Buried Treasure

Geoff Dyer on 'The Desert' by John C Van Dyke
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The Independent Culture

John C Van Dyke was an art historian; in 1898, aged 42, he travelled on a pony into the Colorado desert. For the next few years, alone and often sick with fever, he wandered the deserts of California, and Arizona. The book that was to become his masterpiece, The Desert (1901), was composed "at odd intervals" as he "lay against a rock or propped up in the sand". The solitary perversity of Van Dyke's undertaking cannot be over-emphasised. At the time the desert was considered to have nothing to offer the civilised eye or mind. Either it was characterised by the lack of everything that made landscapes worth looking at or imagined solely in terms of a Saharan expanse of dunes. Van Dyke was the first to respond to the beauty of desolation. He saw that its "desolation and silence" comprised a category of the sublime. This was, literally, a visionary achievement, but Van Dyke did not stop there. He sought also to advance what might now be called a psychology of desertness, to articulate what it is "dra

John C Van Dyke was an art historian; in 1898, aged 42, he travelled on a pony into the Colorado desert. For the next few years, alone and often sick with fever, he wandered the deserts of California, and Arizona. The book that was to become his masterpiece, The Desert (1901), was composed "at odd intervals" as he "lay against a rock or propped up in the sand". The solitary perversity of Van Dyke's undertaking cannot be over-emphasised. At the time the desert was considered to have nothing to offer the civilised eye or mind. Either it was characterised by the lack of everything that made landscapes worth looking at or imagined solely in terms of a Saharan expanse of dunes. Van Dyke was the first to respond to the beauty of desolation. He saw that its "desolation and silence" comprised a category of the sublime. This was, literally, a visionary achievement, but Van Dyke did not stop there. He sought also to advance what might now be called a psychology of desertness, to articulate what it is "draws us to the boundless and the fathomless". Amazing.

Geoff Dyer's 'Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It' (Abacus) has won the 2004 WH Smith People's Choice Award for travel writing

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