No. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature
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:
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 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.
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:"
Notes(Back to top)
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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