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Finding a purpose in today’s world: Elias from “Märzengrund”

Some people turn away from the doctrines of a profit-oriented society and decide to live a simpler life in tune with nature. The trend is big enough to have been normalized, especially after transforming events like the 2008 financial crisis or the recent pandemic.

There’s a reason —this growing minority believes— for modern life to become alienating, especially if one has the feeling that there’s no other purpose than excessive consumption and relations with no more bonding than pure utility (or worse). Feeling like Neo from The Matrix may be more prevalent among teenagers with nihilistic tendencies than most assume.

Jakob Mader plays young Elias in “Märzengrund” (“Above the World,” 2022, durected by Adrian Goiginger)

To Cornell’s psychology professor Anthony L. Burrow, having a purpose in life implies having a directionality or intention to do something in the world:

“It’s different than a goal, which can be accomplished. Wanting to be a father is a goal because it is achievable. But to be a great father is more of an intention than an achievement. On some days, one might come closer to the ideal than others, but it is never a completed task.”

Twentieth-century existential philosophy also concedes to intentionality a key role in life, and both Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger distinguished between the numbness of letting oneself go like a drifting boat in life (which they called “bath faith” and “inauthenticity,” respectively), versus taking full conscience and responsibility of one’s actions (or leading an “authentic” life).

What society perceives as normal

However, most skeptics of a life attuned to perceived, socially sanctioned normality (which encompasses a long and expensive regulated education, a respected job, exposure to high levels of superfluous consumption, and an increasingly eroded attention span due to all-you-can-eat digital entertainment) decide to stay within society, perceived as fully-functioning, productive citizens.

But a growing number of critics pursue unconventional lives in contact with simple life and nature. Only this sense of conscious “awakening” doesn’t usually emerge from reading philosophy but from pop culture itself, be that watching The Matrix for the first time or finding out about how student loans became such a burden to young Americans.

In our videos, we’ve come across some people who, like Christopher McCandless, aka “Alexander Supertramp,” the young adventurer who decided to pursue a nomadic lifestyle in contact with nature as he grew up, inspiring Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, are having a hard time conforming with the superfluous trends of contemporary society.

Some of these videos are highly popular —and very controversial. Consider, for example, our two stories on Aaron Fletcher, the itinerant shepherd who lives on a sheep-pulled little cart as a hand for hire. In our last story with him, which we titled “Homeless shepherd shares hunter-gatherer diet & survival tips,” somebody commented that Aaron was “a nut case.” And so is anyone who thinks this is cool.” I decided to reply:

“So I wouldn’t be so sure to go to somebody like Aaron, who is a guerrilla grazer by choice (choice is important here since he is skillful enough to follow any rat race he wants) and tell him he is not complying with what life is supposed to be, especially if I’m working long hours to pay a debt that keeps growing because I’m hoarding things I don’t really need and trying to project a lifestyle that is not even healthy for me and mine. I’m not so sure, so I don’t paternalize him.”

At the same time, we worry about Aaron’s long-term challenges as he pursues a lifestyle that also exposes him to some dangers that modern society has arguably helped decrease.

A crazy breed

Adapted to cinema by Sean Penn in 2007, Into the Wild includes a soundtrack by Pearl Jam with poignant lyrics like those of “Society,” written by Jerry Hannan:

Oh, it’s a mystery to me
We have a greed, with which we have agreed
And you think you have to want more than you need
Until you have it all you won’t be free

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me

When you want more than you have
You think you need
And when you think more than you want
Your thoughts begin to bleed
I think I need to find a bigger place
‘Cause when you have more than you think
You need more space

Not everybody is prepared to live outside the conventions of contemporary society, but we’ve come to know a few people who decide to embark on a simpler life, making it compatible with some modern comforts and backing, some of them living in environments as demanding as the Alaskan wilderness. More than in trouble, they seem to thrive as individuals and families.

Another French philosopher than the mentioned Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, studied the ways used by highly technical contemporary societies to entice most of the population to seek conventional, “productive” lives, most times using non-coercive methods such as regulated education, media, and traditional institutions, coining concepts such as “biopower” and “governmentality.”

The blurry frontier between lucidity and madness

The subtle practices used to influence citizens to the interests of the majority (which include messages, mentalities, rationalities, and techniques) assure the success of socialization. However, the rise of disinformation in social media has eroded the ability of liberal democracies to counter conspiracy theories. But is any critique against the tenets of mainstream society illegitimate?

Breakthroughs in science, art, or philosophy seem to come from fringe thinking, though the critique of modernity has also propelled conspiracies and questionable conclusions that don’t hold in the face of serious inquiry. Neo-Malthusians, neo-Luddites, and, lately, collapsologists, etc.) believe that the world is doomed due to self-destructive trends such as overpopulation and environmental degradation, but their pessimism and depiction of gloomy scenarios of doom are highly speculative and include arguments used by religious eschatology (the belief of an imminent, cataclysmic end of the world).

