Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
September 16, 2014
Throughout the entire book, Desert Solitaire, Abbey contradicts himself. At first I couldn’t tell what type of contradiction or even what Abbey was trying to say, but eventually it became clear Abbey thinks he’s funny. Through hypocritical metaphors and images as well as excess irony, Abbey creates a humorous atmosphere in his text. Abbey also struggles with his anti-Kantian beliefs; this internal struggle directly correlates with his internal struggle of misanthropy and furthermore identity. We can dissect Abbey’s singular viewpoint throughout the book to further detail who his anti-Kantian and misanthropic ideals have made him. The hyperbole of Abbey’s humor gives insight to what he wants us to see. Specifically, when interpreting wither to take Abbey literal or metaphorical, I say both; Abbey uses a combination of each to portray his overall idea; that he is a paradox. Abbey can’t truly hate mankind if he himself is a man.
First, Abbey separates himself from “the tool-making breed” insinuating misanthropy directly by exploiting the man for all his flaws that Abbey finds in mankind. Then he goes right around to state, “We hope to discover something quite different, to renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass” (Abbey 154-5). Through the use of contrasting images Abbey is showing the reader he is conflicted. He is so outrageously hypocritical that we can only read him as humorous. This humor is Abbey’s tool into showing us his true identity, the he himself is a paradox of misanthropy. This makes us go in two directions at once: Abbey displaying strong, literal ideals of misanthropy contrasting to Abbey displaying metaphorical, deep desires to want to love mankind.
“Look here Newcomb, do you think it’s fitting that you and I should be here in the wilds, risking our lives amidst untold hardships, while our wives and loved ones lounge at their ease back in Albuquerque… yes” (Abbey 159). Abbey uses the emotional connection of family and loved ones to insinuate what he truly means- he doesn’t actually think mankind less than himself for not following his ideals. Also, Newcomb’s clear short, yes sets the tone of humor further detailing Abbey’s message of his paradoxical struggle: he instinctually loves mankind because that’s what he’s apart of while hating the destructive and unintelligent characteristics of society. Without this role of humor we wouldn’t be able to grasp the concept of Abbey’s intentions. This meaning that Abbey is self-destructive, he cannot be what he wants to become because of who he is. I believe Abbey has no intention of successfully reaching his goal of anti-Kantian beliefs, fully understanding nature with no prior affiliation and with this underlying paradox he is trying to show us that. Thus, Abbey’s misanthropy is further developed through such passages like Newcomb’s short yes because we can now see between the lines, Abbey’s ambiguity leads him inevitably back to ground zero, self-discovery.
To simply state that Abbey overall hates mankind by his dark and negative images of men, misses the total view of Abbey’s voice. “The beavers had to go and build another goddamned dam on the Colorado” (Abbey 151). The alliteration “goddamned dam” is not a coincidence but Abbey’s touch to prove he isn’t completely serious. Abbey doesn’t singularly portray men as “evil” and nature as “good”; instead his message is much more ambiguous. He struggles with viewing either as a clear symbol (this includes himself), which can be shown by Abbey’s anger towards the beaver’s dam which he sees as harmful to nature overall. Hints like the beaver’s “goddamned dam” throughout the book is Abbey’s insight to his self-discovery.
“Yet no label can easily define his life. He has much more than this anarchist tag connotes, and his works reach beyond the desert but they also remain far more than words can define” (Luke). Abbey doesn’t have a definite clear thesis in “Desert Solitaire” or rather his clear thesis is the fact that he is unclear in his misanthropy. In an online journal, In Defense of the American West, Abbey explicitly states his writing as “flat-out comic but with a definite aesthetic tinge”. This beautifully describes Abbey’s writing, especially in “Desert Solitaire”. When Abbey uses hypocritical images it’s to display this meaning of his internal contrast. “’Keep the tourists out,’ some tourist from Salt Lake City wrote. As fellow tourist we heartily agree” (Abbey 252). Instead of interpreting Abbey’s message to be direct misanthropy or non-misanthropy, by reading between the lines you can infer that Abbey hates certain society’s values like destruction of nature while accepting that he is a part of humanity and what that entails.
