FOR VARIOUS REASONS-including a basement flood at his parents' home in rural Pennsylvania, which destroyed journals and other personal papers-letters from the early years of Abbey's adulthood are exceedingly scarce. Consequently, this opening chapter skims lightly across two decades of his life. During this period, having been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1947 (minus a good conduct medal), Ed attended the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where he studied philosophy and literature, graduating in 1951 ... toured Europe on a Fulbright Fellowship ... hungrily indulged his long-simmering passions for the American Southwest, literature, writing, and women ... married three times and divorced twice ... fathered two sons, Josh and Aaron ... published three novels (Jonathan Troy, The Brave Cowboy, and Fire on the Mountain) and, most significantly, wrote his classic man-in-nature memoir, Desert Solitaire.
Family, Home, Pennsylvania (8 NOVEMBER 1949)
I was wondering-could you lend me three or four hundred dollars? I have not yet bought either a horse or a motorcycle and am thinking of buying a car; not any car, but a '47 Ford one of my fellow students is trying to sell. It would really be a good buy; the thing is practically new. The money would not have to be in a lump-fifty a month would be enough.
But no doubt you are looking forward to the payday when your paycheck is all yours-and certainly I don't have to buy a car. But I should buy something; otherwise I'll continue to fritter my money away on records and books and wild parties. It's painful to remember that a mere six months ago I had twice as much money as now-where did it all go? I can't imagine. Of course, that money should have been saved for my Oxford tuition, but the truth is that I can't save money-certainly not for the sake of saving. If I have money I feel compelled to spend it on something. (The future be damned. Tomorrow I may be dead.) Typical hedonistic epicureanism.
I intend to make some money next summer-if I can find a job. Either here or back east. Why not wait until then to buy a car? By that time I'll be broke.
If you can't lend me several hundred dollars, you are quite welcome to reduce or cut off the monthly stipend as much and whenever you please. I don't need the money-I'll just waste it.
I'm doing some writing but it's all of a highly technical nature-"the planes of reality," "Pythagorean philharmonica," "the polarities of experience," "Principia Aesthetica," "the isolation of data," "Democritian atomism," "Attic Romanticism," and such-like pretentious frivolity.
How am I doing, scholastically? Fairly well, I think, but the competition in these advanced philosophy courses is rather good. My days of coasting to distinction with my innate brilliance are over; from now on I'm afraid I'll have to study like everyone else.
The situation is difficult for me because my nearly universal range of interests continues-riding, girls, mountain climbing, exploring, machines, mysticism, music, vodka, politics, astronautics, poker-all of which interferes considerably with my half-hearted attempt to become a scholar. (Really not possible, I think, for me-the scholarly life, I mean. I'm too fond, much too fond, of fresh air and mundane pleasures.)
Of course, you'll congratulate me on this-saying that the general, the whole, the universal, is much better than narrow specialization, with its consequent dehumanization, isolation, blindness, and turtle-shell spectacles.
And so I persuade myself. But is it true? Entirely true? I think the matter falls definitely in an area of controversy, necessitating suspension of decision.
So Billy killed two squirrels and a rabbit?
According to Aristotelian metaphysics the rodents possess souls of sort, certainly inferior to human souls, but souls nevertheless and deserving of love and pity. Forgot about that, didn't you?
Reminds me-Bud and I went antelope hunting last weekend with one other fellow. Bud's friend got one. Having neither license nor rifle I drove the jeep while the others did the shooting. Quite exciting-driving off the road into the sagebrush over hills and down arroyos, rounding up the antelope like cattle. My but they're fast-we clocked one bunch at 40 miles an hour.
Merci beacoup for the $150. No, I don't know how much you still owe me.
Sorry to hear about the Oldsmobile's further sufferings.
It is now the hour of one and twenty in the morning, mountain time. The radio is on and I'm hearing a song called "Mule Train" for about the seventh time this evening. Quite a fad, this pseudo-Western culture. First "Riders in the Sky" and now this. But I must not let my aesthetic snobbery blind me to the fact that these two songs are immensely superior to the usual run of popular music.
Mid-term exams this week. That's why we're home so early and not in bed. Cramming. Debauchery will be resumed this coming Saturday night and will reach a high point next week for the annual Homecoming festival.
Love (platonic) to all and sundered.
Gilbert Neiman, Professor, Clarion State College, Pennsylvania (15 AUGUST 1959)
I don't know why I keep writing letters to you. You never answer them. You react but you don't answer. Trying to start a dialogue with you is like trying to cross-examine Zarathustra. Or, two monologues don't make a dialogue. Neiman the insoluble solipsist. Who are you? said Polyphemus. No-man, he replied. At least he ...
