The Desert and the Settlement

Three American Anarchists

grew up in New Delhi and the suburbs outside Washington, DC, and now lives in Southwest Ohio with his wife and son. He works as a gardener at a teaching farm, and writes about food, plants, and the arts in their various wild and domesticated forms.

A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2010)
Good News, Edward Abbey (Dutton, 1980)
The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day (Harper & Brothers, 1952)

Rebecca Solnit’s recent book, A Paradise Built in Hell, has a chapter on Dorothy Day, the writer who founded The Catholic Worker movement. When Day was eight years old, she lived through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Three thousand people died and half the city’s population was homeless. Fires spread from block to block, begun both by broken gas mains and by the authorities’ incompetent attempts to dynamite buildings to create firebreaks.

Here, though, are Day’s memories:

What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the race track in Oakland. People came in their night clothes; there were new-born babies. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every extra garment they possessed. They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.

For the rest of Day’s life, the memory of this crisis was a touchstone for what a healthy human community would look like. In Solnit’s account, the behavior of those San Franciscans is not a romanticised account, or an aberration. Rather, it is what usually happens after disasters.

Looking at the response of survivors to a series of 20th century North American calamities, from the Halifax munitions explosion in 1917 to September 11th in New York, Solnit finds similar patterns: ordinary people self-organise; they improvise solutions to problems; and they show a level of competence and generosity that they rarely show—or get a chance to show—in everyday life.

Maybe we should have more faith in each other—this is the basic message of Solnit’s book. And in case our faith is shaken by actual interactions with our fellow citizens, Solnit points out that disaster—whether it strikes Mexican seamstresses or Wall Street bankers—seems to wipe away many of the habits of thought and behavior that rule our everyday lives. ‘Just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage,’ she writes, ‘so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster.’

(I wish she had chosen a more resonant image than an unplugged computer, but the point stands.)

Why should any of this be a surprise to us? Why are most of us so convinced that the neighbours will start gnawing on each other’s legs within days of a crisis? In Solnit’s view, we are trained to be—it rises from the self-seeking view of man which animates our entire economic system. The elites who thrive in such a system, and usually view the disaster from a distance, naturally act on such beliefs, insisting on centralised relief efforts and troop deployments to maintain what they see as order. Many of the worst injustices of the aftermath—pointless shootings, the confinement of refugees in unlivable camps—reliably occur when the military gets involved. And before disaster strikes, mass culture regularly spits out visions of armed heroes herding the hysterical to safety.

At this point, I suspect readers are generating counterarguments, and they are entirely legitimate. In Solnit’s asides, we sometimes see the other side of the coin. In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 in Japan, for example, vigilantes killed six thousand Koreans (or people they thought were Koreans) because wild rumours circulated that this minority was setting fires and poisoning wells. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, militias of white men were so sure that black men would loot their property that they began to shoot them on sight.

How do we know what kind of society we are going to get? And how can we work towards one where people don’t immediately open fire on each other? ‘Beliefs matter,’ Solnit says—our conviction that people are stupid and vicious will help ensure stupid and vicious behaviour—but she doesn’t go much deeper into the question. She also doesn’t mention what might happen when a society no longer has surplus resources to send to the victims of a crisis, or when survivors cease to feel that recovery is just around the corner.

Still, her book is an intelligent and generous first step. If it is one-sided, I think it is a necessary corrective to too many other visions of collapse

An example of just such a vision: while reading Solnit’s book, I picked up Edward Abbey’s novel Good News, which I had gotten curious about during my last post on the literature of catastrophe.

This is the story: about forty years before the events of the novel, industrial society collapsed. The major factor in the breakdown was food: ‘the cities could not feed themselves,’ Abbey writes in the prologue, ‘they were largely abandoned as urban millions spread into the countryside in search of food.’ Cars are abandoned by the side of the road, rusting, all facing away from the cities.

The novel takes place in what was once Arizona. For some time, there have only been small bands of people wandering the desert, but now a kind of imperial force is rising again. An army led by a Chief is living in a great glass tower, using the last of the oil, terrorising the countryside, drafting stragglers into its army, and fighting a band of anarchists who are trying to make sure the old system does not come back—for example, by burning down the hall of records, a classic anarchist tactic that Solnit also mentions.

Into this world come Sam Banyaca, an Indian shaman, and Jack Burns, an old man looking for his son. One beautiful touch: with the fall of the industrial system, magic seems to be returning. Sam can shape reality in ways that are never explained, and somehow don’t need to be.

In many other ways, though, the novel felt deeply familiar. It highlights a tendency that I have always found troubling in Abbey’s work—namely, the willingness to celebrate the tangled interdependence of the natural world while consistently refusing to acknowledge the tangled interdependence of human beings.

For example, Abbey devotes no time to explaining how people in this world support themselves. The only meal we see people eating together is a roast dog (that old chestnut of the apocalypse). Since Abbey explicitly locates food as the driving force behind the collapse, I think it is fair to ask how his characters survive. Except for one incident where Sam forages from a cactus, though, we get no information on this subject.

