“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness…”
—John Keats, Endymion
In his novel The Lady of the Camellias, Alexandre Dumas describes how a woman dies in “…that desert of the heart, a more barren, a vaster, a more pitiless desert…” than the one found in nature. This passage is one of those memorable bits of literature that have the remarkable potential to reveal a great truth to any reader who takes some time to reflect upon it. The words chosen by Dumas may seem natural at first glance, but re-reading the phrase “desert of the heart” made me feel uncomfortable. It was once puzzling to me that this “desert of the heart” is somehow more hopeless than a land without water, without shade, and without life. Any rational person would wonder how that could be possible. How could a person find the “desert of the heart” more distressing than Mother Earth’s most merciless landscape?
I know in my soul that I should fear the “desert of the heart,” whatever it may be. Perhaps desert is not the right word, but it is the only one we have in the English language that can accurately paint the picture of what Dumas is writing about. I imagine that the “desert of the heart” is considerably icier than it is stifling, more plagued by darkness than by sunshine. Just like the Sahara, life cannot long endure there — at least not life at its fullest. In the “desert of the heart,” the bad experiences, the tragedies of life reign supreme. There is no joyful moment to overpower a catastrophe. Injustice overcomes righteousness. Atheism overcomes faith. Death overcomes life.
The “barrenness” of this place makes the heart wither. Dryness is the defining characteristic of the “desert of the heart.” Dryness of imagination, of emotion, and of spirituality are signs that indicate wandering in the “desert of the heart.” Life cannot grow when the mind or soul is parched. In the words of writer Yann Martel, if a man is “beholden to dry, yeastless factuality,” he will not see the miraculous in the world and he will “miss the better story” that is God’s role in it all. The “desert of the heart” occurs when a human being clings to what he perceives as the brutal reality of his existence. His heart will dry up should he continue to strip life down to bare survival instead of embracing life in its fullest.
The shade to the “desert of the heart” is, I believe, beauty. Not the temporary, surface level beauty our world tends to admire today. True beauty is real shade, real water — it runs much deeper, touching the soul. Beauty is where love finds it footing. Whether that beauty is internal or external makes no difference. You cannot love anything unless you find beauty in some aspect of its being. It is through beauty that the heart is moved. When I watch a beautiful film, my heart is moved. Whether it’s the heartbreaking ending of “Casablanca” or the uplifting conclusion of “The Shawshank Redemption,” it is the experience of moments such as these that expose me to feelings that are deeper than any of my own adventures have merited. There is beauty in Rick and Ilsa’s sacrifice because their love makes them better than they are individually and gives them the strength to endure life apart. Though there are actors on the screen, there are human beings as well and their pasts and dreams play a part in the beautiful farewell the cameras capture.
Things of beauty leave a strong imprint on the heart. This has remarkable consequences because, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote, “the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good.” Beauty endures far beyond the lifetime of the thing that once possessed it due to the human heart. If a man can avoid the “desert of the heart,” he has no doubt embraced beauty so that his heart may experience life. In a heart full of life, any beauty that a person has experienced over the years is magnified each time he comes across another beautiful thing. By the end of his life, each instance of beauty will be so exaggerated in his heart’s memory that each one will be a joy to him forever. Those memories of beauty do not fade. They do not “pass into nothingness.” Thoughts of illness, loss, and war die away. Memories of love, life, and hope survive. Only in the “desert of the heart” do they evaporate like dew.
I feel that I am walking through the “desert of the heart” sometimes. When I am cold towards another human being; when I wallow in self-pity instead of coming to the aid of others; when I view the world through the blackest lens I can conjure up merely because God has, in my view, treated me unfairly. Yet I have never fallen so far into that desert that I never find shade again. I run the risk of such a disaster though. I can refuse to see the beauty in certain things if I am afraid to lose them. To avoid loving anything for the purpose of preserving a barren heart — that is the sickness we all suffer from when we are selfish or cowardly. The cure for the person experiencing the “desert of the heart” is to fearlessly cling to anything genuinely beautiful. You will find that beauty does not abandon those who seek it.
When I am an old woman, I will no longer be beautiful. My vision will be blurred and my mind slower. I will not travel as far from home as I do now. The days of abounding beauty that characterized my youth will be gone. Yet I will still know how to love if I do not let myself wander in the “desert of the heart.” All of those beautiful things I have felt, seen, heard, and spoken will survive because of my living heart. I will be able to recall each one, and when I share them with others, the years will have worked their magic and each moment will appear more beautiful in my memory than it ever was in real life.
Lindsey Grudnicki is a freshman from Westland, Michigan, majoring in Political Science and History.