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I Vant to Be Alone

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 inspects.

As a result, the narrative is nothing if not whimsical. At the top of the second chapter, for example, we find, as in an old-fashioned work, a list of the topics to be covered in it: “Ajahn Pongsak—Edward Lear on Mount Athos—Tolstoy, Father Ambrose and Dostoevsky—Seraphim of Sarov—Czar Alexander I—’God’s fools’—J.D. Salinger—Agafia Lykov.” Elsewhere, a description of Englishmen who chose to live in caves (one of them was hired for the task by the fourth Earl of Northumberland in the fifteenth century) gives way, without explanation, to a line drawing of a camel. In the chapter “Nature and the American Frontier” we are introduced to “Ancient Romans and nature—Pliny’s letters—shamanism—Mircea Eliade” before moving on to “trappers, explorers and mountain men in America.”

Colegate’s account of all these characters is fairly cursory, as though she were merely attaching captions to exhibits at a natural history museum: two paragraphs here for the nun Eve of Wilton, six lines there for the fourteenth-century English mystic Walter Hilton. Certainly she seems to expect little knowledge from her reader (“J.D. Salinger, who wrote the tremendously popular novel The Catcher in the Rye…“). The narrative has the feeling, often, of a brisk tour with a no-nonsense guide around, say, one of those monasteries constructed like a beehive: she diligently stops in front of each dark entrance, discloses a few facts and dates and an anecdote or two (a little in the manner of Maggie Smith), and then, without inquiring further, tramps on to the next cell.

Yet the image with which Colegate begins—and the one that seems to stand at the heart of her inquiry—begins to suggest another aspect of her book. In the eighteenth century, she tells us, a hermitage was often the sine qua non of any gentleman’s estate. Men of leisure pored over pattern books to decide whether they wanted a retreat in the Oriental or Winter or Augustine style, and one hermit at least advertised his services in the paper, to “any nobleman or gentleman who may be desirous of having [an on-site recluse].” At some level, of course, these fashionable buildings were not much different from the second house or summer cottage that people may retire to even now (and the wish to “get away from it all” then took a form not very far removed from that of those Park Avenue matrons who fly off to ashrams today). And yet the wish to step outside the main house for a moment, to retreat to a place of contemplation and not of action—and a place designed to suggest a modest vision of heaven on earth—speaks, in however borrowed an accent, to something deeper.

The age of the merely “ornamental hermit” was, you could say, the age when the hermit and the hermitage parted company: the life consecrated to meditation was now something separate from the place where one could play, somewhat decoratively, at reflecting for an hour or two. Louis XIV constructed a hermitage (which happened to be a château), and, seeing it, Peter the Great did the same, and then Catherine the Great (which is how the name got attached to the museum in St. Petersburg, and, subsequently, to Andrew Jackson’s retirement house, and even the high-tech hotel now to be found in Beverly Hills). The eighteenth-century English naturalist Gilbert White got his brother to dress up as a hermit during cantaloupe picnics, and many a country squire was very precise in stipulating what he required of a hermit (“He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant,” wrote Charles Hamilton, the ninth son of the sixth Earl of Abercorn, in advertising for a recluse to occupy his retreat for seven years). When one well-placed prop called Father Francis died, bringing an end to the dark talk of death and eternity with which visitors to Hawkstone, in Shropshire, could be entertained, he was replaced for a while (like something from Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon) by an automaton. When that gave out, it was replaced by a stuffed hermit, “adorned with a goat’s beard.”

This abundance of odd detail helps to rescue solitude from piety, you could say. Yet playing just beneath the surface is the feeling, more interesting, that Colegate herself (the daughter, as it happens, of Sir Arthur Colegate and Lady Colegate Worseley, and sometime resident of Midford Castle) is trying to escape the main house to some more lonely perspective a little distance away. The hermitage, she writes at one point, is a symbol of the road not taken, the missed opportunity, that lies at the edge of our vision. It stands for the other life or self we might have had (and half wish we did have now); and it is, of course, metaphorically, the place where she does her own writing.

