How do we imagine and portray the desert? And what does it say about us and our relationship to each other and, crucially, to the planet we live on?
In this, the second in a loosely connected series on places in fiction and popular culture, I chat to Dr Aidan Tynan about deserts in fiction and philosophy, from Mad Max to Burning Man, Nietzsche to Baudrillard, Cormac McCarthy to China Miéville.
Dr Aidan Tynan is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University.
His research is in ecocriticism and the environmental humanities, modern and contemporary literature, Deleuze and Guattari studies, critical theory and continental philosophy. He is the author of two monographs and has co-edited two collections. His current research project is on the connections between environmental culture and far-right politics.
You can read his full profile and list of publications here
His book on deserts is The desert in modern literature and philosophy: Wasteland aesthetics, published by Edinburgh University Press.
Works & Authors Mentioned & Referenced
Friedrich Nietzsche: Dionysus-Dithyrambs
Vittoria Di Palma: Wasteland: A History
Mad Max Franchise
Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian
Paolo Bacigalupi: The Water Knife
JG Ballard: The Drought
JG Ballard: Hello America
Octavia Butler: The Parable of the Sower
Lawrence of Arabia, dir. David Lean
Frank Herbert: Dune
Jean Baudrillard: America
Rebecca Solnit: Savage Dreams
Evan Calder Williams: Combined and Uneven Apocalypse
China Miéville: The Scar, Railsea
If you enjoy the episode and want to find out how to support the show then click here for more information.
Looking for more on places in fiction? Then try this episode on Antartica
More of deserts in science fiction? This episode is on the canals of Mars
Words To That Effect is a member of the Headstuff Podcast Network. Check out a whole host of great Irish podcasts here
Transcripts: Desert Fictions
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I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect. Stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture
Me: “The desert grows, Woe to him who harbors deserts within”
Maria: Die Wüste wächst: weh Dem, der Wüsten birgt!
Well, I suppose my inspiration for the book was a pretty unusual one. I was, for many years, before I actually started writing the thing. I was obsessed with a line from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
“The desert grows, Woe to him who harbors deserts within”
He was a philosopher, but he often wrote in poetic forms as well. So this, there was this repeating refrain in one of his books. And it’s very puzzling and enigmatic to me and I started investigating it. And what I discovered was that, throughout European philosophy from the late 19th century, throughout the 20th century, the desert figures as a motif, a symbol of the exhaustion of the Western tradition, or of Western metaphysics, as philosophers might call it. And this has to do with the decline of Christianity, and things like that
I’m talking to Dr Aidan Tynan
I am a senior lecturer in English literature at Cardiff University. And I’ve just written a book about deserts and wastelands in modern literature, and philosophy.
I wanted to chat to someone who had explored all the ways that deserts appear in literature and culture. What the desert symbolizes, how it gets represented in the popular imagination.
This episode is the second in a loosely connected series on places in fiction and popular culture. Number one was Antarctica, two episodes back, and I have some more locations coming in future episodes.
So the topic of deserts is – and this is hardly unsurprising – a large on. An area, in fact, as sprawling and complex and intriguing as the desert itself.
But let’s give it a go.
So Nietzsche was writing about a growing desert representing a decline of Western culture, an apocalyptic image – and the desert as apocalypse is certainly an image that has persisted in art and culture since, which we’ll come back to.
So that philosophical motif of the desert was what got me into writing the book. I was also fascinated by an idea from the American environmental philosopher Paul Shepard, who argued that the fundamental categories of Western thought were formed on the desert fringes. So in places like the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, these places which are just on the border with deserts, these are the kind of key places in which Western thought, Western culture itself was formed. And so running through our Western culture, you have this division between what we may call the desert and the sown, or the kind of the sedentary notion of place and then the the nomadic desert notion
I mean, this goes back to the Old Testament as well. So Cain, who famously killed Abel was a farmer, he toiled the land. But Abel was a pastoralist a nomad. So you have running through Western culture, this opposition of the nomadic and the sedentary.
So there’s a tension between the nomadic and the sedentary. The shepherd and the farmer. Land which is enclosed and owned and farmed. And land, like a desert, which is wild, unknown and uncultivated.
In the quote from Nietzsche at the beginning, Dr Tynan points out that in the original German: Wüste can be translated as desert, but also as wasteland.
And these two words are often interconnected. A wasteland, of course, doesn’t have to be a desert. And deserts, in turn, are very much not wastelands – they have their own complex ecosystems, plants and insects and animals and so on – even if this is not always that apparent to human onlookers.
But when deserts are seen as wastelands it is often in this same opposition as before: the nomadic and the sedentary. Deserts are uncultivated land, useless land:
So there’s a great book called Wasteland: A History by Vittoria Di Palma. And what she argues is that in 17th and 18th century Britain, unimproved land, land that was an agriculturally productive – fens and common lands and things like that – that these were regarded as wastelands. And there was not only an economic but also a moral and a religious duty to, kind of cultivate these areas to make them productive.
