The Pipedream of Escaping Society (Or, The Enduring Appeal of Christopher McCandless, Derek Jarman & Nick Drake)
There's the ascetic, hermit type of silence. Retreat into the woods, dissolve your ego, lose your sense of self, become part of the landscape.
Then there's the romantic era type of silence. Retreat into your mahogany lined study, a bluebell wood, or perhaps just the corner of a crowded room. Be less filtered, less curated, more open, more alive.
Two contrasting ideas of what solitude can mean. I suspect that much of the suspicion, confusion and concern solitude chasers face these days is the result of passive observers confusing the two types.
This post is about that distinction. We're going to look at a strange cast of characters - Christopher McCandless, Derek Jarman, David Bowie, Nick Drake, a pack of wolves, myself as a wilderness-crazed child- and try to make sense of the pipedream of escaping everything.
If you sit and confront yourself for too long, you will lose your mind.
That’s a given. The question is what that means and whether it’s a good thing or not.
For ascetic solitude, that is the goal. To eradicate the ego and lose your sense of self. Hermits, saints and other ascetics sought to conquer their desires, harden themselves to deprivation and transcend their physical selves.
Anchorites sealed themselves in tiny stone cells. Wikipedia tells me that the cells were usually between 12 and 15 ft square (3.7 to 4.6 m square) with three windows. One window allowed the anchorite to hear mass at the enjoining church. One allowed food to be passed in. One let light in.
If you’ve read (or seen the film of) Room, imagine choosing that life. Except without the company of a child or even a malicious captor’s visits, without TV or games or much variety. Just silence. Prayer. Meditation. Waiting for decades for… for what exactly? Enlightenment?
When an anchorite began her solitary life in a tiny enclosed cell, it started with a funeral ceremony in which she was sealed away as if in a coffin. Dead to the regular world, reborn into a new realm.
To even the most antisocial, modern loner that sounds like a nightmare. We could perhaps do it for a week. But for a lifetime? How could anyone choose that?
As with all forms of solitude, you need to put in context.
For a woman living in the 13th century before the rise of intense individualism, the heyday of female anchorites, that was probably as free as you could get. They didn’t need to marry or have children or do physical work. They just needed to pray, read scripture, listen to church services and occasionally give advice through their window. Anchorites commanded a kind of respect and reverence that must have been almost impossible to find elsewhere.
Romantics sought the opposite. To become more themselves. As if, once you turn down the noise of society and escape the eyes of others, you lose any sort of inhibition and discover a buried true self.
Both though, exist in relation to the point of returning to society. The romantic re-emerges to share their writing and poetry and music and art and theories. We marvel at what they achieved. We respect these people and humour them.
Nick Drake’s solitary nature, for instance, would be meaningless to anyone other than his family without his music. In light of his death, we can imagine his music justified his sadness, as it were a side effect of his creativity. When most likely, the opposite is true. People like Nick Drake are modern anchorites, communicating with the world through a tiny window, commanding respect because their very lives are what would be to most a feat of endurance.
The ascetic is still part of a community, as a point of comparison, a source of wisdom, an aspirational ideal. They still exist in relation to society, more dependent on others than most of us - some anchorites burnt to death in fires because they refused to leave their cells.
Of course, it’s not that binary. ‘Less’ and ‘more’ are subjective words. Ascetics wanted to become less human and more holy, closer to the divine, somehow purer. By stripping away their desires, they believed they could escape their bodies and be saved. No, we cannot say what the motivations of any particular ascetic were. Nor can we really say what the motivations of any romantic are.
The desire to withdraw completely from society and disappear into the wilderness can be appealing. It’s a pipedream that has preoccupied me for most of my life. Always the romantic solitude - the desire to become more.
Ascetic solitude isn't cool anymore, at least not in Western culture. Individualism has stamped out that desire to become less.
