Friday, October 10, 2014

Revision 1

Samantha Call

Seminar in Composition

Dr. Adam Johns

October 10, 2014


Society and Self-Hatred

               Abbey himself states, in Desert Solitaire, that “The explicitly representational often comes side by side with the highly abstract” (100, Abbey).  This statement can be applied to the words and thoughts of Abbey himself, who frequently expresses misanthropy.  While he undoubtedly feels extreme disappointment in and anger toward the human race as a whole, there is also evidence to suggest that those feelings toward humanity are actually reflections of Abbey’s feelings toward himself.  Both society and Abbey have their downfalls and are representative of the shortcomings of the human mind.  Although his feelings are often categorized as misanthropic, Abbey’s hatred is not rooted solely in society, but also in his own anger and disappointment with himself and his own failures.
              Abbey’s failures are largely spiritual.  His spirituality relies on the connection he feels with nature and his ability to free himself from human constraints.  When Abbey argues that nature should be preserved in case rebels of the future need to use it in their struggle to liberate themselves from oppressive regimes, he is actually expressing his own desire to be liberated from society.  Early in Desert Solitaire, Abbey conveys that he is in the wild “to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus” (6, Abbey).  Even on his trip down the river, Abbey is unable to completely separate himself from human culture, thinking not of his own connection with nature, but of the connections other groups, such as the Mormons, have had with nature.  Abbey admires their small communities that live alone in the desert.  Not only does this show that Abbey does not hate all of humanity, it shows that he is incapable of separating himself from his prior knowledge of other groups.  Instead of experiencing nature in his own context and discovering what it means to him on a spiritual level, he wonders what it meant to other people.  Even if they lived in an earlier time, they are part of the history and culture of society that Abbey does not want to be a part of.  Abbey wants to preserve nature so that it may remain a place for escape from society, but he fails in creating this atmosphere due to his failure to disconnect himself from prior knowledge.
Abbey’s shaky sense of spirituality is further questioned by his pondering of the existence of God and of His control over nature.  While on the river, Abbey asks Ralph Newcomb if he believes in God (158, Abbey).  Later, Abbey goes on to praise a God he claims not to believe in by saying “God provides,” (175, Abbey).  Abbey admits that his idea of God is that which humanity has imposed on him.  Therefore, Abbey is a subject of his culture.  One is unable to disconnect themselves from their culture because no experience can be forgotten.  Communication cannot be taken back, so any interaction that Abbey ever had with another human being has influenced him and will continue to influence him as long as he lives (30, Gareis and Cohn).  It is this aspect of his own nature that frustrates Abbey.  Due to the ideas that he has been exposed to, Abbey cannot see nature and form his own opinions about it through an unspotted lens.  Since that is what one of Abbey’s ultimate goals is, he must consider himself as a failure.
            While Abbey is searching for the truth he believe hides in nature, he is torn between the companionship humanity delivers and the isolation he desires.  The isolation would allow him to be free to experience nature separate from human greed and possessiveness, but would also take away his ability to interact with other humans, whose attention he still craves.  He struggles to connect to nature fully because he can’t separate himself from other people completely, craving friendship and love that he can’t have deep in the desert alone.  Abbey comments on the greed of the developers constantly, but also recognizes that he embodies that same greed and selfishness.  Instead of attempting to live with nature, he expresses the desire to own in.  In the chapter “Terra Incognita: Into the Maze,” Abbey does much exploring and at one point comes across four large natural structures.  Immediately he begins brainstorming names for these structures, until he realizes that the only reason he wants to name them is “Vanity, vanity, vanity, nothing but vanity: the itch for naming things is almost as bad as the itch for possessing things” (256, Abbey).  At this point, Abbey recognizes that he is doing exactly what he is condemning in others.  He wants to name these structures so that he can stake a claim on them, just like the miners staked claims on the land earlier in history, and just like the developers were staking claims for tourists through placement of bridges and dams.  He and society are one and the same; they both possess the harsh greed that takes nature away from its simplest form and are transforming it into a human construct.  Abbey has drawn the parallel between himself and society and is disgusted with himself for being so selfish and expressing such “vanity.”  Abbey does condemn society for its greed, but the larger issue is him being angry with himself for falling into the same trap.  His misanthropy in this situation is completely aimed at himself for his failure to drop his human characteristics of greed and possessiveness.
In a context outside of his own mind, Abbey has valid reasons to hate humans.  As a park ranger and self-proclaimed advocate for nature, Abbey is distraught by the destruction of wildlife and much of this emotion is directed toward those who are planning on destroying it.  His trip down the river is, at several times, plagued by the thoughts that his surroundings will soon be humanized.  His disappointment is iterated when he writes, “We pass too many of these marvelous side canyons, to my everlasting regret, for most of them will never again be wholly accessible to human eyes or feet” (164, Abbey).  Abbey loves nature and who he is when he is in nature so much that the idea of taking it all away disappoints him greatly.  In his opinion, disturbing man’s natural habitat “is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself” (169, Abbey).  Other people will not be able to experience the wonders of pure, raw nature, and Abbey resents society for that deprivation.  This is how Abbey’s feelings could be mistakenly placed as misanthropic, but that viewpoint does not take into account that he himself is part of the reason he can’t connect to nature.
Abbey himself has taken part in the destruction.  During one of his expeditions, he set fire to one of the landscapes he was observing through “sheer carelessness” (188, Abbey).  He even stated that his destruction can be viewed in a book about Arches written years later (188, Abbey).  By interfering in nature, Abbey deprived future generations from seeing a part of nature that he was able to see.  Therefore, he is guilty of exactly what he is accusing the developers of doing.  If Abbey claims to hate humanity for that reason, he must hate himself as well because nobody reading the book with the picture of his destruction in it or visiting the park will ever get to see that place in its true form.  Humans are evil, in Abbey’s mind, for keeping individuals from becoming one with nature, so Abbey must hate himself as well.
            Another explanation of Abbey’s anger being directed at himself more than society is that he is, in reality, more disappointed with himself for being just the opposite of what he is advocating.  Tyler Nickl pointed this out in his dissertation entitled “Farmer, Miner, Ranger, Writer: Interpreting class and work in the writing of Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey.”  Nickl writes about a fact craftily left out of Desert Solitaire, which is that Abbey is in fact working for the bureaucracy that he denounces throughout the book.  By shifting focus to the connection he has with nature, Abbey is hiding the connection that he has with the park ranger service and society as a whole (48, Nickl).  Abbey claims that he took the job because it allows him freedom to be close to nature, but it is also restricting due to the very nature of the job, in which he “must check via radio contact each morning, must make regular patrols as designated by his superiors, must also work to facilitate the correct flow of others’ bodies (those of the visiting tourists) in and out of the natural spaces he stewards” (49, Nickl).  If Abbey is responsible to the authority that governs the park, he is not as autonomous as he would like us to believe.  He constantly praises how wonderful it is for man to be free of human constructs, but he himself is subject to them through his everyday duties.  As much as he advocates fighting against the bureaucracy, he is a part of it, ushering in the tourists who he claims are destroying the land.  Abbey himself facilitates that destruction and is therefore the subject of his proclaimed hatred for society.  Since Abbey paints himself as an advocate for nature, he does not direct his negative feelings toward himself, but instead projects them onto society.  This apparent misanthropy is, therefore, a manifestation of the bolstering of hatred toward what Abbey himself is doing.
            Abbey’s misanthropy is an expression of both his discontent with society and himself.  This hatred of humankind is, in reality, an embodiment of Abbey’s doubt in himself.  He is unsure if he is able to accomplish what he has set out to do; see nature in its most bare and simple form, without human influence.  Ultimately, Abbey returns to society, unable to find his native self that can disconnect from other humans completely.  If Abbey were to ever achieve this, though, it is likely that his misanthropy would disappear and he would be content with everything in the world, including himself.



