Hermits in Literature: Ellis Peters

The Brother Cadfael mysteries of Ellis Peters are benign fun, but The Hermit of Eyton Forest disappoints a little because of the nearly complete absence of the title character, who turns out not to be what he is supposed. The hermit Cuthred appears suddenly as a pious pilgrim of few words.paperback cover art He follows Rotha Mary Clay’s textbook, mixed with a little eighteenth-century ornamental eremitism, occupying a hermitage on estate grounds, soon consulted by the whole countryside. His cottage has inner and outer rooms, the former including his bed, the latter an altar with candles and missal, before which he spends many hours. In true hermit fashion, Cuthred takes on an errant youth to run errands. And the populace attributes the halting of a cattle murrain to his prayers. Modesty is balanced by fame, the latter “went about by neighbourly whispers, like a prized secret to be exulted in private but hidden from the world.” For all that, the hermit is seldom featured, invisible throughout the mystery until the story’s climax. But at least Peters gives us a stock medieval prop, complete with the roguish ambiguities suggested by medieval history and lore.

Surowiecki on crowds

So brazen a title as The Wisdom of Crowds, a recent book by James Surowiecki, was bound to attract my attention, especially the presumptuous subtitle: “Why the Many are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations.” The book is a miscellany of “fun” statistics, probabilities, and anecdotes. The author is a business writer and we soon see that his pen is guided by the supposed invisible hand of the market to offer a paean to commerce and consumption. No mention of psychology, values, individuality, alienation. Only the wonders of science, technology, and capital. The “wisdom” of crowds is merely that not too many people think for themselves beyond what they will consume today.

“People … can coordinate themselves to achieve complex, mutually beneficial ends even it they’re not really sure, at the start, what those ends are or what it will take to accomplish them. As individuals, they don’t know where they’re going. But as part of a market, they’re suddenly able to get there, and fast.”

Joshu and the hermits

The koan about Zen master Joshu meeting two hermits goes like this:

Joshu came upon a hermit’s hut. He leaned in and called,
“Anyone here? Anyone here?” The hermit raised his fist. Joshu said, “The water is too shallow to anchor here” and went away. He then came upon another hermit’s hut, where again he called out, “Anyone here? Anyone here?” This hermit, too, raised his fist. Joshu said, “Free to give, free to kill, free to save,” and he made a deep bow.

So what is the point? There are many commentaries on this koan, none definitive. We can say that we know nothing about the respective merits of the two hermits, no clue to suggest that one deserves to be called shallow and the other is worthy of a bow. I think (tentatively, of course) that it tells us more about Joshu, his realization that he can pass judgment arbitrarily (“free to give” etc.). This realization can be used by us arbitrarily, and hence without significance on what is reality. Hence he bows, having discovered it through the particular person in front of him, though who it is would not have mattered. Joshu must find what it is that enlightens or empowers he himself. Perhaps his bow is a form of repentance for realizing what he had not articulated to himself before. Or perhaps it is an absurd game of the hen looking for a place to lay its egg. It does not matter where, only to just do it.
Joshu commends the eremitical life either way: sometimes we are too shallow, and sometimes we are worthy. Only, let us not be the one to decide. If Joshu were to see us right now, which comment would he give us? And, frankly, wouldn’t either one be correct?

Frog mirror

Two frogs lie opposite one another on the window pane. Each is a less than a thumb’s length (well, my thumb), a shimmering green with dull yellow eyes, always in a half-doze. They are not exact images, one being attached to the window a few inches to the left (or right, depending which), yet they look at one another’s semblance of their undersides, as if within a strange malleable mirror distorted by space but not time. As night enfolds this little scene, space separates the little halves, and time itself disappears. No revelation, no insight, no frog plopping into a pond, a la Basho. The light withdraws from the mirror, and I can only wonder where these little creatures have gone, until tomorrow, when they reappear again in the magic mirror.

Krishnamurti on the solitary

In a 1955 talk entitled “Can We Create a New Culture?” the philosopher J. Krishnamurti explores the need to transcend the conventions of the various cultures and societies into which we are socialized in order to achieve a break-through to knowledge, truth, and a positive change in world and civil affairs. The passage on how this affects even the solitary is a provocative one:

Can the man who belongs to society — it does not matter what society — ever find truth, God? Can society help the individual in that discovery, or must the individual, you and I, break away from society?
Surely it is in the very process of breaking away from society that there is the understanding of what is truth, and that truth then creates the ripples which become a new society, a new culture. The sannyasi, the monk, the hermit renounces the world, renounces society, but his whole pattern of thinking is still conditioned by society; he is still a Christian or a Hindu, pursuing the ideal of Christianity or of Hinduism. His meditations, his sacrifices, his practices, are all essentially conditioned and, therefore, what he discovers as truth, as God, as the absolute, is really his own conditioned reaction. Hence, society cannot help man to find out what is true.