But I am sympathetic to the idea of a such an existence. Mind you, I am not a misanthrope. I just prefer peace and quiet. I won't willingly submit myself to unnecessary noise and annoyance. For instance, the prospect of enduring our American presidential election campaign for the next 17 (!) months is enough to convert me into an anchorite or a stylite until after Tuesday, November 8, 2016.
Fortunately, we each have the power to create a hermitary wherever we happen to be at this moment. Not a solipsistic, narcissistic alternative reality, but a vale of refuge.
The gnomic pronouncements of the Tao Te Ching often leave me confounded. But I've always felt there is a fundamental core of truth (and basic common sense) at the heart of Lao Tzu's oftentimes circular and self-contradictory observations about how the Universe works.
No need to leave your door to know the whole world;
No need to peer through your windows to know the Way of Heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
Therefore the Sage knows without going,
Names without seeing,
And completes without doing a thing.
Lao Tzu (translated by Robert Henricks), Tao Te Ching, Chapter 47.
Here is an alternative translation of the same passage:
Without leaving his door
He knows everything under heaven.
Without looking out of his window
He knows all the ways of heaven.
For the further one travels
The less one knows.
Therefore the Sage arrives without going,
Sees all without looking,
Does nothing, yet achieves everything.
Lao Tzu (translated by Arthur Waley).
Ethereal and down-to-earth. Evanescent and hard-headed.
Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"
The advice of Lao Tzu can only take you so far. There is still the matter of getting through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. "The farther you go, the less you know." Yes. A fine sentiment. But the truth of it only emerges in the details, in the "small trifles."
What moves that lonely man is not the boom
Of waves that break against the cliff so strong;
Nor roar of thunder, when that travelling voice
Is caught by rocks that carry far along.
'Tis not the groan of oak tree in its prime,
When lightning strikes its solid heart to dust;
Nor frozen pond when, melted by the sun,
It suddenly doth break its sparkling crust.
What moves that man is when the blind bat taps
His window when he sits alone at night;
Or when the small bird sounds like some great beast
Among the dead, dry leaves so frail and light;
Or when the moths on his night-pillow beat
Such heavy blows he fears they'll break his bones;
Or when a mouse inside the papered walls,
Comes like a tiger crunching through the stones.
W. H. Davies, The Bird of Paradise and Other Poems (1914).
James Maclauchlan Milne, "Loch Tulla" (1933)
Davies's poem gives one pause. It is one thing to indulge in reveries about a life of solitude, it is quite another to actually live that life. Here is another way of looking at this hermetic world-in-a-room business.
"All this, however, does not mean that I am an avid lover of solitude who wishes to hide in the mountains once and for all. I am more like a sickly person who has retired from society after becoming a little weary of mixing with people. As I look back over the many years of my frivolous life, I remember at one time I coveted an official post with a tenure of land and at another time I was anxious to confine myself within the walls of a monastery. Yet I kept aimlessly wandering on like a cloud in the wind, all the while laboring to capture the beauty of flowers and birds. In fact, that finally became the source of my livelihood; with no other talent or ability to resort to, I merely clung to that thin line. It was for the sake of poetry that Po Chu-i tired himself out and Tu Fu grew lean. I am saying this not because I regard myself as an equal of those two Chinese masters in wisdom and in poetic genius. It is because I believe there is no place in this world that is not an unreal dwelling. I abandoned the line of thinking at this point and went to sleep.
My temporary shelter --
A pasania tree is here, too,
In the summer grove."
Basho (translated by Makoto Ueda), "An Essay on the Unreal Dwelling," in Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho (Kodansha International 1982), pages 120-121. This is the final paragraph of a haibun, which may be described as "haiku prose, or prose written in the spirit of haiku." Ibid, page 112. "A haibun usually (though not necessarily) ends with a haiku. The implication is that a haibun is a perfect prose complement to the haiku." Ibid, page 121.
Here is an alternative translation of the final two sentences:
"And yet we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling? But enough of that -- I'm off to bed."
Basho (translated by Burton Watson), in Robert Hass (editor), The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 58.
James Torrington Bell, "The Cairngorms from Aviemore" (1937)
I agree with Basho: I do not have it in me "to hide in the mountains once and for all." On the other hand, Pascal makes a good point: "I have often said that all the misfortune of men proceeds from their not knowing how to keep themselves quiet in their chamber." Blaise Pascal (translated by Joseph Walker), Pensées (1670).
This morning, I sat at the front window and watched a couple of dozen sailboats run a race out on Puget Sound. Behind them, the Olympic Mountains, snow-capped, stood serene, as mountains tend to do. The boats moved in and out of giant cloud shadows drifting across the blue water.
I realize that I live in an unreal dwelling, a phantom dwelling. But it will suffice.
In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, --
There is everything!
Sodo (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 34.
Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Harvesting in Galloway"