There’s a line in the Old Testament, build up the waste places. And so that there was a kind of theological motivation to the kind of development of modern agriculture and that involved the enclosure of common lands and the growth of agrarian capitalism. So out of this sort of wasteland aesthetics emerges, modern ideas of agriculture, capitalist notions that, you know, the productivity of the land should be measured in economic terms.
So that’s the background, or at least a part of it:
There is a theological tradition and biblical tales around cultivating land and the nomadic and farming lifestyles.
There is a long philosophical tradition of symbolic deserts, a tradition which was itself first formed on the fringes of the desert.
And, then, all of this from a continent with very few actual deserts. I mean there are some deserts in Europe, in Spain and a few other places, but they are mostly fairly small or are only technically deserts in more limited respects.
I mean if I ask you to think of a desert right now, chances are you’re thinking of endless sand dunes in the Sahara or the middle east; or cactuses and tumbleweed in Mexico or the US.
Maybe you’re listening to this in Arizona or Chile or Western Australian and you really do live surrounded by desert. But chances are you probably don’t.
Yet that doesn’t really matter. As was the case with Antarctica, a few episodes back, just because most people haven’t experienced a place, it doesn’t mean it can’t loom large in the popular imagination. And a hell of a lot more people visit deserts every year than Antarctica (which, just to confuse things is actually also a desert because of the extreme lack of precipitation. But let’s not go there).
So how do we tend to imagine and portray the desert? And what does it say about us and our relationship to each other and, crucially, to the world around us?
So I touched on this at the very beginning, but there is a strong apocalyptic strain running through our depictions of deserts. The Mad Max franchise perfectly encapsulates this. Set in a dystopian, desert wasteland future, the series of films has been hugely influential on depictions of post-apocalyptic worlds.
More recently, the ridiculous and utterly wonderful Mad Max: Fury Road revisited and reinvigorated the franchise 30 years after the end of the original trilogy. And there’s more to come. The fifth instalment is due for release in 2023, and, fittingly for this discussion, is entitled Mad Max: The Wasteland
There are many other apocalyptic depictions of deserts which, unlike Mad Max, don’t involve firebreathing rock-guitar playing homicidal maniacs strapped to grotesquely remade desert vehicles.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a novel I’ve talked about before on this show. It’s certainly post-apocalyptic, and definitely set in a wasteland, although it’s not a desert. McCarthy, however, has written extensively about desert landscapes:
McCarthy himself was wrote repeatedly about the desert Borderlands of, you know, New Mexico, the New Mexico-Mexico border. And he wrote a really, for me, one of the great masterpieces of American fiction, Blood Meridian.
And it’s not a novel review on this, but it’s probably the most violent and one of the most disturbing novels I’ve ever read. But it’s set in the years around and just after the Mexican American War. The middle aged 19th century tells a story or a few decades of a band of from, I guess, sorry, a criminal gang, who were committing genocide against the local peoples, the indigenous peoples. And it’s a story about how America is founded on violence and bloodshed and genocide. But the desert in that text, the way McCarthy evokes the desert is absolutely astonishing. He uses a kind of a biblical, an Old Testament landscape and incantation-like language to describe the desert as this landscape of death and despair. So it’s very much a novel of, you know, of wasteland of negative imagery of the desert, but he uses it to symbolize sort of violence that was was, you know, at the origins of America.
Violence is often at the centre of postapocalyptic novels – for survival, for control when power structures have failed, for access to resources. There’s obviously that connection, in most people’s minds, between deserts and oil but the resource that is most scarce is of course water.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife looks at this in a dystopian future where, in a drought-ridden desertified US, each state’s access to water is key. The poor scramble to stay alive while the rich live in closed off arcologies: luxurious self-contained high-rise buildings designed to conserve and reuse water (Bacigalupi is using the portmanteau of architecture and ecology – arcology, a real-life set of design principles that explores how to create buildings that can have high population densities but very low ecological impact).
The water knife in question is a person, Angel or probably Angel, who is hired by those who own water supplies, to sabotage those of their rivals.
So in lots of cases, the desert is post-apocalyptic and is also firmly in the area of science fiction:
But my favorite examples are from JG Ballard’s novels. The Drought, for example, it imagines this future scenario in which a film, a chemical film forms across the world’s oceans and there’s no more rain, and the world just turns into a desert. The characters are wandering through these, these sand dunes with like broken down cars and things like that., discarded everywhere.
