A Pelican in the Wilderness

“A man that studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the House Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness” – Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), “Centuries of Meditations”, The Fourth Century (13).
Pelican 1
“A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses”
Isabel Colegate
284pp, HarperCollins, 2002; 2nd edition 2010

From a review by Blake Morrison, “The Guardian”, Saturday 16 February 2002

“”Le grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul”: the great sickness, said La Bruyère, is the inability to be alone. Solitude was once counted a virtue. These days, recluses are regarded with suspicion. “Loner” is a word reserved for paedophiles and serial killers. Only a special few are allowed to retreat from society: those, like monks and nuns, wearing the proper uniform. The rest of us are expected to surround ourselves with company; only then can we keep the infinite spaces at bay. Even the solitary stroll, traditionally a cure for most things (solvitur ambulando: it is solved by walking), has been abolished, thanks to the personal stereo and mobile phone.

Yet hermits have been around since the first cave. In every culture they can be found heading into the wilderness and living off roots and berries…

Colegate’s interest in the subject stems from a 15-acre wood she used to trespass in and now owns. The wood was planted 200 years ago and originally included a hermit’s cell, that great fashion accessory of the Augustan age. Intrigued, she began to excavate the site, and gradually restored the hermitage to its pristinely ruined state. Had she been living in the 18th century, she’d have gone further and installed a hermit. Many a landowner did so: Charles Hamilton, for instance, advertised for a hermit who’d stick around for seven years, in return for which he’d provide food, water, a Bible and, at the end, 700 guineas. The successful applicant lasted only three weeks before being spotted sneaking off to the local pub.

This is the sillier end of the recluse business. Colegate is more interested in the solid majority of hermits, with their spiritual yearning, straggly beards and love of nature. Her subjects range from Thoreau, who claimed to have built his hut by Walden Pond for $28.12, to Krishnamurti and Swami Abhishiktananda. Her travels take her from Dumfriesshire, where there is a thriving Buddhist retreat, to the Syrian desert, home of St Simeon, the most famous of the stylites. Stylites are hermits who dwell on the tops of pillars, and aren’t to be confused with dendrites, who live in trees. Among the latter was Mrs Pobjoy, Beau Nash’s last mistress, who after his death in 1761 moved into a hollow trunk and stayed there.
Hermits come and go, like everyone else. They were common in the middle ages, and again in the early 19th century, when the myth of the noble savage gave them a new lease of life. After the first world war, many of Britain’s hermits were trench survivors suffering from shell shock; the late Richard Cobb reported that there were five living in the Tunbridge Wells of his childhood. The backwoods of the US filled up with hippies and outlaws after Vietnam. Mount Athos, in Macedonia, was a similar magnet after the collapse of communism. In the 1960s, the average age of monks there was 80; in 1991, it was 34.
It seems that hermits are far less solitary than legend suggests. St Anthony, prototype for Christian hermits, had hundreds of followers living near him in huts and cells, and crowds would flock to hear him. Hermits may withdraw from the world, but they’re also expected to give something back – whether herbal cures, honey from their hives or sermons on how to live. Nor are hermits always male: among the women Colegate talks to is Sister Maximilian, who rides a motorbike and supports herself by heraldic painting. She also cites cases of nuns living in celibate union with monks. There’s a word for this – syneisaktism – just as there is for the neurosis many recluses suffer from: scopophobia, the fear of being looked at.

Neurosis is a risk for those who live in isolation. Sensible hermits keep themselves busy communing with God and cultivating their gardens, but as well as the ecstatic self-transcendence achieved through meditation, there’s also the prison of solipsism. “Woe to him that is alone when he falleth,” says the Bible, “for he hath not another to help him up.” Colegate cites the cases of three poets – Cowper, Clare and Gurney – whose solitude led to the madhouse. Other hermits have simply been frauds.

Her book isn’t short on literary examples, and she cites the case of JD Salinger, who turned his back on the world at the peak of worldly success…

The best passages are those where Colegate describes places she has visited and people she has met. Elsewhere, she seems shy of self-exposure (this is her first work of non-fiction), and in her enthusiasm for the subject bombards us with bitty character sketches and historical anecdotes. The book is full of fascinating detail, but a sharper focus would have made it less fragmentary.