Romantic solitude is more fashionable than ever- provided it is in measured, doctor approved doses. Sensory deprivation tanks. Meditation. Nap pods. Noise-cancelling headphones.
Dip in, then get back to work. Forget about escape - make sure you're building your network, gaining followers, growing your platform, going on dates, making friends, leaving a legacy. But hey, if a little dose of peace makes you more productive, go for it. Just remember that only losers eat alone, your network is your net worth, you are the average of your five closest friends. Etcetera.
We have to put solitude in context. Each generation, each place has its own flavour of escaping society. These days, it's more of a political act. An assertion of identity. It is rebellion, pure and simple. No one embodies that better than Christopher McCandless.
Christopher McCandless is, to use a popular term, not the hero we need but the hero we deserve. Not a hero at all. We’d usually define a hero as someone who liberates people, saves them from evil forces, possesses superhuman abilities and generally makes the world a better place. For other people. A hero is selfless. Self-sacrificing.
McCandless didn’t really do any of that. And yet, perhaps, we’ve turned him into a hero because he tried so valiantly to save himself from the forces he saw as wrong and feared would corrupt him. His was the romantic type of solitude.
He was young, intelligent, left a strong impression on people he met, took photographs, left behind underlined books and did it all in photogenic surroundings.
We are left with pithy one-liners, with a broken down tour bus as a pilgrimage location. We have fragments - images of the seeds he collected, postcards, letters. An extremely talented and adept writer, Jon Krakauer, put a hell of a lot of work into compiling McCandless' life story. It could have been told very differently - the appeal surely has a lot to do with Krakauer's tender, frequently affectionate portrayal of a young man he identified with. Few of us can hope for an equally beautiful eulogy.
You can only look at Hamlet for so long before you're forced to confront Shakespeare.
There’s just a trace of a murder mystery with the debate around how exactly he died (which appears to have been solved.) The fact that so much effort has been put into establishing the cause says a lot. If we can’t solve the mystery of his motivations, at least we can know what ended his journey.
His story is all the more appealing because he tragically didn’t survive. His death lets us turn him into whatever we want, project our own meanings on him- that's how we treat romantics.
What if he had survived? We wouldn’t have someone to glorify. We’d probably never have heard of him. Or, older, he’d be someone to fear, someone obviously crazy, someone unhinged from society.
A fifty-year-old guy living alone in the wilderness is surely a murderer on the run, a rapist, a pervert, someone who detaches from society by necessity and not by choice. The vile child killer in The Lovely Bones.
A twenty-something guy living alone in the wilderness is a plucky adventurer, an idealist, a source of wisdom. Let's face it, things would also be different if he hadn't been a white male from a wealthy family. Whatever the truth, some people get to be seen through a privileged lens.
As it is, we can picture McCandless as being like ourselves, only truly free. Whatever that means. We can ignore the obvious physical and mental toll of prolonged isolation and imagine that with a few different choices it could all have been fine.
In the end, those of us who didn’t know him personally and perhaps even those who did can never talk about him as a person. He can only ever be a symbol. In my last post, I talked about gurus. McCandless followed the same path most gurus do early in life, of dysfunctional behavior and a departure from mainstream society. But he’s certainly not a guru. He didn’t emerge from the wilderness with a cohesive belief system and I can’t imagine that would have been his style.
Instead, he's a symbol of what so many of us dream about but will never have the guts or inclination or naivety or stupidity to do. Or that we believe is impossible. Except, for a time, he did it. And that, for me, is a source of a twisted sort of hope that it must be possible.
Perhaps we continue to regard him as a hero because he unintentionally gives everyone who reads of his life the hope that they can save themselves. Find the romantic type of solitude. Strip away pretensions.
I have a long history of developing intense obsessions, sometimes infatuations with fictional characters. Mrs Havisham and Lux Lisbon are notable examples. Dean Moriarty is another. They consume me. I get drawn into them, I try and try and try to understand them. But I can’t. They’re not real people.
