Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

The Desert as Literature: A Survey and a Sampling

by Peter Wild


In the nineteenth century, Hungarian linguist Sándor Csoma de Körös eagerly set off for unknown Central Asia. His mission: to discover a "lost tribe" of his countrymen believed to be living in the deserts beyond the Himalayas.

At that century's turn, a lone professor from urban New Jersey braved the wilds of the American Southwest in the hope of curing his respiratory problems. But John C. Van Dyke found more than balm for his lungs in the dry desert air. Wandering the cactus flats and cracked mountains of California and Arizona, he found "the most decorative landscape in the world, a landscape all color, a dream landscape."(1)

A few years later, Swiss artist Paul Klee gasped at Sidi-Bou-Said, "a mountain ridge with the shapes of houses growing out of it in strictly rhythmical forms." He declared his first glimpse of northern Africa a "fairy tale turned real."(2)

Over the past two hundred years or so, Western poets, artists, novelists, musicians (even crashed pilots) have journeyed to the deserts of the world. Many of these visitors have found what they've seen, if not always lovely, then at least otherworldly and exotic. They have found strange places that are treasure troves of wonder and opportunities for self-discovery. Such writings in turn, as the books of French novelist Albert Camus and American novelist and nature writer Edward Abbey illustrate, have had a large impact on the literature of Western nations.

This generalization, however, requires a clarifier: In the Western world, desert literature has had a far greater influence on Europe than on the United States. Settlers spreading out into the wilderness of the American Southwest came with utilitarian motives. To pioneers leading a hardscrabble life, the uppermost concern was how to wrest a living from what struck them as a harsh and unpleasant place. The change began, to use a handy reference point, in 1901, with the publication of Van Dyke's The Desert. By then, railroads, well-drilling methods, and other technological developments were easing the rigors of desert life. People could afford to consider arid lands in other than terms of immediate use. In the United States, then, appreciation of deserts for their beauty is a fairly recent phenomenon, one less than a century old.

The story of European encounters with deserts is quite different. First of all, it goes back hundreds of years, at least to the thrilling tales of Marco Polo. More important, perhaps, is that most Swiss and Frenchmen and Norwegians wandering the world's deserts over the past two centuries were not hard-pressed settlers daily ditching and grubbing to make a living from dry lands. Rather, they tended to be educated and well-off, romantics in search of exotic excitements. As is true of many travelers, they often found what their heady expectations led them to see.

A telling example is the case of the wildly popular novelist Pierre Loti. A product of the fin de siècle's French Decadent Movement, Loti wandered the globe debauching himself and churning out racy books that titillated European sophisticates. When his spiritual batteries ran low, he plunged off into the wilderness of the Holy Land for a recharge, and, of course, wrote a book about that experience, too. His writing shows a gross misunderstanding of the Arab cultures he encountered, but art isn't often a true reflection of reality, and Loti's The Desert, for all the blithe liberties it takes with the facts, is an accomplished effervescence.(3)

That's not to say that all, or even most, desert literature springs from self-indulgent waywardness. When another Frenchman, the archaeologist Philippe Diolé, came to the desert, he approached the region with an admirable respect for the land, its peoples, and their history. Furthermore, it might be with such as Loti and his airy tribe in mind that Diolé issued a warning: "To picture the desert as a convalescent home or a place to retire to - what a misconception this is! The desert enriches only those who are already rich. It strengthens only the strong."(4)

Diolé's writing is no less thrilling than Loti's; indeed, anchored as it is in reality and producing the frisson of probing the complexities of human depths, it is at once more vibrant and enduring than Loti's confections. With his richer, more comprehensive approach, Diolé shows how truth can be rendered into an aesthetic of profound insights.

European writing about deserts is vast, so vast that the body of it could fill a good-sized library to overflowing. Pieces by a nineteenth-century missionary footloose in the Gobi Desert and a pilot surviving a crash in the Sahara are among the selections that appear below as a brief sampling from a much greater variety.(5) They are offered, too, with the suggestion that deserts may hone talents to a finer edge than do other landscapes. On the desert, as foreign a landscape as Europeans are likely to confront, the old clichés that tend to serve as handy rescues when writing gets tough simply don't apply. In extremis, the writer is thrust, both physically and metaphorically, far out into a realm where he's never been before, where the gap between dream and reality has never been so huge and threatening. The demands of the conflict produce a high percentage of literary failures, but they also can result in the rare successes that happen on occasion when writers are pushed beyond their limits and, to their surprise, discover new resources within themselves.

