A Pelican in the Wilderness: hermits, solitaries and recluses by Isabel Colegate

Solitary voyages to the desert within
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The Independent Culture

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.

Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia has again made this a familiar theme. It is a good starting-point because it forces us to see how cosmopolitan is the longing – mostly unrequited, and often more playful than religious – for loneliness. 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.

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.