By Joe Weidman
The desert is nothing but a collection of baked sand and desperate, well adapted organisms. The desert is a question, unanswerable because of human limitation. The desert is a collection of atoms in space, constantly bombarded with photons. The desert is a reaper disguised as a virginal paradise, luring you in with curiosity and trapping your organic being in the indifferent rocks. What is a desert? Even Edward Abbey has this question, and may never have answered it. But Edward Abbey is seeking something in the desert, something beyond God, beyond government, beyond experience, beyond logic. He quotes just once that he is developing a mysticism, and he the mystic, the creator of this new collection of thoughts. Abbey seeks to become a mystic, but, cannot overcome three limitations: the limit created by human passion, his limited definite form, and his limit of understanding.
Edward Abbey does not hate anything holistically, he hates ideas that exist within many entities. Ambiguity exists in many entities, and especially in man. This forms a limit to Abbey’s search and creation of his hard mysticism. Abbey cannot write off man, but he cannot love man entirely as well. Man destroys nature and uses it for self-gain, a key idea in the mysticism Abbey has built. This hate of man’s destruction is part of one of many Abbey dichotomies however, and is usually coupled with Abbey’s reluctant but apparent love for man. It is in this juxtaposition that Abbey cannot truly pursue his mystic goals. Abbey says, “I still long for a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue. Enough of Land’s End, Dead Horse Point, Tukuhnikivats, and other high resolves; I want to see somebody jump out of a window or off a roof,” just after he posits that Arches will breathe a sigh of relief after wretched necessary humanity leaves the place in peace (p265). This man is leaving his desert and says he would rather see someone jump off a roof and potentially die than stay, yet he has plans for higher mysticism in the heart of the desert. Abbey is held back from the desert by his unshakable passion for the human experience.
Along with the limits of human passion, Abbey cannot exist without maintaining survival. The desert rattlesnake is finely adapted to find and devour mice, the gopher snake to devour rattlesnakes, the red tailed hawk to devour snakes. Creatures and plants of the desert evolve vacuoles and storage in their bodies to survive long periods of drought. Vultures hasten decomposure and gain nutrients, as do a host of other decomposers when a large cow or other quadruped dies. Abbey barely if at all possesses any of these adaptations that would allow him to subsist within the desert. The aspect of his mysticism of skinny grit survival where humans barely make it out by standing on their walking sticks is impossible to maintain because the human body can only take so much before it crumbles to whence it came. After describing a hypothetical situation, Abbey gloomily points out that after a desert adventurer misappropriates his water rations, all the hopeless wanderer can do is, “comfort [themselves] that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, [their] human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, [their] essence transfigured into the fierce, greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture” (p117-118). Abbey sees this in his mysticism as a “promotion in grade” for the human race, and “the realization of an ideal” for him (p118). This breaking down and reconstituting of humanity amongst beings of the desert is seen as a promotion because humans, to Abbey are terrible and should not be here in the first place, and they are attaining unity with which they deserve, a vulture. Abbey loves how humanity can be feeble in the desert and can be broken down, but truly actualize his strong love, he must die, something he cannot allow.
The most hindering quality that stops Abbey from truly actualizing his mystic dream is the simple mystery of the desert. The desert is unlike the mountains or the sea as Abbey says, because it delivers not simple understanding but contemplation. It makes Abbey ask the “unanswered question” of the chapter Rocks, which is the question of what meaning the desert has. Abbey offers a few answers through the book, but also hints that there may be no answer at all, only surface level thoughts. One of his most complete answers is on page 243 when he says, “I am convinced now the desert has no heart, that it presents a riddle which has no answer, and that the riddle itself is an illusion created by some limitation or exaggeration of the displaced human consciousness.” This is the true reason why Abbey cannot attain mystic splendor, because he as a human has a “displaced human consciousness.” His thought is that his thoughts are inadequate. This inadequacy is inescapable because to truly have adequate, full understanding of the desert he must become the desert, something that can only be accomplished when he dies, but can only be established while living. Abbey thinks, therefore he is, the desert does not think, but still exists as well.
Abbey therefore, is a mystic. There are limits to Abbey truly attaining mystic status, but the definition of a mystic is not someone who truly attains harmony with the mysticism they have created, it is that of someone who pursues it. A mystic is “a person who claims to attain, or believes in the possibility of attaining, insight into mysteries transcending ordinary human knowledge, as by direct communication with the divine or immediate intuition in a state of spiritual ecstasy” (Dictionary.com). Because Abbey claims he is a mystic, and because he believes it is possible to attain true intrinsic understanding of nature and the desert, he is a mystic. A mystic does not have to be enlightened, only one seeking enlightenment, one living within many questions and limits, but seeking answers.
Abbey develops paradoxes and dichotomies the entire book, and it is within these unanswered constructs that he lives and weaves his mysticism, the union of underlying form with surface experience. The juniper tree has both underlying form and physical form, but both cannot exist in the world, only one can and the other can exist in the mind. Abbey seeks union of these forms in the world, but to do this he must be alone in indifferent nature and surrender to it entirely. He cannot do this however, because of the limits of the human physical and mental world. Abbey creates a master morality in which he craves the death and rebirth of Billy Joe on the dead tree, he longs for the glorious death the old man under the juniper tree had, he relishes his essence if it is “working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard,” but to do this he must die, which is the human rope binding all physical forms from union with the spiritual p(117). Abbey seeks to make one the underlying and the overlying forms because in this he sees perfection, he sees both complete mastery of morality and consciousness, and complete control of physical form and survival. When these forms become one form they are both the stimuli they create and the ideas the stimuli inspire in conscious beings; they are not because they think, they simply are.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1990. Paperback Edition.
Mystic - Definition. (2014, January 1). Retrieved September 24, 2014, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Mystic?s=t
Prompt #: 1 Week: 3