Dr. Adam Johns
Seminar in Composition
17 September 2014
The Burden of Solitude
Throughout Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, water as a thematic element has become increasingly prevalent. A metaphor for humanity, water is necessary and refreshing yet simultaneously overwhelming “with no quality of mercy but like heavy water in buckets, raindrops like pellets splattering on the rock” (Abbey 119). Abbey struggles to define his relationship with mankind, often finding society overwhelming. This results in his complex composure of both analytic, antisocial behavior paired with his subtle craving of human companionship.
There is simply no way to bypass Abbey’s cynical tone and apparent misanthropy. Not only has he taken measures to isolate himself from “city” life and the company of others, Abbey’s inhumane conduct throughout the chapter Cowboys and Indians implies that he has gravitated away from any semblance of sympathy reminiscent of human nature altogether. Abbey’s description of “one old cow...groaning and farting with exaggerated self-pity” (Abbey 91) during his expedition with Roy Scobie and Viviano Jacquez is composed with rigid, emotionless narration. Following the near death of another cow swallowed and then regurgitated by quicksand, Abbey notes, “Her eyes protruded like a pair of onion bulbs; the tongue, purple in hue and coated with scum, hung loosely from the side of her mouth like a rag of spoiled meat” (Abbey 92). His lack of compassion in this chapter while describing the horrific fates of these animals exemplifies Abbey’s hatred of and opposition to innately humanistic traits of tenderness. Abbey’s misanthropy is obvious, yet his ability to exist in isolation without any longings for civilization is questionable.
Abbey admits, “there are times in this hot and arid place when my thirst becomes so intense I cannot seem to drink any liquid fast enough to quench it” (Abbey 128). This runs parallel to the comparison of water to humankind, suggesting that Abbey gets tired of being on his own, that his “thirst” for others to be surrounded with accumulates and is sometimes too much to bear. Abbey’s realization that “alone-ness became loneliness and the sensation was strong enough to remind me (how could I have forgotten?) that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society” (Abbey 97) reveals his vulnerable feelings of desolation. So is Abbey just hopelessly confused--discontent with both society and solitude? What is the point of this contradiction? Throughout the novel, Abby’s ceaseless praise of nature and critique of modern society takes an ironic twist; even the most ignorant, technology-prone, selfish individuals of modern life seem to be peacefully carrying out their existence with more ease than Abbey himself.
Abbey is pointing out that there is a right way to do things and an easy way. By not fulfilling our duties to nature and not seeking out the struggle of balancing society and solitude, humankind is merely leading purposeless lives. Perhaps Abbey’s misanthropy stems from his resentment of the modern man who does not take on the burden of exploring this “unity of opposites” (Abbey 25). In the chapter Down the River, Abbey expresses his exasperation at the dull drudge of modern life, the “domestic routine...the stupid and useless degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and slimy advertising of the businessmen...” (Abbey 155). Isolation, as Abbey experiences in Desert Solitaire, is his form of meditation--a cleansing responsibility that he has taken upon himself on behalf of the entirety of mankind. He has chosen “to renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass” (Abbey 155). Abbey’s anger towards the progression of modern technology expressed in previous chapters is further enflamed by the resistance of mankind against discomfort (loneliness and inconvenience) in the hopes of new discovery. A divine presence seems to be behind Abbey, leading him to purify the modern corruptive man. Herein, Abbey’s hatred of mankind is justified by his unpopular choice to take the high, and much harder, road.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Print.