The Story of a Tree-Hugging Soldier Facing Camus’s First Question of Philosophy: Balzac’s “A Passion in the Desert” (1830)

7i-henry-rousseau-1895In Honore de Balzac’s short story, “A Passion in the Desert” (1830), a French soldier finds himself, by a series of unfortunate circumstances, alone on a desert oasis in Egypt, and with little prospect of ever being discovered.

Balzac sets the scene:

“Before him stretched an ocean without limit. The dark sand of the desert spread farther than sight could reach in every direction, and glittered like steel struck with a bright light. It might have been a sea of looking glass, or lakes melted together in a mirror. A fiery vapor carried up in streaks made a perpetual whirlwind over the quivering land. The sky was lit with an Oriental splendor of insupportable purity, leaving naught for the imagination to desire. Heaven and earth were on fire.”

One thing that is striking about the above passage is how Balzac so powerfully delivers us into a realm inhumanly scaled—and devoid of the organic, even in metaphor. He has cast his French soldier (and our imaginations) into the eternal and elemental—of sand, mirrored glass, air, vapor, and fire—all without apparent limit.

This tormenting vision is paired by Balzac with aural deprivation (the absence of voices and the sounds of life):

The silence was awful in its wild and terrible majesty. Infinity, immensity, closed in upon the soul from every side. Not a cloud in the sky, not a breath in the air, not a flaw on the bosom of the sand, ever moving in diminutive waves; the horizon ended as at sea on a clear day, with one line of light, definite as the cut of a sword.

Balzac has given us here a portrait of immense horror—of a world not companionable to the human psyche, and devoid of even the pleasure of the presence of other humans. It is at this point, Balzac tells us, that the soldier seeks whatever meager friendship he can find, for it is unbearable to be so alone:

The Provencal threw his arms around the trunk of one of the palm trees, as though it were the body of a friend, and then in the shelter of the thin straight shadow that the palm cast upon the granite, he wept. Then sitting down he remained as he was, contemplating with profound sadness the implacable scene, which was all he had to look upon. He cried aloud, to measure the solitude. His voice, lost in the hollows of the hill, sounded faintly, and aroused no echo—the echo was in his own heart. The Provencal was twenty-two years old; he loaded his carbine.

If, as Camus asserted, the first great question of philosophy is suicide (whether it is worth living or not), Balzac’s soldier, in a horrible existential situation, is contemplating that it might not be, and has his gun at the ready.

Still, there are trees that he can hug, and some of them are fruitbearing.

The soldier also harbors some (however distant) hope of being discovered, and so, although he could choose suicide, he instead becomes a kind of desert version of Robinson Crusoe, seeking to scratch out a living in harsh circumstances:

The palm tree seemed to bend with the weight of the ripe fruit. He shook some of it down. When he tasted this unhoped-for manna, he felt sure that the palms had been cultivated by a former inhabitant—the savory, fresh meat of the dates was proof of the care of his predecessor. He passed suddenly from dark despair to an almost insane joy.

Soldiers, it appears, can be existentialist tree-lovers (and tree-huggers) too.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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