Perhaps if I had read Into The Wild when I was younger, say fourteen or fifteen, I would have turned that obsessive scrutiny on McCandless. The book is only a year older than me, so I’m surprised I didn’t read it sooner. If I’d read it in primary school, aged say 8 or 9, I would have worshiped the guy. No doubt about that. He would have added fuel to my escapist fantasy fire. I would have poured over maps of Alaska and books about the native wildlife, glorified him to the point of insanity. That was my nature.
As it was, I was able to see him as part of a wider picture, to understand that every generation, every place has its own flavour of solitude, of escaping society. Anchorites, hermits, hikikomori, polar explorers, solo sailors, icons like Derek Jarman who did their best to find peace within the limits of their obligations to society, young idealists like Christopher McCandless. I've known half a dozen people who withdrew into themselves for months or years, refusing to talk or walk or make eye contact or look after themselves. Not escaping into the wilderness, but still finding a way to create their own space, usually after a traumatic event.
The names and forms are different. At its core, perhaps the urge is the same. Perhaps an anchorite sealing herself in a tiny cell for years is no different to a hikikomori shutting himself in his room with a TV for years.
As a child, staring out of the window during long afternoons at school, I constructed elaborate fantasies of my escape from society. I contemplated my options. I practised. I built teepees in the garden and slept outside, dreaming of being miles from anywhere.
Today, my escape dreams feature much less anthropomorphising and a little more realism. I browse silent retreats. Look at cabins and shepherd’s huts on Airbnb. Hunt for tamer versions. Reflect on the sad reality that in the last year, there have only been three days where I fully unplugged and didn’t work at all. My lease ends in May and I’ve given notice, but haven’t decided yet exactly where I want to live after that.
Most probable / almost certain: London. Central because if I’m going to live in London, I might as well go all in.
Once, out walking early in the morning somewhere on the very outskirts of London years ago, I saw David Bowie.
Wrapped in a black overcoat and hat. Squinting slightly against the wind. I wouldn’t have recognised him but for those eyes which shone like a neon sign out of his face. He glowered. He didn’t want to be disturbed. I suspect he would have ignored me if I’d tried to talk to him. Justifiably.
Instead, I let him pass undisturbed. Recognised, for the first time, that Ziggy Stardust was a mask. Wondered how people like him, deprived of their right to peace survive. Did David Bowie dream of escaping to the wilderness? What about Freddie Mercury? John Lennon? Elvis? Lou Reed? Dylan and Morrissey surely do. Paul McCartney? Perhaps.
We have to put escape in context. For people like Bowie, perhaps the best option is hiding in plain sight. Somewhere in a city where people are less inclined to gossip and are used to the sight of icons. True escape is one luxury the rich and famous cannot afford. Big cities can be a form of escape too.
Case in point: years ago, I visited the film director Derek Jarman's house out on a stony seashore in Dungeness, the only neighbours a lighthouse and nuclear power plant. Emptiness, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Bleak. Windswept. Few plants can grow there. After finding out he was HIV positive, Jarman moved to the remote cottage and worked in the garden, his eyesight gradually fading.
Like his films, the garden is unmoored from convention or tradition, eschewing aesthetic norms and creating its own identity. Although I didn't understand or appreciate it at the time, I now recognise it as a shrine to the escape instinct, a place with no perimeters or walls. Thousands of people continue to visit each year. The current inhabitants of the cottage, who perhaps brought it hoping for peace, must live with a garden full of strangers. Crowding around their windows, peering in, shattering the silence with their attempts to syphon off some of it.
Jarman's escape makes a lot of sense to me. He turned it into art. Didn't turn his back on society, but lingered at its fringes. On his own terms. Although I studied Jarman's films extensively at college, it took me a while to connect them to the garden I'd seen years before. Driftwood and sun-bleached pebbles are a far cry from a young man writhing and shooting up half naked on top of a Caravaggio print in a wasteland. Then again, it's not so far from Tilda Swinton shredding her dress under a garish sunset in The Last of England.
