Can’t Look Away: Ben Ehrenreich’s Desert Notebooks
Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time
What does it mean to call a book “good company?” The phrase has become a standard, as in “Your book was good company for me on my trip.” It’s just like saying a person is good company: It implies the book is lively, kind, expansive, and thoughtful—the qualities that make it possible to be with someone for a long time before needing a break.
Ben Ehrenreich’s new book, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, is no doubt lively and expansive. It’s an extended essay with the American desert as its setting—Ehrenreich lives near Joshua Tree National Park for the first half of the book, then moves to Las Vegas for a fellowship—and most of human history as its playing field. It begins by asking questions about time (as Ehrenreich puts it, by waging “a battle against time, or at least against a certain conception of it”) and winds up investigating the history of written language, as well as the history of that history. To describe it results in a hodgepodge of terms, since it has a magpie’s sensibility, collecting everything from the suppressed origins of the goddess Athena to the death of Walter Benjamin.
We might map out the book as a series of different ways that humans of different places and eras have understood time. It might almost be an assembly of shapes instead of words: Time has been conceived as a wheel, a circle, a bifurcated field. Most significantly for Ehrenreich, Western culture has viewed time as a linear march toward the future—a narrative with a solid beginning in classical antiquity and a foreseeable end, or at least a goal: an ideal society based on reason and achieved via technical advancement.
It’s this “faith in progress” that Ehrenreich wants to attack. He joins a stable of writers who find, in the American Southwest, a rich trove of stories laying bare the dark and murderous side of progress: Think of Terry Tempest Williams or Rebecca Solnit on nuclear testing, Mike Davis or Edward Abbey on the destruction of ecologies. And of course there is the underlying horror of ethnic cleansing, the death and displacement of Native Americans: “That apocalypse is always with us,” writes Ehrenreich. “All the joy that I take from this land has been contingent on the destruction of someone else’s world.”
As we all know, the dogma of progress and the racism that fuels it have brought the environment and certain cultures to the brink and beyond—that is, not to any triumphant culmination but to the end of time itself. Part of Ehrenreich’s project here is to locate key moments in history when that dogma tightened its grip on the world. He reiterates, for example, Martin Bernal’s argument that although ancient Greece had received significant cultural inheritance from Egypt, that lineage that was whitewashed when Europeans began in earnest to build an economy dependent on slavery:
Until the early nineteenth century, Bernal proposed, there was little controversy about the debts Greek culture owed to Africa and to points further East…[but] a new paradigm…arose, not coincidentally, as European economies reconfigured themselves around the by-then-steady flow of wealth from the Americas, most of it procured thanks to the labor of African and indigenous slaves. All that exploitation had to be justified somehow.
Of course, the doctrine of racial superiority offered that justification. And part and parcel of it was the notion that Europeans alone existed in linear time—that Western civilization represented dynamic history and progress, while the rest of humanity was trapped in the unending cycles of prehistory.
Ehrenreich is at his most compelling when he links historiographical arguments like these with the specific histories of his own desert setting. He tells us Native American myths, for example, that brim with numinousness—a sense of aliveness in all things, from animals to rocks. Western thought came to reject such notions as “primitive,” proposing instead “that man alone is sentient and the universe just dead, dumb matter.” That became a self-fulfilling prophecy when US soldiers and settlers moved into and destroyed the worlds the indigenous people had known—for example, the land near the present-day town of Twentynine Palms. “Their cattle ate and trampled the plants on which the Serrano and the Chemehuevi relied for food. They shot the wild animals, leaving few for anyone else to hunt. In 1875, the state claimed the land around the oasis and gave it to the Southern Pacific…and denied the land’s earlier inhabitants access to the spring.”
Later in the book, Ehrenreich makes a parallel argument about writing systems—tracing the way that alphabetic script, like standardized time measurements, functioned for Europeans as both a triumph of abstraction, stripping the world of divinity, and as proof of racial superiority. Pictograms and ideograms, with their characters still visually linked to the tangible world, were judged to be unrefined.
