Sunday, June 16, 2013

How NOT to Go Into Solitude!

[Phil sent the following article, which recently appeared in the Guardian, as an example of how not to go into solitude]

Russia: solitude in Siberia
Friday 31 May 2013 21.00 BST
In search of the simple life, Sylvain Tesson spent six months living in a remote hut on the shore of Siberia's Lake Baikal, on a retreat that reveals much about our need for escape
I stayed at Lake Baikal for the first time in 2003. Walking along the shore, I discovered cabins at regular intervals, inhabited by strangely happy recluses. Five years later I chanced to spend three days with a ranger in a tinyizba, a traditional Russian log cabin, on the eastern shore of the lake. At night we sipped vodka and played chess; during the day I helped him haul in his fishing nets. We hardly spoke, but we read a lot. That was when I promised myself I would live alone in a cabin for a few months before I turned 40.
So, two years ago, I left my home in Paris and spent six months in a little hut on the Lake's western shore, very far from civilisation: it was six days' walk to the nearest village, a day from the nearest neighbour, and there were no access roads.
I wanted to experiment with the simple life and claim back time. I wanted to feel life, and understand how it would look just contemplating the landscape, rather than harvesting kilometres on the road as I was used to when travelling. I have done many great adventures (crossing the Himalayas on foot in 1997, walking the route the gulag escapees took, from Yakutsk in Siberia to Calcutta, in 2003). But it became a disease I wanted to cure.
Lake Baikal is 395 miles long, 49 miles wide, 1,642m (just over a mile) deep, and 25 million years old. I arrived in February, when temperatures drop to -30C and the ice is over a metre thick. I was driven across it in a truck.
Constructed in the 1980s as a geologist's hut, my cabin lay in a clearing of cedar forest in the northern sector of the Baikal-Lena nature reserve. The owners, Volodya T, a 50-year-old forest ranger and his wife Ludmilla, had lived there for 15 years, but they wanted to move to Irkutsk. Other rangers were spaced about 19 miles apart through the reserve.

