Hermit Kingdoms

A man walks past deserted St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican after an Italian government decree ordered the whole county on lockdown in an unprecedented clampdown aimed at beating the coronavirus, March 10, 2020. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)
Solitude is not a natural state for most of us.

In a 1996 Texas Monthly report on the tiny town of Terlingua, Robert Draper quotes a resident there who knows what deserts are for: “I’ve had my hermit’s license for years.”

It is easier to be a hermit, or a semi-hermit, today than it once was. We have email and social media, high-speed Internet most places (and wonky satellite Internet in others), teleconferencing, Amazon, e-books, Netflix, cheap flights — why leave home at all?

Who needs an epidemic to self-quarantine?

And why, in the age of coronavirus — and inescapable annoying political conversations, and decrepit mass-transit systems, and soaring urban real-estate prices, and hideous traffic — congregate in cities at all? Even the cleanest and most orderly of our cities are petri dishes, invitations to disease, disorder, and trouble of all kinds. And yet that is where many Americans — particularly the young, the educated, and the upwardly mobile — desire to be. We could build a million little hermit kingdoms, if we were so inclined. But we are not.

Telecommuting was supposed to depopulate the American office. That didn’t really happen. There was a spike in remote work when that first became a possibility, and it is very common in businesses such as print journalism, and in other industries in which remote work already was part of the natural business culture. Even the high-tech firms you might expect to lead the way have slowed down and, in some cases, reversed themselves: USDA and the Department of Education both scaled back their telecommuting programs over the past couple of years, while IBM and Yahoo, among others, have decided they need to see their employees more often.

“Here in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Molly Wood writes in Wired, “office lights are winking out one by one as businesses send their employees home to work, and everyone’s talking about Zoom and Microsoft Teams and Hangouts. We all know these tools don’t work that well. We can all predict the frustration and miscommunications they will cause over the next few weeks or months (or more?) of remote employment. As this future sails ever closer, I can’t help but think: Weren’t we supposed to have virtual reality in the workplace by now?”

Not everybody is cut out for remote work. In the early days of this troubled century, I hired a young reporter who, being a Millennial, had a lot of very detailed questions about her workday: when she was expected at the office, when to leave, how much time she got for lunch, etc. I told her that I didn’t care if I ever saw her again and that she could move to Timbuktu as long as she covered her beat and had copy on my desk on time: “The news is out there, not in here.” She did not last very long.

The hermit life is alluring, at least to some people some of the time. There are times when it seems to me that I spend half of my day looking for a quiet place to do my work (home, office, coffee shop — it is a noisy world), but, even though I am a writer who can work from anywhere I want, I choose to live right in the middle of one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the country, in close proximity to about 8 million people. I wonder how many faces I see over the course of a typical day: home and neighbors, the Amazon delivery guy, the idiots idling at green lights because they are fully immersed in Instagram or Twitter or whatever, the people at the shops and other public places, visitors and guests, friends and friends of friends — it must be more than a thousand faces a day, and a thousand half-overheard conversations, a thousand people getting in my way. (Remember, Grasshopper: You are not in traffic — you are traffic.) I like Terlingua — why not go get my hermit’s license, too?

The lesson in Silicon Valley is, strangely enough, the lesson that is taught in much more severe form in our nation’s prisons, where solitary confinement is used as disciplinary torture: We are not meant to be alone. Even if we think we want to be alone, and benefit from small doses of solitude. Human beings are intensely social creatures, so much so that some of our behaviors and tendencies have the character not of autonomous individual animals but something closer to colonial organisms and superorganisms, like beehives or Portuguese man-o’-wars. Looked at from that point of view, we are living in cities together and still going to offices together for the same reason robots aren’t really going to take all of our jobs: The most valuable thing in the world to a human being is another human being. We provide for one another in the most obvious sense — “not from the benevolence of the butcher,” etc. — and we inspire and provoke one another. Writers, artists, scientists, and the like may do much of their daily work in solitude, but they also work in community.

And our communities are being tested.

