In the Desert
by Stephen Crane
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
This is a poem I've liked for quite some time. In high school I wrote it all over my books, copying it out again and again. It's hard to explain the attraction: there's no particular technical skill, no turn of phrase or flowery language, and yet the whole thing turns on itself so that any word replacement would seem to destroy the effect of the poem. Crane's genius here is in the idea he expresses. I won't be able to express it half as well, but perhaps I can make a little headway.
Picture this 'creature' - not human, but a thing - who is naked. He is unprotected, uncovered, and surrounded by a great empty desert. Still worse, he is bestial, he squats. He is removed from you and I culturally, physically, by his nature and by his actions. What he is doing is cartoonishly horrible: holding his own (presumably still-beating) heart in two hands and tearing it with his teeth. It is hard to imagine a more terrifying creature, or a being more Other.
And what does the poet say? "Is it good, friend?" Friend! It's a shocking word, 'friend', identifying the poet (and, by extension, the reader) with this self-cannibalising beast. It is the first turn of the poem, where we realise that the poet is in the desert too, along with us, and that the creature in the poem is closer to us than we think. It is not such a hard thing, after all, to find a desert. Many people manage it without ever leaving the house.
"Bitter--bitter," the creature says, and of course eating your own heart is a bitter thing. It carries connotations of buried desire, of self-pity, of thanatos. But then we have the second turn of the poem: the creature likes it. He finds pleasure in its bitterness, in the fact that it belongs to him and him alone. This is a true drive to self-destruction, thanatos expressed cleanly and simply. It's the same idea expressed in many Mountain Goats songs - "I hope I never get sober", "I'm going to kill everyone in this room", "if anybody comes into our room while we're asleep / I hope they incinerate / everybody in it".
Is that so strange, really? If you are in the desert, and if you are in pain, then even if you are causing the pain yourself it is still yours. Were Crane to try and snatch the creature's heart away, the creature would kill him, understandably so.