Dispensing advice in the wilderness

Hermits by Peter France Chatto, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
What is it about Sister Wendy Beckett that so excites and perplexes, that makes a Financial Times interviewer choke on her polenta? It is, perhaps, that she embodies unfashionable opposites. She is a full-fig nun who makes television programmes, an explainer of high art who is a fan of Star Trek, a fan of food and friend of Delia Smith who lives in solitary austerity in a Norfolk caravan. She is of this world, apparently, but not of it; and this other-worldliness gives her not only curiosity value but a definite and incomparable authority. She is, in fact, a good example of a modern hermit.

Peter France does not feature Sister Wendy in his wide-ranging eremitical round-up, but by his own admission this is a selective history. From his house on the Greek island of Patmos, France gazes out at the cave in the rocks where the local hermit used to live until he was driven away by his visitors: they brought him cheeses, he gave them advice. Why, France wonders, do people turn to hermits? What insights do they offer?

He traces the history of hermits from China in the sixth century BC, from Lao-Tse and the Tao te Ching, through the Cynics and the Christian Cynics, the Desert Fathers and the monks of Mount Athos to the Startsy of north Russia. Socrates, an eloquent ascetic, if too sociable to be a hermit, said: "I think that to want nothing is to resemble the gods." Diogenes the Cynic (described by Plato as "Socrates gone mad") was a prototypical hermit, even if his truths were brutally expressed. He certainly wanted nothing; when Alexander the Great asked politely whether there was anything he could do for him, he was told, "Yes, get out of my sunlight."

Diogenes's pupil Crates was of more practical mien - "Prefer not the oyster to the lentil," he advised, "to avoid confusion" - and it is this moderate wisdom which distinguishes the Desert Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries AD. St Antony of Egypt lived alone for 20 years without seeing anyone before returning, bright-eyed, to the world. Dozens of others, less well-known, emerge as rare and perfectly rounded characters in the many nuggets Peter France quotes from the Patrologia Graeca and elsewhere - Abbas Poemen, Abbas Moses, Abbas John Colubus and others, unnamed, who struggled to contain their passions, trying to want for nothing. "To the same degree that the body flourishes," said Abbas Daniel, "the soul vegetates; as the body vegetates, so the soul flourishes."

More than a thousand years pass in a page of France's narrative between the arrival of the Rule of St Benedict, which effectively put paid to the free-enterprise hermit, and the emergence of the Eastern Orthodox Startsy, and it is here that France, an Eastern Orthodox convert himself, really engages with his subject. His picture of Macarius, the testy letter- writer of Optina, is especially vivid. From his tiny cell, Macarius dispensed advice on most, if not all subjects ("As to this life insurance, since I have read nothing in the Scriptures or the Fathers, I can say nothing about it"), in letters that now run to five published volumes.

Macarius died in 1860, two years before the "Yankee Diogenes", Henry David Thoreau. More than half of France's book is devoted to five individuals of the last two centuries: Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson's protege who spent two years living alone in a house he built himself by Walden Pond, Massachusetts, and wrote a book, Walden, or a Life in the Woods (1854), which became an American classic; Sri Ramakrishna, the Hindu ascetic, "the first guru of the modern age"; Charles de Foucauld, the rich French Vicomte who became a Trappist monk before settling in the Sahara; Thomas Merton, the New Zealand-American writer who, too, became a Trappist and then a hermit, "the hermit celebrity of his time"; and Robert Lax, the American poet, a close friend of Merton's, who still lives on Patmos.

Lax's existence as a neighbour is, one suspects, part of Peter France's motivation in writing this reflective book. But France's interview with him gives little away. Lax equivocally describes the life of a solitary writer as much as of a contemplative. His fellow Columbia student Thomas Merton, killed by an electric fan in a Bangkok hotel in 1968, aged 53, is the more articulate of modern hermits. "More than anything," he writes, "I want to find a really quiet, isolated place - where no one knows I am (I want to disappear) - where I can get down to the thing I really want to do and need to do - from which, if necessary, I can come out to help others." And, "Every man is a solitary, held firmly by the inexorable limitations of his own aloneness. Death makes this very clear, for when a man dies, he dies alone."