Lost cultures

In his most recent book, Healthy at 100 (2006), John Robbins reviews four isolated cultures whose members showed great health and longevity: the Abkhasia of th Caucasus mountains, the Vilcabamba of the Andes, the Hunza of the Himalayas, and pre-WW II Okinawans of Japan. These idyllic lands and societies have been studied before. They were living exemplars of proverbial utopias. I remember reading about the Hunza in the 1970’s, about their simple life in the mountains– and about the enormous apricots they cultivated!

It is not until after ranging over a variety of diet and health topics and nearly at the end of the 350+ page book that we are told that none of these societies is the same today, all fallen victim to war, technology, development, and globalization.

One might have expected this fate. These isolated lands and cultures were the true “hermit” lands, not the politically ostrasized countries of current news. Positive solitude or negative alienation would have not been in evidence in these lands, at least in theory. This would be due to their close relationship to the land, and to what must be called the universal Way, however a particular culture conceives it. We would almost be watching early Chinese or early Celtic culture recreated from millennia ago, where the first hermits would be shamans.

These cultures will especially remind a reader of the Tao te ching of Lao-tzu’s depiction of the ideal society:

A small country of few people.
Machines are not needed.
People take life and death meaningfully.
No one travels far.
They do not use their boats or carriages.
They do not display armor or weapons.
They knot rope rather than write.
Their food is plain and wholesome.
Their clothes are fit but simple.
Their homes are secure.
The people are happy in their ways.
Though they live in sight of their neighbors
and hear crowing cocks and barking dogs,
Yet they live in peace with each other
as they grow old and die. (80)

Naipaul on accidie

Isabel Colegate quotes writer V. S. Naipaul’s book The Enigma of Arrival in describing Naipaul’s short visit to England and his eccentric landlord, reminiscent of the employers of ornamental hermits, themselves a bit strange. Dispensing with the background of his landlord, one sees instead a simple portrait of what often afflicts the recluse who is an involuntary solitary. Interestingly, accidie turned his landlord into a recluse, not the other way around (the hermit suffering accidie). That is a clue to the evolution of recluses generally, though not necessarily to the creation of hermits.

Writes Naipaul:

Here in the valley there now lived only my landlord, elderly, a bachelor, with people to look after him. Certain physical disabilities had now been added to the malaise of which I had no precise knowledge, but interpreted as something like accidie, the monk’s torpor or disease of the Middle Ages which was how his great security, his excessive worldly blessings, had taken him. The accidie had turned him into a recluse, accessible only to his intimate friends.


If I was not so self-conscious, I would probably spend at least an hour some brisk morning sitting next to trees and shrubs, listening to and watching the dew slide off one leaf and strike another. After all, the French scientist Jean-Henri Fabre spent hours watching ants at work. When I was a child, I was chided for wasting time doing that very thing after reading about Fabre in a children’s encyclopedia. So perhaps that is why the self-consciousness lingers.

Back to the dew. Some leaves of trees and bushes, such as those of the enormous Buddha’s Belly bamboo in the front that shield passersby from the house (or vice-versa, I guess) seem coated in a fine dark green sheen. On them the dew shimmers like ice and drips noisily (so to speak) onto the next leaf and down a chain or slide to the ground. Other plants hold dewdrops for a moment and then, suddenly, the dew is gone. One must wait patiently and capture the moment of movement, which comes without advanced notice or fanfare.

I don’t know which metaphor is better or if both are object lessons, but the element of slowness and deliberation, versus sudden disappearance after glowing, seem two ways of being. Then there is the dew on the grass, which lingers far longer than on the trees and shrubs, and finally disappears back into its very roots. Another metaphor? Or something to enjoy as it is? banishing my tendency to find something behind the something, thus missing the something right in front of me. Oops, there I go again …

Nietzsche on consciousness

Early in his writings, Friedrich Nietzsche experimented with the idea of the origins of consciousness, which he saw as primarily a social phenomenon. (What follows is from his writings and my extrapolations.) In a postulated primieval era, both the individual act and the individual thought was filtered through the group. The group established the behavioral patterns for its members by conformity or subordination or the beginnings of a vertical or hierarchical system.

An act is an external behavior but a thought is not. Both, however, if contradicting the group, result in guilt. Guilt is the shame concerning what is “in here.” This is the beginning of morals. In the social sphere, as guilt is transformed over time and space, the sense of tragedy emerges, that is, guilt over what is happening “out there.” Tragedy becomes the basis of an historical or cultural ethos. Thus, an act of violence within the group would engender guilt. War among people “over there” eventually engenders a tragic sense of the universe. Aescylus, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky magnificently exemplify an articulation of what we come to interpret as tragedy.

The counterpart to the act is the thought or feeling on the part of the individual, since a thought or feeling does not begin as a social phenomenon. The counterpart of guilt over the act is the same, and the counterpart of tragedy is compassion, that is, compassion towards those who are “over there.”

The sense of tragedy over time and space is universalized. Socially it represents a profound discontent, which potentailly threatens the hierarchy, threatens authority. Authority will always want to limit actions on the part of the group or its members. On the thought/feeling level, compassion is universalized as well and transmutes into suffering. Suffering is the discontentment of the individual, the first noble truth identified by the Buddha.

Here is a schema of sorts:

ACT –> guilt –> tragedy –> discontent <-- consciousness
THOUGHT –> guilt –> compassion –> suffering <-- consciousness

Concludes Nietzsche, consciousness is the product not of society or groups. Consciousness developed and matured in the manner described is the product of individuals. Refined and reflected upon, consciousness grows and is further qualified by time and space and cultural circumstances — but not by society, only by individuals.

What is the relevance of these ideas for a philosophy of solitude? These ideas help form an anthropology of eremitism, if not just of individualism. They show that no one can look to society or the group for an acute sense of reality or insight into reality. Groups can preserve a certain ethos or disposition or cultural personality, but one must look within to find that grand tool of being called consciousness.

“The Happy Introvert”

Reading The Happy Introvert by Elizabeth Wagele (2006). A cheerful book and quick to read — wish I had it when I was young. The subtitle suggests that it is addressed to teenagers and young adults (“A Wild and Crazy Guide for Celebrating Your True Self”), as do the examples dealing with relations at school or college or work, plus relevant careers for introverts versus extraverts, and parenting young children. But I profited from lots of insights and background discussion, and had a good time with cartoons, quotations, and useful questionnaires like the “In relationships, do you behave more like an introvert or an extravert?” There are useful sections on Jung, neurology, and the ubiquitous (but essential) Myers-Briggs. The book is thorough for being a popular treatment, and the appendix, “Introverts and Extraverts at Their Best and Worst” is a nice summary. Lots of useful information packed into a fun presentation. You’ll be happy, if not “wild and crazy,” reading this one.