Austrian actor Johannes Krisch plays mature Elias in “Märzengrund” (“Above the World,” 2022, durected by Adrian Goiginger)

Considered an anarchist by some, an eco-terrorist, or a post-modern nihilist by others, former mathematics professor Ted Kaczynski decided to abandon his academic career in 1971 and explore a more primitive life in a remote cabin with no electricity or running water in Montana. He argued to have witnessed the degradation of the nature surrounding his cabin in the woods, becoming a domestic terrorist and killing 23 people with letter bombs between 1978 and 1995.

In 1995, he sent a letter to the media promising to end his mail-bomb campaign if either the New York Times or the Washington Post published his manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future. His unjustified nihilism caused suffering by killing innocent people, but his manifesto (which today reads more like a long-form blog post or a highly speculative essay than a paper) worried about the future and the abuses of technology in an articulated way that doesn’t differ much from the musings on the excesses of modernity by philosophers like Martin Heidegger. According to Kaczynski,

“We give up a piece of ourselves whenever we adjust to conform to society’s standards. That, and we’re too plugged in. We’re letting technology take over our lives, willingly.”

The dangers of idealizing a simpler life

Ted Kaczynski had grown up in an urban environment with working-class parents, although the family abandoned Chicago later on for the suburbs in 1952, a move consistent with the rise of suburbia in the midst of prosperous Post-War America. His vision of the wilderness was highly idealized and influenced by experience later in life.

Heidegger’s critique of modernity is more grounded in personal experience and upbringing. Born in the town of Meßkirch in hilly southern Germany, undertaking walks in the country lanes surrounding the town since teen age. One of these country paths led to a forested area where he helped his father, an artisanal barrel maker, collecting fallen timber for his work as a cooper and sexton, hence engaging since young age in a purposeful relation with physicality and the natural surroundings.

When Heidegger would help his father, he’d assist in sawing the timber, making toys for him and his friends with the leftovers. Later in life, Heidegger would keep relating to woodcutting as manual labor to fix his mountain hut in Todtnauberg and stock its hearth with good wood. The experience was tactile and primeval, as opposed to the abstraction or theory of his academic work.

Artisanal woodworking has long been considered an activity with a fulfilling sense of purpose, characterized by blending beauty and —unlike mere art or abstract thought— utility: a chair or a table provide an essential, simple, everyday service. Building one’s own cabin is the ultimate example of purposeful craftsmanship, and one practiced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the French landscape garden of Ermenonville, Henry David Thoreau at Walden pond; and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, or Arne Næss in their respective cabins in the wilderness.

Elias from Märzengrund

The mountain of Märzengrund near Innsbruck, in the Alpine region of Austrian Tyrol, not far from Meßkirch and Todtnauberg, towers over the valley of Zillertal: the scenery where Elias, the son of a wealthy farmer, lived his contradictions until he left the pressure inflicted by his family destiny to live isolated in a cabin up in the mountain. This real story inspired the 2022 Austro-German drama film Märzengrund (Above the World), which has been compared to Into the Wild.

Based on a true story, Märzengrund brings us to traditionalist late 1960s Tyrol. There, young Elias, the only male son of a wealthy farming family in Zillertal, experiences early the pressure of fulfilling his parents’ expectations. The role intended for him seems written since birth: taking over the farm and perpetuating the lineage.

His passion for reading and an early attraction toward a divorced woman will jeopardize what others have decided for him. When he is caught bathing naked in the lake with his divorced girlfriend and brought home by force, he falls ill.

The harder 18-year-old Elias strives to live up to the hopes placed in him, the more his body reacts and suffers, falling into a depression, so his father ends up sending him to the Märzengrund pastures for further convalescence. The father’s idea is to pick Elias up at the end of the summer, but he refuses and moves further up into the mountains, above the tree line.

In there, Elias will build a survivalist stone cabin and choose to live in nature. Finding unconditional freedom alone in the wild, he decides to stay permanently once it’s clear that his girlfriend has left her old residence and the letters he’s sending her with the help of his sister Rosy are being returned by the post.

Young Elias, old Elias

We see how Elias stays in the same place for decades, receiving the sporadic visits of a friend, the only link with the world down in the valley. But, after forty years, Elias falls seriously ill, and he is brought to a hospital to be treated. Still, his return to civilization, which he expects to be temporary, brings all the deeds others consider he has kept unfinished while away.

What the philosopher Martin Heidegger sees as his ideal life and spiritual home, his “heimat” —where the past (childhood), present (thinking), and future (death) belong—, Elias sees it as the unbearable burden of family duty and prejudices toward his choice and free-will.

Young Elias cannot fulfill his desire to be with a woman that their parents reject, whereas his father’s preconceived ideas against reading and intellectualism make it difficult for him to even read books without feeling guilty. Hence his longing for nature and his decision to stay away from the only society he knows, like a Tyrolean version of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

The story of Elias has a tragic side but also an enlightening one that will keep inspiring the people that come across this relatively obscure Austrian film.