Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mankind As Ambiguity

Joe Weidman
Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
September 16, 2014

Edward Abbey could be considered the king of contradictions. He goes one direction first, then finds a side canyon, whether literally or physically, and goes in the opposite direction. He is a light switch of atheism and theism, surface and essence, physical and metaphysical, but most of all, he is an ambiguous lover of humanity. One moment the entire race of man are just another species whimsical and able to do as they will on earth, then next they are cruel destroyers. But Abbey not only calls humanity cruel or just, he himself as a representative of mankind in the wild acts in both ways as well. Where the line is drawn between man the destroyer and man the natural creation is very blurry and crooked for Edward Abbey.

Humanity can create, and positively impact nature. Abbey himself says at one point of the book, “I was accused of being against civilization,” which is easily accused by even an inattentive reader. But how Abbey responds when he says, “how, I replied, being myself a member of humanity (albeit involuntarily, without prior consultation), could I be against humanity without being against myself,” creates another of his contradictions (p244). Abbey cannot go against himself, for he then would live in self-hatred. Abbey loves humanity, maybe not because he loves all man made things, but because he must to survive spiritually. We know Abbey loves man made things like mixed drinks (the highball, the Cuba libre) and he even says, “The refrigerator… is a useful machine” (96). Edward Abbey, the man who would rather be chained to a rock arch than become a road builder, likes a whirring machine that once contained Freon, harmful chemicals, and electricity. Edward Abbey has a very practical love of humanity that lacks all idealism; he loves humans because he is one, and he enjoys the survival and company provided by humans.
Although he has an apparent empirical love of mankind, he has a strong and present pathos built of many ideas against humanity. He at times rants about the inequity of man and his terrible destroying power.  Abbey fumes that, “Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us,” which is reiterated throughout the book, and shows just how terrible Abbey views mankinds deeds (p167). Abbey hates that not only can man destroy nature, but he can destroy himself, robbing himself of what Nietzsche would call master morality, and becoming a slave to the military-industrial complex. Abbey is indignant about this loss of natural instinct and rants, “My god! I'm thinking, what incredible shit we've put up with most of our lives - the domestic routine (same old wife every night), the stupid and useless and degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the businessman, the tedious wars in which we kill our buddies instead of our real enemies back home in the capital, the foul diseased and hideous cities and towns we live in, the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephones” (p155). This rant shows a few nihilistic tendencies, a real “god is dead” view of the world. Abbey substitutes the God and morals of man with nature and the cool Colorado. Abbey hates man because of his heinous crimes committed against both the earth and himself.
When someone is ambiguous they possess not wholly good or wholly bad qualities, they have some of each dueling inside of them at every juncture. Many great protagonists are ambiguous, such as Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment or Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. Abbey has both an ally and an enemy that is ambiguous in “the tool making breed,” humanity (p154). Abbey hates humanity because of its ambiguity. One moment Abbey must get help (food, shelter, warmth) from humans to stay alive, but just as he is done staying alive he wishes he were dead, because the dead no longer deal with humanity’s terrible destruction. This paradox exists in Abbey and he cannot decide which side he is on because he has the ideals of nature but the body of a human. He is rooted in physical form, but far adrift in nature spiritually. Abbey hates humanity idealistically, because humanity is a dismal race that rapes, burns, and kills, but Abbey loves humanity practically, because the race of man is best equipped animal to fight, survive, and thrive above all beings.


Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1990. Paperback Edition.

Prompt #1 Week #2


  1. You seem to know what you're talking about and how you want to support that, but the topic strays a bit from the original. First off, the "thesis" or argument isn't explicitly stated until almost the very end, and is instead only hinted at throughout the essay. While this isn't exactly bad, it does make the essay more difficult to follow, because the reader isn't sure if the points being made are relevant to the argument until the end. What makes it even harder to guess at the argument is the fact that the essay doesn't directly answer the prompt's question: how should Abbey's misanthropy be interpreted? Throughout most of the essay, you do make it clear that Abbey likes some parts of humanity and dislikes other parts, but it's never said what exactly this like and dislike is supposed to mean, only that it's more complicated than a straight-forward hatred.

    Other than that, you do argue that Abbey both loves and hates aspects humanity well, but the question is if that is something relevant to argue.

  2. Your introduction is compile and well-written. While your overall argument is clear, I still wouldn't have minded a clearer thesis, indicating something of how the ambiguity is resolved, or where it leads. I like the second paragraph, too, especially your effective use of the text, although I wonder if between the first two paragraphs you aren't a little wordier than is necessary.

    Your discussion of his nihilistic and/or Nietzschean tendencies is very interesting, but also underdeveloped. It's a smart and workable approach in theory, but you're really only hinting or guessing, rather than either offering us evidence or showing us why this interpretation matters. If you want to do this in a revision, you need to do something with one of N's texts, and connect it more coherently to Abbey. Good idea.

    The final paragraph doesn't really make any headway. The writing is ok, but this was your opportunity to do something precise - maybe interrogate his relationship with Newcomb, for instance, or with the horse (his ambiguity isn't only with humans!) or with Nietzsche. The danger here is of writing good sentences without worry about whether they combine into a good argument...


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