Nevertheless ... I'll try once more. There must be some way to provoke you. Perhaps you admire Beckett. I hope you do. Because I don't, I think the Beckett racket is no more justified than the fad for-you guessed it-Kerouac. Now Beckett is a great stylist, of course. Every line a delight to the nerves. And a wit, tho' not often a very subtle one. And his little nuvvles, in their highly specialized way, are perfectly shaped, perfectly coherent, fully realized. Perfect-like a nut in a shell. Like a hand grenade, etc.
Now this may sound like ample praise for anybody, but coming from me it ain't. I can appreciate with as much pleasure as any [?] the aesthetic virtues mentioned above, but for me they are not sufficient-I also demand, when claims to greatness are made, that the author have something to say about life in this world which is interesting, original, important, and true. By this final, perhaps unreasonable demand it seems to me that Beckett has failed. How? In what way?
(Oh christ, why did I start this? I don't feel like talking Literature tonight. I'd rather go out on the mesa and bay at the moon, with Newcomb, wine, and guitar.)
But back to Beckett and be damned. What does Beckett say? That the world is a great gray empty place, a vale of misery. Misery, what's more, without the dignity of tragedy-slapstick misery. Ugly misery. And why? Why is it like this? Beckett doesn't say, right out, but his implication is lurking in the background: We have lost Gawd. We should get down on our hands and knees and crawl back into the womb of the Holy Mother Church.
In other words, Beckett's work is merely one more example of the Great Christian Hangover. I'm willing to bet real money that within ten years Beckett will be writing orthodox morality plays in the manner of Eliot, Greene, Claudel, Waugh, Mauriac, and the rest of the yellow-bellied renegades that clutter up the literary scene today. (Powerful words, eh? Yes, I'm a dangerous man.)
Now I'm willing to grant that the element, the extreme susceptibility to re-conversion, is hard to see in Beckett. Why, even the author may not be aware of it, it's so far back in the stage wings. But it's there. That Jesuitical Dominican stink, I can smell it from here. The smell of the olde miasmal mist, the dank dim odor of rotten cathedrals. (As Amis says: "Thank God for the hydrogen bomb and the 20th century!" Amen, Allmen.) (And in my background, at the moment-Shostakovich, of all persons, on the FM. Stalin's theme song, dream song ...)
Now-how do I know that Beckett's got a guided missal hidden in his shoulder holster? Bear with me, comrade:
I know it, or at least suspect it, because his disgust and misery, his alleged "pessimism," is exaggerated, blown-up, generalized, abstract (despite the comical detail), and hollow, very like a balloon. In short, his vision of the world offers us the kind of fractional truth (1/2?) which, when presented as a total truth, is in fact a total untruth. A fakehood. A lie. Not a deliberate lie, of course, in Beckett's case, but the kind of lie which emerges involuntarily from some bias buried in the writer's gut.
Beckett wants to see the world this way and in order to do so he's obliged to disregard or suppress awareness of such things as: love in the subways, love in Hoboken, love in the foxholes, Spring in Vermont, the emerald waters of Big Sur River, the buzzards soaring over Utah, flash floods, Princes Street in Edinburgh on a mild September evening, hurricanes over Key West, the shoeshine boys of Napoli (talk about human buoyancy!), skiing down the slopes of the Arlberg on a sunny afternoon, the golden maids of Skandia, Austrian beer, the sound of Spanish voices at the Pyrenees, bicycling thru the Hee-lands with a good-lookin' woman, climbing balconies in Vienna, the wild steppenwulf roar of Russian soldiers singing their barbarous songs, Professor Pidcock sipping his iced coke in the Student Union Building, the mountains of New Mexico, the little fishing boats in Half Moon Bay, the black stockings and ponytails of North Beach; poetry and ideas, the cottonwoods along the Rio Grande in late October, the good old USA where a man is still a man (compared to England anyway), and everything else that delights the eyes, ears, nose, taste, touch, mind, and heart-like overturned streetcars in Barcelona! Burning!
And buzzards soaring over Utah ...
That's why Beckett has to tell his stories in that specialized manner of his: the abstract Kafkan landscape, the abstractified situation, the faceless past-less future-less aliens that serve him for types of the human, the monomania for logical exactitude-nothing being more remote than logic from human life-and finally the style, that chilling concatenation of inverted clich��s, all this is necessary in order to give his work the illusion of being a generalization about the world. In order to make his generalization valid, he has to write in fantasy. Because his vision is futuristic-meaning grossly oversimplified, half-true, half-assed, half-baked-the outlook (hardly a philosophy!) of a crank and a crackpot.
If Beckett once dared to write in a more or less realistic style, dealing with plausible people in credible difficulties, his idea of things, his private ideology, would suddenly be exposed for what it is-hoked-up fakery. But Beckett is determined to make human life appear contemptible-therefore he has to abstractify, mystify, oversimplify, falsify-instead of a work of imagination he gives us the product of fantasy.
