‘The more light the desert receives, the darker it seems to become,’ writes Eugène Fromentin.
Desert romanticism exists in that kind of paradox. Otherwise one must ask what a romantic is doing in the desert at all. The desert has no leafy groves, fragrant meadows, deep-soughing forests, or anything else which usually evokes in the romantic the right emotions. Desert romanticism already appears incomprehensible at a distance. Up close, it becomes absurd. What is romantic about an endless gravel pit?
This passage is from Sven Lindqvist’s evocative Desert Divers. I wrote recently about an expedition into the Rub’ al Khali, but never thought to question the aesthetic potency of the desert. Capitalised or otherwise, I don’t identify with romanticism, more with a form of enchanted materialism. The desert has the power to enchant me with an affective force that, I believe, helps to ease that hell-hound of depression. The desert offers a temporary suspension of time, a ‘moment of pure presence’.
[Thanks, Michelle, for the recommendation.]
Lindqvist’s allusions to various desert wanderers — not only those already well-known, like Fromentin, Eberhardt, Saint-Exupéry, and Loti, but also those whom we’ve never encountered, like the poet Yara Mahjoub, who falls ill if he can’t make a poem and whose hundreds of poems, many spontaneously composed for specific occasions, are stored in his head because he can’t write — bring to mind the early Christian ascetics who withdrew to the Egyptian desert to live as solitary hermits or in small monastic communities. Reading about their experiences can be fascinating and inspiring, too.
Apropos of the desert’s affective force, you might enjoy Robert Twigger’s latest piece in Aeon Magazine, Desert Silence. According to Twigger’s blog, he’s working on a new novel about the desert, and in case you haven’t taken a look at his Explorer School, it’s pretty cool, as well.
Hello, DZ, and thank you for your thoughtful comment. It brings to mind a superb book I read many years ago, ‘The Desert Fathers’, that I must unearth from the library and reread.
I’ve read or dipped into most of Robert Twigger’s books. To date, nothing has matched the standard of ‘Angry White Pyjamas’, about his training with the Tokyo Riot Police. I’ll keep an eye out for his forthcoming novel.
Don’t forget the Desert Mothers, some of whose lives were fascinating and inspiring, too. Marilyn Dunn’s book, The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages, includes an informative chapter (among others) on “Women in Early Monasticism.” The book is available via the usual sources.
I’ve only read a few online pieces by Twigger, none of his books. I’m guessing your recommendation of Angry White Pyjamas will change that. Thanks!
Thanks, DZ, For the nod toward Marilyn Dunn’s book. It looks fascinating. I have a deep appetite for tales of asceticism and monasticism.
You’re welcome. I do, too.
I haven’t seen it, but Prof. David Jaspers (whose Sacred Desert book I recommended in my comment on your “Top 10 Books” post) has also written a book entitled The Sacred Body: Asceticism in Religion, Literature, Art and Culture. Might be worth tracking down in order to check it out. If you do, please let me know your impressions!
Thanks again, DZ, it looks brilliant. I’ll definitely read that. I think I’ll enjoy David Jasper’s style.
Four additional titles relating to asceticism, monasticism, and the desert, all of which are AFUS:
William Harmless, S.J.: Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism
Dawn Llewellyn and Deborah F. Sawyer (eds.): Reading Spiritualities: Constructing and Representing the Sacred
Lynda L. Coon: Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity
Douglas Burton-Christie: The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism [More re Desert Fathers and “Desert Mothers” of 4th Century Egypt.]
Also, I notice that David Jasper recently published the third volume in what he refers to as a trilogy: The Sacred Community: Art, Sacrament, and the People of God. Seems like it might also be worth a look.
Thanks for these suggestions, am thinking about a list of books about ecstatic hermits now!
Go for it!
Meng-Hu’s Hermitary is a site I think you’ll enjoy exploring. Lots of good links and book reviews there, too.