About books

The great dilemma for dwellers of small or tiny houses is what to do with books. (Here, of course, we are not referring to electronic formats, which are sometimes a reluctant necessity; enlarging fonts for old eyes is a boon, but reading them is an aseptic experience without spatial-temporal marker, aesthetically and tactically empty, a kind of defeat.)

One rule of some simplicity advocates is that for every new book, an existing one must go. This is a hard rule when one’s collection is already considered essential, and especially after experiencing regret over a favorite or needed book long discarded. Nor does “discarding” seem a harsh word for this mechanical treadmill or quota system. Besides, who can say that what was good won’t become essential, that what was redundant and disposable becomes a much needed and now lacking insight or contained an important point overlooked or underappreciated at the time. It can be argued that giving books to a library is a good and charitable use, but having spent a career in libraries it must be said that few donations are deemed useful by the powers that judge. Let us admit, too, that a book sale or even an arrangement like Book Crossing is poor treatment of a treasured tome that is being booted from the collection based on draconian numbers. Seems as heartless as abandoning a puppy, or worse.

Ancient Chinese poet-recluses have all mentioned the limits of their book collections, sometimes rather few books at that. We only hear of Tao Chien’s books when he sits at night to browse the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” (Shan hai jing), probably his only book. Han-shan, recently reclused from court service, tells us of daily life, that

with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books.

But that was before he became a hermit, some sources suggesting that poverty and starvation killed his family.

Po Chu-i built a two-room house for his wife, daughter, and his own anticipated retirement from court. He describes the cottage in loving detail, mentioning dimensions, windows, bamboo and hemp, beams and rafters, wooden benches, two screen partitions, favorite objects: a ch’in, or lute– and books, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist.

Stonehouse built a tiny house or hut about ten feet wide. From the outside the hut looks cramped, he admits, but he does not mind because he owns so little: a grass mattress, a slab of wood for a pillow, a gilt statue of the Buddha (and three clay ones fashioned by his own hand). Stonehouse tells us that at night he moves a “book stand to read sutras by moonlight,” but doesn’t mention any other books.

The Japanese hermit Kamo no-Chomei described his hut in detail, including his images of the Buddha. He tells us that “on the wall that faces the north I have built a little shelf on which I keep three or four black leather baskets that contain books of poetry and music and extracts from the sacred writings. Beside them stand a folding koto and lute.”

The eccentric Japanese recluse-monk Kenko, whose “Essays in Idleness” reflects a somewhat Epicurean angle to solitary living, notes (not unlike Tao Chien), that “The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.” Among his preferred reading, Kenko includes Po Chu-i and the Taoist classics of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.

Lastly, for now, is the Japanese poet-hermit-monk Ryokan.

Ryokan describes his hut in one poem as a “three-mat hut,” but in another passage as “four-mat.” He refers to the same hut, of course, not necessarily to the number of tatami mats as flooring but to the relative size of his “little grass hut,” what he sees as “little more than four bare walls.” He mentions his one window. There is no apparent niche or divider; Ryokan speaks of “sitting along in my empty room.” On a wall several poems are written. On the bed and strewn on the floor are books of poetry. His possessions include one robe (probably two sewn as one but thin nevertheless), and a walking stick. He employed a “solitary lamp” and a hearth that burned firewood or charcoal. Ryokan mentions a kettle and a rice steamer, plus his ubiquitous bowl.

Skipping a few centuries we come to Michel de Montaigne, the French Renaissance writer of “Essays,” including a favorite titled “On Solitude.” He tells us he had plenty of room for books (being also a lawyer and civil servant) but took a different tact. He disagrees with Pliny’s advice to use solitude to devote oneself to study, for even books and learning, says Montaigne, are a tyranny. “Books are pleasant; but if by associating with them we end by losing gaiety and health, the best parts of us, let us leave them.” Further, “I like only pleasant and easy books which entertain me,” he declares, “or those that console me and counsel me to regulate my life and my death.”

