Friday, October 10, 2014


Jonathan Lee
Dr. Adam Johns
English 0200
October 10, 2014

Anarchy and Mysticism
In his youth, American writer Edward Abbey was fascinated by the writings of Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu.  In his journals he wrote of one parable in particular, regarding a man who claimed to know how to manage horses.
“…Chuang Tzu observes that horses have hooves to carry them over frost and snow, and hair to protect them from the wind and cold.  They eat grass, drink water, and show their spirit by flinging up their heels as they gallop over the plains. 
Such is the real nature of horses, Tzu observed.  Then one day a man appeared who convinced the local people that he truly understood the management of horses better than they did.  So they stepped aside as he branded the horses, pared their hooves, slipped halters on them, tied them up, hobbled their legs, and locked them in stables.  Before long, three of the horses died.  But that failed to deter the man, who told onlookers once again that he understood the management of horses better than they.  Day after day, he kept the horses on short rations of food and water, threatening them with the whip and alternatively galloping and trotting them whether they required exercise ore not.  When half the horses had died, some of the local people began to criticize the man’s way with horses, but he told them that it was for their own good, that he truly had a superior understanding of the management of horses.” (Bishop 24)
This parable appealed to Abbey due to the fact that it simultaneously decries the oppression of humanity and the mistreatment of nature.  To Abbey, the man represents authority, while the horses represent both mankind and the natural world.  In Desert Solitaire, Abbey writes, “…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” (169).  To Abbey, spirituality dictates anarchism, as industry and progress (both consequences of the state and the concentration of power) inevitably defile and destroy nature, thereby crippling the human spirit. 
            Upon reading Desert Solitaire, one finds that Abbey’s notion of traditional religion is rather contemptuous.  When speaking on death, Abbey refers to the “insolent interference of leech and priest.”  (213) In “Down the River,” whilst scoffing at Balzac’s statement regarding the desert, “God is there and man is not,” (184) Abbey writes, “God?  I think, quibbling with Balzac; … who the hell is He?” (184) Further corroborating Abbey’s animism, he writes in “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” “An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches” (52). Towards the end of the book, in “Episodes and Visions,” Abbey ridicules the practices of a number of the world’s major religions, lambasting baptism, the Virgin Mary, the Abrahamic creation myth, as well as the Hindu doctrines regarding “nasal emunction” (236). However, Abbey does not spare atheism, ridiculing the “small-town atheist…with his Little Blue Books and sneering jokes against ancient and venerable institutions” (236). These critiques that Abbey makes leave very little room for Abbey’s own beliefs, significantly narrowing down the list of possible candidates.  What is certain, however, is that in spite of the numerous biblical allusions included within the book, Abbey is convinced of an alternative belief system.
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 Paradox,” “I am almost prepared to believe that this sweet virginal 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 reverence 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) It has already been established that Abbey does not comply with the teachings of organized religions.  That being said, I think it follows naturally from this passage that Abbey seems to look forward to the “transfiguration of flesh to fantasy.”  What that means exactly is uncertain.  However, the term “fantasy” strongly implies a notion of the afterlife, be that the life-essence becoming one with the universe, or the spirit roaming free of the corporeal form, or what have you.  The point is that Abbey clearly holds his own opinion as to what happens when we die.  In numerous places Abbey speaks of how suitable a place the desert in particular is to die, 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.
Edward Abbey was a fervent anarchist.  This fact is brushed upon briefly in Desert Solitaire, but is quite obvious after an examination of Abbey’s life and writings.  Within Desert Solitaire, Abbey quotes the revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, “there are times when creation can be achieved only through destruction.  The urge to destroy is then a creative urge” (Abbey 162).  Later, Abbey commends the Mormons for how they have organized their society in a communal and egalitarian fashion.  Outside of Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s journal entries are rife with anarchistic sentiments.  In an entry dated December 1951, Abbey proclaims in his journal that his “favorite melodramatic theme [is] the harried anarchist, a wounded wolf, struggling toward the green hills, or the black-white alpine mountains, or the purple-golden desert range and liberty.  Will he make it?  Or will the FBI shoot him down on the very threshold of wilderness and freedom?” (Confessions of a Barbarian 10)  In order to earn a master’s degree in philosophy, Abbey wrote his dissertation, entitled “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence” (Bishop 79).  Writing amidst the pressures of the Cold War, Abbey criticized both the capitalism of the west and the Soviet-style Marxism of the east, drawing influences from the ideas of Erich Fromm and Mikhail Bakunin (Anarchism: The Morality of Violence).
Abbey’s anarchism is deeply intertwined with his spirituality.  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…” Abbey’s life and writings demonstrate that he was an animist with an anarchistic vision.  His work suggests that the institution of a sort of collective anarchism would align perfectly with nature, and that this harmony demands the smashing of unnatural forces that mutilate human freedom and Abbey’s revered natural world.

Works Cited

Abbey, Edward. Anarchism and the Morality of Violence. Diss. U of New Mexico, 1959. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Abbey, Edward, and David Petersen. Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. Print.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire; a Season in the Wilderness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Print.

Bishop, James. Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey. New York: Atheneum, 1994. Print.

1 comment:

  1. I certainly like this introduction better. I still think it’s a little short on interpretation for such a long quote, and that even this early you could glue together anarchism and mysticism a little better. But at the end of the day you have picked an interesting, challenging topic and you’re introducing it in a compelling way. I like it a lot, and the fact that there is still room for improvement is more of a comment on the introductions strengths (I want more of the good stuff) than its weaknesses.

    I basically like and even admire your multi-paragraph unpacking of Abbey’s spirituality. I do question your choice to first explain what he isn’t, then to explain what he is - at the very least, you could have transitioned more effectively between the two, and given us more effective guideposts to your overall strategy. “It’s hard not to think that, in a sense, Abbey believes in such deities himself.” - that’s one example of your writing at its best & clearest.

    “Edward Abbey was a fervent anarchist.” -- this paragraph does its work well without overstaying its welcome.

    Your last paragraph is far too short. This is where you needed to do more work. Now you have an introduction which is both fun and effective, a long (too long?) unpacking of Abbey’s spirituality, and a brief but effective discussion of his anarchism. This is all effectively background, though. You’ve set yourself up for your actual argument, but then don’t really pull the trigger. “His work suggests that the institution of a sort of collective anarchism would align perfectly with nature, and that this harmony demands the smashing of unnatural forces that mutilate human freedom and Abbey’s revered natural world.” You end with a suggestion, rather than a convincing demonstration. It’s a good suggestion, and you set it up well, but it’s far from done. A detailed demonstration might go in several directions. You might continue to focus on Desert Solitaire. You might branch into Abbey’s other work. You might delve into, e.g., Bakunin, to figure out whether Abbey’s connection of mystical faith to anarchism has an antecedent (by the way - there *is* such precedent in Russian thought. Check out the life and later works of Tolstoy, for instance). But you’re not yet doing the work you’ve prepared for.

    There's a great deal to like here, and it shows promise, if you wish, as a potential final project.


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