Strangers & Hermits

The life of a hermit is not the life of a recluse or a shut-in—someone who remains indoors, to avoid strangers. Rather, geographical remove puts the hermit at a distance from the polis, and this remove is precisely the source of the hermit’s strange power. The hermit elects to make all of human life a stranger. I’ve been thinking about hermits since I started following the story of the “capture” of the so-called “North Pond Hermit”, in western Maine. As this story goes, a man named Christopher Knight was recently “captured” after having lived alone, in the Maine backwoods, for twenty-seven years. He must have left for this sojourn before he was of legal drinking age. He was only “discovered” because he had, apparently, been stealing food from camp kitchens to stock his larder. He was, in other words, considered a criminal and is currently being charged with more than 1000 burglaries. I was initially a little shocked to learn that police had to employ the aid of game wardens, in order to make this “capture.” Game wardens, of course, are trained in wildlife management. It’s almost as if the police were trying to trap and detain a mountain lion, or a bear. Apparently, he surrendered his goods and fell to the ground as soon as he saw the officers. But even after this, the police officers continued to narrate their investigation as though Knight were something other than human. They seemed to find his entire way of life unimaginable. They could not fathom the twenty-seven Maine winters he spent in a nylon tent. It was unthinkable, to one of the police officers, that Knight (who is clean-shaven) had not seen himself in a mirror for more than twenty years and had only glimpsed his own reflection briefly in pools of water.  There is, it would seem, something “mythic” about Knight’s tale. Occupying some exceptional state, outside of human civilization, The North Pond Hermit begins to assume the status of myth. These news narratives seem to relegate him to a kind of inhuman space—both “too much” (too incredible, too mythic) and “too little” (misanthropic, antisocial) for a human life. Incidentally, the courts have set his bail high, hoping to keep him in jail where he might be protected against media queries, and other forms of human exploitation.

I guess I’ve always been drawn to the lives of hermits. I love the tales of wild hermits in the ancient hagiographies. I loved Edward Burger’s documentary Amongst White Clouds—on Chinese Zen Buddhist hermits, living in the Zhongnan Mountain range. There is something about the hermit (and not, so much, the recluse or the shut-in) that seems “religiously” relevant. Part of it, perhaps, is that hermitage, a life that’s lived on the frayed edges of the human, is often raw and disconcerting. It draws close to shock and awe. Hermitage is the life of Saint Syncletica—whose living jaw, it was reported by Pseudo-Athanasius in her hagiography, had been eaten through by worms. And, yet, it would seem that the life of Knight cannot quite be compared to the life of religious hermits, like the Zen Buddhist monks. They are sealed off from human culture and dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, enlightenment, etc.. Knight, on the other hand, never really learned how to hunt or fish. As isolated as he was, he survived through theft—stealing food, books, and clothing, from camps in the mountains and the countryside near his hut. While the religious hermits have placed the morality and wisdom of tradition at the core of their lifeways, Knight’s own hermitage seems built on the immoral act of theft. This seems to mark a sharp distinction between these forms of hermitage, as if by their association with the complex tradition called Zen Buddhism, these hermits have passed through initiatory rites of what Agamben (in The Highest Poverty) addresses as the “commonplace” or common life of the monk. Knight, however, has only passed through the decidedly less communal “common life” of American public education. He exists in a context where the sacralized transition from common life into forms of hermitage may be close to extinction. Knight sits alone, below his tarp in the woods, listening to Rush Limbaugh on the AM radio, living off the spoils of his theft.

And, yet, it would be too easy, too simple, to suggest that there is a clean bifurcation to be made between these forms of hermitage. There is something excessive about the way Knight, himself, narrates his acts of theft. He insists on describing the shoes he wears as “stolen shoes.” When asked what sort of reading materials he prefers, he responded calmly: “whatever I can steal.” His theft seems conscientious, almost performative. Additionally, reading about the food he was stealing from these camps, I had to wonder how much of it would have been thrown out as uneaten waste product. I had to wonder whether the shoes he stole, or the books he stole, were already destined for the trash, or for a donation bin. This isn’t to condone these acts of theft, but merely to point out that their potentially trivial nature highlights the thin line between waste and value, or between waste and productivity, in the world we inhabit. His acts of theft weren’t moral, but there is a weird timbre of prophetic condemnation to them. Additionally, I should note that when asked how Knight would spend his winters (when he refused to venture out past the confines of his encampment), he claimed to have spent them mostly reading and meditating.

