Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cult Icons of a Generation

In the news: Olympic superman Michael Phelps has ADHD (read here), the war with the MILF claims its highest-ranking victim (read here), and rumors of the Ilaga being reactivated are percolating in North Cotabato (read here). The Ilaga (Ilonggo for rat) was an Ilonggo-led private army that battled the Moro Blackshirts in Cotabato and the Barracudas in Lanao during the 1970s. Read this concise and well-written backgrounder on the Mindanao conflict here.


Wikipedia defines a cult icon as a person who attracts the attention of a small band of aficionados or fans. The "notoriety" of cult icons may be contrasted with that of pop icons in that they generally don't have "mainstream" or mass appeal. But in some cases, a cult icon's following may grow so large that the figure becomes a household name. Some examples of cult icons who became "mainstream" are Bruce Lee, J.D. Salinger and J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite their fame, these people are still considered cult figures because a relatively small group of fans are responsible for their fame.

I am bringing up the topic of cult icons because of a movie I recently watched entitled "Into the Wild." "Into the Wild" is about Chris McCandless, a young idealist who sought to escape the "sick" and materialistic American society by going (yes you've guessed it) into the wild. The movie is directed by Sean Penn and is based on a book of the same title authored by Jon Krakauer.

Chris McCandless came from an upper-middle class background and was a very bright student. He developed a deep love for literature and he could quote Tolstoy and Thoreau at a drop of the hat. His father was a rocket scientist (literally) and made a good living as a consultant for NASA and missile firms. He was an ascetic and refused to be drawn into the American consumerist lifestyle. The movie's opening scenes clearly established this facet of McCandless's personality - Chris has just graduated from college. A straight "A" student, his grades were good enough for admittance to Harvard Law and his parents wanted to show their appreciation by giving their "model" son a new car as a graduation present. "Why would I want a new car?! My old Datsun is just perfect," Chris answered drawing bewildered looks from his parents. His parents were even more surprised to learn that he had saved up $24,000 out of his college allowance.

Instead of going to Harvard Law School, Chris McCandless instead decided to "walk the earth." In other words, he became a vagabond, a drifter. He donated his $24,000 to Oxfam, destroyed all his credit cards, ditched his Datsun and cut off all communication from his family. He hitchhiked his way all throughout America, working at odd jobs so he could eat, and met all sorts of people along the way ala Forrest Gump. In October 1990 he acquired a canoe and began paddling down the Colorado River and kept paddling and paddling until, in January 1991, he reached all the way down to Mexico! He returns to America illegally and by April 1992 has again hitchhiked his way up to Alaska. Equipped only with a rifle, 10 pounds of rice, a camera, some camping gear and a small collection of books, McCandless wandered the Alaskan wilderness until he accidentally came upon an old abandoned bus in a place called Stampede Trail. Confronting extreme weather conditions, he shot game and gathered edible shrubs to survive. He was generally relishing his time in the great outdoors until he ate some poisonous "wild potato" making him sick and too weak to forage for food. Chris McCandless died of starvation on August 18, 1992 at the age 24.

Born in 1968, Chris McCandless belonged to that generation sometimes called Generation X. Generation X are people born between 1961 and 1981 while Generation Y are those persons born between 1981 and 1991. Recent scholars have since lumped together the two and labeled them as the "Me" Generation (probably because of that generation's self-centeredness and sense of entitlement). The Me Generation are the children of the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1960) while the Baby Boomers are the children of the so-called "Greatest Generation." The Greatest Generation came of age during the Great Depression and their defining moment was the Second World War and they also built America into a great global power. Whenever I think about the "Greatest Generation," I think about Major Dick Winters of the Band of Brothers fame. Ever since that hit HBO mini-series Winters became the icon of his generation. The Baby Boomers, so called because of the boom in the number of child births after the Second World War, came of age during the Vietnam War and their defining moment was Woodstock, and their icons were the hippies. Bob Dylan is one of the cult icons of this generation. These are all mind you, American, not Filipino culture. There is not much literature on cult icons in the Philippines but I know that Pinoy rocker Pepe Smith is considered a cult icon by our Baby Boomers and his song "Ang Himig Natin" is their generation's anthem. Chikoy Pura of The Jerks I believe is another cult icon belonging to the Me Generation.

There seems to be two schools of thought about Chris McCandless. If you ask a Baby Boomer or someone from the Greatest Generation (in other words, old people), they would probably say that McCandless was a complete moron. He had everything going for him to succeed in life - brains, looks and rich parents - and he threw it all away to live like a hobo. He was a fool for going to such a harsh and desolate place ill-equipped and poorly-skilled to survive in the wild. There was a scene in the movie where Chris shot a moose which could have been enough to feed him for months but he didn't know the proper way to skin and treat the meat and it soon became maggoty. He also starved to death because he mistakenly ate a poisonous plant. But if you ask someone from the Me Generation, I think many can emphatize with what he did and some may even admire his courage. There are actually people in America who are saying that Chris McCandless is the cult icon of his generation, a symbol of his generation's youthful restlessness and aimlessness, and there are in fact many people today paying homage to McCandless by retracing his journey across America, his canoe trip along the Colorado River and visiting his Stampede Trail camp in Alaska (read "Into the Wild pilgrimages increase in Alaska").

If you ask me, Chris McCandless was a bit of both - a fool and an icon. I mean, I just wouldn't go off like that into the wild, shunning all material possessions and cutting off communication from all the people I know. But another part of me admires Chris for his guts in living by his convictions. Although he carried his principles to such dramatic extremes (and it ultimately drove him to his untimely death), I somehow find some resonance on why he sought to escape the "sick and materialistic" American society. Each person wants to "get away from it all." The only difference is, whereas many of us want to "get away" only temporarily, Chris McCandless totally broke away for good. And I somehow admire his courage for doing what many of our generation are only dreaming about of doing. The movie is really thought-provoking and has many memorable quotes (here are some quotes from the movie - but you have to watch the movie to really appreciate it). I really recommend you watch "Into the Wild." And if you are going to buy only one book for the year, I suggest the book "Generation Me" by Jean Twenge, PhD.

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