We will continue to taste long into the future the fruit fertilised by those wary of mankind's collective path.
This example of solitude bearing fruit in the western canon was by no means the first or last time isolation midwived ingenuity. Religious texts are littered with similar cases of spiritual and philosophical enlightenment, and the classics follow countless voyagers striving towards the finish line of wisdom and satisfaction. The lure of escape, of going off-the-grid, continues to be romanticized by way of more contemporary examples proving social interaction is not a prerequisite for achievement. What is it about a large dose of marooning that can ferment genius? By taking a look at some of these more recent accounts, we can begin to understand in part the machinations of a mind left to follow the canals of it's own choosing.
His philosophies point to overpopulation in industrialized capitalist societies as the root cause of damaged valuation of the natural world. He was insistent that all natural things are of equal value, instead of a falsely determined value set by the thing's usefulness to humans. The isolated situation Næss so often put himself in - amounting to a quarter of his long life - served to perpetuate his appreciation of nature in a location away from the society where destruction and exploitation are underplayed to the extent of being hidden, forgotten or unknown. This example highlights two effects of voluntary exile that proved advantageous to Næss' work: one, proximity to nature - the result of which furthered his knowledge and consequently his appreciation of the natural world, and two, distancing from society, and therefore, a distancing from subversive, affecting propaganda, traditional values and other harmful social influences.
A similar, more recent example of voluntary exile in popular culture is found in the biography of Justin Vernon. The story goes, following his split from long-term girlfriend and long-term band, battered Vernon seeks seclusion in his father's Wisconsin cabin deep in the woods. Whilst here, he writes, records and produces For Emma, Forever Ago, which, released under the name Bon Iver, becomes arguably one of the defining albums of this century. The story was utilized as a marketing strategy, and listeners were rarely disappointed with what they got thanks to the reverberating remoteness in every song.
Vernon acknowledges the influence that his seclusion had on his music. "I often find I live in different places in different songs" he said in this interview with Guardian reporter Laura Barton. "I sometimes feel like I want to be there, or I want my music to come from there. I have all these ideas but I want to be focused. I wanted to have songs that live in one place." He adds that the album would not be the same if recorded elsewhere. It appears that in this instance, the act of seclusion and retreat was an attempt to "focus" ideas, to situate them in a particular space. By escaping the complex multifaceted existence of urban life, by detaching himself from outside influences and friends, Vernon found he could achieve uninterfered clarity.
His act of isolation was refreshing to an audience who are taught of a more popular figurative modern day interpretation of isolation. Within the densely populated metropolises that have thrived since the mid 19th century, some people are unable to interact with the millions of people around them, and form their own cabin in the woods scenario in their heads, and apartments. From birth a sickly child, Marcel Proust (1871-1922) did his best to navigate the Parisian fin-de-siècle literary circles, before retreating to his sound-proofed apartment after the death of both parents, where he spent the last three of seventeen long, reclusive years in bed finishing his 3,200 page magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. The detail of his isolation being within one of the 20th century's most populous metropolises adds a different dimension to his solitude. With windows firmly shut to reduce the risk of asthma attacks, and cork fixed to the wall to imprison sound within and repel it without, his self-encagement represented the existential dilemmas society can be responsible for.
For Proust, the act definitely achieved the focusing effect already mentioned, with the writer apparently staying awake for days on end putting together lengthy stream of consciousness sentences for which his writing is famed. It also appeared to serve as an aid to memory, with In Search of Lost Time drawn from his own life and richly embellished in language woven from an impassioned mind. Robert McCrum has analyzed the significance of Proust's preference for writing from his bed: "[it] is not just about convenience of comfort [...] there's a psychological advantage, too. If you write in bed in the early morning [...] you occupy an intriguing part of consciousness, somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness. Part of you is still in the shadowy cave of dream world; part of you is adjusting to the sharp brightness of reality. The mixture is fruitful and suggestive.... The sinuous, haunting paragraphs of A La Rechurche Du Temps Perdu bear the mark of that silent twilight zone..."
Imagine this is all you know, this intimately echoing privacy. Combine that with the lost standard power of time and dizzying relapses of illness. The image this recipe produces bears the smooth and hazy texture of Proust's writing. It is hard to picture the same piece of work produced from a Parisian cafe.
This type of incarceration continues to offer some relief to modern city dwellers unable to cope with modern city life. In Japan, this type of lifestyle is regarded as complying with the phenomenon labelled 'Hikikomori'. An estimated 1 million Japanese adults remain in their selected hideouts, usually in dense, urban areas, for indefinite periods of time. Takashi Kotegawa is perhaps the most famous example of a Hikikomori, reportedly turning 1.6m Yen ($13,600) he had made from a part-time job into 18bn Yen ($153m) solely by day trading from his hideout (his bedroom) over seven years. His unconventional attitudes are attested to in his continued indulgence in only ramen, in spite of his amassed wealth. Generally, the Hikikomori are regarded as a burden on the Japanese economy, living on benefits to avoid the social workplace. But the unique circumstances surrounding roombound Kotegawa are a more unusual result of social hibernation. It is indicative of the sea change from relying on the outdoors and social interaction for education to the ability to harness all knowledge we need from the comfort of wheresoever we should choose. And thus the issue is raised that has adorned tabloid columns as technology increasingly targets individual consumers. The same technology that apparently breeds a socially reticent, uncooperative generation intent on a self-imposed isolation, surrounded by people.
Words and photos by Stuart Blackadder