To Hate or not to Hate: An exploration of Misanthropic messages in “Desert of Solitude”
In his book “Desert Solitaire” Abbey displays distrust for “humanity”. He describes it as misanthropic. He expresses it directly and also indirectly through the use of story telling. How does Abbey define “humanity” exactly? Throughout the book Abbey has a theme of duality, so it only makes sense that Abbey would have two definitions for what he calls humanity. Readers could misinterpret him for a bitter introvert who hates people. When in actuality Abbey would love to have family or friends with him at some points. He does not hate people or necessarily humanity, but rather the warped society that we have created. Therefore Abbey is not as misanthropic as he thinks he is just frustrated with cultures ability to change.
You could not say that Abbey hates people. In his chapter Cowboys and Indian part two he directly states that he gets lonely he says “that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better then solitude is society” (Abbey 97). He then goes onto explain that his definition of society is not a city, but a group of friends or family. Abbey makes it very clear that he is not a people hater. He appreciates people their qualities and the relationships you can build with them. His loneliness is also expressed by his displacement of qualities he misses from humanity onto aspects of nature. These small descriptions make it seem impossible for Abbey to hate Humanity either. He says later in the book, “I was accused of being against civilization, against science, against humanity. Naturally, I was flattered and at the same time surprised, hurt, a little shocked. He repeated the charge. But how, I replied, being myself a member of humanity (albeit involuntarily, without prior consultation), could I be against humanity without being against myself, whom I love - though not very much…” (244). Abbey is clearly picking fun of himself here, but the ideas and his shock are true he never meant to come of the way he did. Abbey does not hate people or humanity. What he does hate is the destructive culture we have some how taken on.
In Omohundro’s article “What is Culture?” he describes the seven characteristics necessary for culture.
“1.Cultures are integrated
2. Cultures are products of history.
3. Cultures can be changed, and the can cause change.
4. Cultures are strengthened by values.
5. Cultures are powerful determinants of behavior.
6. Cultures are largely composed and transmitted by symbols.
7. Human culture is unique in complexity and variability” (Omohundro 36).
For Abbey not all of these are deterrents in every culture. Abbey really only hates the rapid change in consumer culture that has started. To get even more specific the roots of Abbey’s hatred are focused on numbers 3 and 5.
Abbey is clearly able to discuss this general hatred for our evolving culture through many little rants and short stories. He shows a clear hatred for anyone who disrupts or destroys the natural order of nature, but Abbey never attacks any specific person instead he attacks groups. He attacks sub-cultures of our consumer culture. The groups he rants against are the businessmen, tourist, shepherds, and the government. All of these titles are cultural constructs. He says that sheepherders are “as hog-rich as they are pig headed” (31). He thinks that their persecution of the wolves is ridiculous if one whole pack could be supported on one sheep, and they don’t need the money. He continues on with his hatred of consumer destruction by describing the industry that national parks are becoming. He dislikes the tourist industry because they are disrupting nature. He believes everyone should vacation to a national parks, but not interfere just observe. In his chapter Rocks he describes the greed of prospectors as they mined for rocks. For Abbey these people have done nothing wrong he blames the culture for dictating their behavior. This falls under category 5. Omohurdro discusses this and says, “Culture is powerful because much of what we have learned is beneath our awareness, or has become a comfortable habit…But sometimes we step out between the bars of our cage and do something alternative, deviant, unique or creative. All of us break some of the rules sometime” (Omohundro 38). For Abbey traveling to the wilderness and working at Arches is his break from the cage before he goes back to New York City. He is able to look back at the cage we live in and criticize us for getting trapped in our consumerism. He believes everyone needs to take vacations in nature just to get some perspective. Abbey says, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” He is saying human civilization is cutting off the origins of humanity. He wants us to defend our humanity against our culture.
In his chapter Down the River he is more direct about his feelings. He starts off by belittling the government witch he refers to as the “Beavers” for building a damn and flooding the Glen Canyon (151). He hates it because it was and interference that ruined the canyon witch he refers to as “Eden” (152). This dam is made even more offensive because of its lack of purpose. This is an example the pointless progress Abbey hates. He goes on a journey to see the dam and afterwards is so angry he discuses the idea of misanthropy. Misanthropy is a distrust or disdain for Human nature. He mentions other writers who were also clearly dissatisfied with humanity. He then goes on listing all the things he hates about humanity “ The useless crap we burry ourselves in”, “The domestic routine”, “Crafting cheating”, and “Slimy advertising of business men” (Abbey 155). However, Abbey is not saying the people who are businessmen are slimy and the people in domestic routine are pathetic, but is criticizing the social construct of these things. He does not hate humanity and the people who occupy its roles, but the conformity and consumerism we have all been taught to honor as progress. Abbey also says, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” He is saying human civilization is cutting off the origins of humanity. He wants us to defend our humanity against our culture.
In the chapter Cowboys and Indians Abbey describes how both groups are disappearing. Cowboys disappear to the modernized food industry, and the Indians to tourism. He says “Cowboys and Indians disappear, dying off or transforming themselves by torturous degrees into something quite different. The originals are nearly gone and will soon be lost forever in the overwhelming crowd” (Abbey 111). There is a certain amount of sympathy Abby makes us feel for these dying cultures. These culture which were once American Icons. This ties into requirement 5 of Omohundro, but also 3. Omohundro explains that the only thing constant in culture is change. Abbey calls this change progress, and thinks there is nothing worse. He is able to make readers feel slight disgust with a country that claims to be accepting of many cultures, but ends up killing them off. That is the nature of our society though we live in a culture where ideals are always pushed out and progress is always made. Yet we can see it’s not all culture he hates just our tendency to progress, change, and shift as a nation to the newer and shinier trends, but in particular shifting this way without the consideration of how conformity will affect our environment and older traditions.
The ending is where you realize Abbey most defiantly doesn’t hate humanity. Abbey ends up leaving his life in the desert for a life in New York City witch at first seems surprising, but he is going to be a volunteer caseworker. He is not only going to be the defender of humanity, but because he misses civilization. He says, “After twenty-six weeks of sunlight and stars, wind and sky and golden sand, I want to hear once more the crackle of clamshells on the floor of the bar in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken. I long for a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd Street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue… I grow weary of nobody’s company but my own” (265). Abbey goes back to a big city in order to get in touch with humanity again. Omohundro would say he is re-entering his cage in society. For these reasons I don’t think Abby is misanthropic. There is a clear distrust for our culture because of it powerful influence over our actions and it’s rapid-fire shifts, but none for human nature. He wishes for us to preserve our human nature against the corruption of our culture.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Touchstone, 1990.
Omohundro, John. Think Like an Anthropologist: A Practical Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. McGraw-Hill, 2007.