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Why Are We Fascinated by Recluses?
We have a certain fascination with recluses. According to Hindu philosophy, the goal of life is to eventually become one. Recluses seem to embody wisdom and independence. Certain recluses have been called “superstars” thanks to their mystique.
Yet we fear and can’t understand them. Our digital age is characterized by having Facebook friends and getting likes. We’re pressured to have a social network or “squad” or “tribe” even if we don’t feel the need to have one. We’re told that having friends is healthy. We’re advised to avoid loneliness in any form lest we die a premature death. (Although much is made of the “loneliness epidemic,” there’s a difference between seclusion by choice and uninvited social isolation.)
In a time when going off social media for three months is treated as a major feat, most of us can’t imagine an existence like that of Christopher Knight, the “North Pond Hermit” (he was more of a recluse than a hermit—see below), who hid in the woods in Maine for twenty-seven years, never once talking to anyone or even lighting a fire. (He did read—a lot—stealing books from the houses in which he also foraged for food, and books can be a kind of companionship.)
A recluse is defined as someone who chooses to lead a “secluded or solitary life.” A hermit, on the other hand, does so for religious reasons. The loner wants to remove himself specifically from other people.
No research exists to suggest that recluses are necessarily introverts, mainly because the extrovert-introvert dichotomy is largely misunderstood. Carl Jung, who came up with the terms, meant that an introvert finds meaning internally whereas an extrovert finds it outside himself, primarily from and in terms of others. Culturally and economically, Americans prize extroverts in the mistaken belief that an extrovert is a personality type characterized by being outgoing and talkative, a leader, someone who embraces new experiences whereas the introvert is supposedly quiet, removed, and indifferent. The extrovert symbolizes profit and progress, the introvert not so much. Jung didn’t believe that there was such a thing as a pure introvert or extrovert and that “Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum!” Most people, by Jung’s account, are both.
A recluse need not be extreme. Fanatical religiosity isn’t a prerequisite. Neither is intense neuroticism. Nor off-the-charts intelligence or talent. Nor paranoia-inducing fame. Nor a deep hatred of people. Nor criminality.
Yet we think of recluses in the extreme: the hermit (Japan’s “Naked Hermit”), the anchorite (Julian of Norwich), the phobic (Howard Hughes), the genius (Glenn Gould although he could go in the phobic category as well), the celebrity (Greta Garbo, who has a syndrome named for her—“Greta Garbo syndrome,” which strangely refers to office workers who don’t like to socialize with colleagues), the misanthrope (Heraclitus), the violent (Ted Kaczynski).
A favorite is the literary recluse. Unlike religious fanatics, indulgent celebrities, malcontents, and murderers, the literary recluse is creative. Plus, he (it’s almost always envisioned as a he) works in solitude. He meets Puritan work-ethic standards: the lonely writer seated at a desk (quill in hand) laboring over his latest masterpiece. The literary recluse is devoted to his craft. He absconds from society out of a dedication that “normal” people, with all their socializing and need for attention, lack.
He’s unique. The French poet Alfred de Vigny coined the term poéte maudit to describe a writer separated from society by his singularity. (It was later popularized by the equally French poet Paul Verlaine.)
America has supposedly been home to almost a dozen of such recluses: Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner (toward the end of their lives), and J.D. Salinger. Some might include a few living authors in this group: Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, and Cormac McCarthy.
But apply a little pressure to any one of these “literary recluses,” and the definition (one who lives in voluntary seclusion from society) doesn’t hold. Thoreau may have wanted to “suck the marrow from life,” but his cabin was situated on his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land. (Entertaining visitors—Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott—was a pastime on Walden Pond.) The fact that less than twelve of Dickinson’s eighteen-hundred-odd poems were published during her lifetime (without attribution or her authorization) and she was ill (Bright’s disease, which can cause seizures and blindness, and perhaps epilepsy) makes it difficult to paint her as an author who hid from the public eye. Lee made appearances, including one to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. Hemingway lessened his public appearances in response to his acute final bout of depression. (It occurred after he survived a plane crash in Africa. Not only did he suffer a serious head injury but he and his wife Mary had been reported dead. Newspapers the world over ran obituaries. Hemingway became obsessed with accounts of his death and couldn’t stop reading them.) Faulkner was grumpy and an alcoholic, which tends not to make a person very sociable, and he still showed up to accept the Nobel Prize. Salinger was known to frequent plays and parties in New York City and baited the press when it suited him.
As for our living literary recluses, Pynchon rejected the label of a recluse in a public statement to CNN, stating that he just doesn’t like to be photographed (he and his wife, who’s also his agent, are said to socialize quite a bit); Delillo only shunned publicity during the first few years of his career; and McCarthy appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” though not in front of a studio audience.
Essentially, there are socially acceptable and socially unacceptable recluses. The author, the artist, the celebrity, the genius—those we approve of. But the socially unacceptable ones get pathologized, their behaviors, dispositions, and preferences are seen as signs of a mental disorder as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
According to the DSM, you need only demonstrate four of the following to be told you have schizoid affective disorder:
1. Neither desires nor enjoys close relationships
2. Chooses solitary activities
3. None or little interest in having sexual experiences
4. Takes pleasure in few activities
5. Lacks close friends or confidants
6. Appears indifferent to praise or criticism
7. Shows emotional coldness, detachment, or flattened affectivity
A few of these seem like positive traits, particularly enjoying solitary activities and being indifferent to praise or criticism. On any given day, I can exhibit as many as six. Four is easy.
So is it just our cultural values—fame, wealth, talent, genius—and the DSM that separate a “good” recluse from a “bad” one?
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