The longest period I spent completely alone during this pandemic was one week. I spent the week reading the increasingly distressing news on my phone, desperately wanting to do something, to be a small part of some collective action against the tightening authoritarian grip of the Tory government. Instead, I sat alone in my rented room, waiting, worrying and reading.
A few years ago, a friend bought me The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. When I picked up the book, I drew no connecting line between these 4th Century monks sitting in their cells in the Egyptian desert, waiting for the world to end, and myself, sitting, in the 21st Century, in my room in South East London. Perhaps with good reason; these monks spent decades in near or complete isolation, barely eating, sleeping or drinking – I spent a week scrolling on my phone and eating takeaway pizzas. But eventually I did begin to ask a question that connected my experience with theirs: What am I doing in here by myself, when terrible things are happening to us out there?
The sayings of the Desert Fathers (as they are known, though the sayings are attributed to men and women), give colourful examples of ascetic, monastic extremism and visionary mysticism: one monk keeps a stone in his mouth for many years to teach him not to talk, another lives by a river all her life without once turning her head to look at the water, another is given directions in the desert by a centaur. Their radical self-exile is fascinating, but I couldn’t help but wonder what all of this was for. In the section entitled ‘Quiet’ we are told of an interaction between a monk and a Desert Father called Moses:
9. In Scetis a brother went to Moses to ask for advice. He said to him, ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
Of all the sayings, I kept returning to this one. It may well be the case that intentional withdrawal can teach us ‘everything’, but what, I kept asking myself, are we to do then? How is this knowledge to be applied? Is this not an atomised, individualistic act?
I remembered a visit to a Zen priory in 2015. We went around the room, taking it in turns to go upstairs for a one-on-one conversation with a teacher. At the end she asked if there was anything I would like to ask, and I said that sometimes, in meditation, I wonder how such an introverted non-action can be ‘good’, how it can be helpful to anyone but me. She asked if I didn’t think that when we sit, we sit with everyone, with everything. I thanked her and left, struggling to swallow what I’d interpreted as New Age rubbish where I’d gone looking for hard-edged diamond-cutter Zen.
In my pandemic bedroom, I began to think of monastic withdrawal from the world in terms of a political theory/praxis analogue. Gyorgy Lukács wrote that the Frankfurt School had retreated into what he called ‘the Grand Hotel Abyss’, and in the book by Stuart Jeffries of the same name, Lukács is quoted describing the hotel as “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity”. Lukács saw the Frankfurt School, Jeffries writes, as “musing on the suffering of the world from a safe distance”. Is that what I was doing, what we all were doing, during this third lockdown?
Slavoj Žižek puts this argument into reverse. In a 2012 video, Žižek says,
My advice would be […] precisely to start thinking. Don’t get caught into this pseudo-activist pressure. ‘Do something’, ‘let’s do it’ and so on and so on. No! The time is to think. […] if the famous Marxist formula was, ‘Philosophers have only tried to interpret the world; the time is to change it’ […] maybe today we should say, ‘In the twentieth century, we maybe tried to change the world too quickly. The time is to interpret it again, to start thinking.
Considering it this way, perhaps thoughtful inaction isn’t inaction at all, perhaps it is a necessary function within the struggle against suffering. In being alone, a person is not isolated from this struggle. Time spent alone during this pandemic shows that to us all.
In her introduction to The Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward writes that, removed “even from duties of care for the poor”, the monks
were free to concentrate […] on exploring the motives of conduct and thought within themselves […] Since they were considered to be representatives of all creation, it was this aspect of their lives which caused them to be regarded as intercessors for all humanity.
The Desert Fathers who withdrew from society and didn’t organise with their church communities to teach or to feed, clothe or heal the sick, were not shirking their responsibilities, acting without compassion. They were still part of the whole (as conceptualised in Romans 12:4-5). They were studying sin while church organisers were alleviating the symptoms of sin. This adds up to the whole, to true solidarity. Rather than avoiding responsibility, they took on an impossible task, dedicating their lives to extreme ascetic hardship, to understand sin and, really, consciousness. Solidarity is choosing to act for the good of the collective, but there is a true solidarity that is a web of implication we must all navigate, in each action pulling together or against one another. We do not act alone to the detriment of solidarity. Rather we cannot act alone; all actions are in solidarity or anti-solidarity.
If we could retire to the desert and avoid acting in solidarity, solidarity would be a myth. In every action and inaction, we interact with us all. We on the left must believe this to already be true, but often it is seen as a goal. If we could act truly alone, there would be no selfishness. But we cannot act alone. Everything we do has an effect upon everyone else, all of us; we never act alone. Solidarity isn’t something to aspire to, it’s just what is: we are all together. Individualism is the myth. The words of the Zen teacher came back to me, and I saw that they did, after all, have a hard-edged, diamond-cutter radicality.
Featured image CC BY 2.0 Transformer18
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