Works Cited

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: The First Morning & A Season in the Wilderness.  New York: Touchstone, 1990.

 Gareis, J. and Cohn, E. (2013). Communication as culture. 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

 Nickl, Tyler. "Farmer, Miner, Ranger, Writer: Interpreting Class and Work in the Writing of Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey." Order No. 1516432 Utah State University, 2012. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. I have mixed feelings about your opening paragraphs. On the one hand, I think you’re moving in a compelling direction: “Abbey wants to preserve nature so that it may remain a place for escape from society, but he fails in creating this atmosphere due to his failure to disconnect himself from prior knowledge.” On the other hand, your organization is a little awkward. If the above quote is your thesis, you could have articulated it more quickly.

    “Due to the ideas that he has been exposed to, Abbey cannot see nature and form his own opinions about it through an unspotted lens.” -- If you were to revise this again, I’d urge you to use some of the philosophical references (a priori knowledge - a structure to knowledge which we can’t escape - is key in Immanuel Kant!) and/or some of Abbey’s persistent symbols (the juniper tree and how it frustrates him seems to be very on-topic for you) to develop your argument.

    Your discussion of the Maze was good. “ Abbey does condemn society for its greed, but the larger issue is him being angry with himself for falling into the same trap. His misanthropy in this situation is completely aimed at himself for his failure to drop his human characteristics of greed and possessiveness.” -- So do you think that Abbey is strictly chronicling his own failures and limitations, or is the book concerned with them in some more argumentative way. In other words, is about how we deal with, struggle with, or move beyond our failures and limitations, or is it simply about failure as such? You are doing interesting work; the question of where it all leads to is the most prominent one in my mind at this point.

    I’m not crazy about the three paragraphs before the conclusion. Their material is fine, but I question your organization. It feels repetitive (other than the researched part, which I’ll get to in a moment) - you’re finding the same themes and issues in different parts of the book. That has a purpose, up to a point, but what I want is not just an endless accumulation of evidence - what I’d like to see is more forward movement, to articulate either what Abbey is up to or (maybe even better) what you’re up to with the exposure of his frustrations with himself.

    The research seems highly relevant, but if you want to *do* something with his position in the bureaucracy and his ambivalence about it, this probably should have come earlier and been developed in greater depth.

    Your conclusion is clever. I like this line especially: “Ultimately, Abbey returns to society, unable to find his native self that can disconnect from other humans completely.” However, also feel like you’ve left some pretty big threads hanging. If this book is ultimately a chronicle of Abbey’s failure to separate and discover/enter into an authentic wilderness (one way to put this is that it is a memoir of failed mysticism), I want very badly to understand what you (ideally) or Abbey (at least) want us to learn from failure. It’s a good and interesting but also incomplete and mildly disorganized reading.


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