Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Amazing Piece of Writing

These are possibly two of the most evocative paragraphs on the desert ever written.
"The newcomers had been shown about the land by the family renting it to them and toward the end of the first day felt they had taken possession of it with all their senses. They had welcomed into their nostrils a rich assault of barnyard and plant odors, they had tramped the amply watered earth, fingering its bounty of vines laden with Mission grapes, they had knelt at the edge of a ditch and passed their hands through the water. Just beyond the vineyard was nature in a more armored, truculent mood: a vast solemn plain dotted with cactus and scrub, steeped in silence. They gazed out at the deep-blue sky and, as the sun hovered nearer and nearer the mountain's crest, feeling the need to absorb in quiet their surfeit of new impressions, with no more forethought than precedes sinking into a chair and staring at the ceiling or taking off for a stroll in a leafy park, they drifted apart, and one by one wandered into the desert
"No landscape, not even the swampy jungle of the Isthmus of Panama, had struck any of them as this awesomely strange. And they were not being borne through it, receiving it as a view, but walking in it, on it, for it was all pale surface, the sky so lofty and the ground so level, and they had never felt so erect, as vertical, their skin brushed by the hot Santa Ana wind, their ears lulled by the oddly intrusive sound of their own footfalls. Pausing, they could hear the hiss of skinny desert-colored creatures scurrying along the pebbly surface. Slithery fanged creatures (a snake!), but down there, speeding off. Hardly anything is near anything here: those slouching braided sentinels, the yucca trees, and bouquets of drooping spears, the agaves, and the squat clusters of prickly pears, all so widely spaced, so unresembling - and nothing had to do with anything else. Each alone, each separate. The sense of jeopardy that couldn't altogether be stifled (was that a scorpion?) quickened their pace for a while, as if they thought they might soon be arriving somewhere. In the clear air the mountains looked deceptively near. And how small, when they turned around for a moment to see how far they'd gone, their little green world. They walked on, lost in the brightness of their sensations, walked and walked: the mountains came no closer. Their fears had long since subsided. The purity of the vista, its uncompromising bleakness, seemed first like a menace, then an excitement, then a numbing, then a different arousal. Their real initiation into the seductive nihilism of the desert had begun. The soundless, odorless, monochrome landscape, so drastically untenanted, had the same effect on everyone: and intoxicating impression of aloneness, which gradually gave way to a more active assent to the experience of solitude. All were visited by a yearning something like Maryna's - to be alone, really alone (what if I, what if she, what if he...?) - and allowed themselves to imagine the disappearance, without drama, without guilt, of those nearest to them, somewhere out here, too. And isn't to imagine to desire? The surrender to the desiccating of feeling was swift but it palled almost as rapidly, as something, a deeper fear, made them pull away from it, purged, chastened, and then it was time to turn around and walk back to dampened land and their moist lives."
-Susan Sontag, In America (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), 154-155

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