Part 1: The Hermits
By Anna Gát
Look at what a man has to lose, and you’ll know everything about him. Or what he thinks he has to lose... Our fears unfurl possessively. There’s so much power to burst out right after losing anything, you feel invincible.
I was in New York City, in that thick air that seemed to be moving, in a heatwave that’s too much for someone like me. My European toes froze in the climatised cubes that I’d inhabit, the Airbnbs of dubious cleanliness, friends’ apartments. There was someone else there too, much to see with him, not much to talk about, so I’d dash into fridge-like bookshops, in Williamsburg, in Manhattan, buying at prices I’d laugh at on Amazon, and at last grabbed Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought, a quietly riotous manifesto of withdrawal, and curled up with it on a sweaty sofa, in an ice cold unit, overlooking Brooklyn.
Books about being alone make you feel less alone, one elegant curve-ball of human creation. Some books you’ll read thinking you’ve waited your whole life just to read them, or to write them even, a war that’s so delicious to be defeated at. I was turning Zena’s pages feeling strongly that I had to go, that there’s an art to pilgrimage no one writes about now, that I have talent at that art, if at nothing else in life, in the days of constant conversation no one wants to own a voice in the wilderness that’s crying, but I have it, thought then I, isn’t every good book trying to say the unsayable.
I speak much less these days than I used to, it seems like when finally given the chance I built a life for myself with long, luxurious stretches of silence. When I was small, I was so quick to please that my parents joked I had to be watched lest I’d walk away with strangers in the street, in my self-hurting years I wondered if it was really wishful thinking, so much had I been I told I was “too much”, too talkative, too annoying, too extroverted, a problem they were forced to deal with at great sacrifice. And that was what I had believed, and lived my bookish, brooding, dictionary-bound life feeling too loquacious, too provocative, someone who demanded much effort from others, someone who needed to be grateful for being put up with. The ‘90s were a sociable era in which I felt helplessly lonely, which somehow didn’t affect my sociable self-image at all. I was told at a young age that I was acting entitled, so I learned to ask for nothing from people, I work every day these days to help people never to have to feel that.
I’m writing this down because I realise not one person I’ve ever spoken to would identify as a true extrovert, every one of you speaking to me seems to feel pushed outside of what to you feels right, it makes me wonder if there’s something to being collectively misdiagnosed, mis-dichotomised, that wanting attention or love doesn’t make one an extrovert, that self-assessed psychology tests gather old tribal views more than anything else, that we’re en masse, incorrigibly mistaken about what kind of solitude we really desire, from whom, and when.
I think it was Alain de Botton who said your five closest friends when combined know you better than you know yourself, their characterisation of you is the most correct one you can ever get. In the intro piece of this newsletter I wrote about the difference between wanting privacy versus wanting control over what is private, and now I’m thinking whether what we see as the extra/introverted binary is only a function of that, people with largely similar sensitivities, all of us, wanting more or less control over whom we’re with, for how long, and when. What if these received categories are not facts in fact but states, states as in physics, endlessly changeable, more “estar” than “ser”, independent of the human condition? As you know, I like to bring up the screenwriting rule that every scene in a film has to either move the action forward or else reveal character, revealing character is also basically about the action in that it will help the viewer in a later scene accept a decision being made by that person, so maybe our self-testing mania, the MBTIs, the astro-charts, the Big Fives, is hoped to serve a similar purpose, to help us in later scenes in our lives understand our very own actions. Is my being an ENTJ some kind of epistemological insurance? Is my moon in the 11th house a pre-packaged excuse?
I’m sitting here remembering the grandparents that first raised me, how sure I was of their love, how little conversation there was needed. My grandfather getting dressed, what I now think were bullet-scars on his torso, that he came back from where they took him, and I felt safe. My grandmother’s silk scarves tied around my head, the only way I could imitate having the long hair I wanted, dancing to my mother’s pop songs in the living room, a kind of connection, having not much to say. It was when they died that I realised I could learn to be eloquent, I remember being shouted at for hours, the things that were being thrown, the bystanders never intervening, and the first time I raised my head and spoke up in a coherent beautiful sentence, the flash of respect that that got me, that it halted the aggression sometimes. It was only later that my speech became a problem, when my success had made the terror much worse, when you shut up so that you don’t get too hurt, we’ll talk about that, I promise, later. To this day, I remain drawn to men who don’t speak much, who don’t try to explain the inexplicable.
It’s not fair to write about people behind their backs, I know. For a long time, I couldn’t. When I was 19 and my book of poetry was published, I got into trouble at home, it’s not fair to make your famed family look bad. My youth poems were innocent and depressive, I had no idea what I was going through and why I wasn’t happy, the few people who knew how I grew up seemed so sorry for me it was bordering on contempt, those who didn’t, envied me and wouldn’t help. So I never spoke about any of that ever, apart from one poem in 2015, or 2016, my last Hungarian one.
I used to seem to attract people with writer’s block, men who’d written a book five to ten years back, Millennials that wooed me with PornHub-honed poises, asking me anxiously if I really wanted them, the consolations that were required of me, you’d be surprised how many years of girls a book gets you, the discerning women full of awe at readings, the men spread out like Christ, waiting to be taken. So I never said anything about how writing made me feel, that to me it’s a deep, dynamic pleasure like dancing, and I never did expect to be seriously read. Such a long time it takes to make people accept that one is not motherly, and I think too much talking only makes it longer.
There might be something to being 38, and feeling there’s less to lose, I’m not trying to please much these days, not walking away with strangers. But in the past three years I simply could not write, even a business memo took me a bunch of time, the startup founder is a new identity of sorts, for a while I had no idea who in me could speak. When I talk to you, it seems there’s a triad of common needs, the permission, the urge, and the identity, so as with which to write.