Montaigne does not contradict the Chinese or Japanese hermits. Everyone values books, and if more are helpful, why not keep them, wherever in the house or hut one must find a place for them. Whenever one comes across a used book in a shop or library that is quite valuable, the surprise and delight of discovery is always refreshing. But, more glumly, its owner may have parted reluctantly with the book, or not understood it, or was forced by wrong-headed advocates of simplicity. Or perhaps its owner is no longer with us. Long life to that one who has passed, to one who loved good books as much as we do.

Pope and Keats on solitude

In an article by Raymond D. Havens titled “Solitude and the Neoclassicists,” reviewed in Hermitary, the author notes that the dry rationalist British writers of the 18th century had a deep loathing of solitude and anything or anyone interested or attracted to solitude. The author traces the attitude to anti-clericalism (solitude being identified with monks), Enlightenment enthusiasm, and a disdain for religious thought. They narrowly defined solitude as retirement at best, sloth and dissipation at worst, and held a deep aversion to being alone.

For British attitudes more sympathetic to solitude, therefore, one must turn to the eras just before and just after the 18th century. Thus the poet Alexander Pope composed “Ode to Solitude” in 1700, just before the rationalist era took hold, and John Keats composed “O, Solitude!” in 1816. Interestingly, while we may think that reflections on solitude are the provenance of age and maturity, Pope composed his poem at 12 years of age, and Keats when he was 21. For both poets, the poems were their first effort. Pope understands the nature of solitude as withdrawal and anonymity. Keats, a sociable and gregarious youth, saw solitude perfected by sharing it with a like-minded companion.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
“Ode to Solitude”

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

John Keats (1795-1821)
“O Solitude!”

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,-—
Nature’s observatory whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavilioned, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refined,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Emergence of eremitism

In every major world religion, the emergence of eremitism or a more restrained form of solitude practice emerges at a very specific historical point in the evolution of the given religion. One may even consider such a moment a precondition to the emergence of eremitism or an equivalent practice of solitude. The question of what can sustain eremitism over time will be found within the moment itself.

And if “religion” is broadly defined as a way of looking at the universe and responding to large questions, then the historical model might be broadened to include primitive religion as well as philosophy itself. The important factor is the larger context of society and culture.

Consider Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. All of these are “scriptural” religions, to some decree, meaning that the religion presents a set of texts as authoritative. At the same time, each of these religions emerges from specific historical, cultural, social, geographic, environmental, material,and perhaps psychological, contexts. These avenues of reflection and investigation are rich, indeed. For now, here are very brief considerations of each:

Hinduism emerged from the the distinctive myths, deities, stories, rituals, prayers, and societal practices of the conquering Aryans in India. The myriad gods, their foibles and desires expressed in stories, and the social hierarchy or caste system they created around priests, warriors, mercantile, and household classes, comprise the structure in which the religious injunctions were pursued. The scripture is the Rig Veda, which has no spirituality, because the society and dominant Brahmin class had no need for it. But as that intellectual class came to recognize the shallowness of rote rites, prayers, and inadequate comprehension of self and universe, succeeding generations of Brahmins compose the Upanishads, spiritualizing the religion and forming Vedanta. In this new, refreshing spiritual movement emerges the primacy of the hermit, as a social and religious option.

Judaism reflects its desert origin in a sky god, unusual as a single deity, thus monotheism, which may have had Egyptian origins or simply reflect the stark geography of its earliest adherents. Its priests and scholars accommodated myth and history with ritual and doctrine in its scripture, dominated by the harsh image of the deity Yahweh, shaping the psychology of the Hebrew and Jewish culture. Rigidly communal in social expectations, structuring society around the family and community, the exhaustion of the old scripture after the diaspora gradually saw emergence of mysticism, especially in medieval Western Europe and later in Eastern Europe. In these mystical forays, the practice of solitude and tolerance of scholarly eccentricity in pursuit of spirituality became options to the serious adherent. Though no formal eremitism emerged in the Judaic tradition, instances of solitary behavior were tolerated.