Colegate is a markedly English writer, in her interests and her cadences, and she betrays at many places here a distinct soft spot for the singular (in Syria she is happy to find a person whose looks suggest “a certain willingness to go along with the unlikely”). Describing Charles de Foucauld, a “fat French cavalry officer” who went to the Sahara determined to convert its people to Catholicism—and who succeeded in baptizing only one blind old woman and a three-year-old child—Colegate remarks that “his failure was so complete as to amount to a kind of triumph.” When she writes of one hermit who stood up all night for six straight years and another who lay down to conceal himself whenever he saw someone approaching, and when she finds a family of “hereditary hermits” in the Harpur-Crewes of Derbyshire, she seems to be compiling a global sequel to Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics (found in my local library, aptly enough, sandwiched between Who’s Who and Eminent Victorians). Though an Edward Lear painting of Mount Athos supplies her with the cover image of her book, Colegate does not hesitate to mention that Lear could not stop fulminating against the “unatonably odious” air of “monkery” he found in the Greek retreat; two months later, he was still urging a friend to raise a parliamentary motion for thousands of English needlewomen to be exported to Athos to bring down the celibate monks.

At the same time, in her first chapter Colegate mentions both Kipling and Maugham—not the most obvious candidates for inclusion in a book on solitaries—and one recalls that both of them were loners insofar as they were secret renegades. Much of the excitement and interest of their fiction—it could be said to be the hidden strength of the English presence around the world—was their attraction to everything that lay outside the British encampment: mysticism and exotic practices and the darker side of town. Though lazily caricatured as typical Englishmen, both were, in fact, distinguished by an interest in whatever lay counter to their upbringing. Colegate seems to have something of this same spirit, a secret sympathy for the likes of Lady Hester Stanhope, the niece of William Pitt the Younger, who went off to live alone in unvisited Lebanon. For those born to the ruling classes, Colegate suggests, nothing is more enticing than the Other.

I was surprised, at first, reading a book that finds a place for virtually every inflection of solitude from Qu Yuan to Chateaubriand, to note that Colegate never mentions Charles Waterton, the twenty-seventh lord of Walton Hall (and a favorite of Sitwell’s), who devoted his old age to clambering up oak trees and ministering to a lazy chimpanzee. Then I remembered that in her most recent novel, the beautifully composed and quietly intense Winter Journey, Colegate actually introduces a society character called Charles Warburton, of whom she writes, with typical slyness, “the name had dangerous associations.” The main character of that book, Alfred Ashby, is a photographer we meet in his rural English home surrounded by images, and memories, of Sikkim and Afghanistan where he has spent his youth; part of what gives such a Woolfian air to Colegate’s writing is the fact that she not only dwells on minutiae of the drawing room, but attends, always, to the alien light that falls upon them. In the midst of Edwinas and Augustines, Alfred drops LSD and pursues a fashion model.

In Colegate’s best-known novel, The Shooting Party, this note of mild-mannered subversion is even more pronounced (to the point where the book, which was made into a movie with James Mason and John Gielgud, might have served as an inspiration for Robert Altman’s seditious decorum in bringing down the country house in Gosford Park). The most intriguing figure in Colegate’s novel is the odd man out, a groundskeeper who lives simply and alone, and looks down at the doings in the country house from an ironic distance. His death at the climax of the novel seems to be the ritual sacrifice that allows the ruling order to keep going, even as (this is 1913) it prefigures the many, many deaths that will bring an end to that order’s sense of privileged removal. Another character in the novel, a former public school master, has “only just established himself in a Tolstoyan community in the Cotswolds” (utopian communities being another way in which Colegate delicately traces the unraveling of the British society of old).

In America loneliness often seems to be a matter of circumstance, the result of huge unexplored spaces, a wilderness that can be annihilating and a young society that in places is still in the process of making itself up. In England, by contrast, loneliness is more often a choice, a refusal to play the part you’ve been handed at birth (even a rejection of the entire play). Where social pressures are intense, the antisocial has a new allure. Colegate’s fiction has always derived its spark from the wry insider’s eye she turns upon the follies and deceits of those within the country house; the South African visitor who is another outsider in The Shooting Party admires English society as “the best in the world, confident, stable and stupid.”