In response to the coronavirus, the government of Italy is attempting to quarantine the entirety of its population. But, even setting aside the fact that Italy is famously full of Italians, that is a practical impossibility, as the authorities already have discovered: Businesses are to remain open, including many shops and restaurants, which means that people will be working in those businesses, which means they will be traveling back and forth between home and work. There is not much alternative: Italians are not going to sit at home and collect eggs from their henhouses and eat produce from their gardens, because it is not the 19th century there.

Some people — and you can find them on both the political left and right — lament that fact, and pine for a time they describe as “simpler” (it was anything but simple) when people were (the story goes) more autonomous in terms of their immediate material needs, when families, communities, and nations had a more autarkic character than they do today. This is rooted in the same antisocial and misanthropic impulse behind camping. The neo-Romantic autarkic posture is a very silly one: The most autarkic societies in the world today are the poorest (e.g., North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom), and political attempts to impose even a kind of soft autarky in the national interest reliably produce catastrophic economic dysfunction (e.g., Venezuela), not because they are poorly implemented or because the governments in question have the wrong kind of ideological character, but because the intellectual, moral, and material retreat these ideas entail is incompatible with reality, with the physical and social facts of human life as it actually is lived. “There is no life that is not in community,” as T. S. Eliot wrote, a sentiment with which I suspect that many of my progressive friends would agree.

(Many of them would object to the next line in that poem.)

Those who take the classical liberal view of political and economic life often emphasize the competitive nature of markets and the ways that the promise of profit provides incentives to innovate and to work. That is legitimate, but the most remarkable thing about markets is not their competitive character but their cooperative character: Any protozoa can compete with the protozoa down the road — even Joe Biden can do that — but only human beings have achieved the worldwide material cooperation toward the common good (the real one that feeds hungry people, not the twee hypotheses of the comfortable scolds) that we call, for lack of a better word, globalization.

Globalization has its enemies, and we are hearing from a few of them who want to use the coronavirus as a rhetorical cudgel against Beijing. (The value of that is non-obvious to me: “Sure, they have prison camps and organ-harvesting and horrifying repression of every description, and they’re a single-party gulag state, and their public-health regime is not quite up to snuff!”) And because Americans in Anno Domini 2020 are unserious even in the face of very serious things, we are having a side debate about whether calling the virus from Wuhan the “Wuhan virus” is—brace for it!—racist. (In the event a Patient Zero is identified, I hope my friends at the New York Post go with the headline “Wuhan Flu Man! (See Page 2, Man.)” No charge for that one.) It is comforting to tell ourselves that the root problem here is some strange-o boiling baby pangolins in rice wine for reasons of superstition, but if you think this kind of thing couldn’t have bubbled up from Florida, then you haven’t been to Florida.

And so our eyes turn to the desert. In Lawrence of Arabia, some grubby little creature of Fleet Street asks the titular hero why he is drawn to the desert, and Lawrence replies, disdainfully, “It’s clean.” I have been to the desert, and it is not that clean — neither in the literal sense nor in the sense Lawrence meant. We carry the agents of infection with us everywhere we go, because they are us. One sympathizes with the occasional desire to become something like Fanny Osgood’s “cold, calm star.” But we are here in the human constellation, stuck with one another whether we like it or not. And we have the coronavirus — not the Chinese, not the Italians, not a few people up in New Rochelle. There’s nothing for it, no avoiding it, no running away.

I am not among those who believe that we need “a good war” every generation or so as a source of moral and social discipline; I do not believe there ever has been a good war, a good flood, or a good epidemic. And I do hope that six months from now, we are looking back on this episode and laughing about how wound up some of us were. (Guilty.) But extreme events can be clarifying. It was only a few weeks ago that Senator Warren was advertising herself for the job of Leader of the Free World with the slogan, “I have a plan for that.” Now she’s making the rounds on the late-night comedy circuit. And nobody has a plan for this. What we do have — if we are still lucky — is a functional community, which is not synonymous with “the federal government,” because the world is full of things that cannot be planned for, and that which cannot be planned for must be adapted to. Some communities are more robust, more rigorous, livelier, more energetic, and more able to adapt to challenges. Some are less so. Challenges such as this one reveal which are which, and which have a future.


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