Feeding into my own obsession were the characters favoured by popular children's books: feral children, orphans alone in large houses, Jack London’s wolves and dogs, wild horses, solitary hermits, sailors marooned on islands. In fact, escape seems to be one of those ever-present themes in fiction. A solitary character living by their wits is surely more interesting than a gregarious one.
This is not an exaggeration: for at least a year when I was a kid, I used to eat grass every evening in gradually increasing amounts, hoping I could train myself to digest it and therefore be capable of surviving alone in the wilderness, should food be in short supply. For me, it was a question of when, not if, my chance would come.
I obsessively read Bear Grylls, Boy Scout manuals, DIY instruction books, wilderness survival guides and accounts of people’s remarkable survival in remote areas.
More than anything, that's what I wanted. I wanted to live alone somewhere hidden, where I knew every detail of the landscape around me, where I could climb trees and swim and run barefoot, where I could rescue and tame wild animals that would be my companions.
Content in my solitary home, accompanied by tame birds or a wolf cub or perhaps a goat, I’d be long-haired, muscular, tanned. In control. Only I would know that particular piece of woodland, or island, or desert. The occasional visitor stumbling across me would be suitably impressed, share a meal, update me on the state of the world and then leave me alone.
This was back when I read up to 100 books per month. (It was literally all I did.) My imagination had a bit too much fuel to cope with. Realism was not part of the picture.
Once, camping in the desert with my parents when I can’t have been older than four or five, we watched a pack of wolves run past the tent.
It’s one of my earliest memories.
Jealousy, of a half-formed kind, was my initial reaction. Although my instinct towards solitude cannot have solidified by that age and wolves are pack animals, I believe that part of me wanted to be out there, running with them. Breaking away from the pack to find my own space.
This is not to say I was, in practice, anti-social. Nor am I now. I loved gathering friends to play games where we imagined ourselves into situations and played out scenarios.
But the same themes were there. We were always wolves or lions or stray dogs living on a wasteland outside a city. Perhaps sailors castaway in a small boat or on an island. Pirates. That old favourite: cowboys. Apocalyptic scenarios were another classic: we’d construct raised cities where a handful of plastic animals or Lego men dwelt after a flood buried the world.
These games were still just extensions of my private imaginings. My friends were the guest stars - I was quite happy to play out the same scenarios alone. Or even just in my head. Sinking into my mind until I struggled to snap out of it. I recall a teacher losing her temper at me for ignoring a question, for not responding even when she waved a hand in front of my face.
At that moment, I was imagining myself as a stray terrier living on an abandoned boat on a secluded back alley canal in Venice. To my mind, Venice was bizarrely a place of escape. I always envisioned it as a never-ending maze of canals and streets where it would be easy to disappear.
Last March, I finally made it to Venice for the first time. I walked the quieter parts in search of a secluded corner where I could sit and read Don’t Look Now. Unsurprisingly, there are no quiet corners in Venice, even in March. In the end, I sat on a wall tucked slightly away in a dead end and let pigeons feed out of my hands. Until an Italian lady, evidently not fluent in English, told me with great passion that ‘It is forbidden to eat the birds.’
I wonder, what would I do if I had the choice to escape? Would I truly leave everything behind? Would I say goodbye to prescription medication, dentistry, coffee, fresh notebooks, Amazon next day book delivery, showers, sandwiches, moisturizer, Spotify streaming unlimited Bright Eyes, the library, and, you know, people? Of course not.
Few of us would, however much we dream of it. Temporarily, perhaps. In a fit of anger or depression, perhaps. As a sane, rational decision? Doubtful, however nice it sounds.
P.S. The idea for this post was initially sparked by a conversation with Brandon. The header image is me somewhere near Jerusalem two years ago.