Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mysticism in Desert Solitaire

Jonathan Lee
Dr. Adam Johns
English 0200
September 22, 2014

Prompt:  Is Abbey a mystic? If you believe that he is, you should argue that he is using at least 3 passages carefully selected from through the book. You should be able to define what his mysticism is and why it matters to your reading of the book.

Mysticism in Desert Solitaire

            According to the Oxford Dictionary, mysticism is defined as the “belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or with spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.”  By this definition, Abbey is undoubtedly a mystic.  Every chapter is rife with references to the “spiritual appeal” (240) of the desert, and the spirits and gods who inhabit it.  It seems, in fact, that the primary reason he took the position of park ranger is on account of his mysticism.  In “The First Morning,” Abbey claims that he has come to Arches because he wants “To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself,” and that he “dream[s] of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non human world…” While Abbey doesn’t adhere to the precepts of any organized religion per se, it’s my contention that Abbey believes in a certain kind of animism, wherein everything, from the juniper trees and the snakes, to the sand, the arches, and the wind, possesses spirits of their own, and that this should be respected and acknowledged.
            The most obvious clue as to what spiritual beliefs Abbey holds is the constant reference to God, the gods, and spirits of the desert.  His religious sentiments are aptly expressed in “Down the River,” where he writes, “…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.” (167) In fact, this is why Abbey compulsively ascribes humanly characteristics to everything he encounters, for which he admonishes himself constantly.  In his final personification, Abbey writes in “Bedrock and Paradise,” “I am almost prepared to believe that this sweet viriginal primitive land will be grateful for my departure and the absence of the tourists, will breathe metaphorically a collective sigh of relief—like a whisper of wind— when we are all and finally gone and the place and its creations can return to their ancient procedures unobserved and undisturbed by the busy, anxious, brooding consciousness of man.” (267) What’s so important about this passage is that it really captures Abbey’s reference for all things in the natural world, because he holds them as being holier than any relic.  Earlier in the book, Abbey is captivated by the petroglyphs left on the rocks and canyons by the Anasazi, depicting “gods from the underworld,” and the like. (101) “Beware, traveler. You are approaching the land of the horned gods.”  It’s hard not to think that, in a sense, Abbey believes in such deities himself. 
One indicator of Abbey’s spirituality is his treatment of death.  In “Cowboys and Indians,” Abbey describes how terrified his elderly companion, cattle rancher Roy Scobie, is of facing death.  As Roy doesn’t “honestly believe in an afterlife,” (83) he is particularly uneasy about dying, and is constantly fretting about it.  However, Abbey seems much more at ease and complacent with the subject.  He views death as, “little more than a fascinating abstraction, the conclusion to a syllogism or the denouement of a stage drama.”  Furthermore, Abbey feels that dying in the desert is infinitely preferable to the manner in which most men die, “with blood transfusions and intravenous feeding, bedsores and bedpans and bad-tempered nurses’ aides.” (83) Latter in the book, upon finding a dead man in the desert, Abbey states that, had he known the man, he would “celebrate his transfiguration from flesh to fantasy in a style proper and fitting, with fun for all at the funeral.” (214) In numerous places Abbey speaks of how suitable a place to die the desert is, ostensibly because of the abundance of life and spirits in the natural world, in place of the artificial machinations, completely devoid of life and spirituality, with which society surrounds us.

            Abbey is a mystic, more specifically an animist.  While never stating it explicitly, the fact remains just under the surface.  It is the driving force behind Abbey’s hostility and protest against development and industrialization, and is in fact the entire pretext for his season in the wilderness.

1 comment:

  1. I think a number of your peers would have benefited from reading a definition of mysticism. Your argument is focused, challenging and precise. Good.

    "In fact, this is why Abbey compulsively ascribes humanly characteristics to everything he encounters, for which he admonishes himself constantly. " -- This is a good thought, and you pursue it well. If your revise, I'd like you to think about whether anything in the book challenges or problematizes this animism. For instance, does his constant, often vicious humor undercut him here? Or are there other clues that the "horned gods" exist for rhetorical purposes? I'm not saying that you're wrong - you have a great, dense topic, and it's worth exploring Abbey's complexities and contradictions on this subject.

    Your discussion of death is fine, but maybe a little hasty. Since Abbey doesn't seem at these moments to believe in anything resembling an afterlife, I'd like to ask you what it means to be an animist mystic who doesn't believe in an afterlife. Is that a contradiction in terms? Does he, perhaps, have a kind of hidden belief in the next world? You might have your own ideas on this topic, but I'd advise you to consider exploring his repeated use of either the juniper trees or the vultures as a potential key to unlock this question.

    Overall: This is an excellent beginning. In a revision I'd be very interested in seeing you narrow down your understanding of his mysticism (what are the characteristics of his animism?) and consider more broadly the moments in the text which might possibly problematize or contradict your reading.


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