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W I L L I A M J. S C H E I C K University of Texas at Austin MaryAustin’sDisfigurement ofthe Southwestin TheLand ofLittle Rain Although The Land of Little Rain (1903) was created to earn money,1Austin also had higher motives. Earlier in her life, she had moved to the desert of southern California, where (her friend tells us) she had “felt the rigors and bleakness of the desert denied her a vocabulary and her mysticism.”2 In time, Austin tried to appreciate better the strange beauty of this desert. The Land ofLittle Rain records her attempt to express this revised perception, especially of the “strange,”which for her implies “a criticism of the familiar.”The famil­ iar “lack[s] any criterion of authority other than that it is ours,”Austin observed.3Her first book challenges “the familiar”not only in its setting but also in its search for the transcendent there. The sheer minimalism of the austere desert terrain presumably might facilitate the detection of the transcendent; in turn, her book further suggests, this detection presumably might facilitate a revision in her readers’ perception of reality. Conveying the “strange”in this instance apparently did not require inordinate attention to style. Austin noted that “nothing was further from [her] mind when writing” The Land ofLittle Rain than “the ques­ tion of style”; she had not considered style to be “a writer’s problem.”4If we take her at her word, her first book may be read as a relatively unguarded account of her experiences. Austin’s sections on the desert, even more than her few entries on the mountains, reveal not only the search but also the frustration of her desire for a transcendental en­ counter. The fact of human mortality is the principal cause of this frustra­ tion. This actuality contravenes Austin’s attempt to detect the eternal in her temporal encounters. Symptomatic signs of Austin’s unfulfilled desire surface in her art, especially in her tendency to transform descrip­ tions of nature into autobiographic and anthropomorphic associations. 38 Western American Literature This manner of association amounts to a rhetorical dis-figurement and re-figurement of Austin’s experience with nature. In short, Austin ap­ propriates metaphorically (through dis-figurement) what is resistant to her metaphysically. This stylistic manner in effect replicates and reen­ acts the physical disfigurement of the landscape that Austin explicitly denounces in her book. In The Land of Little Rain Austin particularly appreciates the minimalism of the desert. For her, the desert surpasses all other terrains. It intimates some eternal force at the core of the material world. “None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections,”she explains in her introductory sketch, “the rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm” and “trick the sense of time.”5This sentiment is reprised in the final sketch of The Land ofLittle Rain. There Austin reports that in the desert one may detect “a sense of presence and intention,” an intimation of “eternal meaning” (246, 262). For Austin, the desert reflects a transcendent timelessness that she would like to believe redeems temporal experi­ ence from its tragic transience and materiality.6 However, if nature conveys hints of the eternal, it also resists Austin’s quest to close with the transcendent. Everywhere in nature she senses “purposes not revealed” (184)—something infinite that is inti­ mated and at the same time resistant to human apprehension. The desert in particular always at once allows for “communion” with the “clear heavens”and, contrarily, takes a “toll”; it does so by suggesting in various dire ways that every viewer is “of no account”within the context of divine “imperturbable . . . purposes” (21, 186). The sempiternal “nature” she detects in this landscape is seemingly near to her spatially; but at the same time it remains apparently remote metaphysically. The spiritual fulfillment she seeks in the desert is rebuffed. As a “land that supports no man” and “sets the limit” (3) beyond what any human law might decree, the desert may metonymically reflect the eternal in na­ ture, but it also especially seems antagonistically Other to Austin. She...


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