There is something exceptional about the hermitic way of life. The hermit has made the decision to exempt herself, or himself, from a human social life. This elected inhumanity seems to serve as a kind of mirror that reflects back onto human life. It is here, I think, where power of the hermit seems to function. The fact that state police employed the aid of game wardens to “capture” this tidy, spectacled man doesn’t indicate that he is wilder than other humans, or unruly as a black bear confronted by human intruders. It doesn’t tell us anything about the hermit. Rather, the opacity of the hermit, the distance of the hermit, the hermit as strangest stranger, seemed to beguile the police. In the process, the hermit reveals to us the potential brutality of the police state that pursues what it does not understand— ready and waiting to use an exceptional apparatus to detain a man who has stolen ground burger meat, dirty sneakers, and an out of print novel. All of this, as the hermit reveals to us, to serve as a contrast to the sometimes more liveable inhumanities that make for the strange hospitality of the Maine backwoods.

7 thoughts on “Strangers & Hermits

  1. I very much enjoyed this post, Beatrice. The police’s handling of him reminded me of a story I read about the Unabomber. People tried to use the remoteness and size of his cabin as an argument he was insane.

    This man is clearly not anything like the Unabomber, but I remember being appalled at the time that his being a hermit was a feature being tied to his being a terrorist. Of course, I was into Thoreau at the time.

  2. Right, I mean, the fact is… being a hermit is, effectively, totally unthinkable for most of us. I’ll admit that it is for me. Although I am, perhaps, more interested in the profession of hermit than most.

  3. It’s pretty unimaginable for me as well, considering it would involve cooking my own dinners. In my final year of college, I was pretty reclusive because I wanted to apply to a writing program and, as a math major undergrad, needed to catch up on both my reading and writing portfolio. I found I had thousands of thoughts and ideas and when I’d finally speak with somebody, I would just sort of explode. My brother later told me after hanging up with me after one of our conversations, he told his wife, “Well, Matthew has kind of gone crazy.” So I don’t think a hermit’s life for me would have been good for anybody.

    Our perception of them does concern me a bit. You mention the hermit being a mirror, and maybe our reaction to them is a mirror back: You reject our society? We reject you! But I’m curious about what it is they’re rejecting that causes society to view them so strangely. Human interaction? A lot of us take a lot of trouble to limit our human interactions to a minimal amount we can easily control. Is not being able to handle even that controlled amount so difficult to imagine? I’m nervous that what makes us most uncomfortable about the hermit is their rejection of our material culture.

  4. Writing is definitely one of the easiest ways to isolate yourself while in the midst of “the world.” But I guess, in some ways, this is also what I was trying to get at by making the distinction between the recluse and the hermit. I do think that the hermit is an ancient human career…not one that any American university will encourage you to go into. Not a profitable one. But a career nonetheless. I think the recluse is a person who avoids human social life by burying themselves somewhere deep within a human community. They become invisible, in a sense. But they’re reclusive precisely because they’re “still there.” They’re holding back from engagement. Maybe that’s an arbitrary distinction, but I think the hermit is doing something slightly different. And I think the geographical remove of the hermit – the move to the far outside of human community – does have a lot to do with a rejection of material culture. Perhaps, above all, the hermit is rejecting a broad set of material dependencies, as well as the social relations that are mediated through these material dependencies. And raising questions, perhaps, about the necessity of certain types of dependence that make people uncomfortable (this is one of the ways, I think, in which the career of the hermit casts a mirror back onto human life). I have to wonder, though, if the thing that makes people so uncomfortable about the hermit is actually the hermit’s opacity. Thoreau was like a moonlighting hermit. His actual profession was “writer”, so he was eager to explain his motives. I think, more often, the motives, perceptions, and habitus of a hermit are more incomprehensible. I think this incomprehensibility scares people.

  5. Then there’s always the in between case of Daniel Suelo:

    I’ve been following his story with very real interest for years as I want to see how long it can be sustained. I admire him in part but I also often find the circumstances of his living “too extreme”. That’s to be expected but the response remains. Anyway, for those interested I highly recommend the book written about him, The Man Who Quit Money. The author, Mark Sundeen, engages in a bit too much worshipful prose (to a point that becomes risible at times) but it’s still very worthwhile for the details of Suelo’s life and the implicit challenges of that alone.

  6. Ha, good question: “Which is more addictive & debilitating, money or meth?”

    To the extent that this guy is preaching a gift economy, this seems to dovetail with the questions that Adam, and others, were discussing last week. Or whenever it was.

    I haven’t read the book, of course, but this guy seems to be working on the model of the ascetic. Does that seem right? In the world, but not of it. It’s interesting, with that in mind, that you mention the author engages a bit too much in hagiography. In the same way that we don’t, say, look at people like Suelo as people looked at saints in the middle ages (people who took up extreme positions so that others didn’t have to), neither is the genre of hagiography very comprehensible anymore. Just its residue seems to remain.

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