"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Empty Quarter–The Lure Of The Desert And The Need For Emptiness And Solitude

The desert is central to the mythology and history of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  The Jews were exiled in the arid lands of Egypt and after being led across the Red Sea by Moses, their journey was through even more hostile, waterless, and spare deserts did they reach the Promised Land.  At first the Jews questioned Moses.  Why had he led them out of Egypt where although slaves, they survived and lived modestly well? Why had he brought them to such an inhospitable, harsh, and unforgiving place?  They finally understood God’s plan and purpose and followed Moses, fought the Midianites and Amalekites in the Arabian desert crossing to Canaan, stormed the city of Jericho and established themselves in Palestine. 

Image result for images arabian deserts along moses path to canaan

They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord
Who brought us up out of the land of Egypt,
Who led us through the wilderness,
Through a land of deserts and of pits,
Through a land of drought and of deep darkness,
Through a land that no one crossed
And where no man dwelt?’ (Jeremiah 2:6)

Muhammed was born in Mecca and received his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel on the nearby desert mountain Jabal al-Nour just as Moses received the Ten Commandments in the desert on the top of Mt. Sinai in the Egyptian desert. 

Image result for images jamal al nour mountainImage result for imges mt sinai

Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in the Jordanian desert where he resisted the temptations of the Devil.

Image result for images jordanian desert where jesus stayed 40 days 40 nights

The desert has fascinated explorers and travelers since the days of Ibn Battuta.  Antoine Saint-Exupéry, the author of Le Petit Prince, wrote, “I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…” Michael Ondaatje, writing in The English Patient said “ “I have spent weeks in the desert, forgetting to look at the moon, he says, as a married man may spend days never looking into the face of his wife. These are not sins of omission but signs of pre-occupation…The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names... Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember.”

Wilfred Thesiger, author of The Empty Quarter, an account of his travels through the Arabian Desert, wrote ““In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance. I had found too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquility was to be found there…No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”

Cormac McCarthy,.chronicler of life on the Mexico-Texas border, wrote extensively about its deserts, stretches of arid, inhospitable land as harsh and unforgiving as the Sahara or Arabian deserts

Image result for images arid empty deserts of northern mexico

It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chow-dog's, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sand-vipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before this torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets

Paul Theroux in his The Tao of Travel, a compendium of travel writing, focuses on the particular importance of travelling alone. Writers from Ibn Battuta to Bruce Chatwin and Peter Mathiessen have remarked on its eloquence – a clarity of perception both outward and inward which give a surprising coherence to thought. They all write of a sense of discovery, even epiphany, when the traveler is free from other’s claim to his identity.  Not only is he no longer son, husband, or brother, but travels without the moral, ethical, and religious character that give substance to his identity at home.  He is free in the most complete sense – unattached, unalloyed, and on his own.

You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back. Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people.  What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.

Travel alone in the emptiest quarter of the desert is the purest form of travel, an epiphany within an epiphany, a spiritual response to its immensity, its unknowability, its metaphysical emptiness of non-existence before birth and eternity after death.

Jack London writes about the implacable power of the Arctic wastes in his short story, To Build a Fire. The remoteness of the wilderness and the almost impossible cold – 107 degrees below freezing – symbolizes absolute immanent power. Man’s power – his strength, intelligence, deftness, and adaptability – is nothing compared to such complete motionless dominance. ‘The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow’, writes London. There is no difference between the dark, pure cold, of the Arctic and the reaches of empty space – a stark, extra-human world of nothingness. London has also written about warmer, more forgiving environments (South Sea Tales), but it is the ice- and snow-bound, frigid North which bests expresses his sense of this immanent power of Nature.

Image result for images jack london to light a fire

To Build a Fire’ also captures the essence of why remote, fearful Arctic wastes lead to wisdom, and why even fools find it. There is a religious sentiment in this conclusion, a view that is mindful of other ‘colorless, iron-clad regions’ – the deserts of the Abrahamic religions which inspired fear, spiritual awakening and wisdom. There is something spiritual about the frigid desolation of frigid, ice-bound, sunless places. At the beginning of the story, London writes, the man has no imagination,and at first has no need for or interest in it.

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, not in the significances. To him, cold weather was cold weather and nothing more. It would never have occurred to him, at that moment as he plunged down the snow-scape between the spruce trees, to consider the ferocious indifference of Nature pitted against his insect frailty. The man was not one of philosophic or symbolic bent, and he failed to recognize the jaws of snow and sky, of mortality and eternity, closing around him. Onwards he went, rubbing his cheeks and nose with his mitten automatically, without that spiritual appreciation that inspires healthy, holy, and human fear.

The “white silence” of the Yukon, in London’s view bore the starkest ability to inspire the stupefying smallness of man in no uncertain terms. It is in these colorless, iron-clad regions that a wise fear is struck in the heart, a timidity that is humility, and a trembling that shakes the soul awake to the awful truth that, though man is the lord of nature, he is subject to it at the same time. It is there in that silence that, to quote London,

The mystery of all things strives for utterance. And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over [man]—the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence—it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.

Into Great Silence is a film about Carthusian monks who live in an Alpine monastery in complete silence.  In the ordered and regimented routines of the day, there are no extraneous activities and no disturbance.  All monks engage in silent prayer at the same time.  There is no other activity.  Yet their concentration is disciplined and undisturbed because their silent prayers become audible only to them.  The repetition of practiced prayers occludes the distractive element of complete silence.

Image result for images movie into great silence

‘The silence is deafening’, said a New Yorker on his first trip to the country.  Silence is as disconcerting and disruptive as the noise of the city to a newcomer.  Silence and noise are relative concepts, each with a spectrum of possibilities.  The loneliest place in the world, it is said, is a big anonymous city.  The noise becomes an irritating reminder that a person alone makes no sound, contributes nothing, exists without connection and context.  Long periods of complete silence in an isolated, hermitic existence can cause confusion, anxiety, and madness.  Complete silence is deafening because the sound of blood rushing through the ears is relatively as loud as Niagara Falls.

It is perhaps because of an awareness of this deafening silence – this environment of the mind’s most chaotic and disturbing thoughts – that solitary traveler searches out the remote desert or the far north.  It takes an act of spiritual discipline to move past the noise, the confusion, and the senselessness to a singleness of mind and purpose.  Hindus insist that sadhus can achieve this clarity of non-thought by first removing themselves from the noise and distractions of life, then training their minds to control ‘the deafening silence’ of solitude.  They are not unlike the travelers to the desert – or Jesus – who sought both solitude and the mental clarity which enables spiritual insight.

Even the most incidental traveler to the desert cannot help but feel at first disoriented – the difficulty of fixing oneself in a place without physical markers and with an absence of sound – then fearful, completely alone and vulnerable; but then increasingly calm.  Perhaps the calm comes from the vulnerability – being beyond help – or from what London understood was the overwhelming presence of Nature in which one might indeed be able to begin to understand the vastness and immanent power of God.

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