it? Would that stigmatize Wicca and Druidism as well? :-)

  2. That's my man, the Mustachioed One himself, Da Neech, as I affectionately call him. Off the top of my head, I think that was from the Gay Science...possibly Daybreak.

    I think it's just another variation on his recurring theme of people steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the negative, their determination to subordinate everything to a positive teleology that doesn't actually exist.

  3. Hmmm... in that quote I don't know if he was against teleology but against the stoic or romantic ideal -- not that our goal is to attain happiness through nature, but that the idea of trying to conform to one's nature is preposterous because there is no other way to be ... of course I'm reading it out of context. The quote struck me as being anti-philosophical as much as anything -- waxing poetically about man's oneness with nature and being true to himself is unnecessary and even redundant.

  4. Well, that is the entire aphorism, so that's all the context he's gonna give you!

    True, that quotation itself isn't anti-teleology; I just know it was a constant theme with him - to wit, from his notebooks: What is the counterfeiting aspect of morality? It pretends to know something, namely what “good and evil” is. That means wanting to know why mankind is here; its goal, its destiny. That means wanting to know that mankind has a goal, a destiny.

    So I think it applies in the sense that he's smirking at those who - then and now - urge "harmony with nature", whatever that is exactly, as an obvious goal we should be striving for. He's asking: you all do understand that "nature" has no meaning, no purpose, and in fact, is incredibly brutal and unforgiving, right? Eat and be eaten, red in tooth and claw and all that? Isn't everything you supposedly value about being human opposed to that? You really want to try to base a system of morality on it?