Sylvain Tesson's cabin in Siberia

The cabin had its back to the mountains, at the foot of a slope 1,981m high, surrounded by coniferous taiga and with views of the lake. Snow had meringued the roof; the beams were the colour of gingerbread. It measured nine square metres and was heated by a noisy cast-iron stove. I could put up with the snoring of this particular companion. I had two windows: through one, looking east, I could see the snowy crests of Buryatia, 60 miles away. The winter forest was a silvery fur tossed onto the shoulders of the terrain.
I took a lot of equipment with me: axe and cleaver, fishing poles, kerosene lamp, ice drill, saw, snowshoes, tent, liquor glasses and vodka, cigars, provisions (pasta, rice, Tabasco sauce, coffee) and a library of almost 80 books.
You can't predict the mood you will be in six months later, so I had planned my library carefully. It would be an easy mistake to choose only difficult reading, and think you would only need high-minded, philosophical, idealistic writing. Then after 10 days you want to kill your book and read a detective novel.
I chose a wide range of philosophy, poetry, literature, nature books. Michel Déon for melancholy, DH Lawrence for sensuality, some philosophers (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, the Stoics), Sade and Casanova to stir my blood. Some books on life in the woods: Daniel Defoe for myth, Grey Owl for his radical stance, Aldo Leopold for ethics. In some respects the whole experience was to put a library in the woods.
If I had not had books, I would have gone quickly mad. A book is a way to have someone with you. For the first time in my life I was able to read a whole book, beginning to end without stopping, sometimes reading for eight hours straight.
I cut my day into two parts. In the morning I did spiritual things: reading, writing, smoking, learning poetry, looking out of the window. In the afternoon I was more physical: digging a hole in the ice, fishing, running around my little kingdom in snowshoes, cutting firewood.
By restricting the panoply of actions, one goes deeper into each experience. The castaway enjoys absolute freedom – but within the limits of his island.
People who live in cabins can quickly fall into a state of depression, of cabin fever. Because you don't see anyone, you can spend your life lying in bed drinking vodka and nobody will say anything to you. So it's important to organise your time with activity, like the monks did, or Robinson Crusoe, who dressed for dinner every night though he was shipwrecked and alone. The way to stay smart is to behave when you are alone as you would surrounded by people in the city.
What was pleasant about this life was the repetition of acts. Each day goes by, a mirror of the one before, a rough draft of the one to come. You can find happiness in the possibility of things, but you can also find it in knowing exactly what will happen. It is peaceful, a very slow life, but you become rich.
I have a lot of vitality and need to do sports, so I went out and walked every day, climbed the hills around the cabin, and occasionally took a tent and hiked into the wilderness to bivouac in the woods. And to go ice skating on this frozen lake was amazing.
I also relied on a few goods from civilisation for pleasure: including vodka and cigars. I liked the idea of living in a very huge remote place but with some real luxury goods. Then you balance your life, moving between the two contrasting experiences, archaic and luxurious. After a day's walking in the snow and fishing at -30C, it is wonderful to read Chinese poetry while smoking a Havana.
Though I lived alone, it was not real solitude. For real hermitude you are alone for years and years. For me it was a relative thing.
I sometimes visited those who lived nearest, and I often had visitors – people I knew, sometimes strangers who happened to be crossing the lake. It wasn't too painful for me as they would only stay for a couple of hours, and it would interrupt the loneliness. And anyway, I didn't want to live a very extreme, challenging, difficult life. It was just an experience.
Through Sergei and Natasha, a couple who ran the weather station 31 miles from the cabin, I met Sasha and Yura, two Siberian fishermen. They were archetypal Russians, very strong, very big, speaking loudly, drinking a lot, very generous people with a lot of energy, who hadn't cut their link with the wilderness. If you put those people in the city they would be like an elephant.
These people have a rustic life, an intense and important life. They enjoy it, though they are perfectly aware that it has negative and positive aspects. Life is physically difficult. It is hard to live in a forest in the cold. When you are 50 you look 70 years old. But for sure they would not change it for a life in the city. They know that they would lose their freedom there. Better to live joyfully in a wilderness clearing than languish in a city.
Milan Kundera said because Russia didn't have an elite in its history, and no Renaissance, Russians are still in a state of irrationality and magical thinking, like the Middle Ages. I found that with these kind of people. They don't say superficial things, only wise things. They are not blah-blah-blah people, like me. It was good not to have to keep a conversation going. Why is life with others so hard? Because you always have to find something to say. I thought of those days of walking around Paris nervously tossing off "Just-fine-thank-yous" and "Let's-get-together-soons" to people I didn't really know, who babbled the same things to me, as if in a panic.
It's incredible how much mankind hogs its own attention. The presence of others makes the world fade out. Solitude is the reconquest of the enjoyment of things. The only way to be free is to be alone. You still have laws, of nature, your own discipline, but the beginning of coercion, compromise, imprisonment begins with just one other person.
Boredom didn't frighten me. There are worse pangs: the sorrow of not sharing with a loved one the beauty of lived moments. Solitude: what others miss out on by not being with the person who experiences it.
I was warned before I left Paris that boredom would be my deadly enemy. I'd die of it! I'd listened politely. People who said such things assumed they themselves were superb entertainment. "Reduced to myself alone, I feed myself, it is true, on my own substance, but it is not exhausted," writes Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker.
In April I was given two dogs, Aika and Bek, who helped combat loneliness, and would bark if a bear came near, from the end of May when they came out of hibernation.
When the ice broke on 22 May, it happened suddenly: there was a storm and the ice shattered. I have never seen such power. It was like the elements were making war. In the west we talk about the beginning of spring, of entering spring. In Siberia there was no entering, no transition; it was rapid. In 10 minutes winter was defeated.
That month I sat at my table watching the ice die. Water seeped in everywhere, mottling the surface with black blotches. Then ducks who had been living it up down south landed in the open areas, eager for love and fresh water. Eagles soared, geese patrolled in gangs, gulls did nosedives, butterflies, amazed at being alive, staggered through the air.
Immersion in the Taiga was satisfying because I felt a belonging to nature. Unlike when you are crossing mountains, when you feel like a stranger on the edge, staying in one place makes you feel part of the forest, just like the bear, or a fish, or a bird.
The month of June, when the animals need their vigour for love, presents a problem in the cycle of life: how to bridge the gap between the awakening of May and the abundance of July? Nature has come up with … flies. By July, the air was loaded with bugs.
On 28 July I bade farewell to the lake. I went there not knowing whether I'd find the strength to stay; I left knowing I would return. I often lay in my hammock in the broiling sun. In my kayak I paddled onto the lake, as slick as oil, the reflection so pure you could misread which half of the mirror image was which. On Bastille Day, two friends were visiting from France, and we raised a flag on the beach and downed three vodka eye-openers.
A retreat is a revolt. In the outposts of Baikal the authority of Moscow holds hardly any sway. The urban liberal, leftist, revolutionary and upper-middle-class citizens all pay money for bread, gas and taxes. The hermit asks nothing from the state and gives nothing to the state. He disappears into the woods and thrives there. His retreat constitutes a loss of income for the government. Becoming a loss of income should be the objective of true revolutionaries.
I couldn't live permanently in the cabin. But I have been back to the taiga a couple of times, and I know I will experience again an act of hermitism, maybe for longer. I discovered the Algerian desert a few years ago, and I think the desert is a good place to do this: taiga without the trees.
I am still wandering, but I am not so obsessed with travelling. My experience made me understand that the best way to stop feeling that time is fleeing is just to sit somewhere for a while. I discovered that living within silence is rejuvenating. That the parade of hours is busier than the ploughing-through of miles. That the eye never tires of splendour.
I'm sure more people today will want to do what I did. I think an increasing number will need, at some time, to cut themselves off and escape modern life, then come back later to a more simple life. What I did was a radical acceleration of that. But the return to the forest, you can do it in your own home. Time is the most precious treasure we have. We all have 24 hours a day, but we are all destroying this treasure, especially with electronics. Always being contactable is the beginning of your loss of freedom. It is what we ask of prisoners ; it's like an electronic tag. There is always the intrusion of people into your time and it is horrible.
The first act is to throw out your mobile phone. Try to spend three hours in the same action, in the same consultation of time – writing, reading, doing some action.
Russians know that the taiga is there if things go wrong. It's good to know that out there, in a forest in the world, there is a cabin where something is possible, something close to the sheer happiness of being alive. So, refuseniks of every country, take to the woods! Consolation awaits you there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to have done the author a lot of good, and he wrote about it beautifully. Glad to have read it.