But I still haven't made my point or reached the conclusion of this here sillygyzm. Why does Beckett want the world to appear worthless? The easier to reject it, that's why. And then-there's nothing left. Nothing. Thus pessimism. Unless-faith strikes! God! Heaven! Salvation! (Thru the sacraments of the true church, of course.) And the rest of the old familiar shit.
Perhaps I shouldn't call it shit. That's a bit crude. I don't really despise Christianity or even the Roman Church, and certainly not the incontrovertible glory of the Middle Ages. What I do despise is the contemporary inclination to flop to the knees and crawl back into the past, to shy from what seem like impossible problems in order to bury the head, asshole aloft and twitching, in the Sands of Time. Cowardice, I calls it. Illusion-seeking. Womb-crawling. And treason. Desertion in the face of the enemy.
Strong words indeed. But I've always been rather a blunt, tough, plainspoken type ...
As I said before, I don't accuse Beckett of having committed himself to the final step. At present he's still the total pessimist, the sad and desperate man completely free-as he fancies-of all illusions. All worldly illusions. Doesn't it remind you of the Hollow Man? Of the Wasteland? Of course it does-Beckett is following in the Master's footsteps. That's why, unless he makes a sudden divergence, he's likely to end up in the same attitude as the Old Guy-eschatological as hell, eyes riveted on the Unmoved Mover, the still center of the world, while he masturbates his ego here below.
"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake!" Yes, Joyce had the same Christian streak in his guts. Remember the final page of [Finnegans Wake-"If I seen him bearing down on me now, etc. etc ..." But Joyce was a great man, a prince among minds, the artist-saint; he couldn't Fall for a simple tale like that that's enthralled our man Beckett, who's just a little punk compared to his Boss. Or is Beckett just a pocketsize C��line?
But you see my point. Beckett, now busily publicizing his Dark Night (of the Sole?), persuading himself and fans that he has seen the Truth about This World in the form of a banal and exaggerated and therefore unlikely pessimism, has prepared a position-perhaps unawares-where he now faces a dilemma: suicide or-a return to the faith? We know what usually happens in such cases: the miserable old world seems worth clinging to after all, no matter how esoteric the metaphysic or desperate the well-ground axiology. All the easier if you think you've got a finger in another world. So Beckett writes his little fantasies. And inevitably one form of fantasy leads to another.
Yes, I know, the Christ-boys may be correct. Maybe the earth is only a testing-ground, merely the purgatorial gateway to Hollywood-Heaven or Hoboken-Hell. But permit me to doubt it. Yes, I'm an atheist. Tho' earthiest might be a better term. I believe in the Earth. Let Heaven go to Hell! I am comforted in this dogmatic intuition by the everpresent recollection that two of the finest brightest cleanest civilizations yet to appear on this planet-the Greek and the old Chinese-were essentially non-theistic. Until Plato and Mao Tse-tung came along to poison it all.
Are you with me in this, Komrad? Eh? Reservations? Speak-! Don't just stand there holding your piece!
People who write letters like this are insufferable. Yet think, Gilberto, what an elegant conversation we could carry on by mail-if only you were willing. Or able. Or interested.
Good luck with your musical chamber pot. Let me know when anything good happens.
Regards, Ed Albuquerque, New Mexico
Judy Pepper (8 SEPTEMBER 1965)
The land is lovely now, more beautiful every day. The golden light of autumn is beginning to appear, not in the sky but in the flowers: matchweed, rabbitbrush, princess plume, beeweed, mule-ear sunflowers, all are flaming forth in yellow. A cold October wind blows down from the mountains, tho' it's still September here below. I must climb Tukuhnikivats once more before I leave. Most of the tourists are gone and I roam thru the Devil's Campground in the purple evening thinking of you, treasuring our trysting places, stopping each night at that place on the sandstone near the juniper where we built a little fire and last made love.... I kiss it where you lay.
-Arches National Monument, Utah
The Nation, New York City (12 OCTOBER 1966)
Re the reviews and reappraisals of Wm Faulkner:
Before the critics are allowed to enshrine F. permanently among the greats of Am. lit., would it be unseemly to bring up the question of whether or not this writer told us the truth about the world he lived in? E.g., How much correspondence is there between the South rep[resented] in F's novels and the South as revealed by the public events of the last ten yrs? Where in F's work, e.g., can we find anything that would have led us to anticipate the character of the civil rights struggle ... and the quality of such people as Barnett, Meredith, Clark, Connor, Wallace, and King? And if F's portrayal of the South was so strangely incomplete, or misleading, or even false, what then is the true value-literary or otherwise-of his art?
Yours, E. A.
Excerpted from Postcards from Edby Edward Abbey Copyright © 2006 by Clarke Cartwright Abbey. Excerpted by permission.
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