Seminar in Comp.
Edward Abbey Writer or Anthropologist: A Critical Look at the ways in Witch Abbey Constructs Himself in “Desert Solitude”
Edward Abbey’s novel “Desert Solitude” may just seem like a well-put together polished journal that catalogues his time spent in Arches national park, but it is important to acknowledge Abbey wrote this book to serve a greater purpose. In the introduction to this novel Abbey reminds readers that although much of it is based on the time he spent in arches the desert serves as a “medium” not the subject of the book. Abbey’s goal in desert of solitude is to take a step back and observe humanity and culture in relation to nature. To make himself seem credible Abbey composes himself to have desirable characteristics of a successful anthropologist. His novel, composed of both fictional and true events, works to highlight the qualities that make him an anthropologist and omit the qualities that don’t. The final product, when compared to an actual book of anthropological work, observe culture in similar ways to achieve a final conclusion. I will be putting in parallel “Desert Solitude” and a book I read for my pop-cluture class “Righteous Dopefiends”. Both were composed to get across very similar messages.
“Righteous Dopefieds” Is a book written by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg cataloging the 12 years they spent with the Edgewater Homeless community. This community, based in San Francisco, is full of heroine addicts that all make camp together under the highway overpasses. It consists of interviews, field notes, and pictures from there time spent there. It also talks about larger issues such as treatment, changes in the demographic of San Francisco, legal action, and education that tie into the community of homeless.
In order to observe Edward Abbey as and anthropologist we must first understand what an anthropologist is. Anthropology is a social science that studies humans both past and present. It draws upon the natural sciences by studying the evolution of the species and how they human behavior and evolution varies between different groups of humans. It also draws on social sciences by discussing the organization of Humans in culture, institutions, and social conflict. We will be looking at the Sociocultural branch of Anthropology. These are the people who try and pick out and interpreted a culture through these seven characteristics layed out by Omohundro in his article “Think like an Anthropologist”,
“1.Cultures are integrated
2. Cultures are products of history.
3. Cultures can be changed, and they can cause change.
4. Cultures are strengthened by values.
5. Cultures are powerful determinants of behavior.
6. Cultures are largely composed and transmitted by symbols.
7. Human culture is unique in complexity and variability” (Omohundro 36).
Sociocultural Anthropologists are the ones we think of traveling to far off destinations into the field and living within a culture for years. Omohundro goes on in his article about the parameters and definition of culture. He says, “…not only does culture provide guidance on what to do, how to do it, and when, but culture also predicts and interprets what others will do and say” (Omohundro 28). This prediction of behavior is what makes a culture’s values clear through a consistent pattern.
Abbey constructs himself as an anthropologist both through spiritual separation and physical separation of himself from humanity. These are important characteristics in an Anthropologist that allows culture to be observed objectively and without much prejudice. In the beginning of his book he says, “Why I went [to Arches] no longer matters what I found there is the subject of this book” (Abbey xi). By not sharing with us his background Abbey’s life to readers is perceived to just start in the desert. Without prior knowledge of his life in humanity he becomes separated from humanity and our culture. From then on we think of Abbey as a foreigner exploring our culture, and viewing it as objectively as possible. He also doesn’t talk about his family at all during his book even though he was a father. It seems like a large part of your life to exclude. The Abbey we know is totally disconnected from any past in humanity. This cultural distance is admired in anthropologist. Anthropologists have to find the perfect balance of being close enough to observe the culture yet distant enough that you don’t disturb it or become too involved in it. These will hurt the credibility of the study because you could affect the culture or the culture could affect your objectivity. In “Righteous Dopefiends” the anthropologists described the struggle to stay both objective and find the right balance of involvement and relationship needed to properly observe the community. They say, “At first, we felt overwhelmed, irritated, and even betrayed by the frequent and often manipulative requests for favors, spare change, and loans of money. We worried about distorting our relationships by becoming patrons and buying friendship to obtain our research data. At the same time, we had to participate in a moral economy to avoid being ostracized by the network…we had to learn, therefore, not to take their petty financial manipulations personally, and refrain from judging them morally. Otherwise, we could not have entered their lives respectfully and empathetically” (Bourgois and Schonberg 6). They talk about the relationship between them and the community. On one hand they had to make sure they didn’t disrupt or muddle their relationship as observer and observed, yet on the other they needed to partake in order to stay in the community and not be “ostracized”. The balance allows them to be objective and more open to the community. Abbey does some of the same things when describing the Cowboys and Indians. Abbey works as a rancher with the cowboy. He observes them and their lives yet he leaves little impact. He is able to observe the changes in them. Abbey states they are “dying off or transforming them selves by tortuous degrees into something quite different. The originals are nearly gone and will soon be lost forever in the overwhelming crowd” (Abby 111). He explains that cowboys have given in to the new “mechanized and automated”(109) food market. Although he is very opinionated on the subject it is clear he does not express this opinion to the actual cowboys. We realize he is no longer involved in their lives after studying them when he starts to fantasize what became of them.