3:06 pm, June 16, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Yes but it was just a vacation like any other vacation.

He spent the whole time acting —acting a role, if you like: too many books, too much scheduling, too much of everything. He gave the solitude and silence no chance to work on him.

What a wasted opportunity!

3:32 pm, June 16, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,
Thanks for the article Phil, it was captivating. Has the author written anything else?

3:36 pm, June 16, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I agree with Maggie, I do still think there was one useful piece of advice: throw away your mobile phones! Only my partner has my number, it is permanently switched off unless I need to make an emergency phone call, and I sent only my eighth ever text a few weeks ago having had a mobile phone since 1997.

Technology can be wonderful and enrich our lives - like reading this blog - but it can also become a blight, like the tv, if we let it, and i think too many people are. Is there a sadder sight that watching two teenage girls walking side by side down a road with an earpiece attached to an ipod in one ear while they text on their mobile phone and completely ignore the person in whose physical presence they are at that present moment? It makes me so sad.


3:48 pm, June 16, 2013  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

perhaps better not to report so casually on one's ownership of so much carbon karma in attaining some isolation for some relative solitude and some away time.

10:41 pm, June 16, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Amen to that. It isn't necessary to go to Lake Baikal to throw away your mobile phone! This whole article, to me, anyway, was more about showing off than a desire for solitude! As if he was bored of having anything to write about or spend his money on, so this was the next topical move.