There’s another novel by Ballard Hello America, which is very interesting to us because it features the 45th American president, who was named President Manson. Of course, he just had the 45th president he was, he was named Trump. But in Ballard’s dystopian future it’s President Manson. And in that future scenario, the deserts that currently occupied the western part of the country have moved over into the east and the west is now a kind of tropical paradise.[[So deserts have often featured in science fiction, to think about kind of utopia and dystopia and the strange, strangely sort of narrow, thin line between the two. Another great example of that another great novel is Octavia Butler’s the parable of the sower. That’s set in a future California overrun with wildfires, it’s set in the mid 2020s. I think 2025. So it’s proving quite accurate and prescient.]]
Then there’s all those deserts on other planets. I’ve talked before on this show about science fiction set on Mars, about the similarities between the Martian landscape and earth’s deserts. Go have a listen to episode 4 if you like, all about the supposed canals on Mars, built to conserve water on a planet dying of drought and desertification. It’s from this that we get Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories, HG Wells’ War of the Worlds and so many others.
These stories went on to inspire the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. And there’s another desert connection too:
one of the one of the novels I write about in my book is TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of wisdom, wisdom, sorry. And TE Lawrence was better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He was a participant in the Arab revolts during the First World War in which essentially, the British forces drew on the supports of Bedouin trades of the deserts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia and places like that, to fight against the Ottoman Empire, and the Germans.
And Lawrence wrote this famous account of his experiences, but it was filmed as Lawrence of Arabia by David Lean in 1962, I think and that had a huge effect on Steven Spielberg, and also other filmmakers of that generation like George Lucas. And so when you get the scenes of the desert planet Tatooine and films like Star Wars, so when you get the deserts in the Indiana Jones movies, what you’re seeing there is the influence of Lawrence of Arabia on these filmmakers.
And Lawrence of Arabia’s music was by the renowned film composer Maurice Jarre, in his first film score. He later went on to score lots of science fiction films including the third Mad Max installment – look at all these desert connections.
And, of course, if you’re talking about desert science fiction, and about influences on Lucas, Spielberg and practically everyone else, you have to mention Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune, and its numerous sequels. It’s a story in which warring factions vie to gain control of the dangerous desert planet of Arrakis, so important because it is the only place where a hugely valuable drug is available. There’s courtly intrigue and subterfuge but there’s also a carefully and beautifully realised desert ecology with water scarcity at its centre.
There’s a new film version being released later this year, actually.
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So, looking at all of these texts (and there are plenty more – Dr Tynan and I chatted about Don Delillo, Margaret Atwood, Claire Vaye Watkins and a whole host of others… but you’ll have to read his book to get more on that).
But it got me thinking about what, if anything all these works have in common. Are there any ideas that run through most desert fiction, whether science fictional, post-apocalyptic, or more realist?
Yeah, I mean, I guess what crops up again, and again, is this idea that we can lose the world, the world can collapse completely, but that it can also be remade anew. So you have this disappearance and reappearance of the world, the world is, you know, only what we’ve made it and we can make it anew so often, you know, in the desert landscapes of fiction, of popular culture, especially in American popular culture, you have this idea of the desert as offering a kind of salvation, even if that involves suffering. So you get ideas of death and rebirth, definitely throughout a lot of these texts, but you also get ideas of changing our perception, learning to perceive things, anew and relearning what the place can be, and what place and space are. And I guess that’s partly down, a lot of it’s down to sort of hallucinatory perceptions that you often find in desert places.
Utopianism and dystopianism, remaking the world, a salvation from the everyday, a place outside society to perceive things anew.
Personally, I kept thinking about one place:
[When did you go again?]
I went to burning man in 2016
This is Meabh Connellan, a friend of mine
[So I know nothing, how does it work?]
It’s quite interesting because people would say it’s not a festival, it’s a recreation of a city. And the main area that it’s in is called Blackrock City
And it’s based on a load of different principles of, first and foremost, 100% leave no trace, so you come create this massive big city that has everything you need, you leave 9 days later and it looks like no one has ever been there, it’s a real appreciation for the land around you and the ecosystem
That’s kind of the first thing, but it’s mad, people don’t just go to burning man like there’s a load of people who live the burning man culture and they have that in their lives and their real “burners” and they take the principles of BM in their day to day lives. Things like radical self-reliance, radical inclusion, it’s all radical! [Laugh]
Radical self-expression, and it’s all built around community so it’s a community where everybody is – the friendliest person you will ever meet are at Burning Man, everyone is so nice, so inclusive, so friendly and its this idea of participation and self-reliance which means that people bring the fun – so you don’t have acts that promoters bring in and play, people brings the fun themselves and it’s how you participate with the culture of BM
And plenty of people participate with the culture:
70000 people go, It’s huge. The playa itself is massive and everyone foes around on bikes and obviously there’s no electricity and plumbing, it’s complete self reliance. There are portaloos and they’re actually so well maintained but there’s no electricity at night time its incredibly you have to light yourself up you have to have glow in the dark lights in your bike and your body and you have these art cars that go around breathing fire so it give this magical, I suppose mad max feel
And the culture behind the festival, the type of people it attracts, the atmosphere, well, it couldn’t be anywhere but a desert:
You have these things called white outs – the powder that creates the desert is so fine if there’s wind it can create white outs, it’s why you see people with goggles and masks, walking through a white out is so surreal, it could be 2 oclock, walking through and 500 people around you and you can’t see them, it’s pretty spectacular
Could it work elsewhere? Where is there that expanse of open land, feeling of being away from the world, makes it so special, so far away from your own day to day reality, that creates the intensity of the culture
Alongside all of this you have the desert as symbolising the emptiness and pure superficiality of culture, the “desert of the real” in the famous phrase by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard:
he wrote a remarkable travel book called America, L’Amerique And he argues that, you know, he spends much of the book just driving through the desert landscapes of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, places like that.
