For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Monday, 30 March 2009

A Hard And Brutal Mysticism

The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself, to eliminate for good. I am here [the desert near Moab, Utah] 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 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, anti-Kantian, 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 non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.
I think this paragraph from The First Morning, the opening chapter of Desert Solitaire, is hugely important. In it - and in the piece quoted yesterday - Abbey makes clear the philosophy behind his summer sojourn in Arches National Monument, south-east Utah, as park ranger; and flags up the intention behind his writing of the book.
Yesterday's quote shows Abbey to be suspicious of those who claim to have found an "underlying reality", a hidden, universal metaphysic, an abtract, deep ground and meaning to existence. Instead he urges us to look closely, and register sensuously, the beauty and richness which lies before us as revealed directly by our sense impressions: "the surface of things". (And what a surface!)
In the above passage we read that Abbey wants "to look at and into [my italics] a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture" etc, to experience these natural objects as themselves and for what they really are, uncluttered as far as possible with the baggage of nomenclature, human emotional sentiment, anthropomorphism, and "cultural apparatus". He's attempting to get rid of the barrier between the thought-ful human person and the thought-less bird, beast and flower, or nighthawk, cougar and cactus. H's trying to grasp the "elemental and fundamental" in a direct, quasi-mystical way.
Kant gave us the concepts of "phenomena" (objects perceived by our 5 senses) and "noumena" (objects which are "things-in-themselves", existing as essences beyond the reach of human perception). Hence the term "anti-Kantian" - for Abbey dreams of removing that bridge between subject and object, perceiver and perceived.
Paradox - because it's hardly possible to do this, as Abbey himself knows full well, except perhaps in transitory flashes of illumination and insight. Such experiences are beyond rational thought, beyond speech - yet Abbey, and all the rest of us, only have words at our disposal with which to attempt even an approximate description. (Perhaps music is a more suitable and direct medium.) It's a human need and necessity to describe, collate, measure and put in some sort of order the world around us - yet by doing these things we automatically create a verbal and mental division between ourselves and raw, unhumanized nature.
So Abbey can only "dream" of this "hard and brutal mysticism". Indeed, if it's achieved, it's a risky business, and he says he may end up compromising "everything human" in himself.


The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

When Forest Wisdom posted this same Abbey bit on his blog, I think I commented at some length—though I don't remember the earth moving afterwards. :-)

It is certainly a good example of Abbey writing as Abbey—desert mystic and cantankerous seeker. Since the publication of Desert Solitaire, I've read almost everything he wrote—from essays to novels to poetry, magazine articles, interviews. A few years ago, not too long after Abbey's death, I happened to be on a week-long publicity gig (publicity for a region, hosted by a state travel bureau) and spent a lot of time talking with a couple of people who knew Abbey fairly well.

Abbey seemed to always be both puzzle and paradox, as a writer and friend. To be honest, I'm never quite sure what to make of Abbey except that he was a fine writer with a distinct voice, who never made life easy on himself or those around him.

I think Abbey wanted to find and explore a reality beyond the conventional, to experience life and landscape at a level more fundamental than human understanding, and yet to "know" and retain afterwards. As you've pointed out, such a task is impossible. Just as it would be impossible for a baseball to "know" an eagle, it is equally impossible for a man to "know" beyond his human-ness. A "hard and brutal mysticism" is inherently a human ideal; our capacity is always limited, imprisoned, shaped by what and who we are and what we believe.

Loren said...

I bought Abbey's book after visiting the park where he wrote it.

The harsh beauty of the Arches National Park is a fit setting for the book. It's a necessary antidote to Walt Disney Nature Films that demand we see the natural world merely as extensions of ourselves, ignoring the reality that our species is seldom as sentimental as Disney's nature.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Tall as I am (!) I think this is a bit over my head ... Maybe I'm a bit naive, but I prefer to contemplate kindness and gentleness.