The content of earliest Christianity remained the experience of the first generation or two witnessing the historical Jesus, for Jewish scripture retained a moral and priestly hold for a century and more. Christianity became split between adherents of the historical sense of community and values versus the emergent priestly and ecclesiastical structure that regularized (or “sanitized”) the sayings and teachings into ritual, doctrine, and dogma. As the latter forces dominated, the first wave of hermits emerged in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, lasting several hundred years and strongly reflecting a spiritual versus ecclesiastical preference. Eventually scattered geographically from their desert settings, eremitism consolidated in Greece, Ethiopia, and parts of Europe. But in Europe the ecclesiastical movement dominated (less so in Britain, southern Italy, and later, in the Low Counties). Eremitism only reached its apex in Europe with the emergence of a significant mystical movement in the later Middle Ages. Christian eremitism virtually disappeared after the Protestant reform and emergence of nation-states.

Islam shares many characteristics of Judaism, not only as an Abrahamic religion and its conception of God, but in terms of initial geography and the dominance of communalism, discouraging social life outside of family and group. A rapid 7th-century expansion from Persia to Egypt, North Africa, and Spain, could not contain a strict ritualism from welcome intellectual influences. A spirituality built around mysticism evolved into Sufism, with its emphasis on solitude as an individual practice towards greater comprehension and identification with God. As with Judaism, no hermit movement emerged, but the primacy of solitude in spirituality, however restricted or rarefied, is a notable feature.

Buddhism represented a new religious phenomenon among world religions. For centuries, the compelling moral weight of traditional ascription of sayings and teachings of historical Guatama were sufficient to guide the adherent. The religion remained largely the practice of a spiritual “elite,” leaving myth, ritual, and doctrine to the mass of societal adherents, the tenor of which was governed largely by the particular society or country. Unlike Brahmins, the Buddhist monks seldom interacted with society except on a “shamanic” basis, as in bestowing wishes, prayers, and healing formulas, especially in Tibet, where the transition from the local Bon religion sustained these rituals. Eremitism seemed inevitable in Buddhism, especially among an intellectual class not residing in large ecclesiastical structures like monasteries but pursuing Buddhism as philosophy, with a willingness to follow some ritual prescriptions as religion. The rich reflections of the historical hermits of China and Japan automatically include an entirely spiritual component, something between philosophy and poetry, weaving an eremitic movement that often absorbs the entire expression of Buddhism.

In each instance above, though sketchily presented, an inevitable conclusion emerges: eremitism thrives when ecclesiastical structure is weak or absent, when a mystical or spiritual sense of the universe is evoked, pursued, and applied and appreciated, when rote ritual and doctrine is exhausted, and when the social structure itself is challenged by the popular realization that conventional thought and formulas are insufficient to represent the heights to which the given religion can attain.

Four juxtapositions

Minimalism and simplicity are often and erroneously made to be synonymous. Minimalism is a style of art and aesthetics, while simplicity refers to a style of life or of being, although it can refer to a style of doing things. It may seem that our life-style should be a form of art, and that therefore one can conflate the two terms. However, minimalism attempts to identify what can be quantitatively removed with the increasingly better results, as in a work of art or music. Colors, objects or musical notes are removed in order to achieve an effect constructing the work with fewer parts or pieces, with fewer notes or shades, but creating a new and different effect. In painting, a canvas with one color is presented. But the intent is not simple. The intent is to absorb the multiplicity of reality into a particular mood of sudden expectation, of sudden realization. In music, minimalism often repeats a series in order to achieve an effect that, as with art, is absorbing the whole of reality at the moment, and brings the listener to a poignant mood. This achievement of mood is the whole purpose of any piece of music, but in minimalism the effect is specific: emotional, poignant, evanscent.

