Wednesday, November 7, 2007

So many books, so little time

It's said that booklovers never sleep alone. I can top that (yeah, that's what she said). I like multiple books, often at the same time, for a little bed(side) variety. Right now, I'm reading The Zombie Survival Guide, Tim O' Brien's The Things They Carried, several recent issues of National Geographic, and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. Which one I read depends on my mood, and there are nights when I'm just too tired or have a headache. Lately, Desert Solitaire's been my pick.

Whoever sold it to the used bookstore originally bought it at an information center in Moab, Utah. I'm jealous. If the land is half as beautiful as Abbey describes it, the scenery must be breath-taking. However, it's not just about the scenery. Not at all. Abbey writes in the introduction,
This is not primarily a book about the desert. In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact. But the desert is a vast world, an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea. Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite. If a man knew enough he could write a whole book about the juniper tree. Not juniper trees in general but that one particular juniper tree which grows from a ledge of naked sandstone near the old entrance to Arches National Monument. What I have tried to do then is something a bit different. Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to create a world of words in which the desert figures more as a medium than as material. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal.
And from what I've read so far, he succeeds. Even throws in a bit of metaphysics. My own spirituality has been in what could, in the grandest of understatements, be referred to as a state of flux. In trying to sort that mess out, I'm not finding satisfactory answers in trite organized religions' tracts. Instead, I'm drawn to personal testimonies-- no, "testimonies" seems too didactic. Accounts. Questionings. Musings. Perhaps what I mean is personal spiritual experiences. (Even here I struggle with how to define spirituality, and even my final answer seems inadequate. And I'm quibbling with semantics, not the actual substance. A little more tussling, and I may have the exact word that I want, but no answer to the underlying question. I prefer words.)

Off track there. Sorry. That was supposed to lead into another great quote from Abbey. From a descriptive passage, he leads in to a description of a huge rock near the arches:
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, 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.
His words were what got me at first. There's poetry in his writing, and when I re-read the passage the first time, it was because I loved the way they sounded. Then I got into the ideas. We've still got a fair trace of romanticism in our culture, and the idea of going out into nature to find ourselves or some objective truth, removed from the sullying effects of "civilization," still resonates. What he proposes, at least in this passage, seems impossible. We're so caught up in ourselves and in the world we've created, we can't help but impose our all-too-human and all-too-fallible structures on our surroundings. If it's our humanity that makes us push for some metaphysical truth, and giving up that humanity is what it takes to find it... The idea is terrifying.

Urgh. My head hurts now. Mr. Abbey can sleep on my desk tonight.

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