9:02 am, June 17, 2013  
Anonymous sgl said...

Hi Maggie,

Stumbled across the just-published article in the New York Times about Turrell, a modern artist, and it reminded me of your criticisms of pursuing "experience." I suppose that finding examples of people caught up in persuing "experience" these days is like shooting fish in a barrel, but the clarity of the article, not "falling into the arcane and pretentious obscurities of the language of art criticism" as one commenter said, made it much easier to see for those that don't normally hang around modern art circles. A long, well-written article worth the time to read, and I'd suggest reading the comments also.

How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet, By WIL S. HYLTON

The article mentions the extensive time put into creating these artificial art-work "experiences," which often cause disorientation to the viewer to boot. One of his exhibitions caused several people to fall down and sprain or break an arm (and file lawsuits) due to being disoriented.

The most striking quote in the article relevant to your blog was: "For a man driven by such a monomaniacal artistic impulse, he is startlingly uninterested in himself. Through dozens of conversations in multiple cities over perhaps a hundred hours, I found him willing to examine almost any idea, so long as it didn’t require any self-reflection."

and from the comments:
from ADM, who had been a fan of Turrel's earlier work: ".... from viewing the progress of his other work is seems that perhaps something was lost and has been losing ever since he left the run-down motel. The dealer of experience buying his own wares."
and from Liz Goldner, a fan: "I saw the Turrell show at LACMA recently, and was so disoriented that after seeing it, I was unable to absorb anything in a nearby exhibition about Hans Richer. My drive home to Orange County - more than an hour away - was difficult, a bit like driving while stoned. The next day, I felt hungover all day, and had difficulty concentrating. This disorientation lasted a few more days. That said, I enjoyed the exhibition and will probably see it again before it closes. The physical/emotional reactions I experienced were minor compared to how Turrell’s vision of art helped me see much of art and the world differently. There is a spiritual aspect to his work - exemplified, in my opinion - by his remark in the didactics about perception being subjective."

In comparison to the article, a different view of a light display can be found reading your piece on watching an aurora borealis a few weeks after 9/11:
Heaven Can't Wait III

And as another comparison, instead of becoming disoriented by expensive optical illusions, how about having your "whole world collapse" by seeing reality? Listen to Maggie Doyne tell how her "whole world just collapsed" watching a small (10-12 year-old?) Nepalese girl carrying 60 kg/130lbs of rocks back and forth all day to earn about $1-2 dollars for the entire day's work:
Maggie Doyne — Why the human family can do better
(that part of the story begins about 5:45, but the entire 25 minute presentation is well worth the time.)

9:41 am, June 17, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

I'm sorry to read this about Turrell. I have seen only one of his installations, in 1995, at an art museum in, I think, Columbus Ohio. It was the closest to an 'experience' of the apophatic one could imagine—although of course 'experience' and 'apophatic' are contraries. Perhaps better said, it made you lose yourself; it drew you into itself into an infinity without geometry. It was extraordinary. Sounds like he has now resorted to tricks. Alas.

9:46 am, June 17, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To put it another way, the installation I saw took away any desire to interpret, allowed all your own thoughts and ideas to fall away, and drew you forward into a dimension-less space of well-being. It was unknowing, and total openness to what would come next, which was beyond imagining...impossible to describe!

10:17 am, June 17, 2013  
Anonymous Al said...

Been thinking today of physical disabilities, mental illness, dyslexia especially after watching Taare Zameen Par, a story of an 8-year old dyslexic boy. Can't help thinking of what society considers as grotesque or twisted could actually lead into some sense of unknowing or infinity, into a kind of presence in the very absence of a lost limb or capacity to read normally what appear as "dancing letters". The unsayable languages of the grotesque for a society so used to presence in the graspable that even solitude is reduced to controllable moments like the adventures of the article writer. Those who live on the margins have a lot to "say" on solitude as absence and ungraspability, an idea that society itself hates.

