Seminar in Composition
9 October 2014
The Burden of Isolation
Reminiscent of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire embarks on a cleansing spiritual journey, selflessly taking on the burden of man’s sins and assuming a Christ-like role as a result of his misanthropy. Whether suffering as a result of his torturous loneliness or immersing himself in deep observation, Abbey attempts to experience Arches National Monument, a park in Moab, Utah, on behalf of what he believes to be a highly corrupt society.
It is impossible to bypass Abbey’s resentment of modern humanity’s priority of laziness and convenience over reverence and discipline. In addition to his harsh, critical narrations as he scolds corrupting “Developers,” Abbey expresses his need to “renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass” (Abbey 155). Abbey’s description of “one old cow” (Abbey 91) in the chapter Cowboys and Indians, rigid and emotionless, is symbolic of his reluctance to show empathy, thereby refusing to associate with innate tendencies of mankind. The protagonist of Hesse’s Siddhartha also has this ability to notice the corruption around him and rise above it, as he leaves his traditional and predictable life for one full of hardship.
Paradoxically, while his hatred of modern man has driven him to isolation, it is this very discomfort that has further embittered Abbey. A sarcastic interaction with a tourist in the chapter Water leads Abbey to conclude, “I’m glad too, sir. We’re in perfect agreement. You wouldn’t want to live here, I wouldn’t want to live in Cleveland. We’re both satisfied with the arrangement as it is. Why change it?” (Abbey 113). Buried beneath this flippant conversation is perhaps Abbey’s true dissatisfaction with his isolation. He seems to be lashing out at this tourist because, contrary to his argument, he would love to live somewhere else in a more convenient setting, yet he feels a compulsion to live at the National Monument on behalf of the rest of society.
Throughout his work, Abbey explores an inconvenient truth: there is an easy way to do things and a right way to do things. Complete isolation and separation from society gives way to loneliness; in a desperate attempt to seek companionship, the park ranger even befriends and domesticates a snake, taking offense when it escapes one day. Similarly, one day when Abbey approaches a doe, it runs away startled, leaving him disgruntled. Expecting the doe to evaluate and interact with him, as a human might do, Abbey felt rejected by the doe’s instinctual fright. When, suddenly, “the doe springs up and away as if bounced from a trampoline, followed by the fawn” (Abbey 32), Abbey responds “‘Come back here!’ I shout. ‘I want to talk to you.’” (Abbey 32). Later, upon seeing a rabbit, Abbey’s anger is a result of his lack of human contact and superficial encounters with nature. He ponders, “Should I give the rabbit a sporting chance, that is, jump it again, try to hit it on the run? Or brain the little bastard where he is?” (Abbey 33). Constantly seeking out interactions imitating those found in human company, Abbey struggles to be on his own.
The anecdote of the Husk family in the chapter Rocks helps define what Abbey considers to be right and wrong. A tale of woe, greed, and tragedy, Abbey describes the Husk family and their travels to the Moab Desert in the hopes of finding a valuable mineral. Mr. Husk, under enormous pressure to provide for his family, does not hesitate to take up a business venture offered by a seemingly wise and trustworthy man, Mr. Graham. However, greed quickly leads to violence as Mr. Graham murders Mr. Husk, leaving his injured son to die a slow, painful death, while he also dies. The moral of the story is twofold: don’t mess with nature and if you let the dark elements of humanity—greed, jealousy, violence—overcome you, nature will have the last say anyway. Above all else, Abbey believes in the respect of nature.
Abbey’s willingness to suffer in exchange for a clear conscious and a better world around him is coupled with his devotion to and admiration of nature. Part of his spiritual journey entails enjoying the natural beauty around him in extreme concentrations, as a way to make up for society’s neglect. Constantly referring to Arches as “the most beautiful place on earth” (Abbey 1), his “one true home” (Abbey 1), and “my desert world” (Abbey 248), Abbey embraces every passing moment to take in the landscape around him. This attention to detail is especially prevalent in the early morning hours. At the beginning of his chapter Cliffrose and Bayonets, Abbey describes “A crimson sunrise streaked with gold…dawn winds are driving streamers of snow off the peaks…blue scarves of snow flying in the wind…” (Abbey 22). While this is not an example of Abbey suffering or seeming to make any great sacrifices, he is making observations about his surroundings, requiring discipline, rather than just letting his mind lazily wander. Abbey absorbs like a sponge, taking in enough beauty for himself and those who are not appreciating it.
As he sometimes admits in the more personal aspects of Desert Solitaire, the solitude is soothing but often overwhelming. Coupled with his obvious despise of modern humanity, this discomfort is an outlet for Abbey—a means of meditation in which he hopes to make up for man’s lack of interest and abuse of natural wildlife. Especially in his early morning hours, Abbey narrates stretches of peacefulness, always singed by the hurt of desolation. Such embracement of pain for a righteous cause echoes the tension of practicality and divinity Siddhartha struggles with in Hesse’s work Siddhartha.
Just as Abbey deserts his previous life of civilization for a platonic journey in the wilderness of Moab, Utah, Siddhartha, born into a wealthy family, leaves this comfort behind to embark upon an exploration of enlightenment. Siddhartha follows in the footsteps of the Samanas, zealots whose main goal is absolute selflessness in the name of the “Illustrious One.” Expected to give up all desires, both mental and physical, Siddhartha struggles to keep up with the high and painful demands of his fellow adventurers, just as Abbey fights the lonesome qualities of the Moab Desert. Although subtle, the motives behind Abbey’s misanthropy and submergence in the wilderness are divine in nature. Just as Siddhartha and the Samanas suffer on behalf of greed, adultery, and other sin throughout Hesse’s novel, Abbey endures seclusion to make up for the corruption of modern technology and other negative impacts on nature. In addition to parallels found in Siddhartha, Co-Editor of The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, Cheryll Glotfelty, offers a similar interpretation of Abbey’s quasi-autobiography.
Inspired by Abbey, Glotfelty discusses how “the resulting encounter with nature becomes a myth of self-education, a realization of autobiography and ecotopia…” (Glotfelty 305). Glotfelty, later comparing Abbey to Thoreau, claims “the value of wildness Throeau deems most important is spiritual,” (Glotfelty 310) acknowledging the strong presence of spirituality and divinity within Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. The cleansing nature of Abbey’s journey is brought to light as Glotfelty extends Abbey’s warning to “Afford the time to allow for prolonged engagement with and meditation on nature. Enter the wilderness and experience freedom. Be alive to the redemptive possibilities of the world.” (Glotfelty 315). Indeed, Abbey seems to follow a pattern similar to a religious figure—experiencing and then preaching those experiences to an audience. Such a comparison further links Abbey to assuming a Christ-like role or deeming himself (in a non-arrogant sense) a Christ-like figure throughout Desert Solitaire. Again, Abbey is reminiscent in Glotfelty’s cited Thoreau quote, “‘wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.’” (Goltfelty 316). Abbey resents the modern view of nature as a luxury, especially in the form of National Parks, as it often involves the use of money and exhaustion of time, and, although tortured by his compulsive ways, offers a refreshing opportunity to use nature as a spiritual guide and cleansing aid.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire; a Season in the Wilderness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Print.
Glotfelty, Cheryll & Fromm, Harold. Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1996. Print.
Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. Germany: New Directions, 1951. Print.