Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
September 17, 2014
Prompt: At various points throughout Desert Solitaire, Abbey claims to hate humanity, either directly or indirectly. See, for instance, pages 154-5. Paying attention to this passage but also making use of evidence from other parts of the book, explain/argue to us how we should interpret Abbey’s apparent misanthropy, and why? Should we take him literally? Metaphorically? A mixture of both? What does this misanthropy ultimately mean?
In many places throughout the narrative, Abbey expresses both compassion and loathing towards his fellow humans. He decries human progress and development, as they seem to be bent on the destruction of his beloved natural world. At other times, however, he seems to genuinely enjoy the company of those around him, and even goes as far as expressing sympathy towards the plights of humans, describing them as victims being cheated by society. He recognizes this juxtaposition, which confuses him. Among the primary sources of his misanthropy is his resentment towards faculties within himself beaten into him by humanity via the process of socialization. This does not necessarily mean that he does not recognize that this is an ordeal to which every individual within the society is subjected. In summary, Abbey’s “misanthropy” is directed primarily at human behavior, and at the ways in which individuals arrange and stratify themselves, and is not directed towards the individuals themselves.
Abbey’s deep ambivalence towards humanity is most clearly expressed in the chapter “Down the River,” in which he and a companion raft down the Colorado River. The chapter begins with yet another tirade regarding the destruction of Glen Canyon and the creation of Lake Powell. He expresses admiration of Major Powell and “his brave men [who] once lined the rapids and glided through silent canyons,” (152) and points out the irony of the man-made lake, which Abbey views as an abomination, being named after such a man. Upon feeling elated drifting down the river with his companion, Abbey mentions feeling a peculiar kinship with Powell, as well as Mark Twain. This is a stark contrast from the opening diatribe. He expresses his contentment with the “companionship and ease of conversation” (154) that he experiences with Ralph Newcomb.
Another instance in which Abbey demonstrates compassions towards his fellow man can be found in the chapter “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks.” He describes the motorized tourists as the primary victims of industrial tourism, who “endure patiently the most prolonged discomforts,” ranging from “awful food of park cafeterias and roadside eateries,” and “the smell of exhaust fumes.” (51) Abbey acknowledges that this is the only kind of excursion available to these people, and that they are in fact being deprived by the industrialized and profit-driven nature of modern tourism. He doesn’t resent them as individuals, and in the case of the tourist from Cleveland, will actually take the time to exchange views in a surprisingly non-contentious manner. I think it’s fair to say that Abbey has clearly demonstrated understanding, contrary to the misanthropic attitude in which he is frequently immersed. In “Down the River,” Abbey relates feeling “a wave of love for [Newcomb].” (155). These clearly aren’t the words of a misanthrope. Abbey can be just enthralled with human contact as any of us. The only problem he has is with incessant human development, and the manner in which society so insidiously enslaves us, e.g. “degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of businessmen…the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephones—,” (155) etc.