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Alone, Together

I am the book of every thought I ever had. I am the record of my every move in ticks and tiny blots and florid flashes of illumination like gold leaf moving with the sun through the cavernous vaults of my body. Every page I read burns away and drowns and is stripped by the relentless wind. My body disperses through every part of space. My body condenses to a retinal cell, a finger tip fold, a bud, an ossicle.
I am a packet of information sucking at my skin clinging to and separating every hoarding. Chords, horns, bells announce desires I did not know I felt. Sirens entice me into their delirium.
I think the ring is you. The call is to say a text is here. I open an envelope while reading an email exhorting me to open my window and wander enchanted through it, always forgetting where I’ve been and where I am in the deafening glory of the promised world.
Each bit in this quicksound is shaped to suck its neighbours in while slipping away on a fluid film. From this terrain the cold emptiness of the sky seems like a liberation. The falcon sees only one thing.
I string a snare of words to catch every charged pulse but love and hate and play feints through the clauses. Word falls through word. And sense swims in the air between us thinking like an animal, its body changing. Our pages drift and trawl over every liquid surface searching for the fugitive lover. But the breath can never be caught.
The stacked towers of my conversations are archived in folders. I can cross-check the blocks of my history like a city. Misunderstandings, corralled and hobbled, cower in sheepish bars. The wilderness is penned. Busily I flag and mark and cipher space while the sky gets bigger and bigger. And a falcon rests on its arms outstretched.

So I’m not a hermit because I’m on the internet?
It’s true I miss the quietness of a more unplugged retreat but here I’ve wanted to ask how alone any of us is, and how together?

There is a screaming arrogance in our assertion that to be away from humans is to be alone. It’s the arrogance that allows us to close our fist around a frog, brush away the earwig’s quiet story, snatch the seat from under the Taino, uproot the sparrow’s home. ‘Only people like me count’, it says. With that kind of attitude it really is a lonely world. And it gets lonelier and lonelier. In the middle of a city, surrounded by a million single-minded trajectories and averted gazes, on the internet where there are no consequences, that’s where you’re alone. But in a forest every creature is part of a millions of years old dance. In a desert even the clouds and the dunes tell you stories. There is a sense of belonging from which human arrogance has held itself aloof.

A great shift happened when humans invented writing. I’ve spoken elsewhere on this blog about tools and agriculture but surely one of the most significant technologies in human evolution must be writing. The moment when an object in the world became represented by something other than itself, by a sign, it began to lose its own particular voice and began to be relegated to a category for a human purpose.

Writing began as a means of asserting ownership, of counting possessions and trading in them. It was an assertion of control over objects. Writing conveyed a magical power. Spoken language already does this to some extent but it is still tied in to a memory which is housed in a body with its particular sound and breath. Speech still has a music which cannot be captured and tamed.
But writing grew far away from this breath. It progressed by leaps and jumps from pictures to rebus to phonetics to a full alphabet to the printing press and now to the computer. In that process of evolution humans have become gradually unmoored from the particular moment of connection. The life of the thing itself has diminished as human power has increased.
Maybe the key difference between an oral and a literate culture is its attitude of dominion over the world.

Here is a bundle of reed pens from a 13th Dynasty Egyptian tomb. They are an example of just one step in the long journey between smeared pigments on cave walls and the push email and cloud storage of my iPhone. Maybe you’re right, I can’t be a proper hermit with a computer. In the interests of the silence that leads to greater communion, perhaps I should do away with these and all the writing that has trapped the world in a net. Reed Pens

But the hermit has always been a function of highly sophisticated urban societies, and hermits have always kept some vestiges of connection with that society, a Bible, an alms round, medicines, at the very least the language of thought. Perhaps for a post-urban, hyper-connected society a laptop is the new Bible and begging bowl and skull. You don’t need to go the Himalayas any more to find a teacher. After all the work of silence is about attitude not altitude.

And indeed where can we go now to find wilderness? Hermits have traditionally sought wilderness as an antidote to the hall of mirrors that is a human city, in which we see nothing but reflections of human concerns. Whether they go to listen to Nature or God, self or the more-than-human, hermits have always had an inkling that there are other voices to be heard if we can get away from the whine of our own obsessions.

