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S e a r c h i n g f o r G o d o r M e d u s a t h r o u g h A l l u s i o n in A b b e y ’s D e s e r t S o l it a ir e D a v i d D . J o p l i n In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey claims that he has come to the desert to find a “bedrock” epistemology that will allow him to know “G od or Medusa face to face” (6 ). Although direct contact with the desert land­ scape plays prominently in his search, his rich use of the literary past through allusion provides a philosophical context for his views. Some of the allusions are transparent; others are so deeply embedded within the narrative that they offer but faint glimpses of the works they refer­ ence and often must be carefully inferred. Both kinds, however, must be dealt with because Abbey uses epistemological implications from them to frame his own ideas. W hen factored into the narrative as a whole, the allusions present a complex web of conflicting pictures. While they sometimes reinforce Abbey’s own romantic response to nature, more often they provide touchstones to counter such views. The competing pictures present a romantic world of mystery and wonder that collides with a hard-edged empirical world of mere surface. The resulting exis­ tential tug of war between head and heart goes largely unresolved. By focusing upon a few representative examples, I hope to demonstrate how allusion works in these directions to shape Abbey’s search for meaning. Although I consider a number of authors and works he alludes to, I give more attention to those that play most prominently in shaping his epistemology: Thoreau, Emerson, Coleridge, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, and the Bible.1 Abbey sets up his narrative through Thoreau and Emerson, enabling him to frame his search for “bedrock” within a specific epistemological tradition. This occurs early in chapter 1, in which he offers what amounts to his thesis statement. The passage runs as follows: 1am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, imme­ diately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. 1want to be able to ... meet G od or Medusa face to face. (6) w e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L i t e r a t u r e 43.2 (S u m m e r 2008): 103-27 1 0 4 W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e S u m m e r 2 0 0 8 John DePuy. LANDSCAPE ARCH. 2008. Ink and watercolor on paper. 28" x 41". Courtesy of the artist. Abbey’s desire to “evade ... [the] confusion of the cultural apparatus” invokes Emerson’s “Nature,” where people are advised not to build upon “the sepulchers of the fathers” but instead to “enjoy an original relation to the universe” (3). Allusion to Thoreau is also transparent. In Walden, Thoreau asserts that he “went to the woods ... to front only the essential facts of life,” to “work ... downward through the ... slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance” to find “hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake” (343, 350). That Abbey draws upon the two romantics is widely acknowledged. Edward S. Twining, among others, states that Abbey “comes” from the “Emersonian-Thoreauvian tradi­ tion of thinking and writing” (“Roots” 25) and that “Thoreau ... seems as close to being Abbey’s spiritual and intellectual father as anyone could be” (“Edward Abbey” 4 ).2 After positioning himself within the romantic tradition through Emerson and Thoreau, Abbey launches his own investigation into the meaning he seeks. To do so, he looks in two distinct directions. One challenges idealism central to the works he seems to...


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pp. 103-128
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