From the Biblical Judaean and Paran, to the exotic Arabian and Sahara, to the more familiar Sonoran and Mojave, the desert has long been regarded as a place of stark contrasts, crude survival, mystery, and transformation.
In this course, we will discover the desert as a vital character in three distinct pieces of literature; through these works, the authors use the desert as a metaphor for emotional identity (The English Patient), as a magical teacher and sacred place of revelation (The Alchemist), and as void & emptiness & symbol of a world which no longer offers any metaphysical answers to existence (The Sheltering Sky).
We will also utilize excerpts from The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art and Culture as a means to make connections across millennia of desert literature, thus deepening our understanding of the desert as a physical terrain, a textual character, and an interior atmosphere.
Brief descriptions of each novel follow.
The Sheltering Sky
In this 1949 novel of post-colonial isolation and psychological terror, Paul Bowles “examines the ways in which Americans apprehend an alien culture—and the ways in which their incomprehension destroys them. The story of three American travelers adrift in the cities and deserts of North Africa…The Sheltering Sky is at once merciless and heartbreaking in its compassion. It etches the limits of human reason and intelligence—perhaps even the limits of human life—when they touch the unfathomable emptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert.” –from the publisher
This allegorical masterpiece by Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho, tells the magical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of worldly treasures as extravagant as any ever found. Believing a recurring dream is prophetic, Santiago decides to make the journey from his hometown in Andalusia, to the Egyptian desert, to a fateful encounter with the alchemist. Having sold over 165 million copies in 80 distinct languages, The Alchemist is the most widely translated book by any living author.
The English Patient
“With unsettling beauty and intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II.” At the center of this tale lies the English patient, a nameless burn victim “riddled with memories of passion, betrayal, and rescue” which, via Ondaatje’s lyrical prose and poetic consciousness, “riddle this book like flashes of heat lightening.” –from the publisher