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And we become stuck in an infantile culture?
“Yes, exactly,” Penn says. “So the child-man who is also an economic slave goes home exhausted. He has worked his second shift in a day. His wife is now doing her shift, or something. The kids are screaming in the other room and he would rather watch Bill O’Reilly criticize Paris Hilton than think about something. It’s self-perpetuating. So I think with Chris McCandless, it was a young person taking advantage of his own wisdom, because young people still have that available.”
It seems clear that we’re going to have to make a move soon because I’m almost out of cigarettes, and these are the types of talks that cigarettes were made for.
“I am now returning to the philosophies I had when I was 17 or 18 years old,” he continues. “That is when I knew, and I was militant about it. The militancy is what makes you leave them, because that is wrong — you’re a fundamentalist-idealist and you are bulletproof. When you are real and combine that philosophy with some humility, which comes with being 47 years old . . . I become a more mature version of [that 17- or 18-year-old], and here is how: The rite of passage is humility, one way or another. The biggest strengths in things that ever happened to me were humiliations, and humiliation is a term we always use as a bad thing. It is not a bad thing, and it contains the word, humility. You add humility to that kind of idealism. Then you put tolerance with idealism and it makes you interested, and that is what leads to other things that are good things.”
I ask Penn, a man who saw his father and brother die too soon, and who has had his share of public struggles with the delicate art of growing up, what he considers to be his own rites of passage.
“Well, in my case, I’d say the closest thing to a catharsis was having children. My rites of passage when I was a young man were in the water. It is not the only way to do it, but it is the way that I found myself doing it that related to Chris McCandless, not in such a long-term sort of spiritual search, but definitely the most life-changing things were the times when I put my life on the edge. I don’t think it’s because of the life on the edge, literally. I think it’s because of the humility that comes with dancing with something that shows itself to be clearly bigger than you are.”
I tell him that I had that experience not long ago when I had to be pulled from the water by a 17-year-old girl.
“Hey, you know,” he laughs, “salvation comes in small packages. Surprising packages.”
Penn’s main muse is language. And his love of language is evident in the journalism he’s practiced — the attention to details, the facility with structure — but even more so in the films he’s written and directed. The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard and Into the Wild (and also The Pledge, which he directed and which, like Into the Wild, was adapted from a book) — watching those films, the thing that struck me the most was that they were first and foremost written works, an element much of modern filmmaking lacks.
He cites movies like His Girl Friday and A Streetcar Named Desire, even with its atmosphere of working-class melodrama, as examples of an era when language reigned supreme in filmmaking and our movie-watching experience was the richer for it. Penn tells me his literary heroes are Steinbeck, Saroyan, McCarthy, García Márquez, Dostoyevsky, Ford (“Oh, and Krakauer,” he adds, laughing), and that it is in the tradition of language that we may find some measure of hope and salvation.
“With more access to language with television and now the Internet and everything else, the kind of lazy speech between friends is what people are now doing formally,” Penn explains. “This is how we talk, and those abbreviations are part of the culture. There is no culture in the language of the culture.”
He asks me if I have ever read George Washington’s Rules of Civility, and it isn’t a rhetorical question.
No, I confess.
“He wrote that when he was about 13 years old. It is shocking,” says Penn. “Television, computers, radio, what else do you have? Name it — the industrial revolution, the technological revolution and all this stuff and a 13-year-old without any of that wrote Rules of Civility. Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment without any of that. You know, without any of that. That stuff is not the answer. I think tradition is part of the answer.
“But we do not even value language when we talk to each other anymore — this is where tradition matters. It is our best song that we can sing for each other. So, if all we are going to sing is da, da, da . . . da, da, da . . . then there is no dancing in the culture, because there is no dancing in the language,” he continues, and given the levels of nicotine that are coursing through our neuroreceptors, I’m not about to stop him. “And so, the thing that I miss in my life more than anything — and by the way, I feel markedly guilty of it myself — is that we do not walk out the door in the morning with a culture that has a traditionally steep value of language.”
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