Today the city hermit has things easier than his country cousin. The weirdo in the woods will be removed by social services, whereas the crusty in cardboard city is tossed the odd coin and left alone. You don’t get to live alongside deer and finches, but there’s nowhere more isolated than a city street.”

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From a review by Richard North, “The Independent”, Monday 11 March 2002

“This is a delicious book, not least because it has a brisk, even secular, approach to a subject too often approached in a spirit of gushing awe. Not credulous, but not cynical either, Isabel Colegate begins with speculation about a ruined 18th-century hermitage in her own garden. She takes us deep into the Enlightenment, when cultured people – notably sociable, most of them – thrilled themselves with the idea of the craggy unsociability of the hermit….

Colegate has travelled the world looking for hermits, and brings back meetings with contemporary Christians, Hindus and Buddhists without crowing about her exploits. She is never the story, which is refreshing.

Partly because there are fewer of them than ever, but also because of the lives they lead, not many of us have ever met a hermit. Yet, oddly, it takes a book like this to remind us that the full-time, full-on hermit is merely a professional version of what any of us needs (and most of us manage, more or less) to be on an amateur and part-time basis. Isabel Colegate says that “elected silence” cleanses “the doors of perception”. Like most of us, she probably believes that there is a deficiency in individuals who can’t handle being alone, quiet and unentertained.

The idea of the wilderness is crucial. As Colegate notes, people tended to seek out the lonely wild when their civilisation adopted and corrupted their religion. Historians seem to agree that’s why Saints Paul (and a little later) Antony decamped into the bleak Egyptian hills. Then there is the recurring theme that hermits can do something to heal the fallen world and its rift with the natural state.
egyptian desert 2
Hermits were routinely succoured by wild animals and birds as they battled demons in the waste. No wonder the hermit and the wilderness have remained a potent combination: as Colegate notes, the 19th-century back-to-nature movement (and our own greens and mountaineers) saw that solitude in wildness had become therapeutic in an industrial age, in much the way it had been redemptive in a religious one.

Colegate only lightly touches on an idea which is common in monastic conversations. Maybe any of us should and can cultivate what has often been called “the desert within”. Indeed, the image of the hermit as a loner in the wild can obscure the way that the real work of the hermit can be done in public, or in the city. Most monks live a life which combines the solitary with a horrible absence of privacy: Mother Julian of Norwich was holed up in a church in Norwich. Any of us can construct a virtual hermitage in a personal wilderness. Indeed, this may be what the cult of minimalism is about.
There are all sorts of solitaries who are not hermits. Tramps and lone sailors are not sufficiently deliberate in their spirituality (if any) to qualify. Neither is the castaway’s solitariness. Robinson Crusoe rationalised that he had been shipwrecked to atone for the crime of abandoning his father, while a religious anchorite is on a deliberate pilgrimage away from family, and towards God.

Colegate never gives us psychobabble. She is adding to a select literature of spiritual tourism (most of which she usefully cites) among pilgrims engaged on “the solitary voyage of the practised mind into the void”. Of course, we are not much the wiser, though we are likely to be intrigued. As outsiders, we can’t know whether any particular hermit is actually spiritual. Not for nothing have established religions been wary of these loners. An appetite for loneliness is often a sign of mental illness, and it is hard to know (or check) what is being achieved by people doing their own thing.

Yet Isabel Colegate is surely right to be impressed by the toughness of mind and body of her hermits. Any weaker vessels – in the manner of one 18th-century hermit she cites – would have legged it down to the pub, and out of the annals.”

From a review by Frank Kermode in “The New York Times”, April 21, 2002

“ISABEL COLEGATE’S 12 novels include ”The Shooting Party,” which was made into an interesting movie. Her first nonfiction book is a series of meditations on solitude in its more extreme forms. The title is borrowed from the 17th-century poet Thomas Traherne, a man said to have led a ”single and devout life,” and one who also achieved posthumous seclusion, for his writings evaded serious public notice until, in 1897, a browser at a London bookstall acquired for a few pennies a manuscript, previously unknown, of his beautiful meditations. One of them now provides Colegate with her title and a fanciful epigraph: ”A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the House Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness.”

