Reading Analysis: Desert Solitaire

I loved this book. I found it more eloquently written than Sullivan’s, and could lose myself in the pictures Abbey painted with his words. During my summer internship in Wyoming, I fell in love with the shrubby, dry, rocky landscape, so I sympathize with Abbey’s intense love for the Arches National Monument.

One of the views of Wyoming I had during my internship. I imagine Utah looks similar.

One of the views of Wyoming I had during my internship. I imagine Utah looks similar.

It is very clear that Abbey is not a sociable individual and has no love for society:

  • He describes the trailer in which he lives as “a box of artificial light and tyrannical noise” and eventually sets up a ramada under the open air so he doesn’t have to sleep in the trailer (15).
  • He’d rather kill a man than a snake (20)
  • His proposed plan for converting America into a dictatorial regime is laced with sardonicism, reflecting his attitude towards cities and industrial progress (164)
  • Towards the end of the book, Abbey reflects, “The tourists… have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization. …They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place.” He also says, “Who am I to pity the degradation and misery of my fellow citizens? I, too, must leave the canyon country… and rejoin for the winter that miscegenated mesalliance of human and rodent called the rat race (Rattus urbanus)” (330).
  • And many more examples.

It seems to me that Abbey is extremely determined to separate himself and nature from humans, human ideals and culture, but, being human himself, there is a struggle between his ideals and his actions. This goes on throughout the book.

  • 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” (7).
  • When Abbey describes the Arches, he also describes his feelings towards them: “I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman” (6).
  • In “Solitaire”, Abbey writes, “We need a fire. I range around the trailer, pick up some dead sticks… and build a little squaw fire, for company” (13). Who is we? Not himself and nature; nature doesn’t need company. It seems rather human to want company in the dark, and just before that, Abbey writes, “No travelers, no campers, no wanderers have come to this part of the desert today and for a few moments I feel and realize that I am very much alone” (13). Might be reading into it too much.
  • Abbey insists that he applies no anthropomorphism to the snakes and birds he encounters, suggesting, “It seems to me possible, even probable, that many of the nonhuman undomesticated animals experience emotions unknown to us” (25). Yet, earlier in the same chapter he interprets the calls of mourning doves as “a kind of seeking-out, the attempt by separated souls to restore a lost communion,” then immediately rejects this interpretation, calling it “foolish and unfair to impute to the doves… an interest in questions more appropriate to their human kin” (18).
  • Abbey claims that dying in the desert does not seem too terrible to him, and even considers it a much better alternative “than the slow rot in a hospital oxygen tent with rubber tubes stuck up your nose, prick, asshole, with blood transfusions and intravenous feeding, bedsores and bedpans and bad-tempered nurses’ aides” (103). However, when he is trying to capture the horse Moon-Eye, Abbey asks, “‘You don’t want to die out here, do you, all alone like a hermit? In this awful place…” (184). He then proceeds with a detailed description of how the scavengers will eat Moon-Eye’s body, which seems as bad, if not worse, than tubes up the asshole.
  • Etc.

A couple of times, I was unsure of Abbey’s intent:

  • Killing the rabbit. He claims that in doing so, he no longer feels like an outsider and instead feels a predator-prey relationship, but earlier in the book he hesitates to kill a rattlesnake, citing his duty as a park ranger to “protect, preserve, and defend all living things within the park boundaries, making no exceptions” (20).
  • Attempting to catch Moon-Eye. I would have thought that he would respect Moon-Eye’s wish to remain in the wilderness, but he tries to tempt the horse back “home” with the promise of bran, barley, and alfalfa (human-cultivated and harvested crops). It seemed like such a different message than the one Abbey was trying to convey throughout the rest of the book, that of nature being a place where he wants to live and die.

Although I thought some of Abbey’s viewpoints and stances were a bit dramatic, I thought it added a depth and pull that Sullivan’s Meadowlands lacked. Abbey’s raw adoration for the Arches and his fervent abhorrence of industrial tourism is quite clear, and even though I doubt his dream for national parks can be realized in our current society (mainly because people are fat and lazy and everything centers around profit), it is a dream to strive for and try to achieve. Sorry this post is so long. I really liked this book.

One Response to Reading Analysis: Desert Solitaire

  1. […] Responses – Week 2 (9/2): The Meadowlands (pub. 9/1) – Week 3 (9/9): Desert Solitaire (pub. 9/8) – Week 4 (9/16): Fanaticism of the Apocalypse (pub. 9/16) – Week 5 (9/23): […]

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