"Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!"
We answer with our names, not only to the question, "What is your name?" but also to the question, "Who are you?" Some names, of course, seem to answer the latter question more thoroughly than others. Massed behind "I am Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill" are centuries laden with history and teeming with ancestors both heroic and "interesting." Behind even the humblest of monikers, however, is some small acknowledgement of a place in the world, some slight concession to the claims of family, society, and history.
For precisely that reason, a person's decision to reject his given name for a name of his own choosing can be a powerful gesture, signaling rejection of an oppressive past and liberation from all those circumstances that place limits on personal autonomy and freedom. I'm sure that that is how Chris McCandless, the pathetic real-life figure at the center of John Krakauer's Into the Wild, perceived his own decision to slough off his given name in favor of the transcendentally callow sobriquet, "Alexander Supertramp." The excerpts of McCandless' letters and other writing that are included in Krakauer's book suggest -- in rather trite prose -- that "Alexander Supertramp" perceived himself as radically free, as a latter-day Thoreau or Emerson. Like so many other bright romantic kids, "Alexander" seems to have forgotten that there's an undercurrent of monstrous selfishness in Emersonian philosophy. The shadow of Ahab falls across "Alexander Supertramp's" youthful musings, and "Alex" is as oblivious, or indifferent, to its hovering presence as Ahab himself is to everything except his pursuit of the White Whale.
"Alex" died of starvation in Alaska, lashed to the white whale of his own choosing. Like Ahab, he beckons us -- not into the wild, nor into the deep, but to an altogether more familiar, if no less powerful, place.
Here is the last piece of writing to contain his signature, attached to the door of an abandoned bus where he had made his shelter:
S. O. S. I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. I AM ALL ALONE, THIS IS NO JOKE. IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME. I AM OUT COLLECTING BERRIES CLOSE BY AND SHALL RETURN THIS EVENING. THANK YOU, CHRIS MCCANDLESS. AUGUST?
At the moment when he "stood alone among the millions of the peopled earth," and his radical freedom became a horror rather than a joy to him, "Alexander Supertramp" clutched at the cast-off token of his connectedness, his given name.