Kimberley Brownlee writes: Great loners are fascinating. Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Buddhist monks in their hermitage, and fictional heroes such as Robinson Crusoe are all romantic figures of successful solitary survival. Their setting is the wilderness. Their apparent triumph is the outcome of grit, ingenuity and self-reliance.
One reason that such characters seem appealing is that, ironically, they are reassuring. They give the comforting impression that anyone could thrive in isolation as they do. This reassurance can be summed up in the declaration made by Henrik Ibsen’s Dr Stockmann at the end of An Enemy of the People (1882), after the locals have persecuted him for revealing that the town’s tourist baths are contaminated. Stockmann declares: ‘The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.’
The great loners embody an idea of freedom from the vagaries and stresses of social life. As human beings, we are vulnerable to each other’s moods, proclivities, ideologies, perceptions, knowledge and ignorance. We are vulnerable to our society’s conventions, policies and hierarchies. We need other people’s blessing and often their help in order to get resources. When we’re young and when we’re old, we are vulnerable enough that our lives are happy only if other people choose to care about us.
No wonder then that Robinson Crusoe is one of the best-known novels in history; there is solace in the hermit’s self-governing independence. But this romantic image of the eremitic life rests on a mistaken idea of both the great loners’ circumstances and the nature of social isolation. [Continue reading…]