However, Abbey is the only voice we hear throughout the entire story. The reader only has one perspective on Abbey’s opinion. We view the way Abbey sees humanity only by his eyes and cannot interpret his images any other way. If there was another main character in the story contrasting Abbey’s viewpoint or even supporting it there is a possibility Abbey’s misanthropy would come across differently. Since, only Abbey explains to us his inner feelings we can only dissect his misanthropy in one way. There are no other outlets, apart from Abbey’s stylistic writing, to understand who he is- what his identity has become.
Another tool in Abbey’s writing that he provides to show his view on his misanthropy is his view on Kantian. Kantian ideals is a major inspiration for Abbey or rather the opposition, and he explains to the reader his goals to view nature and objects with no prior identity, no prior knowledge. The internal struggle of Abbey to completely let go of his identity- his past and present and only focus on what is now holds true to his viewpoint on misanthropy. When Abbey tries to be anti-Kantian and view nature with no prior identity he is in the same breath trying to escape his prior identity. Abbey’s desire to become anti-Kantian directly correlates with his struggle of misanthropy. He tries to separate himself from “humane actions” by completely isolating himself in the desert as a park ranger but that in itself is a human job. Abbey can be neither anti-Kantian nor wholly misanthropist because he cannot physically or mentally escape who he is- a man.
Also, Abbey is constantly questioning his values and identity displaying his strong internal conflict. “Who am I to pity the degradation and misery of my fellow citizens? I, too, must leave the canyon county, if only for a season, and rejoin for the winter that miscegenated mesalliance of human and rodent called the rat race (Rattus urbanus)” (Abbey 265). This quote can be interpreted literally as Abbey’s final acknowledgement of being a part of society. Abbey’s entire journey in “Desert Solitaire” was to isolate himself from humanity, whether it be focusing on anti-Kantian values or becoming misanthropic, but he can never fully be isolated. Abbey accepts that he is a part of humanity, civilization and the utmost worst- society and with this acceptance brings raw bitter defeat.
Another example, that directly correlates with “Desert Solitaire” is Abbey’s book “The Monkey Wrench Gang”. “Abbey admitted the book was written to ‘entertain and amuse’ but entertains by recounting through amusing parodies the accelerating despoliation of the Four Corners Region by automobile tourism, federal bureaucracies, land development, and coal companies” (Luke). Abbey using this same technique throughout “Desert Solitaire”, by using entertaining stories as a tool to show the destruction of nature from society, the evil of the automobile, and the waste of natural resources. It’s clear Abbey has developed a certain writing technique that is strongly displayed in this story.
Although, I don’t believe Abbey ever truly thought he would accomplish pure anti-Kantian ideals or become a true classified misanthropist. After his entire journey within the desert he is still questioning his identity, still wondering what if? “When I return will it be the same? Will I be the same? Will anything ever be quite the same again? If I return” (Abbey 269). Abbey might not know who he is but his book tells us for him, he is a man therefore he cannot hate mankind, he is educated therefore he cannot be ignorant of what he knows, he is a protector of nature therefore he cannot be industrial. Abbey has a singular identity and that is he is a paradox, which I believe he was trying to tell the reader the entire time but didn’t realize himself till the end of his journey.
In conclusion, Abbey hates what humanity does to nature, destroys, kills, and burns, yet appreciates qualities in himself that make him humane, strength, intelligence, and the highest species in the kingdom. This will be predominate in Abbey’s internal struggle which he tries to solve through humor. The literal and metaphorical analysis of exaggerated contrasts such as Abbey’s direct separation from mankind yet being a man himself, display all that Abbey questions- who is he? Abbey has a clear singular voice throughout the story and with no other main characters we can dissect his inner thoughts as our direct insight. Through Abbey’s desire to be anti-Kantian as well as misanthropic he leaves himself transparent and as the reader we can see into his real identity that he is a paradox.
Works CitedAbbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: McGraw, 1968. Print.
Luke, Timothy W. "In Defense of the American West: Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness." SAGE Journals. SAGE, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2014