There are no more deserts. There are no more islands. Yet there is a need for them. In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time. But where can one find the solitude necessary to vigor, the deep breath in which the mind collects itself and courage gauges its strength? There remain big cities. Simply, certain conditions are required.
The cities Europe offers us are too full of the din of the past. A practiced ear can make out the flapping of wings, a fluttering of souls. The giddy whirls of centuries, of revolutions, of fame can be felt there. There one cannot forget that the Occident was forged in a series of uproars. All that does not make for enough silence.
Paris is often a desert for the heart, but at certain moments from the heights of Pere-Lachaise there blows a revolutionary wind that suddenly fills the desert with flags and fallen glories. So it is with certain Spanish towns, with Florence or with Prague. Salzburg would be peaceful without Mozart. But from time to time there rings out over the Salzach the great proud cry of Don Juan as he plunges toward hell. Vienna seems more silent; she is a youngster among cities. Her stones are no older than three centuries and their youth is ignorant of melancholy. But Vienna stands at a cross-roads of history. Around her echoes the clash of empires. Certain evenings when the sky is suffused with blood, the stone horses on the Ring monuments seem to take wing. In that fleeting moment when everything is reminiscent of power and history, can be distinctly heard, under the charge of the Polish squadrons, the crashing fall of the Ottoman Empire. That does not make for enough silence either.
To be sure, it is just that solitude amid others that men come looking for in European cities. At least, men with a purpose in life. There they can choose their company, take it or leave it. How many minds have been tempered in the trip between their hotel room and the old stones of the Ile Saint-Louis! It is true that others have died there of isolation.
As for the first, at any rate, there they found their reasons for growing and asserting themselves. They were alone and they weren't alone. Centuries of history and beauty, the ardent testimony of a thousand lives of the past accompanied them along the Seine and spoke to them both of traditions and of conquests. But their youth urged them to invite such company. There comes a time, there comes periods, when it is unwelcome. "It's between us two!" exclaims Rastignac, facing the vast mustiness of Paris. Two, yes, but that is still too many!
The desert itself has assumed significance; it has been glutted with poetry. For all the world's sorrows it is a hallowed spot. But at certain moments the heart wants nothing so much as spots devoid of poetry. Descartes, planning to meditate, chose his desert: the most mercantile city of his era. There he found his solitude and the occasion for perhaps the greatest of our virile poems: "The first [precept] was never to accept anything as true unless I knew it to be obviously so." It is possible to have less ambition and the same nostalgia. /But during the last three centuries Amsterdam has spawned museums. In order to flee poetry and yet recapture the peace of stones, other deserts are needed, other spots without soul and without reprieve. Oran is one of these.