Thursday, October 30, 2008

The rewards of the hermit

For any soul contemplating the hermitic existence, I could do no better than recommend the far north-west of Scotland. Further east the landscape is barren, flattened by fierce Atlantic winds. But from Cape Wrath, at the very tip of the mainland, south to the Sound of Arisaig, the coastline feathers like wet paper, creating a pattern of sea lochs, islands, and inaccessible neuks, protected by the Outer Hebrides. Here a person could find a place to be alone, as wild and beautiful as any other in the world.
It was on one of those larger islands, Skye, with its Red and Black Cullins and shy puffins, that a hermit made his home for the past 20 years. The Leopard Man of Skye was a fixture of my youth: a crazily tattooed former soldier who had covered most of his body in big cat markings, living an ascetic existence in a ruined bothy, but surfacing occasionally to vex the press and earn a few pennies to sustain his solitude. This week Tom Leppard tickled the media one final time, after it transpired that - at the age of 73 - he had forfeited isolation for the more practical benefits of sheltered accommodation in a nearby village.
The practice of living one's life in seclusion is arcane in its roots. According to the Tarot deck, the figure of the Hermit represents prudence. From the questing knights errant of medieval romances, meeting world-renouncing oracles along their way, to Nietzsche's Zarathustra, who emerged from seclusion to proselytise gamely, hermits have always appeared in literature as guides and counsels. In early Christian tradition, the hermitic way was a precursor to the more clubbable monastic experience. But these days, the notion of removing oneself from society, whether for religious, philosophic or individual reasons, is anathema.
Total solitude is considered the preserve of the mad, the extremely devout or the deeply unhappy. We live in a culture that values being witnessed above all other things. Whether that be Jade Goody's cervical cancer diagnosis on a live "reality" show, or Kerry Katona's slurring breakdown on This Morning, the current ethic tells us no event in our personal lives is valid unless we've texted 10 friends about it and proffered it to YouTube for general derision.
In our timetabled lives, a plethora of technology offers a distortion of genuine closeness. An email sent from one individual in a particular state of mind reaches another in quite a different one, and this we call keeping in touch. It's good for consumerism, and it's good for surveillance. Yet such desperate binding has little to do with the things we really crave: family, community, a society that concerns itself with more than cash and flash. And it also denies the transfiguring qualities of aloneness.
It is an irony that, despite the atomised, estranged nature of contemporary life, we have forgotten the value of retreat, while failing to differentiate the qualities of solitude from those of loneliness. Perhaps because it is something we all fear and consider evidence of failure, loneliness - though it can happen to those with crowded lives as well as quieter ones - is seldom discussed.
While Tom Leppard's method of retreat was extreme, he insists he was never lonely. Of course, love and trust are essential to the human experience, particularly at a time when those less intimate but similarly sustaining bonds of neighbourliness and community are being eroded. But we cannot define our existence only in relation to other people. As the renowned psychiatrist Anthony Storr argued, intimate personal relationships are but one source of wellbeing. The capacity to be alone is also fundamental to development.
Storr observed that, while there has been much research into children's relationships with their parents and with other children, there is little discussion of whether it is valuable for them to be alone. "Yet if it is considered desirable to foster the growth of the child's imaginative capacity," he wrote, "we should ensure that our children, when they are old enough to enjoy it, are given time and opportunity for solitude."
But solitude fosters not only creativity. It also relates to an individual's capacity to connect with, and make manifest, inner feelings and impulses. To experience a contented, relaxed sense of being alone offers an opportunity for self-realisation, and is as much a mark of maturity as the ability to sustain relationships with others.
What is noxious about our modern climate is that it militates against genuine solitude as well as genuine intimacy. If we take the time to look beyond the bizarre tattoos, the story of Tom Leppard has much to teach us about both.

Photo: Hallaig, Raasay Island, Scottish Highlands. Taken from The Highland Clearances website.

The wisdom of the world

Novelty is only in request; [...] there is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but security enough to make fellowships accursed. Much upon this riddle runs the wisdom of the world. This news is old enough, yet it is every day’s news.