In A Pelican in the Wilderness, Colegate excavates the mystics and the visionaries who form an important part of the countertradition in England, and in the process gives a literary pedigree of sorts to the dropouts there and elsewhere who are otherwise associated too easily with the New Age (the American tree-dweller Julia Butterfly Hill, for example, she links to the dendrites of early Christianity). Even in the 1890s, she notes, one Charles de Russet, a former student at the Simla Bishop Cotton School, put on a yellow loincloth and went off to live on India’s Mount Jakko, where a fakir lived at the shrine of the monkey god. (Later, de Russet became a fakir himself, and was seen around town in a leopard-skin headdress.) Colegate is at her best in highlighting the English strain in solitude, through such intriguing figures as the fourteenth-century English religious writer Richard Rolle and the mystic Thomas Traherne, who gives the book its title (“A man that Studies Happiness,” wrote Traherne, “must sit alone…like a Pelican in the Wilderness”). She also, while noting with equanimity that many of history’s recluses were running away from a hatred of women, has much to say about women who choose to live apart from conventional society, noting of Dorothy Wordsworth that “the amount of housework she did would break any modern woman’s heart.”

Colegate can be English in her sloppiness, too—“Enkidu” in one paragraph becomes “Enkiddu” in the next, and William Cowper is seen sinking “into desperate despair”—and yet, in a field so dominated by those who think that solitude is the way, the truth, and the life, her air of temperate urbanity is welcome. She seems quite undaunted about writing of states that are commonly thought to be beyond the range of speech, or thought, and, in fact, her unsentimental manner makes the solitary soul seem more intriguing and mysterious, by showing how often he (or she) is a figure with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

Yet, frustratingly, her very tact—her refusal to ask too much or to explore the psychology of reclusion at all—prevents her from addressing the theme on which she could have been most interesting, which is how intense solitude makes for a different kind of writing. She devotes five pages to Wordsworth and Coleridge without ever wondering whether Coleridge’s addiction to society and talk dissipated his energies even as Wordsworth’s lordly determination to remain at a remove from society diffused his. She mentions The Enigma of Arrival for its account of an English recluse, but does not ask how Naipaul’s own seclusion contributed to the uncluttered clarity of that work, its ability to make the smallest detail work as metaphor, or even allegory. Cormac McCarthy could be said to owe many of the virtues of his prose—the high, almost biblical diction and the uncompromising vision—to the distance he maintains from the world; yet that same distance allows him to commit clichés that many a high school student would delete, and sentences that are impossible to parse.

The lure and terror of the loner, after all, is that he may find himself not free of self but full of it, and more in the company of demons than of angels. “The devil has his contemplatives,” as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing writes, “as God has his.” Even the abbot of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton stayed, Father Timothy Kelly, tells Brad Gooch in the new book Godtalk,* “I believe in the possibility of a hermit. But I think it’s a very extraordinary type of response to the Gospel. For most of us, community is necessary for our self-knowledge. It helps us to recognize our own limitations. Hermits tend to become a little strange.”

In the end—and Colegate is bracingly matter-of-fact about this—loneliness can be just a vocation, a discipline and act of surrender not so different from that undertaken by those who wish to become dancers or musicians (or those most solitary of artists, novelists). It is, in both the highest and the common sense, a profession, as hard to dispute as someone’s choice of a life partner. When, toward the end of the book, Colegate goes off in search of some modern contemplatives—a former public school master among them—she finds them singularly jolly, garrulous, and down to earth, not unworldly at all even though they are not very worldly. The one thing that seems to bother them is the romanticism that outsiders project upon their solitude.

Being alone, they all suggest, is mostly a means toward being a part of some greater whole; the word “hermitage,” after all, refers both to the lonely hut in the wilderness and to the community that pulls such huts together. I write this, as it happens, in just such a place, a Benedictine hermitage high above the coast of central California where fifteen white-cowled monks make available nine small but comfortable rooms and five huts scattered across the hillside to anyone who wishes to live with solitude for a while (most of the guests are women, and many are Buddhist, or Sufi, or nothing at all). There are a few recluses within the monastic enclosure, and one of them is the technical wizard of the community. Whenever a generator goes on the blink or there’s a problem with the water pipes, he comes down from his solitude and offers a solution. Without the recluse—this seems a large part of Colegate’s point—the society as a whole would cease to function.

  1. *

    Knopf, 2002.

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