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The Hermit Through History: Easy to Track but Harder to Understand

April 06, 2002|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."


Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses

By Isabel Colegate

Counterpoint: 284 pp., $25


"A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the Hous[e] Top," wrote Thomas Traherne, a 17th-century English vicar, "and like a Pelican in the Wilderness."

What men and women seek in the solitary life of a spiritual hermit, however, is not happiness in the ordinary sense. "[T]he flight to the desert seems to have been rather a flight of the mind to God," explains Isabel Colegate in "A Pelican in the Wilderness," a bright and highly literate study of asceticism in both the East and West. Nor do the rigors of life in a cave or on a hilltop always reward the hermit with ecstasy or enlightenment. "Despondency," she observes, "is the big beast that stalks the solitary."

Colegate, best known as a novelist ("Agatha," "The Shooting Party" and "Winter Journey," among others), places herself squarely within the rich literary traditions of English travel writing while, at the same time, plumbing the spiritual depths of the hermit's life. She moves deftly through several thousand years of history, always keeping an eye on the curious role of the recluse. But she concedes from the start that the idea of the hermit's life is one that few of us will ever fully understand, much less act on.

"The holy hermit has been there since time immemorial, somewhere up in the misty Chungsan hills of China, or wrapped in yak-skins in a cave among the Himalayan snows, or wandering through the crowds by the Ganges at Benares, or quiet in his hut in the deepest Russian forests," writes Colegate.

"[T]he idea so beautifully expressed by Bellini or Durer or any other of the many painters who have depicted St Francis in the wilderness or St Jerome in his cave ... gives rise to notions of solitude, closeness to nature, a life of study and contemplation, which have an immediate appeal even to those who know that the nostalgia they feel is for a life they would never in reality choose for themselves."

"A Pelican in the Wilderness" has less to say about the daunting and often dreary reality of the hermit's life than the way the very idea of the hermit has impressed itself on the Western imagination, including her own. Thus, along with famous hermits ranging from the Desert Fathers to Thomas Merton, she invokes Kipling and Keats, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even J.D. Salinger, who inspires her to muse on "the modern phenomenon of [the] celebrity hermit."

Colegate sees Salinger not merely as an eccentric recluse but as an earnest spiritual seeker. The clue is the so-called Jesus Prayer, a meditative prayer from Orthodox Christianity that figures importantly in Salinger's "Franny and Zooey" and suggests to Colegate that Salinger "was trying to find a system of thought which would make him dislike the world less than he did." She expresses her solidarity with her fellow novelist by protesting the "indignation and outrage" that have been heaped on Salinger.

"The reasoning behind this must be the thought that no one would be a writer or an actor or a musician--or indeed prominent in any way--unless their chief object was to be famous," writes Colegate, "and that therefore they should lay themselves down gladly as a sacrifice on the altar of human curiosity."

Yet Colegate allows that the "celebrity hermit" is nothing new--St. Simeon, who lived atop a column in the Syrian desert for some 36 years, apparently succumbed to what Colegate calls "the lure of fame, perhaps the holy man's most subtle temptation." Indeed, the 5th century anchorite would not have been out of place in an era of TV evangelism: "He seems to have provided a more or less continuous show," she writes. "He remained standing from sunrise to sunset, shouting sermons; he was famous for the number of genuflections he could do; an observer counted up to 1,244 before giving up. The crowd would cheer him on."

Colegate insists that modernity has not been kind to hermits. "[I]n the modern Western world solitude is undervalued," she argues. "To wish to be alone is thought odd, a sign of failure or neurosis." Then, too, the hermits who have long sought refuge in various idyllic places around the world have been ousted by drug-runners, guerrilla fighters and urban sprawl. And even those who succeed in finding a place of refuge suffer from "the age-old problem of the hermit who leaves the world only to find that the world follows him."

Still, "A Pelican in the Wilderness" demonstrates that the primal impulse to get away from it all is too durable to be wholly eradicated. After surveying the sites where Celtic mystics sought solitude during the Middle Ages, Colegate pauses to point out that one can still see the 7th century structure that once housed a monastery on an island off the coast of Scotland--"but it now belongs to Tibetan Buddhists."

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