Ocean of text

Risingtidefallingstar (4th Estate) is Philip Hoare’s third book about the sea, and he writes, ‘Sometimes I think I can only think of the sea’. But this is not a book about summer seaside vacations. Rather, he swims no matter the weather, and writes about the cold, storms, drownings, shipwrecks, and about the eccentric authors and artists (Woolf, Plath, Shakespeare, Jack London, and of course Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson) who, like himself, were mesmerised by the mystery and vastness of our oceans. He trawls through literature and the biographies of artists to fish out water-related anecdotes, some of which are decidedly feverishly strange, such as Stephen Tennant’s retreat to his extravagantly decorated, ocean-themed country house where he hardly ever leaves his bed and asks, ‘Do people still think of me in London?’.

Themes run like currents through the ocean of text – Cape Cod, Thoreau, World War I, Lord Nelson, seals, whales, The Tempest, Shelley and Byron, wild fashion, forbidden relationships, suicides, David Bowie. The language of the sea infiltrates his observations of other things. Second-hand books are described as being ‘stranded’ on a shelf. Hoare is a literary and cultural beachcomber. Every bit of flotsam catches his attention. He suggests that the dream of astrophysicists is to find a planet almost entirely made of water. He describes the splendour of fin whales feeding, but is not too delicate to describe dead, washed-up animals. He picks up a deer skull from the beach and buries it in his garden, antlers protruding.


Giving hermits a bad name

The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel, Simon & Schuster

One day in the 1980s a young man fed up with the modern world abandons his car by the side of the road and disappears into the woods of the northeast United States, where he remains for the next 30 years, living in isolation in a makeshift campsite.

Christopher Knight, described as the last true hermit (a problematic term as becomes evident), sustains himself by breaking into nearby holiday cabins and thieving food and clothing, sparking a decades-long investigation. The Stranger in the Woods opens with the heart-racing account of his arrest by a policeman increasingly frustrated by Knight’s panther-like elusiveness. Before his entry into the woods Knight worked as a security alarm installer, and this knowledge enables him to elude detection. Upon his eventual arrest he becomes something of a celebrity, the subject of marriage proposals and songs. Michael Finkel finds Knight in jail, from where this intriguing story unfolds. (Knight is eventually released to perform community service.)

The back cover of Michael Finkel’s book suggests that ‘occasionally [Knight] would have to venture to holiday cabins in the dead of night to pilfer a bit of food’, but this is a gross understatement. Actually he did this regularly, also stealing clothes, bedding, reading material and, crucially, gas canisters for his camp stove. Upon his arrest, he replied that virtually everything he ‘owned’ was stolen. Rainwater was the only provision he didn’t steal. He didn’t grow or hunt any of his food.

Finkel suggests Knight’s ‘back was fully turned to the world’, but Knight did not live in the wilderness. He lived, his campsite camouflaged in the forest, within three minutes’ walk of civilisation (a form of it, anyway), and even stole a flat screen TV which he powered with (stolen) car batteries. He read (stolen) books and magazines and listened to a (stolen) radio. Like the Japanese individuals whom Finkel mentions and who stay shut in their rooms, interacting with the world only via the internet, Knight simply turns his back on face-to-face interactions with living, breathing people. He describes himself as ‘kind of an isolationist’.

Finkel ruminates on how a thousand years ago we lived in small communities, in the bush, in a quiet environment, and opines, ‘This is who we truly are’, forgetting for the moment that Knight can only survive in his patch of peace and quiet with the modern conveniences of a gas stove, tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing and manufactured, long-life food. Knight does, however, show extraordinary tenacity and survival skills, many learnt on the job, because, Finkel explains, Knight lacked any training in bush survival before going bush. To survive the harsh Maine winters Knight rose at 2am, did exercises to stop freezing and thawed out precious drinking water on his camp stove.

Hermits, typically, are rather high-minded about what they do, and though living in isolation, they tend to make some communication to the world, particularly in a sage-like capacity. Knight himself, though, is puzzled by the ‘hermit’ label, preferring to think of himself as normal. He makes no attempt at manifestos or communicating his experience to the world. It is as if he made an impulsive decision and then, increasingly, finds it impossible to go back. Despite his thieving, of which he is ashamed, he has principles – he doesn’t steal expensive or obviously sentimental stuff, and he is a polite house-breaker, re-sealing doors and windows. He is not uninformed about the modern world and is a devourer of books, discerning in his reading unless, Knight says, the alternative is nothing to read. He admires Socrates for his recommendation of hermiticism, but detests that great populariser of back-to-nature principles, Thoreau (above), because, as Knight sees it, Thoreau only pretended to be a hermit, and still went to town on the weekends for dinner parties. This is somewhat ironic, considering Knight’s own lifestyle.

Knight describes Finkel as his Boswell, but reading between the lines, Finkel is an annoying journo who is after the major scoop and who is constantly stepping over the line from familiarity to intrusiveness, despite knowing that Knight and his family value privacy. But Finkel is intrigued in, as well as full of admiration for, someone so determined to shun society. Locals are not so forgiving. Some hate Knight for ruining their idyllic peace and quiet. Others see him as a minor inconvenience. The last word should go to the online hermit community (yes, there is such a thing), who, after much deliberation, decide that Knight is not a true hermit, but a thief who gives hermits a bad name.


Evolution from and in debt to

Alister McGrath, in his latest book, says that no modern philosophers are asking about the meaning of life because it is (to them) an embarrassingly crude subject matter. This is not entirely true, although perhaps academic philosophers regard the popular philosophising of the likes of Alain de Botton, John Armstrong or Terry Eagleton as barely worthy of the name philosophy. The disregard seems to be mutual. Anyway, John Kaag (above) in his recent  American Philosophy paints a similar picture of contemporary philosophy’s allergy to the everyday. Kaag argues for the relevance of said American philosophy of a bygone age, particularly that of the pragmatic philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey.

A philosophy lecturer, Kaag stumbles across the library in New England of Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher and educator, a student of William James, a key contributor to the literature on the sociology of religion, and a correspondent of Robert Frost and others. Kaag has the task of working out how to preserve and offload the library, while keeping some semblance of its worth as a whole. Amidst his discoveries of gasp-inducing first editions of various Western classics with handwritten notes and dedications from authors, Kaag weaves the tale of American philosophy’s evolution from and debt to European philosophy, emphasising both that American philosophy was not as autonomous as it is often portrayed and that it beat its own individual, enterprising path. As in an undergraduate course, he introduces Hobbes, Hegel, Descartes, Kant and James, as well as lesser known figures such as Jane Addams and Pearl Buck.

Not only does Kaag argue for an older, more relevant style of philosophy, but he ties it to his personal experience of getting over a divorce and alcoholism and falling in love again. Rather than just telling of American philosophy’s practicality, he applies it to his own situation, and the result is a beautifully entwined memoir and summary, even if at times his own circumstances tend to accentuate what is personally relevant from the works of various philosophers. For example, he says that Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is ‘actually’ about Coleridge’s marriage. Well, yes, but also so much more, as Malcolm Guite relates in detail in his recent glowing study of the man and the poem, Mariner (Hodder & Stoughton).