I guess I should just accept that my life is one long string of silly projects begun and quietly (ahem) abandoned.
I have kept various lists of books I’d like to get around to, and for now I’m just going from A-Z by author’s last name, for no good reason (except the only good reason for reading anything: I effing felt like it), and I find myself looking at Edward Abbey for the first time in several years. He’s not always a pretty sight, God knows. Right in the opening of Desert Solitaire (one of his two best books, in my judgment, along with Abbey’s Road) he apologizes for being “coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, unconstructive,” though he doesn’t apologize for being racist and sexist, which he is—the latter pervasively. Get him on the subject of Latino immigration, and this smart, often humane and reasonable man is suddenly hyperventilating about “differential breeding rates” and suchlike.
People have their faults. Against this (and, maybe, a certain penchance for property destruction in the service of the environment—though I’m not quite so sure I object to that!), place the fact that he loved certain places very hard and that he wrote very well about them, which are both hard things to do.
I think it was when I first read Abbey, around 2004-05, that I realized how much the English language projects: you can’t really describe things without personifying them. I realized this because here was a guy who loudly announces his desire to avoid personification, to approach nature “in itself,” and then entertains you for two hundred pages with descriptions of humanized vultures, ravens, horses, rocks, and badgers. Abbey’s prose style is pretty consistent from book to book, maybe to a fault: loose, sprawling, heavily adjectival, just-slightly-Beat, stomach-over-the-beltline sentences that jump from one image to another. This passage from “The First Morning,” the opening chapter of Desert Solitaire (a memoir about his time rangering at Arches National Park, before and after “improvement”), is pretty typical:
The snow-covered ground glimmers with a dull blue light, reflecting the sky and the approaching sunrise. Leading away from me the narrow dirt road, an alluring and primitive track into nowhere, meanders down the slope and toward the heart of the labyrinth of naked stone. Near the first group of arches, looming over a bend in the road, is a balanced rock about fifty feet high, mounted on a pedestal of equal height; it looks like a head from Easter Island, a stone god or a petrified ogre.
Like a god, like an ogre? The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself, to eliminate for good. I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate.
As philosophy, this “merge yet remain separate” stuff is square triangles, and the book itself proves it. He talks constantly of his “lonesomeness,” which is the same as to say that prized, bittersweet separateness from everything else that most of us experience in beautiful places. And his prose humanizes much of what it describes, as English prose cannot help doing: literally a paragraph later, he and the sun are “greeting” each other, and then he starts wishing he could talk to the birds, like Dr. Doolittle.
As prose it’s not his best work, either: it’s repetitive, purple, grandiose, written for an anthology. The effect is cloudy, the opposite of “hard and brutal.”
Ideologies that claim to strip humanity away from our considerations usually end up just replicating our least attractive features in an unconscious, unself-critical way. Our least attractive feature of all being our attraction to death. To the extent that Abbey’s last few sentences above have any meaningful content at all, that’s what they reveal: death is the hardest, brutalest mystical experience, after all, and merging with a rock- and sand-strewn desert would certainly seem to mean among other things not being alive. So maybe it’s no coincidence that this book returns to the theme of death again and again—in “Cowboys and Indians” (where Abbey’s acquaintance Roy Scobie can’t stop thinking about it), and more prominently in the back-to-back chapters “Havasu” (Abbey himself faces death by slow starvation) and “The Dead Man at Grandview Point” (duh).
Abbey, luckily, didn’t merge with the desert. He wrote a number of very funny books about a person who can’t stop wanting, procrastinating, thinking, or reading. His stuff is best, though, when he stops trying to be “hard and brutal” and lets the humanist show through, as in his great essay “Science with a Human Face.”