Where is that wilderness now? The hermit goes there not to be alone but to find a greater communion. The vision quest, the walkabout is not for solitude but to meet with the people we normally shout down.
Buddha, sitting alone under his fig tree, was visited by apsaras, demons and gods, ultimately by Mara himself. Jesus too hung out with the devil in the desert.
Now all the avatars are on the other side of that screen you are looking at as you sit there. Alone.
Well. At least we’re alone together.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. M.E. Montenegro permalink
    03/08/2009 3:09 pm

    Which reminds me, my karma ran over my dogma.

    Indeed for those who think that a hermit should have no internet access, check out The hermit who runs that site, seems to me to be truly awake to the purpose and passion of the hermit, which is not, by the way, the same purpose as that of a neurotic or misanthrope seeking to flee the world’s necessarily painful reflections on him.

    The true hermit is characterized by a lightness of spirit and a calmness and strength gained through disciplined and honest self-observation. There is a saying in the Tibetan literature that hermits draw beings like flies to honey.

    There is a reason for that; as humans, and especially children and animals, can sense their energy. Hermits are anything but anti-social misanthropes. On the contrary. They see the condition, the utter and ridiculously ignored condition we are in, and want to gain an understanding of it so as to act well, rather than continue on the trajectory of blinded reaction.

    They often radiate tremendous and impartial love. But they absolutely do not need to socialize, as their respect for the preciousness of life, and their own mind’s potential, is not neglected. They can abide in the truths revealed by total silence, and total darkness, very comfortably, and work from there. They are the ultimate environmentalists and social activists.

  2. M.E. Montenegro permalink
    03/08/2009 3:49 pm

    We see dead things, old things, and vainly, animatedly, refuse to reflect on the fact that we are as though dead, with infinite disregard for the efforts put forth before us so that we could now wallow and bubble bathe in our exaggerated, unsustainable comforts and deprive the rest of the world of theirs.

    Faced with the discomfort we are so unaccustomed to, deprived of all the comforts we feel so entitled to, how quickly we would drop our platitudes, how quickly we’d become even greater cowards than we are now at this time.

    Each of these pieces holds a universe of poignant details, of distinctiveness won and lost. I cannot write for each of them, but I salute them all, along with the sad tribes who died who knows when. Sing please: We see dead things, old things, and vainly, animatedly, refuse to reflect on the fact that we are as though dead, with infinite disregard for the efforts put forth before us so that we could now wallow and bubble bathe in our exaggerated, unsustainable comforts and deprive the rest of the world of theirs.

    Faced with the discomfort we are so unaccustomed to, deprived of all the comforts we feel so entitled to, how quickly we would drop our platitudes, how quickly we’d become even greater cowards than we are now at this time.

    Each of these pieces holds a universe of poignant details, of distinctiveness won and lost. I cannot write for each of them, but I salute them all, along with the sad tribes who died who knows when. Sing please:

  3. Ros permalink
    03/08/2009 4:35 pm


    I like you’re thinking. Don’t worry though, you’re not alone in the company of the world via you’re blog! I guess you may be lonely having no-one to keep you physically company in the tower, but alone? you’re never alone.

    I find it hard to be alone. Even when I’m on my own I have my friends and family with me in my heart – memories can never be taken away. I often wander round chuckling and singing, smiling to myself at the images as they flash into my mind.

    I’m not even alone when I’m asleep! There’s a bird that sings outside my bedroom window at 4am every day – it wakes me up to announce the start of another beautiful day.

    Treasure the moment of embrace when you see your family and rejoice at the simpleness of your existence in the tower. You may have sacrificed many material things, but you’ve gained a great wealth.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and making me appreciate my own.

  4. M.E. Montenegro permalink
    03/08/2009 5:32 pm

    As Rainer Maria Rilke so aptly said (translated by Robert Bly, edited one touch by m.):

    I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough
    to make every moment holy.
    I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough
    just to lie before you like a thing,
    shrewd and secretive.
    I want my own will, and I want simply to be with my will,
    as it goes toward action;
    and in those quiet, sometimes hardly moving times,
    when something is coming near,
    I want to be with those who know secret things
    or else alone.
    I want to be a mirror for your whole body,
    and I never want to be blind, or to be too old
    to hold up your heavy and swaying picture.
    I want to unfold.
    I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,
    because where I am folded, there I am a lie.
    and I want my grasp of things to be
    true before you. I want to describe myself
    like a painting that I looked at
    closely for a long time,
    like a saying that I finally understood,
    like the pitcher I use every day,
    like the face of my mother,
    like a ship
    that carried me
    through the wildest storm of all.