12:05 pm, June 17, 2013  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

As it is often said here there is a difference between being alone and solitude.

Solitude does not grasp at, it embraces. Over lots of time it "in forms" and that process I now think is not one which can be directed, not consciously anyway.

Perhaps what might be called the sustaining architecture of a solitary is consequence/result of not directing.

A shell "in forms" in this manner, it sustains the life within but that life does not do the forming.

Being alone is something from which one must ultimately flee and rightly so: to prolong such is a good way to become alone. Meaning no shelter, nothing in forming.

I think it was the writer Jim Harrison who said of Russell Chatham paintings.

"A painting exists only to be what it is."

What happens when the sense of viewing/viewer becomes absorbed in such is ness?

Perhaps this is solitude.

2:51 pm, June 17, 2013  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

Don't know if this can be clearly expressed.

This concerns the shell/inner life relationship.

There is no true distinction, no separateness (as might be thought) in this shell and inner being metaphor. There is entwining. No sustaining "solitary" architecture can be constructed which excludes such in life relatedness.

So, "unplugging the phone" is not the point. Going to "Lake Baikal" for an reason is not the point.

Perhaps what matters in all of this traipsing about is appropriately using the phone, or going someplace other than here.

Appropriate is better found within a much larger context than one encounters when focused on having AN experience.

"Lake Baikal" and "unplugging the phone" and "an extraordinary encounter with light in an art gallery" and "my home garden all sunlit and gently breezy" can all become a/one way of encountering solitude.

Solitude encountered is/has relationship as well. And this is not different than the shell is the inner being and inner being is shell.

6:59 pm, June 17, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,
I read Tesson's article again and found it even more interesting! It seems to be an engaging account of one individual's experiment with the possibility of living a simpler life. I found it refreshing that Tesson didn't take himself too seriously. It seems that it is more of a secular account rather than a religious one. Take care.

1:04 am, June 18, 2013  
Anonymous Al said...

"God does not fill in the gaps where human reason fails. Nor does
God like a divine Superman vanquish intolerable suffering. God does not
erase human longing and want, but is present amidst it. There is in us a wide open space—a gap—from which we dare to speak the question: “Who is God?” In the very asking we are making room for some small manifestation of who God is. Whatever answer may come it too must remain unsaid so that we might make a space fitting for the silence that is the contemplative’s home and the theologian’s workplace." Michael Downey, A Testimony to Unsaying: The Cistercian Monastery as Matrix for Theology, Cistercian Studies Quarterly 45.1 (2010)

3:30 am, June 18, 2013  
Anonymous Al said...

A way of looking at solitude:

"The theologian has come away from Southern California, the land of eternal traffic. I have withdrawn from voicemails, emails, faxes, committees, boards, consultations, evaluations, assessments, confrontations, allegations, litigations, liturgical skirmishes, exchanges, meetings, struggles,
relationships, worries and—in the hyper-psychologized parlance of
our day—“issues.” In this house of prayer laced ‘round by the Santa Rita Mountains there is room enough for a silence in which the question can emerge as if for the first time: Who art Thou? Who are You? Who is God? There is a nudge, a hunch from somewhere back in the long ago, a stirring of the first intuition that theology as a way of life is worthy of the one and only life I have to live, a whole way of perceiving and being that is in
service of the search for an answer." Michael Downey

3:36 am, June 18, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

I'm not persuaded, Kevin, I fear. Given the huge amount of money it cost and the enormous amount of stuff he took with him it's more like 'simplicity for the rich and famous'.

6:59 am, June 18, 2013  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

Quite often good travel writing extinguishes the personal sense of I encounter(ed) in favor of the encounter(ed).

In this essay the author is mostly concerned with his reaction, this reaction is the centerpiece of the writing, perhaps of going at all.

This is not wrong or right. It is contra indicated given his stated purpose in going.

It is upside down.


"In the very asking we are making room for ..."

"Whatever answer comes it too must remain unsaid, that we might make a space that is fitting ..."


2:41 pm, June 18, 2013  

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