Edward Abbey continues to separate himself even more from culture and humanity through his spirituality. A good chunk of the book focuses on Abbey’s mysticism. He tends to mock the more traditional ideas of religion in his book in favor of something more natural. He describes the Glen Canyon as “Eden, a portion of the earth’s original paradise” (Abbey 152). He then goes on to describe what he means by paradise by saying, “…when I write of paradise I mean Paradise, not the banal Heaven of the saints. When I write ‘paradise’ I mean not only apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes –disease and death and the rotting of flesh” (Abbey 167). His paradise is Natures course and the circle of life that is independent of Humanity’s take over. Comparing that to typical ideas about Eden being free of death and a paradise of total bliss and innocents it reminds me of a poem called “In the Garden” by Sheryle St. Germain. It’s about Turkey vultures. She explains, “They were vegetarian then. There were no roadside kills, no bones to pick, no dead flesh to bloom, ripen. And they were happy. They could not imagine what they would become” (Germain Verse 2-3). Abbey would love the Vultures as scavengers and not believe they were ever vegetarian even in the garden. Abbey respects nature the way it is because he believes everything is full filling a role. He is not disgusted by death and carnage. Abbeys spiritual beliefs also show a reluctance to identify with humanity. After seeing the dam built at Glen Canyon he has to think of himself as separate from humanity to fight off self-loathing. Although he admits he cannot perfectly separate himself from humanity and become part of the desert it is not for lack of trying. He says in the beginning of the book that he would risk everything including himself for nature.
But what are the goals of Anthropologists? Why did Abbey need to seem so smart, critical, and objective? Why did he need to be taken seriously? There is in fact a more specific reason behind the choice of “Righteous Dopefiends” as the book I compare to Abbey. “Righteous Dopefiends” is a Grey Zone study. Grey Zone was a term first used to describe anthropological work being done in concentration camps created by the Nazis. When studying these camps they looked at the authority figures in the system. They looked at Nazis, and the hierarchy within the camps, and more specifically the Jews who helped Nazis keep the others in check. It would be really easy to villainize these people, and many have, but by blaming them you alleviate the responsibility of other parties. Grey Zone means the blame is not black and white, and cant be placed on one or two groups of people. This work tries to identify the entire system of injustice in order to completely fix the issue. All of this is explained in “Righteous Dopefiends” and is a constant theme throughout the book. On specific example is happens when Scotty a member of the community dies of an overdose. Everyone in the Edgewater Community blames Petey, Scotty’s best friend, for his death. They believe that Petey didn’t do his best to revive Scotty, and that he wasn’t watching him close enough. But Bourgois and Schonberg beg the question “Who is the Killer?” (Bourgois and Schonberg 210). Bourgois and Schonberg say, “Perhaps by assigning individual blame for Scotty’s death, the Edgewater homeless were able to hide their anxiety over their own everyday vulnerability to accidental overdose” (Bourgois and Schonberg 212). By using Petey as a scapegoat they ignore the larger issues at play. They ignore the shift in the community to white collar jobs that made them homeless; they ignore Scotty’s complaints that he wasn’t being treated well enough at the hospital; they ignore the shift from treatment to criminalization of drugs; they ignore shifts in funding for their education about drugs that promotes only abstinence; they ignore the cycle of violence and addiction; they also ignore their own flaws and addiction. They think “Oh if I just avoid people like Petty who don’t have my back I’ll be fine” when that is not the case. The goal of Grey Zone work is to shine a light on all these systems that prevent communities like the Edgewater community from getting better. Edward Abbey is the same way. In his “field work” he identifies specific problems some witch seem very localized to the arches area. He talks about the tourist, and the greedy Shepard’s and miners, he talks about the dam the government builds in Glen Canyon, and the casinos and industrial ranching that take over the Indians and Cowboys. Yet he tells us he doesn’t blame them necessarily. He is sad for their loss, but he can acknowledge they are a part of a bigger system. Abbey in not saying save this one canyon, he’s not asking us to let the wolves eat our sheep, he’s not asking us to live in the desert all alone, and he’s not asking us to save just the cowboys. Abbey’s real asking us to acknowledge our culture and see it’s other side. Abbey is criticizing progress, something consumer culture is all about, because with that progress comes destruction. Omohundro would say our culture predicts this pattern of destruction. He would say it’s a “comfortable habit” (Omohundro 38). Abbey has described growth as cancerous in "Desert Solitude" and in some of his other pieces. Abbey is asking us to acknowledge nature and acknowledge the chaos we cause in it. He believes a bigger system is at play, and wants us to focus on the larger issue rather then the plethora of other smaller issues it causes. When talking about construction projects in national parts he dives deeper into the real issue of progress by saying, “Wilderness preservation, like a hundred other good causes, will be forgotten under the overwhelming pressure of a struggle for mere survival and sanity in a completely urbanized, completely industrialized, ever more crowded environment”(Abbey 52). You can see why in his eyes progress is cancerous, and why objectively from the perspective he creates, as an outsider to humanities strive for progress and as the voice of nature, progress is slowly killing us.
The ending of “Desert Solitude” comes as a bit of a surprise. In the last chapter Abbey admits he is leaving the desert and returning for New York. He says, “After twenty-six weeks of sunlight and stars, wind and sky and golden sand, I want to hear once more the crackle of clamshells on the floor of the bar in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken. I long for a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd Street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue… I grow weary of nobody’s company but my own” (Abbey 265). Why would Abbey include this ending when he simply could have left it out or written a new one? After all his work to construct his credibility why would he ruin with this end? The ending destroys the boundary that is necessary between an anthropologist and their work. Edward Abbey might not be the perfect anthropologist, but his ending is not uncommon in the field of anthropology. Often the most passionate anthropologist get too involved in the culture they are studying. It is obviously cautioned against and many need to make sure they develop self-reflexivity so they know when they need to step back. But it’s human nature and once in the while just like Abbey someone falls through the cracks. Abbeys mistake makes him believable and more relatable to us.
Edward Abbey’s work is loosely based off structures of Grey Zone studies. Although in the end he cannot remain perfectly objective he creates himself as an anthropologist throughout the whole book. He does this through a certain amount of created distance from humanity, he works to observe human culture as the outsider he has constructed himself to be, and in the end this serves as a way to get his point across to the readers by identifying the system of injustice we force upon nature. He wants us to understand it in our progressive culture that will ultimately end up failing not only nature, but also humanity.