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure (III, ii).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Monday, October 27, 2008

in the rain

Photo: Jim Brandenburg

my eyes don't strain
in the elements
my feet don't falter
along the stony,


"No culture has a pact with eternity"...

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Little Sparta

"No culture has a pact with eternity," he says. "The conditions which made possible the giants of the western poetic, aesthetic, philosophic tradition no longer really obtain." Steiner doesn't believe "there can be a Hamlet without a ghost, a Missa Solemnis without a missa", and if you say that the questions addressed by religion are "nonsense or baby talk or trivial, I don't believe that certain dimensions will be available to you. Particularly today, when the atheist case is being put, if I may say so, with such vulgarity of mind."

George Steiner interviewed by Christopher Tayler, The Guardian, 19 April 2008.

Friday, October 24, 2008


It is at this time of the day, when birds gather on the wires and in the trees outside in preparation for the dark, that words like 'contentment', 'quietude', or even 'happiness', come creeping in, unwanted.
I wonder why we are forever retracing the steps of others before us, searching for the vanishing, the lost, the non-existent, among illusive ghosts and gods. And the thought that 'home' will be there, somewhere, an old friend waiting. Poor fools, as if time could be arrested.
I didn't come here for this, I didn't. Or did I?...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A buoy at sea

J.M.W. Turner, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus

[The belief that creativity lies within us, no matter how society treats us] became powerfully grounded in Renaissance philosophy. It appeared in the writings of the philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who envisaged Homo faber to mean "man as his own maker." [...] His Oration on the Dignity of Man of 1486 was based on the conviction that, as the force of custom and tradition wanes, people have to "make experience" for themselves. Each person's life is a narrative in which the author does not know how the story will turn out. Pico's figure for Homo faber was Odysseus, voyaging through the world, not knowing where he would land. [...]
Art plays a particular role in this life voyage, at least for artists. The work of art becomes like a buoy at sea, marking out the journey. Unlike a sailor, though, the artist charts his own course by making these buoys for himself. This is how, for instance, Giorgio Vasari proceeds in The Lives of Artists (1568), one of the first books ever written to chart artistic careers. Vasari's "lives" concern artists who develop within, who brought forth works despite all impediments, artists whose creative urge is autonomous. Works of art are the evidence of an inner life sustained even in the face of humiliation and incomprehension. [...]
The scorned or misunderstood artist has a long trajectory in Western high culture, in all the arts.

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven: Yale UP, 2008), p. 72.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Kôyô / Autumn leaves (5)

Togakushi Forest, Nagano
19 October 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

Kôyô / Autumn leaves (4)

Togakushi Forest, Nagano
19 October 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Kôyô / Autumn leaves (3)

Kagamiike / Lake Kagami
Togakushi Forest, Nagano
19 October 2008

Kôyô / Autumn leaves (2)

Momiji / Japanese maple
Togakushi Forest, Nagano
19 October 2008

Kôyô / Autumn leaves (1)

Momiji / Japanese maple at O-Inari-san shrine
Togakushi Forest, Nagano
19 October 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"Isn't life disappointing?"...

After so many years (when did I see it for the first time?...), this film still says everything through its gentle subtlety: the sadness of growing old and lonely, the mute but nagging fear of facing the future in uncertain times, and our desperate need to keep a brave, polite smile in front of the others who have no time for us and hence do not really care.
The flimsiness of social relations. The painful truth that we mean very little to most acquaintances and relatives, and will quickly fade into oblivion when not needed or useful.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lucky ghosts

It's true that travel is the saddest of pleasures, the long-distance overland blues. But I also thought what I'd kept fretting about throughout my trip, like a mantra of vexation building in my head, words I never wrote. Most people on earth are poor. Most places are blighted and nothing will stop the blight getting worse. Travel gives you glimpses of the past and the future, your own and other people's. [...] Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost. Politicians are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed. Is there hope? Yes. Most people I'd met, in chance encounters, were strangers who helped me on my way. And we lucky ghosts can travel wherever we want. The going is still good, because arrivals are departures.

Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), p. 496.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The temper of the times

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wreck of the Hope

A regime which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy.

Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (NY: W. W. Norton, 1998).