So he’s, he’s not giving you what you would expect from a travel book about America. He’s not in like New York or Las Vegas, or the cities, he’s driving through the desert landscapes, and he’s thinking to himself, these deserts, these are the perfect symbol of what has happened to culture in America, because he’s saying in America culture, this is his French snobbery coming into play. But in America, culture comes to die. And what we’re left with is just this sort of pure superficialiality, what he called hyperreality. There’s nothing real about American culture, there’s nothing authentic. And he looks at the desert landscapes are going to inhuman mineralogical landscapes of the desert. And he’s saying this is the perfect symbol for postmodern American culture.
And he gives us the phrase in that book, “the desert of the real” meaning. When you look at postmodern culture, American culture, when you strip away everything, when you strip away the representations, there’s no real object underneath. There’s just a sort of an emptiness or a desert. And so he gives us this phrase, the desert of the real.
Deserts can by symbolic places of cultural and artistic emptiness and superficiality, for Baudrillard, but they are also real-life places where emptiness, real or apparent, can be advantageous.
Deserts are places where things can happen far out of sight of curious or suspicious onlookers.: where better than the deserts of New Mexico for Walter White and Jessie Pinkman to cook up crystal meth in a camper van.
But it can also be somewhere that can be conveniently construed as “empty” when required by governments and corporations: a place to bury toxic waste, say, or to test nuclear weapons:
Rebecca Solnit, has written a book called Savage Dreams, about nuclear testing in the deserts of Nevada, and places like that. Dozens and dozens of nuclear bombs were set off, detonated, in the desert to the American Southwest during the Cold War, because we generally don’t think that – we think of Nagasaki and Hiroshima is the two, nuclear bomb detonations. But there was loads of testing that was going on, and most of those were done in desert places.
Let’s finish, though, on a more positive note, with the concept of salvage punk:
it’s a term that I take from Evan Calder Williams, who wrote an interesting book called Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. And he caught as you say, he contrasts salvage punk with cyber, cyber punk and, and steampunk. But it’s also an idea. I mean, it’s essentially the Mad Max scenario where you’re living in a world where everything is breaking down. It’s a post apocalyptic world. So you can’t you can’t really fix anything permanently or you can’t make any new stuff. So you keep having to patch up what you already have.
It’s an idea explored extensively by another author who has cropped up a number of times on this show: China Miéville
So he’s written books like The Scar, and RailSea. And these these are narratives set in post apocalyptic worlds where salvaging stuff and kind of recycling things is some is the norm.
These are often dirty, chaotic, or anarchic worlds but they can be beautiful and progressive in so many ways
Because salvage punk is all about like recycling and helping each other helping, you know, acting acting collectively and all of that so yeah, so salvage punk is, is, you know, it’s interesting because it’s, it’s this kind of dystopian vision of the future, but it also in some ways gives us a kind of a guide to how to live better, you know?
In William Gibson’s famous line, “the street finds its own uses for things”, but this punk is not cyberpunk, it’s not technological, it’s ecological.
I mean, ecology meaning basically everything is interconnected. And I guess what you get in salvage punk upon is, you know, that the idea of just kind of making do and sticking things together and kind of constantly reconstructing the world
So the desert can offer hope and salvation, a place for radical self-expression and self-reliance, a place outside society. In the desert you may day or you may be born again.
But deserts too can be wastelands: harsh post-apocalyptic landscapes of violence and struggle, or a stark reminder of the climate crisis facing our planet.
Deserts, in the end, are wonderfully ambiguous places.
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening.
Special thanks to my guest this week Dr Aidan Tynan. His book is out now if you’d like to know more about all the areas covered today and lots more. I’ll put links to the book on the Words To That Effect website, which is wttepodcast.com.
Thanks also to Meabh Connellan for chatting to me about Burning Man, and to Maria, who was the German voice of Nietzche there at the beginning
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See you next time.