It is well known that Mount Atlas and those inhabited lands where there is a sufficient rainfall and every evidence of man's activity, the Province of Africa, the plateaux which are full of the memories of Rome, end abruptly towards the sun, and are bounded by a sort of cliff which falls sheer upon the desert. On the summit of this cliff I lay and looked down upon the sand. It was impressed upon my mind that here was an influence quite peculiar, not to be discovered in any other climate of the world; that all Europe received that influence, and yet that no one in Europe had accepted it save for his hurt.
God forbid that any man should pretend that the material environment of mankind determines the destiny of mankind. Those who say such things have abandoned the domain of intelligence. But it is true that the soul eagerly seeks for and receives the impressions of the world about it, and will be moved to a different creed or to a different poetry, according as the body perceives the sea or the hills or the rainless and inhuman places which lie to the south of Europe; and certainly the souls of those races which have inhabited the great zone of calms between the trade winds and the tropics, those races which have felt nothing beneficent, but only something awful and unfamiliar in the earth and sky, have produced a peculiar philosophy.
It is to be remarked that this philosophy is not atheist; those races called Semitic have never denied either the presence or the personality of God. It is, on the contrary, their boast that they have felt His presence, His unity, and His personality in a manner more pointed than have the rest of mankind; and those of us who pretend to find in the Desert a mere negation, are checked by the thought that within the Desert the most positive of religions have appeared. Indeed, to deny God has been the sad privilege of very few in any society of men; and those few, if it be examined, have invariably been men in whom the power to experience was deadened, usually by luxury, sometimes by distress.
It is not atheist; but whatever it is, it is hurtful, and has about it something of the despair and strength of atheism. Consider the Book of Job; consider the Arab Mohammedan; consider the fierce heresies which besieged the last of the Romans in this Province of Africa, and which tortured the short history of the Vandals; consider the modern tragedies which develop among the French soldiers to the north and to the south of this wide belt of sand; and you will see that the thing which the Sahara and its prolongation produce is something evil, or at least to us evil. There is in the idea running through the mind of the Desert an intensity which may be of some value to us if it be diluted by a large admixture of European tradition, or if it be mellowed and transformed by a long process of time, but which, if we take it at its source and inspire ourselves directly from it, warps and does hurt to our European sense.
It may be taken that whatever form truth takes among men will be the more perfect in proportion as the men who receive that form are more fully men. The whole of truth can never be comprehended by anything finite; and truth as it appears to this species or to that is most true when the type which receives it is the healthiest and the most normal of its own kind. The truth as it is to men is most true when the men who receive it are the healthiest and the most normal of men. We in Europe are the healthiest and most normal of our kind. It is to us that the world must look for its headship; we have the harbours, the continual presence of the sea through all our polities; we have that high differentiation between the various parts of our unity which makes the whole of Europe so marvellous an organism; we alone change without suffering decay. To the truth as Europe accepts it I cannot but bow down; for if that is not the truth, then the truth is not to be found upon earth. But there conies upon us perpetually that "wind of Africa"; and it disturbs us. As I lay that day, a year ago, upon the crest of the mountain, my whole mind was possessed with the influence of such a gale.
Day after day, after day, the silent men of the Desert go forward across its monotonous horizons; their mouths are flanked with those two deep lines of patience and of sorrow which you may note to-day in all the ghettoes of Europe; their smile, when they smile, is restrained by a sort of ironic strength in the muscles of the face. Their eyes are more bright than should be eyes of happy men; they are, as it were, inured to sterility; there is nothing in them of that repose which we Westerners acquire from a continual contemplation of deep pastures and of innumerable leaves; they are at war, not only among themselves, but against the good earth; in a silent and powerful way they are also afraid.
You may note that their morals are an angry series of unexplained commands, and that their worship does not include that fringe of half-reasonable, wholly pleasant things which the true worship of a true God must surely contain. All is as clear-cut as their rocks, and as unfruitful as their dry valleys, and as dreadful as their brazen sky; "thou shalt not" this, that, and the other. Their God is jealous; he is vengeful; he is (awfully present and real to them!) a vision of that demon of which we in our happier countries make a quaint legend. He catches men out and trips them up; he has but little relation to the Father of Christian men, who made the downs of South England and the high clouds above them.
The good uses of the world are forgotten in the Desert, or fiercely denied. Love is impure; so are birth, and death, and eating, and every other necessary part in the life of a man. And yet, though all these things are impure, there is no lustration. We also feel in a genial manner that this merry body of ours requires apology; but those others to south of us have no toleration in their attitude; they are awfully afraid.
