- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

By Isabel Colegate
Counterpoint, $25, 284 pages, illus.

In our crowded, fast paced, chaotic age, spending time alone might be thought to be the ultimate luxury, but for most it is not. As Isabel Colegate writes in "A Pelican in the Wilderness," her first book of nonfiction, "Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or character… but in the modern Western world solitude is undervalued, and the need for it forgotten. To wish to be alone is thought odd, a sign of failure or neurosis; but it is in solitude that the self meets itself, or, if you like its God, and from there that it goes out to join the communal dance."
As evidence that modern men and women seem to have turned their backs on solitude, Miss Colegate cites a prevailing affinity for "group therapy, study of interpersonal relationships, self-improvement exercises [and] personal training in the gym" all enterprises that are not likely to assuage "the loneliness of those who cannot bear to be alone."
In times past and in other cultures this was not always so, and in her witty and sagacious portrait of hermits, solitaries and recluses across time, Miss Colegate writes wistfully of those moments in history when individuals sought solitude, valued it and created havens in which to indulge it, often extraordinary habitats in nature's most inviting settings.
Miss Colegate is at her best recording her impressions of such places, hermitages that she discovered during her own extensive travels. Notable among her journeys are her visits to the desert in Syria and the forests of Thailand. Here is her description of War Palad, an abandoned forest temple on Doi Sothep in Chiang Mai, where one old monk had been living alone for two years: "The light only intermittently penetrates the dark green canopy; there are giant mimosas, and the tulip trees with great spreading roots, and orchids and lianas and poinsettias climbing high into the branches. The undergrowth is full of small birds, easier to hear than to see."
When the deserts, mountains and forests did not oblige the solitary seekers with their transcendant views, many simply took matters into their own hands. The chapters in which Miss Colegate describes the 18th-century excesses and a fad for creating a personal hermitage (with a hired resident hermit) on a country estate are among the book's most delightful.
And it is a treat to discover that a prized landmark dating from Catherine the Great's reign was constructed when the dynamic ruler commissioned a French architect to build her a hermitage in the garden of the Winter Palace. "Eventually the Small Hermitage, the Old Hermitage and the New Hermitage became the immense State Hermitage Museum, which absorbed the whole place …"
In this charming book, Miss Colegate performs something of a balancing act. On the one hand she makes a persuasive case for the necessity and beauty of solitude, and on the other she concedes that among her lineup of celebrity hermits, holy hermits, accidental hermits (the widowed and divorced), and a host of poets, philosophers and seekers, there were more than a few kooks and frauds. For every saint she portrays Saint Jerome and St. Julian of Norwich are standouts there is an Edward Lear, railing effusively against seclusion on religious grounds:
"'However wondrous and picturesque the exterior & interior of the monasteries, [he wrote in a letter to a friend] & however abundantly & exquisitely glorious & stupendous the scenery of the mountain, I would not go again to the Agios Oros for any money, so gloomy, so shockingly unnatural, so lonely, so lying, so unatonably odious seems to me all the atmosphere of such monkery… "
And if that were not enough Miss Colegate makes an entertaining and persuasive case that it wasn't the "irascible" St. Jerome who took the thorn out of the lion's paw as it is often told, but one St. Gerasimus another desert hermit who lived near the Jordan River.
Alongside of those who sought solitude for religious reasons are those who desired peace and quiet in order to write or compose. Early in the book Miss Colegate cites the case of Gustav Mahler whose need to be left undisturbed led him to "requiring the cowbells to be muffled as he sat in his hut at the end of the garden in the Austrian Tyrol to write his Third Symphony." And she cites the experience of J.D. Salinger who in 1953, from his scenic cottage in New Hampshire, gave his first and last interview to a local girl for her high-school publication.
Miss Colegate's long and distinguished career as a novelist holds her in good stead here. As the author of "The Shooting Party" and most recently "Winter's Journey," along with a dozen other novels spanning over 40 years, in this book she applies her considerable knack for charting the powerful quests of the individual facing a sometimes hostile world. Her lyrical style and no-nonsense approach serves her well. But it is her informed fascination that keeps things moving, beginning with a personal experience. Early in the pages she describes finding traces of an ancient hermitage in her own back yard, right in the middle of its lush and tangled woods.
In this book, Miss Colegate's observations do not follow a strict chronology; much seems like free association coming to mind as she fancies, whether as part of a memory of a trip taken or a nugget from a favored piece of literature. This is not a volume that can be characterized as history or memoir or even a travel book but it contains the best elements of all.
But the benefit of looking back over the solitary ancients from the East such as Lao-tse, the founder of Taoism, and Purun Dass who became a hermit in the Himalayas, the 4th century Christian hermits in the Egyptian desert and the social hermits of 18th-century England and Russia, not to mention Henry David Thoreau pursuing solitude in America somewhat later, is that it is easy to see their kinship.
To conclude, it may be wise to end where the author starts, with the Thomas Traherne quote that inspired the title of the book: "A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the Hous Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness." It is marvelous there.

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