Monday, 13 March 2017

Anchorites versus Thoreauvian Solitude: Or, Could I please unlearn this historical fact?

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On reading parts of Thoreau and Emerson, and to some extent Walt Whitman, I have learnt to have moments of deliberate solitude and find the practice quite soothing. Aside from a handful of ecstatic moments experienced in solitude in the scrub at night or in thunderstorms, especially on the Cape York Peninsula, this is a recent development in my personality. But there are limits, and Dr Green just slammed these in my face.

Until I was in my late thirties, I found it rather difficult to be alone. Now, I wait patiently for those periods where I can do my own thing for as long as I choose. But after reading the essay "Solitary Refinement" by Dr Matthew Green in The Idler magazine (Issue 50, Autumn 2016, pp. 57-63), it is clear that balance is crucial.

It turns out that some Middle Age celebrities were known as "Anchorites". Think of them as extreme hermits, or even caged oracles. Now, I read Cave in the Snow not long after it was first published, and I remember shuddering at the thought of so lonely an existence and for so long. But more recently, watching Bill Murray in the 1984 film adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge reminded me of Vicki Mackenzie, and I thought that maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Then along came anchorites.

So an anchorite gave up their freedom to be walled in to a prison cell. Forever. They were not prisoners, but more or less volunteers who were built into a closed cell with a barred opening covered with a dark cloth. The opening served as a portal for the passing back and forth of food and waste, while the anchorite gave their life to be "close to God".

Green says there were actually long waiting lists for "anchorholds" in London. Being an anchorite (or indeed, anchoress) "was a way of being someone". In the 13th century, there were even handbooks for anchoresses. Many were driven by fame.

I recently wrote about the uncanny valley, and how the mannequins in the Old Melbourne Gaol introduced me to the uncanny valley. I wonder if the uncanny valley was amplified by the prison cell. The idea of being locked in forever is enough to make me physically ill, and I am certain I would die within days.

But many anchorites lived in a room, some even had a garden area, like a gilded forever-prison. But what about this from Green?
An anchorhold survives in London today, at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in East Ham, measuring just three feet by two feet, and six feet high.
I cannot stop shuddering.

Here I was thinking Green's essay would be about monks and how the scholarly life was a solitary process yet it was fulfilling and so on. But this "extreme hermit" gig makes me want to go for a long walk and talk to and embrace everybody I meet.

Once again, it would seem that balance is key. Thank you, Dr Green, but the anchorite level of idleness is not for me!

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