In simplicity, life is streamlined of complexity as to convey plainness, normalcy, and regularity, an approachability based on clarity. Simplicity can be material clarity, reduction without loss of function, plainness in its deliberate elimination of color, nuance, hue, or time lapse. But simpllicity does not evoke emotion, rather drains it, neutralizes it, eliminates it as subjective. Simplicity is not the minimalizing of complexity but the return to original state, to what was sufficient at one time and can be restored to that state, appreciated as it was. Simplicity calls for a lack of judgment, opinion, or subjective imposition. Minimalism still wants you to go somewhere, while simplicity is self-sufficient and exists without you.

No better reference to a clarifying tradition in regard to minimalism and simplicity is to be found as in wabi-sabi. Here the emotional content of solitude and impermanence penetrate the assumption of control, artistic or otherwise, and the notion of imperfection (in nature and in the human product) undermine any goal of self-sufficiency. Thus, our minimalism must be precise in conveying emotion, yet it will be contrived if removed too far from nature itself and from the patterns we observe in nature, which include simplicity.

Religion and spirituality are seen as synonymous in belonging to a pool of thinking about social and historical events and phenomena. But spirituality has never been a necessary component of religion, and is often at odds with the anthropological and cultural function of religion.

Nowadays, people who are religious belong to particular sects, while those who still miss an other-worldliness derived from religion, construct an idealized, somewhat sanitized, version of religion that is called “spirituality.” As Western religious sects declined in influence during the twentieth century, spirituality as an alternative emerged. Usually spirituality was pursued by those encountering Eastern thought and realizing the primitive lack of depth in their own Western tradition. Theosophists and New Thought adherents had begun this process long ago, with a curiosity about India and Tibet, and twentieth-century successors rediscovered China and Japan. Spirituality assigned to Eastern thought allowed a new perspective for Westerners that their old religions had never pursued, with their anthropological emphasis on ritual and rote belief. Eastern thought promised a spiritual dimension accessible without ritual or weekly tithes. Undoubtedly, Western religions stopped growing (qualitatively) when their secular counterparts, the nation-states of the West, collapsed into internecine civil wars (dating from turbulent late medieval times) on to the international wars (the destructive World Wars). But more fundamentally, Western religions exhausted their theology, after which spiritualized forms of mysticism emerged. Mysticism blurred the hard definitions, dogmas, and categories so favored by ecclesiastical authorities, so that the reaction to mysticism further desiccated the religions. No wonder that today’s expression “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” or a version of it rings inevitable but also a bit vacuous. One wants to be more specific about truth.

Meditation and relaxation are not dictionary synonyms, but given the restless mood of modern society, the desire for tranquility equates methods of relaxation with the credentials of meditation. But relaxation is the temporary suspension of the effects of traumatically ruthless society and culture, and bound to expire as soon as the individual is plunged back into the modern world. Relaxtion is sold by business interests specifically as the remedy for coping, but it was never the remedy for coping with harsh materialism, but rather for dropping out of it to discover and pursue the temporary pleasures. In this process, popular media legitimizes a particular socio-economic status and its conditions, endorses an existing relationship to money, labor in a modern technological world, and the acceptance of the materialization of culture.

Hermit and recluse are old favorite terms of juxtaposition often made synonymous by dictionaries. Strictly speaking, with a few technical exceptions, a recluse has a psychological fear of people, whereas the hermit does not. The so-called “North Pond” hermit of Maine is a classic recluse who dared not encounter people, though his fear of them was because he stole from them. What hermit would steal from anyone! Perhaps his reclusion was strategic, but it certainly made for mental stagnation and dependence, certainly not eremitism. Yet the popular media continues to call him a “hermit.” Juxtapose Po Chu-i or Ryokan, true hermits, who expressed the sentiment: “It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I am so very tired of them.”

