– ‘By the way, forget your dreams about going to Venezuela. You won’t find anything there…’
– ‘I have never dreamed of going to Venezuela’.
– ‘A pity!’ said Yablonski. ‘One must dream always and of everything’.
Paustovsky, The Restless Years
The title of this little piece title is also the title of one of Paustovsky’s little pieces. So, having admitted this, I cannot be a plagiarist anymore.
The Yablonski quoted in the motto is obviously a man of contradiction – if only for argument’s sake, perhaps even only for the sake of mere conversation.
Then again, he seems to be deadly serious. “There are occasions when nature cannot be left to itself. It must be directed for the good of humanity, but of course without interfering with its basic laws.” This thesis is paradoxical, though I doubt very much if Yablonski meant it as such or perhaps that he even saw its inconsistency.
What, indeed, are the ‘basic laws’ of nature? Newton’s paradigms? A biologist’s insights? The latter day knowledge of the complexity of the world’s eco-systems? Perhaps ‘directing nature’ may be quite something different when done from these different perspectives on what ‘nature’ is.
We are living in the Stalin era; great works are under way, costing millions of people their health, if not their lives. So innocent it is not, when Paustovsky and his room mate Yablonski are discussing ’the taming of the desert’. Paustovsky once wrote a book titled Kara-Bugaz, a desolate site on the East-coast of the Caspian Sea, deserty like hell, with oil drills and camels galore – those ships of the desert. Paustovsky agreed with his room mate, though.
In his book he wrote pointedly: “A country, and especially the USSR, cannot have deserts.” Not being a bit like the Yablonski’s of this world I would certainly have asked him: ‘And why not, Mister?’
It took me quite a few decades before I finally went into the desert myself, always having had this longing for a sandy je ne sais quoi – perhaps only for the notion of the desert which from an early age somehow already got stuck in my mind. Later on, photographic and cinema images filled in the blanks – but imaginary the desert remained, till I finally drove into it on camel back, in the very southern tip of Tunisia.
Only after that trip did I encounter the desert once more in the fine works of Paul Bowles and others. Paul Theroux asked of himself: “Why have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory?”
All Western desert travellers shared that same longing, which – so I am sure – has to do with death, solitude and melancholy. Speaking of love for the desert is taking it too far. It seems more like a yearning, perhaps a desire which, the moment you experience its vastness and roughness, immediately gets mixed up with awe and even pity for that empty landscape.
Sahara of Tunisia
When confronted with the ruggedness and, once in a while, with the desert’s enormous storms and floods – yes, them too! – this ambiguous and barren region turns its visitor ambivalent. Until that great day when I went out camelling in those vast and glorious seas of sand, I had only read about such experience. Out there, though, it was a good feeling that in my back a solid jeep was waiting to transport me back to my island Djerba which, incidentally, is also rather deserty.
My visit suited my wishful image. Dunes almighty, flowing like ochre waves in an endless ocean. I remember the pang of surprise, yet also of annoyance when much later in life I saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia, which from then on, of course, I saw time and again. When these magnificent Arab horses are crossing the desert on their way tot Akaba, the plain suddenly turns in to a bed of ugly, angry rocks. Where have my yellow waves gone, where my sea of sand!
We know that those who live and die by the desert, the nomads whose routes through it follow the secret trails of the wells, invented their Persian carpet to symbolize the ideal of a perfect garden inside it, an oasis with its four corner streams and the fountain head in its midst – yet a Paradise always already encircled by the all powerful ocean of sand.
Surviving the desert on camel or enjoying it, Yes! But why tame her? Tasting the desert’s trial.