by Sebastian Junger
Simon & Schuster, 2021.
Hardback, 160 pages, $26.
Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
An example of freedom is a bird being let out of a cage, or a prisoner being released from prison after serving a certain amount of time, or a woman regaining her independence after a bad marriage, or boldness in behavior or lack of modesty or the unrestricted use of public facilities, and so forth and so on. Or it’s a state of being free and independent.
My Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a good many pages on freedom’s history, its philosophical and social dimensions, and on freedom as a moral concept—which means always in the relations of man-to-man or to specific conditions in social life when freedom can be restricted, or perhaps better to say constrained or constricted.
Differences in usage are always possible. Easy, for example, to recall Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers and the moment Natty Bumppo stands with his long rifle watching the westward movement: “This comes of settling a country.” Freedom as rapaciousness.
Sebastian Junger’s little book is titled simply Freedom and requires a mere 150 pages to deal with what one might call a particular kind of freedom, but it’s important to note that although its argument is for a particular kind of freedom—which is the exercise of some particular interest or form of activity and the satisfaction of certain desires—that exercise seems always to confront varieties of obstacles.
As it perhaps should be. Junger is no ancestor to Natty Bumppo uttering his jeremiad, nor is he Huck Finn striking out for the territory ahead.
“The change,” he writes, “was immediate. The country opened up west of Harrisburg and suddenly we could drink from streams and build fires without getting caught and sleep pretty much anywhere we wanted.” Junger and some friends are on a walk following railroad lines that run along the Juniata River, a tributary of the Susquehanna. To walk its length is to cover a bit more than 120 miles, as the crow flies, from Harrisburg to Huntington, along mountain ridges from east to west.
One can think of other examples like Daniel Boone or Henry David Thoreau’s little treatise on walking, the latter with the interesting thesis that walking is an expansion of the soul as opposed to, say, merely exercise.
But again, “The change,” he says, “was immediate.” They’d been walking the railroad tracks and then into the Amish country “by winter.” There were woods and streams and windbreaks, all places “where a man could easily pass the night unnoticed.” They went to sleep one night just above Christiana, a small town in Lancaster County. There was a snowstorm and they listened to the clatter of carriage horses on the streets below, likely from Amish horses. At dawn, they walked into town for pancakes and coffee “and then headed on up the railroad tracks before anyone whose job it was to stop us even knew we’d been there.”
I’m guessing here, but the principle seems to be that if one is not causing harm, well, one should be able to keep doing whatever that activity happens to be, philosophically speaking. And walking is the best way to exercise that principle without others knowing.
But there’s a point here, albeit one upon which Junger doesn’t elaborate, which seems to suggest that freedom is best “experienced” in a world in which all of us are sovereign in our own lives and are not forced to sacrifice our values for the benefit of others. To accomplish such, force must be banished. What is thus odd about Junger’s little treatise is that the narrative owns all the arguments for a statement of a libertarian manifesto and yet nowhere do the peregrinations vector into such a defense. They walked through a cluster of camper trailers and along some standard gauge railroad and could hear trucks downshifting and along ridges too steep to climb and woods so thick “you could practically sleep within sight of a church steeple or police station and no one would know.”
“It struck us,” he writes, “as serious country, the kind where you kept an eye on the weather and slept next to whatever weapon you had. All we had was a machete [and] after dark we all knew where it was …”
Do we need to understand freedom only if we study anthropology’s subfield of primatology, understanding our similarities to our primitive ancestors before we became more advanced in the course of human evolution? Based upon Junger’s peregrinations that seems to be the case.
Just outside of Harrisburg our temperamental hikers pass a sign nailed to a tree, a posting warning the federal government that the property would be defended by any means necessary. And there are black bears in the woods and meth addicts in the towns.
Junger’s companions are unnamed but over the course of the hike, oddly incremental in the course of a year, the reader follows their travails, blisters, exhaustion, cold weather, and the odd inside joke that with freedom we always trade obedience to one thing for obedience to another. Clear water from a creek tasted as if civilization was something in the future that brushes up against, or mirrors, a mixed bag of insights, if that’s the right word: the Apaches, for example, overcoming superior forces, or the Taliban who did the same, or the Irish Easter Uprising, or the speed with which Muhammad Ali punched, or Cain and Abel’s jealousy.
But we learn that Junger is aged fifty-one, self-indulgent and maudlin, likely at night to be staring at the dying embers of the campfire. He’s divorced and probably wishes he could become more of a hunter-gatherer who had more prestige. Some might think he’s channeling Hemingway, for whom at the end of his life there was nothing cleansing for a man with not only authority but sentimental problems.
The results were not great and neither are the results great for Junger and the book’s end, non-answers to non-questions.
Perhaps the film is better, but in a softened tone of color rather than stark black and white, or so one could hope.
Just don’t call him Ishmael.
Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.