This observation might suggest that the attainment of felicity requires one to be not merely alone but elevated, in which case the happiest of hermits were the stylites, so named because they perched on pillars in the wilderness (Greek: stylos, a pillar). The most celebrated of the stylites was Simeon, a fifth-century saint who lived for 36 years in a hut on top of a pillar 60 feet high, emerging from time to time to harangue the crowds and entertain them by performing up to a thousand consecutive genuflections, very likely still a record.
Colegate indeed does, in her own good time, deal pleasantly with St. Simeon and other stylites, incidentally pointing out that they were not true hermits, since hermits do not have crowds of fans. Still, they were in a real sense solitaries, and deserve to be counted along with solitaries of many other varieties, men and, occasionally, women who secluded themselves with more or less rigor all over the world….

Her pace is civilized and leisurely, but she covers much ground and has clearly done a good deal of research and travel, some of it arduous. But the style is always well tempered, and the transitions smooth….

Some spiritualities do not travel well. The asceticism of Russian hermits and the weird behavior of Russian ”fools for Christ” offer more examples of this failure, though Colegate treats them with her habitual consideration.

The life of the hermit is often undertaken by people who deplore the lack of spirituality in whatever culture they belong to, but this renunciation is far from guaranteeing exemption from the temptations of the flesh. The third-century St. Anthony of Egypt, ”prototype of all Christian hermits,” retreated from city to desert, and despite his celebrated supernatural torments was joined there by many other world-haters. There are always some around, though nowadays usually in communities that favor silence. It seems that a monk or nun wishing to be a hermit now has to seek permission from higher ecclesiastic authority.

A lot of information is quietly dispensed in this book. It touches on the English medieval mystics (Richard Rolle, Juliana of Norwich) and stretches to include ”mad” 18th-century poets like Cowper and eccentrics like William Beckford, who spent his enormous wealth on a fantastic Gothic abbey with a tower, five times as high as Simeon’s pillar, that fell down. He lived (sometimes) in seclusion, surrounded by curios and works of art. Not perhaps a true hermit, but one who holds the attention.
Another upper-class English eccentric was Lady Hester Stanhope, a forceful woman who was the niece of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and had a career as a political hostess, but at the age of 38 retired to the Lebanon, where she lived, unveiled, in Oriental splendor, with some 30 personal attendants. Again it stretches a point to call her a solitary, but she certainly fled the city for the desert.

Like the world at large, the idea of the hermit was progressively secularized. Nothing could be less like the agonies of St. Anthony, or even the ostentatious retreats of Beckford and Stanhope, than the mild Romantic variety loved by Wordsworth, who communed with nature and conversed with stray solitaries but was rarely alone. America has its own version of this compromise: Thoreau was ”quite a sociable hermit.” However, it also invented the modern celebrity hermit, for instance J. D. Salinger; and of course there was Howard Hughes.

That name is a reminder that some seek solitude for reasons more pathological than religious. They may be suffering from what is here called scopophobia, a fear of being looked at…

Preferring holiness to pathology, Colegate enjoys her wanderings but returns in the end to the place where she started. On a visit to an Anglican convent she meets a nun whose need for solitude had taken her to an abandoned cabin on a cliff. Having repaired it, she lived there for 18 years, not quite alone because people brought their troubles to her. Unlike the Duke of Portland, Howard Hughes or Beckford, she believed that the responsibility of the solitary was ”to stand at the intersection between the love of God and suffering humanity.” Colegate finds this attitude admirable….

Unhappy and unwilling hermits serve as warnings of the dangers of solitariness. Its virtues are exemplified by the American monk Thomas Merton and by the donor of Colegate’s title, Thomas Traherne, who spoke of the way to felicity as solitary; but this felicity is not the solitude of the abandoned or the disgruntled. It is rather an ”elected silence” — the expression is Gerard Manley Hopkins’s — that gives us the possibility of cleansing the doors of our perception, so that we might even see the world as Traherne did, ”saluted and surrounded by innumerable joys.”

Here, then, is a collection of hermits, all shapes and sizes. Colegate’s tone, unobtrusively religious rather than pious, is pleasantly qualified by moments of straight-faced irony, and when you consider the extremes of conduct it describes, her book is remarkably peaceful and agreeable.”
pelican 3
Isabel Diana Colegate (born 10 September 1931) is a British author and literary agent. Her novel “The Shooting Party” (1980) was adapted as an award-winning film of the same name, released in 1985 by Castle Hill Productions Inc http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabel_Colegate
See also http://biography.jrank.org/pages/4228/Colegate-Isabel-Diana.html


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