  5. M.E. Montenegro permalink
    03/08/2009 7:37 pm

    • 03/08/2009 8:47 pm

      this is extraordinary!
      As are all your contributions m.

      Particular thanks for
      I can’t believe I haven’t come across that site before. What a great resource!

      Rilke is just a bottomless well. I love that poem. But Rilke is perhaps even more difficult to translate than most poets. (I struggled for days with those few lines of Tagore I posted)

      Here’s the original and an alternative translation by Cliff Crego, just to get some different angles on it. It bears reading many times in many languages…

      Ich bin auf der Welt zu allein und doch nicht allein genug,
      um jede Studen zu weihen.
      Ich bin auf der Welt zu gering und doch nicht klein genug,
      um vor dir zu sein wie ein Ding,
      dunkel und klug.
      Ich will meinen Willen und will meinen Willen begleiten
      die Wege zur Tat;
      und will in stillen, irgendwie zörgernden Zeiten,
      wenn etwas naht,
      unter den Wissenden sein
      oder allein.
      Ich will dich immer spiegeln in ganzer Gestalt,
      und will niemals blind sein oder zu alt,
      um dein schweres schwankendes Bild zu halten.
      Ich will mich entfalten.
      Nirgends will ich gebogen bleiben,
      denn dort bin ich gelogen, wo ich gebogen bin.
      Und ich will meinen Sinn
      wahr vor dir. Ich will mich beschreiben
      wie ein Bild, das ich sah,
      lange und nah,
      wie ein Wort, das ich begriff,
      wie meinen täglichen Krug,
      wie meiner Mutter Gesicht,
      wie ein Schiff,
      das mich trug
      durch den tödlichsten Sturm.

      I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough
      to make every hour holy.
      I am too small in the world, and yet not tiny enough
      just to stand before you like a thing,
      dark and shrewd.
      I want my will, and I want to be with my will
      as it moves towards deed;
      and in those quiet, somehow hesitating times,
      when something is approaching,
      I want to be with those who are wise
      or else alone.
      I want always to be a mirror that reflects your whole being,
      and never to be too blind or too old
      to hold your heavy, swaying image.
      I want to unfold.
      Nowhere do I want to remain folded,
      because where I am bent and folded, there I am lie.
      And I want my meaning
      true for you. I want to describe myself
      like a painting that I studied
      closely for a long, long time,
      like a word I finally understood,
      like the pitcher of water I use every day ,
      like the face of my mother,
      like a ship
      that carried me
      through the deadliest storm of all.

  6. M.E. Montenegro permalink
    03/08/2009 9:29 pm

    Hello Ansuman,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reflections.

    The fluidity of your translation of the Tagore (which I adore) didn’t hint at any struggle.

    Only a poet can translate poetry, in my humble view. And to me the poetry worth reading is the poetry that revives in us the recognition of the untapped depths in us, the divine, the impulse to transcend ourselves, somehow.

    Thanks for the alternative translation of the Rilke; yes I am familiar with that one as well.

    That version of Over the Rainbow positively blows me away each time, as though all calcified habit had been erased in me; endless careening waves of blissful, tearful gratitude, which is the only way I know of, for the moment, to dissolve my own and others’ pains. At least we can intend it to be so, and somehow make an offering of ourselves here.

    From one hermit to another, feel vividly. And witness that you are doing so, all the while.

    Showers of flowers,

  7. 03/08/2009 10:04 pm

    I met you at the Hermit Foundation in Plasy- funny to find you again concerning that word. Anyway, if i could take you as an object and make some tea for you, offer you a hot bath and talk for a while, I’d be very glad, but, I’m not sure how that would work logistically.
    So, perhaps I’ll just take you in spirit, ok?
    Warm wishes,

    • Tom Stephenson permalink
      03/08/2009 11:13 pm

      Logistically, you’ll have to get there before his in-laws, otherwise it will be them giving him the hot bath, Lexa.