It is a telling omission. As Kropotkin pointed out in Mutual Aid, the more difficult the environment, the more creatures tend to cluster together—for safety, for food, for company. As the novel progressed, though, it became clear that Abbey is profoundly invested in a world where it is easy for a man to survive on his own in the desert, even in the absence of a system that trucks in food to the grocery store.

And yes, it is usually a man. Almost every major character is male. There are no young children, who I suspect would be a reminder of several things that Abbey would rather ignore. How this society keeps itself going is a mystery. (Incidentally, I remember reading once that, in hunter-gatherer societies, women tend to supply most of the calories.) The only prominent female character in Good News, Daisy, is a young bartender. The few other women we meet—other than one tomboyish member of the anarchist collective who is often mistaken for a man—are all prostitutes for the Chief’s army.

There is one mention of children. When Daisy returns, Glenn, the bar’s piano player, says that she is meant to be a mother. He then puts his hands ‘gently but firmly’ on her breasts and says, ‘Look at these marvelous things.’ It is entirely typical of Abbey’s vision that Daisy seems to regard this as a charming gesture.

Another element that I recognised from Solnit’s analysis of Hollywood movies: almost every scene takes place between, at most, two or three people. Not a single functional community exists anywhere in the book. Other than sexual desire and/or romantic love, there seems to be no real reason for people to stay close to each other. In one of book’s climactic scenes, Jack Burns finds the son he abandoned many years ago, and insists on having some kind of connection with him. ‘Why?’ the son asks. It is a fair question, one that vibrates through a great deal of American life.

In the single scene of communal feeling, the anarchist collective, which Abbey obviously admires, finds its deepest satisfaction—not in preparing food or making music or working together—but in listening to a phonograph record of Beethoven. A bunch of people silently absorbing the work of a solitary genius—this is the novel’s most rapturous moment.

Finally, every interaction in the novel turns on power. Only physical strength mixed with a bit of cleverness makes any difference in this world. Someone mentions that, when society broke down, people began to eat each other, and they are basically still doing so—the novel is filled with torture, violence, and getting the other guy before he gets you. When two people disagree, there is no way to settle things without fighting.

Good News strikes me as a demonstration that you cannot contend with an enemy for your entire life—as Abbey did with our techno-industrial system—without beginning to share some of its assumptions. Basically, he destroys a deeply atomised, brutal society so that he can replace it with a deeply atomised, brutal society. This is the ‘good news’—and clearly Abbey wants us to think of the Gospels—that we will get after the end of industrial society.

I noticed that, like Robinson Jeffers, Abbey is continually drawn to solitary predators: hawks, cougars, snakes. Neither of them has any desire to give their hearts to, say, the musk-oxen, who were one of Kropotkin’s inspirations. ‘What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine / The fleet limbs of the antelope?’ writes Jeffers in The Bloody Sire. Undeniably this is a part of the truth—but the antelope have other characteristics than fleetness, ones developed in gentler communion with each other and the world around them. These are, I think, also worth writing poems about.

In his essays, Abbey talks about the value of community, but as Good News demonstrates, he cannot imagine it convincingly. Like many another great American writer, he has absorbed the national belief that individualism is the central human virtue. Solnit’s is the anarchism of groups, while Abbey vision strikes me as the anarchism of solitary individuals. Solnit points out, for example, that American communities that have received an influx of immigrants from Latin American tend to have a revival of public street culture; Abbey says that the immigration of such ‘culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people’ is not good for the ‘material well-being of the U.S.’

Sometimes Abbey is purposely being outrageous, but I think all of these remarks (sigh, and several more, including the aside that India, where I’m from, is the ‘sickliest nation on Earth’) highlight his unwillingness to have a conversation with the society that he was actually living in. For reasons that should be obvious, I have yet to meet a female admirer of Abbey’s novels, and in his essays Abbey seems to purposely push away non-white readers (if only we had written more symphonies).

D. H. Lawrence, who wrote my favourite book on the mingled virtues and destructiveness of the American character, Studies in Classic American Literature, has this to say:

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief. Obeying from within. Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealised purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.

For all the beauty and wit and truth in his writing, you will not find much sense of community in Abbey. I think it is this absence—not just in Abbey, but in American life—that led me to pick up Dorothy Day’s memoir, The Long Loneliness, which Solnit quotes from in her book.

The long loneliness—isn’t it a beautiful title?—is Day’s term for our separation both from a genuine community, one engaged in worthwhile work, and also from the more-than-human (call it what you like). For Day, this sense of the divine came first through the natural world and then through the Catholic Church. I suppose her memoir is not a literary masterpiece, but it is a book that I will read again, as I will not re-read Good News, because it is the story of a wholeness that, at least for me, is radiant and convincing.