Imago Dei

The previous entry noted that Western Christian theologians conclude that the image and likeness of God refers ultimately to immortality, the only factor that the resurrection of Christ assures for humanity. While the image of God in humans may seem to refer to virtue and morality, theologians from Augustine to Aquinas cling to definitions, logic, and the overarching divine economy as a system not permitting them to make far-reaching conclusions.

But why cannot the divine image “trickle down” a moral image in humans? Instead, humans must be assigned morality through commandments, systems of punishment for sin, for, indeed, they cannot share foreknowledge, the power of creation, or other characteristics of God. The Jewish scriptural writers never assumed that this image and likeness, derived from Genesis, is more than consciousness and will, and never assumed immortality. The ecclesiastical Christian writers, however, go so far as to embrace the primacy of immortality because the economy of salvation passes through the passion and resurrection of the second person of the Trinity, himself divine enough to merit what no human being could.

Thus the historical Jesus of morality and virtue is necessarily displaced by the needs of Western theology, for the teachings of Jesus are not sufficient to guarantee an other-worldly preoccupation that would transcend the Jewish social and spiritual communitarianism of its culture. Christianity could not become a world or universal culture with a mere moral code or set of rituals. The ecclesiastical apologists must necessarily construct a divine counterpart of empire. Ancient history showed that every empire from Babylon to Rome inevitably divinized its project in order to sustain itself. No less did the Christianized empire after Constantine.

A favorite crystallization of these two competing visions of Christianity (and, therefore, of the image of God) is presented by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his masterful novel The Brothers Karamazov. Here are presented two world views in Ivan, the atheist intellectual, and in Zosima, the simple and affective monk.

Ivan presents the idea of the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, satisfied with a recent auto de fe, where heretics have been burned at the stake under his supervision. The inquisitor happens to walk past a church where a stranger to the city has gathered a crowd witnessing a miracle, the revival of a dead girl returned to her joyful parents, to the awe of bystanders. But the inquisitor is furious and has the stranger arrested and thrown into a dungeon, where he is visited that night by the inquisitor. The old man rails against the stranger, who remains silent the whole time. The old man suspects who the stranger is, wants to know why he has returned to challenge the church. For 1500 years, he avers, the church has been working to subordinate the people’s will to obedience, to dogma, to rules and restrictions and an economy of other-worldliness, fed by teachings and punishments. Clearly the inquisitor has no faith or beliefs — he only relishes the power that the ecclesiastical authorities have crafted these many years. And now he is furious that the true nature of Jesus’ teachings may get about, as what he will have to label heresy, through the mouth of the returned one himself. He vows to burn the stranger at the stake tomorrow morning.

In contrast, the monk Zosima, presented by Karamazov brother Aloysa, adheres completely to the love that is the core of Jesus’ teaching and through which all belief or ideas are engendered and held (rather than the other way around). To Zosima, prayer restores simplicity and identifies with God, the image of which is greatly mollified from the Yahweh of the Old Testament but also from the Yahweh of the New Testament taught in the West. Prayer is in the orthodox formula of seeking mercy for all, empathy for all, identification with all. This identification engenders love for all. As the character relates to his fellow-monks:

Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love. Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy. Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose. …

One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially men’s sin, asking oneself: “Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?” Always resolve to take it by humble love. If you so resolve once and for all, you will be able to overcome the world. A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it. Keep company with yourself and look to yourself every day and hour, every minute, that your image ever be gracious. …

My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious tha you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.

Zosima continues, but one can perceive here the direction of the higher religion, of the historical Jesus, reminiscent of Eastern thought, and referring to the mystical theology of both the earlier orthodox fathers and of Westerners like Meister Eckhart. For the mass of humanity not inclined to mysticism, Zosima has nevertheless outlined the correct religion: the religion of love, mutual empathy, and the development of a new culture based on the primacy of this teaching. All this is quite the opposite of the Inquisitor’s religion and view of culture. A successful pursuit of the image of God must surely reside in the intimations of Zosima.