Aaron R. Davis
Over the weekend, I was able to see the new film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But I’m not here to discuss the film and its various qualities. What I want to talk about is this
American idea – long-cherished by many – of the romanticism of the road.
I guess I’m kind of a square, because for me, the idea of this romantic journey of drifting and meeting people and getting lost in the nothingness has always seemed really, really stupid.
I know a number of people — young white people, because it’s always young white people who get caught up in the supposed passion of this — who love this whole idea of just going along and
traveling and finding out what life is “really” like by drifting from place to place and having exciting new experiences. And I think those people, by and large, are pretty self-centered.
You want to know what life is “really” like? Get a job.
I know this marks me out as interminably unhip, but I just don’t buy into this whole notion. Lots of people tell me that Into the Wild changed their lives and altered their thinking forever. Into the Wild is about a college kid who gives all his money to charity, leaves a note for his family and then heads up to Alaska on a Kerouac-esque journey of self-discovery. I’ve had a disturbing number of people tell me that it’s an incredible work about someone breaking free from the shackles of routine and materialism.
You know what Into the Wild is about?
It’s about a selfish kid who can’t imagine that he isn’t the center of the universe.
It’s about a kid who is too scared to grow up and get a job, because he’s so much better and more special than that. So he gives away all of the money his parents gave him, then checks out
of their lives and only leaves a note behind. No goodbye, nothing. How much of a selfish little asshole do you have to be to just up and remove yourself from the lives of people who love you
and who probably sacrificed a great deal to get you that college education that you just threw right back in your faces? You don’t think for one second that your parents are going to worry
about what happened to their son? They have a word for people who care only about themselves and who don’t have empathy for others and who can’t fit into society because they think they’re
better than that: sociopath.
I just hated this smug brat. This changed someone’s life? It’s just this kid weaving around like a plastic bag in an updraft, thinking he’s doing all of this good for people and thinking how much
better he is than everyone else and talking into his camera about how he’s the only one who’s, like, figured out what a charade civilization is, and he’s going to go and live this pure life in
Alaska. Except he knows absolutely nothing about surviving in the wilderness or living off the land. Nothing at all.
And this is where it all breaks down for me. Bad enough he’s an ingrate, but he’s also a total idiot. The only way you go to live off the land, alone in the wilderness, among the animals in
Alaska, is if you actually know how to do any of that. But this kid doesn’t know jack. He’s not even smart enough to bring along a can opener. Did he think that, because he was so touched by
the hand of God, the knowledge of survival would just be something innate and prepossessed? You know, I’m guessing he did, but that he never intellectualized it. He just figured it must be
easy because our ancestors did it or some such shit.
So, just so you know, if you’re reading this and you’re one of those people whose outlook on life was totally changed by Into the Wild, you were given unrealistic expectations by a character that died because he was a sociopath and an idiot and a selfish ingrate. I have no idea why you would feel that way about this person. His death isn’t romantic; it’s stupid and easily preventable. This kid wasn’t a hero, and he learned nothing about life except how incredibly unprepared he was for even the most basic aspects of it.
So that’s pretty much how I see the romantic appeal of the road. For me, it just doesn’t exist. It has nothing to teach about people or life; it’s just you being fascinated with yourself. All of your interactions are innately selfish, and if things get too complicated, you can just keep running away. Interference without consequences isn’t life, it’s Star Trek.
You want to learn about life? Get a job. Raise a family. Find a goal and do the work to make it happen. That’s something most of these kids who think the road is romantic won’t understand:
success isn’t about being special, it’s about working to make your dreams happen. Make actual sacrifices. Take responsibility. Stick around long enough to care about something or someone
that isn’t you. Learn how to deal with disappointment. Learn how to appreciate and celebrate what you have and what you gain. Feel how your life affects the people around you, and how
theirs affects you. Be part of a community. Stop romanticizing selfishness and cowardice. Be a human being.
You want to learn about life so bad? Live one, instead of running away from it. Because if you can’t connect with life around you, and you can’t find ways to achieve your goals other than just
wanting them really badly, the problem isn’t where you are; the problem is you.
And you’re going to take that problem everywhere you go.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.