Saturday, October 24, 2015

Literature, Philosophy, and the Alaska Highway

© Charles D. Hayes

My fascination with Alaska began in Irving, Texas, in the 1950s, when my fourth-grade teacher read to her class every day from Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Some sixty years later, I’m now a resident of Alaska and have been for more than four decades. Perhaps it’s my fate that, as a result, I would have the opportunity to drive the legendary Alaska Highway, not once, but seven times, four of those times by myself. I never tire of the drive and always look forward to another trip.

Constructed in 1942, the year before I was born, as a war measure in America’s defense against Japan, the highway extends 1,390 miles through the Yukon to the heart of Alaska. It traverses wilderness so breathtaking and spectacular that at times it doesn’t seem real, almost like something created by the special effects department for a movie production. My experience has been that if you have a philosopher-self hidden beneath your consciousness, it will likely surface when you travel this road alone.

Not surprisingly, the fiction I write is largely shaped by these influences. More than two decades ago, while studying Alaska history and philosophy, I began crafting a futuristic story featuring the Alaska Highway. In 2003, eight years after I began, I published Portals in a Northern Sky, a science fiction novel envisioning a revolutionary technological breakthrough that allows people not to travel back in time per se, but rather to look back in time and observe any location on earth during daytime hours on a cloud-free day at any time in history.

The Gadsden Times, a newspaper in the Deep South, described Portals as “a science fiction novel, a history lesson, a guided tour of North America’s beauty and a thought-provoking work of philosophy.” In places like Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, Summit Lake, Whitehorse, and other key locations along the highway route, characters in the novel discuss the rewards of reading literature. Among other classics, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick features prominently in the conversation.

As part of a philosophical exploration into the notion of fate, one of the protagonists offers an intriguing comparison of the lives and works of Herman Melville and Jack London. These two authors were obsessed with the concept of fate, and their novels reflect their fascination. They were deeply aware that both wilderness and the sea dramatize and magnify mankind’s fear, frailty, and sense of existential insignificance.

London was born out of wedlock, Melville with a pedigree. Both men’s mothers had been raised in wealth, only to marry into hard times, and would ultimately rely on their sons for support. Both men were drawn to the sea at an early age, and both signed aboard vessels as deck hands or common sailors. As one character in Portals points out, the sea makes us radically aware of our profound insignificance as individuals, even as it amplifies the mystery of the vast knowledge we store beneath consciousness.

Both of the authors were self-educated, voracious readers who wrote to earn a living, each thinking they were capable of greater work than the public demanded, especially Melville. He lived to write, while London wrote to live. Each of them earned money by lecturing. London was a skilled self-promoter; Melville was not.

At the same time, both men were moody and prone to depression, frequent disillusionment, and cynicism. Both had detractors who declared they were insane. Still, both were capable of writing the kind of prose that penetrates the public psyche in ways that stir an emotional response as not much else has before or since.

London and Melville had a way of exaggerating every aspect of our lives to compensate for the important little things that so often go unnoticed. They were also very much aware of how often we are influenced and motivated by our shadowy and immensely mysterious unconscious. Both men were involved in butchery: Melville with whales, London with seals. Both witnessed human brutality at its worst.

These men produced work with deep allegoric implications beyond their own understanding of the connections they were making. Both created magnificent, original, larger-than-life authoritarian sea captains, Melville’s Ahab and London’s Wolf Larson, who afford us a vision of all that is right and wrong with humankind.

Melville captured the human predicament and the psychosomatic essence of the American experience in Moby-Dick, making all of us passengers on a metaphoric ship named Pequod. Although it was written in 1851, Moby-Dick has been described by author Nathaniel Philbrick as a book written for the future because it contains “the genetic code of America.” He characterizes the novel as “America’s Bible,” declaring that every time we encounter a new crisis in this country, Moby-Dick is relevant.

Jack London read the works of Herman Melville, and his stories transport Melville’s epic primordial struggle with the unconsciousness symbolism of the sea to the wilderness of the far north, where the brutality of the natural world takes center stage: the weak perish and the strong survive.

Politically, Melville was a capitalist who clung to the economic security of civil service employment. London was a socialist who despised human inequality and railed against arbitrary authority until the end of his life. It should be pointed out, however, that he held racist views common to his time and place. And although he was a socialist, he lived like an extravagant capitalist.

Melville died in obscurity at 72, having struggled financially most of his life. His recognition as a novelist smoldered in fits and starts, but his work didn’t really take off until after his death. London died famous at age 40, having achieved almost instant rags-to-riches wealth and celebrity.

As fate would have it, I once heard Alaska Congressman Don Young say that it was Jack London who brought him to Alaska, echoing my own reasons for choosing the forty-ninth state as my home. So, when I heard him being interviewed on a local radio show, I took the opportunity to phone in. I asked Congressman Young if, as a conservative Republican, he found it ironic that he was in Alaska because of a socialist. Thinking I had him in a bind, I wondered how he would talk his way out of it.

Not missing a beat, Young said, “Jack London? My father knew Jack London.” I was the one who was speechless.     

London’s work confirms John Muir’s observation that “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Indeed, London claimed that he found his perspective for becoming a successful writer in the wilderness of the Klondike. In the same way, I’ve observed that ideas and the Alaska Highway go hand-in-hand. The awe-inspiring scenery, the isolation, and the absence of available radio signals invite deep contemplation.

The sweeping and at times overwhelming scenic grandeur puts our human frailties and our brief existence into a stark light. The natural beauty of the landscape is so formidable as to give an appearance of permanence in contrast to our fleetingly short lives, and feelings of insignificance often follow. It’s an existential dilemma that begs perspective.

Portals in a Northern Sky is set in 2021. The sequel, A Mile North of Good and Evil, takes place in 2028, seven years into widespread use of the Portals technology. In this story, the Alaska Highway serves as the hunting ground for a serial killer whose behavior represents the personification of evil. The malevolence of his crimes gives rise to penetrating questions about whether his nature qualifies as an inevitable part of the natural world. In a concurrent storyline, an impending doomsday scenario offers a group of individuals, as well as every reader, a unique perspective on morality and mortality.

This second book took me twelve years to complete, which means the two works together were on my mind for a full twenty years. During that time, the only things I can relate to that haven’t changed dramatically are the Alaska Highway and the beauty of Alaska.

In September 2015, I made the drive again, all the way from Dallas. Except for the highway having been paved, the trip was much like my first one more than forty years earlier. Services and facilities are still few and far between, giving the pervasive sense that one is detached from civilization. The wilderness remains a clear summons for philosophical reflection.

In both of my novels, most of the action takes place in interior Alaska near Mount Denali, a landmark symbol worthy of its own genre of philosophic contemplation. Seeming to represent permanence, or even eternity, the majestic mountain elicits thoughts about mortality, morality, and fate, eternal questions at the heart of the human condition. Considering these ideas with Alaska wilderness as the backdrop offers a perspective with philosophical echoes that can last a lifetime.

Drive to Alaska, visit Mount Denali, and you will see what I mean.   
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