“Narrating the development of writing would become another way for Europeans to imagine the world as a vast mirror in which they could watch their own supremacy take shape,” writes Ehrenreich, before he catalogues a number of fascinating non-alphabetic systems of writing, and goes on to suggest that European thinkers—even Newton, who proposed time as “an absolute and independent force,” one impersonal force among many—were more influenced by mystical notions of divinity than history has tended to admit.
If all of this sounds ambitiously far-flung, it is. Ehrenreich’s conversational tone belies the real demands he makes of the reader. As it proceeds, his text hops around through space and time, employing a weaver’s technique that asks us to track many things simultaneously, each in turn receiving its brief moment in the spotlight before the book abruptly puts it back down.
In one early chapter, for example, there are threads having to do with the Mayan Popol Vuh, black holes, a Borges story, Ehrenreich’s memories of the 1991 Oakland wildfires, and his present-time forays into the desert near his home. Sections might go on for a few pages or just a few sentences. Ehrenreich doesn’t use television metaphors, but they seem appropriate; it’s as though we’re surfing channels, or following the narrative lines of a long-running cable drama. All these fragments slowly coalesce to form a fabric—an implied argument about cycles of destruction and regeneration.
It’s a familiar essayistic method, lyrical, clever, and often satisfying. Ehrenreich deploys it well, and many readers will be perfectly well-equipped to manage it. But its writerliness begs a question, one that Ehrenreich himself raises early on: “Why bother to write?”
Actually, his full question is “Why bother to write when there will be no one left to read?” However elaborately Ehrenreich might enact a search, throughout the book, for a conception of time that brings him some hope, the dominant tone here—the note that won’t stop sounding, like a perpetual air-raid siren—is a kind of panic, a constant anxiety that the end is nigh.
Ehrenreich confesses that he’s been preoccupied with the looming apocalypse since he was a kid, living on Long Island and aware that nearby Manhattan would be a prime target for a nuclear attack. In the age of the Rhino (his perfect epithet for Trump) it’s daily news cycles and Twitter outrages that fuel his doom-dread.
“This morning I checked the news on my phone while brushing my teeth,” he writes—(Stop right there! we think)—“and read that North Korea had tested a missile capable of reaching Washington, D.C.… The Rhino’s response so far has been restrained, or perhaps just distracted. He spent the morning retweeting videos posted by a leader of an obscure English ultranationalist group. Everyone on Twitter was indignant as always, but I felt only relief. Today, at least, he was too scattered to insult Kim Jong-un.”
Over and over, as Ehrenreich weaves the fabric of this book, he makes sure to interrupt himself and lay at our feet the fearful headlines of the day. At one point he breaks the fourth wall to explain, “I am trying to...not ever shrug,” but the effect is less clear-eyed than wild-eyed. Every moment of historical discovery (say, the Babylonian and Sumerian origins of our sixty-minute hour) and every moment of quiet observation in the desert soon falls victim to the emotional slash-and-burn of Ehrenreich’s next bout of screen time.
“The paloverdes in the bank parking lot are blooming bright and yellow now,” he writes later in the book, after he’s moved—unhappily—to Vegas. “Great-tailed grackles are courting in the trees, their feathers a black so deep and oily that it seems to reflect every color at once. Four Palestinians were killed in Gaza today, one of them a fifteen-year-old boy, shot in the head by a sniper near the fence. A video of the shooting is circulating on Twitter. I didn’t watch it.”
Climate change comes up a lot too, as you might expect. Geopolitics. Homelessness. Mass shootings. It’s as though Ehrenreich thinks the rest of us—his readers—aren’t already involved in our own relationships with the horrors of our time, aren’t already grappling with our own dread. (The book was written too early to encompass the coronavirus pandemic in its litany of woes—which, curiously, lends it a certain quaintness, even prior to publication.)
