Being alone is of all the states of grace the one most frequently discredited, or at least distrusted. It’s never easy to find someone who will speak out against family or community—the network, as it were, of human relationships—but the loner (or isolato, or solitary—all the terms have a faintly pejorative air) is generally presumed guilty until proven otherwise. There is a sense, strong if often unspoken, that he has failed in some way—certainly failed in his obligations to society—and that what he calls a pursuit the rest of us might call a flight. The Unabomber is much more often seen as the archetypal solitary than is Saint Jerome—and if we do think of Saint Jerome, it is, most likely, of that irascible penitent, pictured with a lion at his feet, who took up the study of Hebrew in the desert to keep his mind off sex.
The hermit, in reply, will say that he’s merely enjoying a different kind of marriage, going off to commune with himself, or Nature, or the Divine (to the true hermit, the distinctions cease to matter); his real aim is “recollection,” in the sense not just of memory, a Platonic retrieval of the forgotten, but in the sense, too, of a regathering, a picking up of some truer self that is too often lost. Yet because he has turned his back on society, everything he does will seem to reverse the very language of the world—so that what it sees as a “retreat” he calls an advance, and what it regards as penury he embraces as luxury. The hermit is best defined, perhaps, as someone who sees and feels the difference between loneliness and solitude.
That difference is the silent theme of Isabel Colegate’s unexpected new book, which turns an amused, if ironically sympathetic, eye on the best and worst kinds of solitary. It is a highly curious book, in every sense and all directions: curious in that Colegate gives almost no indication of why, after thirteen works of fiction, whose titles (The Great Occasion, The Summer of the Royal Visit) reflect her country-house milieu and social interests, she now, at the age of seventy, devotes her first work of nonfiction to the most unsocialized of beings. Yet curious, too, in a higher sense, as she shows herself half-unwillingly fascinated by many of the visions and eccentrics she meets along the way, and manages, in her meditative, subtle prose, to recapture at times the very rapture and otherworldliness that she describes. Without ever making a fuss about it, she travels, in this book, through uncharted Syria to visit Saint Simeon’s pillar, sleeps in the wilds of northern Thailand in search of a forest monk, visits the cedars of Lebanon, and spends time at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery “beside the busy little Scottish river Esk.” Her real mission, it seems, is to embody as well as to defend the keen sense of privacy she …
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