I have continually considered, as I have read my history, the special points in which their influence is to be observed in the development of Europe. It takes the form of the great heresies; the denial of the importance of matter (sometimes of its existence); the denial that anything but matter exists; the denial of the family; the denial of ownership; the over-simplicity which is peculiarly a Desert product runs through all such follies, as does the rejection of a central and governing power upon earth, which is again just such a rebellion as the Desert would bring. I say the great heresies are the main signs of that influence; but it is in small and particular matters that you may see its effect most clearly.
For instance, the men of the Desert are afraid of wine. They have good reason; if you drink wine in the Desert you die. In the Desert, a man can drink only water; and, when he gets it, it is like diamonds to him, or, better still, it is like rejuvenation. All our long European legends which denounce and bring a curse upon the men who are the enemies of wine, are legends inspired by our hatred of the thing which is not Europe, and that bounds Europe, and is the enemy of Europe.
So also with their attachment to numbers. For instance, the seventh day must have about it something awful and oppressive; the fast must be seven times seven days, and so forth. We Europeans have always smiled in our hearts at these things. We would take this day or that, and make up a scheme of great and natural complexity, full of interlacing seasons; and nearly all our special days were days of rejoicing. We carried images about our fields further to develop and enhance the nature of our religion; we dedicated trees and caves; and the feasts of one place were not the feasts of another. But to the men of the Desert mere unfruitful number was a god.
Then again, the word, especially the written word, the document, overshadows their mind. It has always had for them a power of something mysterious. To engrave characters was to cast a spell; and when they seek for some infallible authority upon earth, they can only discover it in the written characters traced in a sacred book. All their expression of worship is wrought through symbols. With us, the symbol is clearly retained separate from that for which it stands, though hallowed by that for which it stands. With them the symbol is the whole object of affection.
On this account you will find in the men of the Desert a curious panic in the presence of statues, which is even more severe than the panic they suffer in the presence of wine. It is as though they said to themselves: "Take this away; if you leave it here I shall worship it." They are subject to possession.
Side by side with this fear of the graphic representation of men or of animals, you will find in them an incapacity to represent them well. The art of the iconoclasts is either childish, weak, or, at its strongest, evil.
And especially among all these symptoms of the philosophy from which they suffer is their manner of comprehending the nature of creation. Of creation in any form they are afraid; and the infinite Creator is on that account present to them almost as though He were a man, for when we are afraid of things we see them very vividly indeed. On this account you will find in the legends of the men of the Desert all manner of fantastic tales incomprehensible to us Europeans, wherein God walks, talks, eats, and wrestles. Nor is there any trace in this attitude of theirs of parable or of allegory. That mixture of the truth, and of a subtle unreal glamour which expands and confirms the truth, is a mixture proper to our hazy landscapes, to our drowsy woods, and to our large vision. We, who so often see from our high village squares soft and distant horizons, mountains now near, now very far, according as the weather changes: we, who are perpetually feeling the transformation of the seasons, and who are immersed in a very ocean of manifold and mysterious life, we need, create, and live by legends. The line between the real and imaginary is vague and penumbral to us. We are justly influenced by our twilights, and our imagination teaches us. How many deities have we not summoned up to inhabit groves and lakes—special deities who are never seen, but yet have never died?
To the men of the Desert, doubt and beauty mingled in this fashion seemed meaningless. That which they worship they see and almost handle. In the dreadful silence which surrounds them, their illusions turn into convictions—the haunting voices are heard; the forms are seen.
Of two further things, native to us, their starved experience has no hold; of nationality (or if the term be preferred, of "The City") and of what we have come to call "chivalry." The two are but aspects of one thing without a name; but that thing all Europeans possess, nor is it possible for us to conceive of a patriotism unless it is a patriotism which is chivalric. In our earliest stories, we honour men fighting odds. Our epics are of small numbers against great; humility and charity are in them, lending a kind of magic strength to the sword. The Faith did not bring in that spirit, but rather completed it. Our boundaries have always been intensely sacred to us. We are not passionate to cross them save for the sake of adventure; but we are passionate to defend them. In all that enormous story of Rome, from the dim Etrurian origins right up to the end of her thousand years, the Wall of the Town was more sacred than the limits of the Empire.
The men of the Desert do not understand these things. They are by compulsion nomad, and for ever wandering; they strike no root; their pride is in mere expansion; they must colonise or fail; nor does any man die for a city.
As I looked from the mountain I thought the Desert which I had come so far to see had explained to me what hitherto I had not understood in the mischances of Europe. I remained for a long while looking out upon the glare.
But when I came down again, northward from the high sandstone hill, and was in the fields again near running water, and drinking wine from a cup carved with Roman emblems, I began to wonder whether the Desert had not put before my mind, as they say it can do before the eye of the traveller, a mirage. Is there such an influence? Are there such men?
~Hilaire Belloc: in Hills and the Sea