Day spent her youth in radical labour circles, but her sympathies remained anarchist throughout her life. You don’t expect to get quite so many Bakunin and Kropotkin quotes from a woman who is currently a candidate for sainthood. I suspect that canonisation will be an uphill battle for her. ‘Don’t call me a saint,’ she said herself. ‘I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.’

At the time of her conversion, Day’s lover, Forster, was a Marxist biologist who delighted in explaining the workings of plants and animals to her, which Day both cherished and seemed to see as somehow beside the point. ‘The very love of nature,’ she writes, ‘and the study of her secrets which was bringing me to faith, cut Forster off from religion.’

Day was pregnant when she converted to Catholicism. Forster left her and she raised the baby alone. Eventually, after meeting Peter Maurin, a French peasant who had emigrated to America, Day began The Catholic Worker, a loose collective which still exists in communities around the world. Its basic programme was sketched out by Maurin, who for years had been preaching to anyone who would listen about ‘cult, culture, and cultivation’—that is, religious devotion (in his case, the Catholic faith), the education of the people, and the creation of communal farms and soup kitchens.

In Day’s sketch, he is a wonderfully endearing crackpot, saintly and silly, constantly pushing books on people, lecturing the uninterested about his various objections to Andre Gide, cheerfully bearing rebuffs, and living on almost nothing. As Day writes, ‘when he could not get people to listen, he wrote out his ideas in neat, lettered script, duplicated the leaflets and distributed them himself on street corners.’

During the Great Depression, the Catholic Worker started attracting volunteers from all over the country. ‘We are not an organisation,’ Maurin said, ‘we are an organism.’ Day mentions that marriages kept sprouting up among them—on their charity farms, the newspapers, the soup kitchens. There is something about the movement that has, in Oliver Goldsmith’s wonderful phrase, the ‘bloomy flush of life.’

Day allowed divergence, variation, free criticism. Papers in different cities took different positions; farms figured out their own ways to manage, although plenty of them failed. Many-sidedness is fertile—it is the mark of movements that, even if small, survive. ‘If we do not learn to enjoy God now we never will,’ Day writes, blithely ignoring her own church’s doctrine. ‘Death changes nothing.’

Plenty of writers have identified the destructive tendencies embedded in the Christian worldview, but every great religion has many faces, and I rarely had to turn from the one that Day shows in this book. What could be better for the wild world, I wonder, than a group of people living modestly and close the earth? What could be healthier for the life around us than joyfully opting out of a rapacious and extractive system?

People have tried such farming experiments repeatedly since industrialism began spreading its blight through the world. If they manage not to fold after a single winter, we can count ourselves impressed—and the Catholic Worker farms, like the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Tolstoyan communities that survived deep into the Soviet era, have a core of longevity that comes, I think, from a sense of a life being embraced rather than a disaster being escaped. It is the sacramental sense of community that Lawrence saw being eaten away by the American obsession with individual freedom.

‘Viva la libertad!’ scream the anarchists in Good News, again and again, as if this answered all questions. And yes, it does answer some questions. Desert wisdom is real wisdom, and Abbey is a kind of desert father for me, difficult to approach (and he has chosen to make it difficult) but one I keep returning to. I feel the need to put his work next to other visions, though, for my own sense of wholeness and human possibility.

I think it is useful to remember that the men we think of as desert fathers weren’t as isolated as we imagine. Have you ever wondered how they managed to survive for so long? People brought them food. St. Anthony was continually followed by people from the surrounding communities—he could not escape them, and I wonder if he would have wanted to.

In a healthy spiritual tradition, there is always a track between the desert—or the mountain solitude, or the bowels of the cave—and the settlement. Wisdom that comes from too deep an isolation ceases to be meaningful or comprehensible; it ceases to be wisdom. Eventually, the man in the cabin may not be able to understand the angels he came to hear—or, if he does hear them, and has wisdom which he wishes to share, may no longer know how to have a constructive conversation with the community. Some of this is the community’s fault, but it is the hermit’s fault as well.

A last thought. I mentioned being dissatisfied with Solnit’s computer simile. Walking today in the cooling New England weather, I thought of another one.

Trees have always felt both solitary and social to me. We forget sometimes how much they depend on each other. As Stephen Harrod Buhner mentions in The Lost Language of Plants, a girdled tree—where a circle of bark is cut around the trunk to prevent sap flow—will survive for years in a forest, because nutrients will arrive through the mycelial network of other plants. The tree dies quickly if marooned in a park.

As I tramped through the crunching acorns and leaf-fall, I thought of Day’s line about the people in the earthquake. They give away every extra garment that they possess. As with people, so with trees—the deciduous ones, at least. Abandoned abundance supports an entire community, a community which includes the individual self. The decision to strip oneself to essence for winter is not just a withdrawal into self; it is also, simultaneously, a social act. This is the way it should be, I think, and has to be. The spirit of life always survives most reliably in the grove.


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