The Gobi Desert

In the early part of this century, Mildred Cable and two fellow missionaries became the first English women to cross the Gobi Desert. Wandering out there alone through sandstorms and blizzards, the trio had more than Christianity on their minds. It was adventure they wanted, not the swashbuckling physicality often associated in the popular mind with exploration but the refined delights of seeing. In The Gobi Desert,(6) Cable and her co-author captured that sort of adventure with a flinty understatement that allows the wonder of the situation to speak for itself:

"The skill of man made the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, but the Hand of God fashioned the Lake of the Crescent Moon,' is a popular saying at Tunhwang, and when I asked where to find this Lake of the Crescent Moon, the answer was:

" 'It lies behind the first range of those sand-hills.'

" 'Is it so very beautiful?' I enquired.

" 'More beautiful than words can tell,' was the answer.

" 'How far off is the lake?' I asked, remembering the fatigue of toiling through loose sand.

" 'It is barely four miles from the town, and once there you will find fresh sweet water, a small temple with clean guest-rooms, and a quiet place in which to rest.'

"This was an encouraging answer, and a few days later we left the city gate with faces turned toward the dunes. Within an hour we were standing at the base of the outermost hill, and where the range was at its lowest we started to climb the steep side, ploughing upwards through sands which buried our feet to the ankle at each step. Near the top, where the slope was almost perpendicular, exhaustion overcame us and every few steps we sank to the ground. All around us we saw tier on tier of lofty sand-hills, giving the lie to our quest, yet when, with a final desperate effort, we hoisted ourselves over the last ridge and looked down on what lay beyond, we saw the lake below, and its beauty was entrancing.

"Small, crescent-shaped and sapphire blue, it lay in the narrow space dividing us from the next range like a jewel in the folds of warm-tinted sand. On its farther shore stood a small temple surrounded with silvery trees, and on the surface of the lake a flotilla of little black-headed divers were swimming. The downward stretch of the soft slope was an irresistible inducement to slide, and we all came down with a rush, bringing the sand with us like a cataract. Then, for the first time, we experienced the strange sensation of vibrant sands, for as we slid, a loud noise came from the very depths of the hill on which we were, and simultaneously a strong vibration shook the dune as though the strings of some gigantic musical instrument were twanged beneath us. We had, unknowingly, chosen for our slide one of the resonant surfaces of the hill, for, curiously enough, only a few of the dunes are musical and most of them are as silent as they are dead.

"The long descent landed us on the edge of the lake and a short distance from the temple door, where the priest received us and led us to a pleasant room in the guests' courtyard.

" 'You heard the lui-ing (thunder-roll) of the hills as you came down,' he said. 'The sound reached us here, for you chose the right spot to set the sands thundering. Had you been a little farther to east or west, the noise would have been much fainter, and had you come down that farther hill, nothing would have been heard.'

" 'I never knew sands with a "thunder voice" before,' I said.

" 'You will hear it often while you stay here,' was his answer."

Wind, Sand and Stars

Temperamentally the opposite of the reserved Cable, mercurial Antoine de Saint-Exupéry models the man of action combined with the soul of a poet. Flying fragile biplanes during the 1930s, the French pilot pioneered airmail routes across the South American cordillera and over Africa's deserts. Drawing on his white-knuckle adventures, Saint-Exupéry often linked physical crises with unnerving psychological uncertainties about reality and humankind's dubious place in a vast universe. In this excerpt from Wind, Sand and Stars,(7) Saint-Exupéry has survived a crash in the Sahara somewhere between Benghazi and Cairo, only to suffer the further trial of becoming separated from his fellow airman:

"What was that! Five hundred yards ahead of me I could see the light of his lamp. He had lost his way. I had no lamp with which to signal back. I stood up and shouted, but he could not hear me.

"A second lamp, and then a third! God in Heaven! It was a search party and it was me they were hunting!

" 'Hi! Hi!' I shouted.

"But they had not heard me. The three lamps were still signaling me.

" 'Tonight I am sane,' I said to myself. 'I am relaxed. I am not out of my head. Those are certainly three lamps and they are about five hundred yards off.' I stared at them and shouted again, and again I gathered that they could not hear me.

"Then, for the first and only time, I was really seized with panic. I could still run, I thought. 'Wait! Wait!' I screamed. They seemed to be turning away from me, going off, hunting me elsewhere! And I stood tottering, tottering on the brink of life when there were arms out there ready to catch me! I shouted and screamed again and again.

"They had heard me! An answering shout had come. I was strangling, suffocating, but I ran on, shouting as I ran, until I saw Prevot and keeled over.

"When I could speak again I said: 'Whew! When I saw all those lights . . .'

" 'What lights?' "God in Heaven, it was true! He was alone!"