There are a couple of ironies here that become hard to ignore. One is the fact that Ehrenreich locates an alternate way to visualize time in images that decentralize individual experience. Of course each of us is trapped in linear time, a one-way arrow flight from birth to death. But, he suggests, if we could step outside of our own limited viewpoints, we might hope to see time as a spiral, or an ever-expanding circle, like the way creosote bushes grow in the desert:
After a few decades, the individual branches of any given creosote begin to lose their leaves and die, but new stems, clones of the original, sprout from the roots that extend around the plant in a circle underground….This is perhaps a more useful way to think about the shape of time—[as] something living, a circle that expands out of sight.
It’s a beautiful idea, but it’s effectively canceled out by the fact that Ehrenreich makes his own consciousness the organizing principle of the book itself. Everything swirls around his mind—what he’s reading, what he sees on his morning runs; he is the center of gravity, the black hole into which everything falls. He wants us to feel as much portent and synchronicity in the moments of his personal life as he himself does, but he keeps himself too hidden—and thrusts forward his writer-who’s-writing-this self too aggressively—for that to work.
The second irony is that the significance of the American desert in Desert Notebooks ends up being not much deeper, as a particular place, than the fact that it happens to be where Ehrenreich lives while writing the book. True, he includes passages of observations on desert plants and animals, and describes his forays to petroglyph sites, Joshua Tree hiking trails, and the center of the oldest known creosote plant (nearly 12,000 years old). He writes engagingly of these outings, but remains a visitor, not a true desert denizen in the manner of, say, Mary Austin. When his fellowship ends, he’s off to live in Europe for a while.
Ehrenreich seems more truly to find his groove describing Las Vegas as a dystopian urban stain, which he explores at a sardonic remove:
Mainly I remember the crowds on the sidewalks, packed so close that staying together while walking forward took constant focus and effort. All those bodies, strapped into wheelchairs or swathed in shorts or tight-fitting dresses or bikinis and bunny ears, all of us so grotesquely, densely mortal beneath the infinite promise of the neon lights. We passed a man lying barefoot and unconscious, bleeding all over the concrete from a gash in his foot. Like everyone else, we stopped, wondered if we should do something, walked on.
Writing banality-porn about Las Vegas is nothing new, of course, but Ehrenreich wants to offset its cynicism with his own thoughtfulness about bigger ideas. Yet he evinces a pervasive sense that the problems of the world are, somehow, someone else’s fault. He lets this rip in a startling way when contemplating how Benjamin was refused amnesty in the “shitty” Spanish town where he committed suicide: “They would have done the same to me or to you or to any of us, and their offspring are everywhere these days, on this continent and on mine, cruel and craven, living smugly in their fears.”
Who is “us” and who are “they?” Who are these villainous offspring? Ehrenreich doesn’t specify, and he doesn’t acknowledge that his own frequent trips by car and plane—to pick up his partner at the airport, to take a run down in Henderson, to see where Benjamin died—are implicated in the climate change he dreads. In the same way, to succumb to the spectacle of the Vegas Strip makes for good material, but it does little good. It’s along fault lines like these where the inherent tensions of the book, its desire to hold so many disparate things in one container, threaten to make it explode.
Since Ehrenreich himself raises the meta-question of what writing is good for, it seems fair to ask what this writing is good for. What effect does it have in the world? The answer for this reader, at least, is that it prompted a mini-cycle of apocalyptic dread (since Ehrenreich is nothing if not a forceful stylist) followed by inurement. It’s the same numbing process we all go through, all the time, in response to the state of the world itself. The author has conjured a universe, and the reader must destroy it in order to keep on going.
If it’s really the end of days, then keeping each other company might be the last important thing we do. Ehrenreich is good company when he teaches us things, about history and nature, and when he illuminates connections in his well-crafted prose. But he’s hard to have around when he pushes us up against his own media-fueled anxiety. During pandemic times especially—when we’re all doing our best to maintain our humanity and sanity—Desert Notebooks may not be the friend we need.