  8. 03/08/2009 11:22 pm

    Hi Lexa,
    Well the Hermit Foundation sounds fascinating but I’m afraid this is the first I’m hearing of it.
    I remember meeting you at The Lab in San Francisco. I did some performances there while I was at The Headlands. I was very interested in your Toy Orchestra.
    Well your offer sounds delightful. In fact I’ve been thinking of SF recently. It would be one of my favourite places to be whisked off to. But you’d have to have some serious motivation to come all the way to Manchester to get me.
    My spirit is already with you.

  9. 04/08/2009 5:52 am

    I happened to be sleepless and after having twisted and turned for hours, i finally decided to get up and switch on my laptop… to do what? Don’t know really. Checked my emails and found your message saying that your project is about to come to an end. Curiously and in stark contrast to your locked-up, yet web-connected life, I have recently spent time in the open, uncivilised Norwegian country side with a period of no access to the internet at all.

    Some thoughts…
    In a weird way, I now feel I lost out on a great journey. Feel I was the hermit whilst “the rest of the world was connected”. On the other hand, i didn’t have (or take?) the time to follow the blog whilst i was still online and had the ability to join in. Why doesn’t it feel the same to read it now, in past time? You could still respond if i commented on older posts. Is it because your thought process has moved on and you are not directly and actively relating to past objects? Even when reading the latest blog, i get a notion of being an onlooker…a kid in front of a sweet shop with no access to the goodies.

    I turned on the web cam around one minute to 5am (my time… yours 4am) and was musing about what a strange thing it is to watch someone else sleep half across Europe, to have a presence in someones life without having a presence, when suddenly your – what is it; a radio? – started off your day. What a timing… you were waking up, i was awake. Presence without presence. Again, am i the hermit or you? There is my knowledge of you, there is no ‘your’ knowledge of me.
    Or is it… “At least we are alone together”?

    13th century reed pens. What if…; I were to ask to be allowed to keep them for my private collection? Put them on the mantlepiece at home, next to a Viking brooch from the 9th century (bought via ebay…), a hand made remake of an animal head-post from the Oseberg Viking ship or fossils which I found behind a World Cup ski jumping hill?
    I don’t think so. Doesn’t feel as if it would get the honour it deserves.
    And yet – wouldn’t that be better than being destroyed? Having someone look at it with awe now and then wishing “if reed could talk…”? And probably even be used for performance purposes – as the other objects are – to inspire and spark imagination?

    You might find the following book interesting, in case you haven’t come across it yet:
    Walter Ong
    Orality and Literacy, The Technologizing of the Word
    Given the fact that i am currently in Geneva, waiting for a gathering of European Storytellers to kick off, your musing on the effect of writing seemed very well timed.

    Maybe i have entered the sweet shop after all?

    Enjoy the last hours of your tower.

    • Tom Stephenson permalink
      04/08/2009 9:13 am

      Maybe you’ve entered the sweat-shop…

    • 04/08/2009 11:54 am

      Welcome Ragnhild! You were always in the sweet shop.
      Thanks for that pointer to Ong. Looks really interesting. He was writing pre-internet but is still very relevant for thinking about how ‘modern’ cultures treat ‘primitive’ cultures.

      The objects are all still up for discussion and indeed will continue to be for another month or so. This project started well before my 40 day seclusion and it will go on after it.

      But you’ve got me thinking about current affairs and how much value we put on ‘breaking news’. I think I’ll make a new post on that subject. Look out for it.

  10. Marie permalink
    04/08/2009 9:56 am

    Dear Mr. Biswas,

    What a beautiful project and really you are the perfect person they could have chosen.

    Now I have something strange to mention. I wonder if you are aware that you have a double?! Or maybe it is you who have a double identity?

    Do you know this gentleman:

    I have been interested in your project since the BBC website mentioned it. All this time I have been thinking that there is something familiar about you but this morning when I saw you singing I was then reminded of someone who was a Professor at Christies a few years back, the eponymous ‘Aladin’ from the website in front.

    Are you related to him? He is extremely similar to you! It would be wonderful to think he is your twin.



    • Tom Stephenson permalink
      04/08/2009 8:13 pm

      That’s another ‘Aladin Sane’, I think. A bit like asking Biswas if he was ever on Tizwaz.

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