Sahara Adventure

A second Frenchman brings another unusual perspective to deserts. As have many travelers in arid lands, Philippe Diolé discovered that they hardly are empty places. For him, as seen in this selection from Sahara Adventure,(8) the desert is not a horror house of fears but a near magical storehouse of clues to a human psyche entwined with its past:

"We caught sight of Mathendous one evening when we had already resigned ourselves to stopping for the night on this interminable reg. What we saw was a gash in the dark plain, a canyon, with a narrow ravine descending into it. There was no question of getting our truck into that cleft. We left it on the reg, and set out, in the fading daylight, for the wadi that stretched out its sandy "beaches" three hundred feet below. Even today, recollecting it in tranquillity, it is only in a dreamlike mist that I can evoke that twilight arrival in a lost valley. The day's fatigue, the shadow of the approaching night, the silence, the strangeness of the whole scene - everything contributed to giving a blurred and fantastic aspect to the reality before us.

"Each making his own way, we hurried out over the cliffs of ruddy gold, jumping from one boulder to another, crossing crevasses, and eagerly studying the rock walls. The legionaries were as excited as I was. I heard sudden shouts:

" 'An elephant! A giraffe!'

" 'Oxen!'

"The voices echoed through the empty valley. We had completely lost our heads. Each of the men was calling me, and I was running from one to the other, stumbling over stones, sinking into the sand, trying to see everything before it was too dark. But there were too many pictures. The deeper we went into the wadi, the thicker the drawings became. Down each side of the ravine marched a procession of animals and men. These figures seemed to us very large. I would cast a glance at the most extraordinary ones in passing and then run on to others. It seemed to me that our gaze was bringing the images leaping out from the stone, and that a whole herd of creatures was following us. It was life itself that we were discovering, glued, so to speak, to the cliffs. Life-sized elephants were charging, ears standing out and trunks upraised; hippopotamuses were setting out at a heavy trot; ostriches, panic-stricken and beating their wings, were skimming the surface of the ground. At the moment of our approach a giraffe showed us that soft and somewhat shaggy lower lip which trembles when the animal is worried; after we passed, I knew that it was preparing to emerge from the shadow and take to the road, its buttocks low and its forequarters stiff, in a jerky trot."

Scenes in America Deserta

Modern cities seem out of place in the desert, awkward anomalies in a place where nature rightly should prevail. English art critic Peter Reyner Banham, in this passage from Scenes in America Deserta,(9) wryly explains why we feel uncomfortable about the location of the "Sin Capital of the Western World:"

"Las Vegas is a symbol, above all else, of the impermanence of man in the desert, and not least because one is never not aware of the desert's all pervading presence; wherever man has not built nor paved over, the desert grimly endures - even on some of the pedestrian islands down the center of the Strip! The presence of such an enclave of graceless pleasures in such an environment is so improbable that only science fiction can manage it; the place is like the compound of an alien race, or a human base camp on a hostile planet. To catch this image you need to see Las Vegas from the air by night, or better still, late in the afternoon, as I first saw it, when there is just purple sunset light enough in the bottom of the basin to pick out the crests of the surrounding mountains, but dark enough for every little lamp to register. Then - and only then - the vision is not tawdry, but is of a magic garden of blossoming lights, welling up at its center into fantastic fountains of everchanging color. And you turned to the captain of your spaceship and said, 'Look Sir, there must be intelligent life down there,' because it was marvelous beyond words. And doomed - it is already beginning to fade, as energy becomes more expensive and the architecture less inventive. It won't blow away in the night, but you begin to wish it might, because it will never make noble ruins . . . ."


(l). John C. Van Dyke. 1901. The Desert. New York: Scribner's. Page 56. Return To Text

(2). Paul Klee. 1964. The Diaries of Paul Klee, edited by Felix Klee. Berkeley: The University of California Press. Page 286. Return To Text

(3). Pierre Loti. 1993 (originally published in 1895). The Desert, translated by Jay Paul Minn. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. Return To Text

(4). Philippe Diolé. 1956. Sahara Adventure, translated by Katherine Woods. New York: Julian Messner. Page 18. Return To Text

(5). The selections favor books readily available to English readers. Return To Text

(6). Mildred Cable, with Francesca French. 1987 (originally published in 1942). The Gobi Desert. Boston: Beacon. Pages 63-64. Return To Text

(7). Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 1965 (originally published in 1939). Wind, Sand and Stars, translated by Lewis Galantiäre. New York: Time Life Books. Pages 158-59. Return To Text

(8). Diolé. Sahara Adventure. Pages 154-55. Return To Text

(9). Peter Reyner Banham. 1982. Scenes in America Deserta. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith. Pages 42-43. Return To Text

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Author information

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Peter Wild recently found the unpublished autobiography of desert wanderer John C. Van Dyke in the attic of a farmhouse in New Jersey. Wild annotated it for the University of Utah Press (1993), for which he also edited The Desert Reader (1991).

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