Then, of course, there are those who don’t talk to you. Humans feel so weaponless when that happens. An ill of population growth, I’d venture, surely when we lived 30 people to a group of caves casual rupture was nearly impossible, or at least not outside a ritual structure, when you had no choice with whom you live and where, there were, I imagine, ways to resolve conflict.
In the you can walk away era we do walk away, in the Inter-Era we expect the etiquette to change. I don’t think fundamentals can change, we fall back into the past at every curb, anger and ambition make you fight so you don’t lose much, you fall in love with long-gone times, want to rebuild Eden, plenty of fish in the sea and you search for a soulmate everywhere, fill out the OKCupid test to find someone who thinks the same as what you think, you don’t marry a person you grew up with who actually thinks and feels the same as you do but expect to find someone just like them among four billion strangers. Aren't we funny that way, always just a little bit bigamous, thinking back, thinking ahead at the same time. And I don’t think in the Inter-Era it’s the diploma disparity that makes women not to want to marry, the fact is that for women marriage sucks unless it’s with someone really great, I think it’s that you can give your own self a pretty good life as a woman, so the standard’s higher. When I was younger and kept falling for rock stars and war correspondents, I’d pray someone would come and “liberate” me, these days I look around and wonder, liberate me from what? And yet I don’t think anything tops a good partnership, I talk to people and they seem to be looking for words too, they want a shared solitude, a form of sociable control, something that just yet doesn’t have a name.
When I was 11, I decided to become a monk when I grew up, I converted to Catholicism, I went to talk to those who lived behind walls, wrote songs about it, recruited two friends to form a new order with me. This went on until the summer of 1997 when I fell hysterically and very loyally in love with Leonardo DiCaprio, decided we’d surely get married, then two days later got my first period, in what might seem like a correlation. As all this happened in ornithology camp where my roommate learned on a pimpled boy how to give love bites, we still laugh at the human binaries with old friends, and the fact that we saw exactly zero bird all year.
I’ve become all of the things that I wanted to back in that decade, a princess, a monk, a war general, I sit with this laptop strategising on money, I sit and I order a pink lace bolero, I sit in the silence and fall back into the past, because everything that you can say reminds me of something, I go to a concert and look at the ageing pianist, the Beethoven reminds me of a boy who played so well, see the lines of heads with their minds opening to music, their own memory reels rolling along the notes like my own, and this one head is mine, this particular consciousness, its edges fuzzy, its arbitrariness to me a wonder.
It is my view that every man’s a sage, we seem to prefer our own company, if I observe what I really do, it seems it’s only wanderlust that makes me leave my shell, or, sometimes, just lust, the travelling for business and pleasure, I run the reconnect program with limited control, then return, then recurl, to the start. What is there to say about our planetary orbits when I haven’t even decided if they’re voluntary?
We seek mentors so we don’t have to talk so much, so we don’t have to be so publicly wrong, pointing to films and books and others’ deeds to illustrate our meaning, a lower risk experiment, that’s clear. The Inter-Era isn’t kind to mentees. The matching algorithm seems to me off. With life paths so zigzaggy who can lead you. A pantheon of cherry-picked masters feels like cheating. When no one feels in control, whoever can save you?
Living partly on the internet like you do, I’ve thought a lot recently about strange new forms of loneliness. The great Aella tweeting about her stalkers, the emerging types of role models we don’t yet have status for, famous but not wealthy enough to protect themselves, the unique talents destined to shine as a standalone, not there for us to follow, the neurodivergent prophetesses with some next-level pure goodness, and I think of Remedios the Beauty, and IB Singer’s Rechele, and of Lila. Of Alt Atlantis and of Cancelled Country. The Multiverse’s reward and penalty circles seem to be the same. The women who didn’t grow out of the binary, and still reside in danger. The solitudes that still don’t have a name.
When I first started writing, my father handed me over to a friend of his, I was 17 and he was old, he took me into a forest to talk about my poems, then emailed me that he wanted to talk more, and I replied, very politely, that creatively it would be better for me if we didn’t, and he never spoke to me ever again even though I went to the faculty where he was teaching for five years, and I’d write poetry after that without a mentor.
I live as a hermit these days, you could say that, it’s more common than many would think. And I sometimes ponder if hermits can be democrats. One is never a crowd, and so maybe Arendt’s right, withdrawal when done wrong, without self-knowledge, can lead to dark ideas, it might also be good for fast action during fast change, and the Inter-Era is that kind of chaos, a small part of my Twitter thinks what the world needs is more despots, CEOs to manage us through the crisis, they forget that CEOs are their own very great limits, in the sense that Churchill and FDR weren’t democrats, this might have historical precedence, but really what the Inter-Era can do to create more swiftness is extend who has a say in what, if just like your childhood love nation-level group-think is a thing of the past, then let’s find alignment on a wider plane now, if the outcomes are global maybe the votes should be as well.
Think how many things seemed like sci-fi when you were younger. Era-gaps are times for surprising ourselves.
Self-knowledge is contagious, the eagerness with which we want to get infected, nothing is as attractive as someone who knows a lot about you, the gossip, the rake, the wiseman, we want to reveal character.
I know I want fewer things this year, 2022 to me is about hiding, by November of last year it had been enough for me, enough of the socialite-ing, you look for more outspoken spaces, a distillation of text. When I was broke every decision was an emotional decision, the best description of money I’ve ever read is that money shortens the time between problem and solution, when I was a penniless immigrant I always had to negotiate, to form alliances, to politicise, nothing went fast or smoothly, at every turn someone got hurt. Making something people want, something that makes money, frees me from giving parts of my soul to where I don’t want to, and it has been the most healing experience of my life. People think the big cities, London, New York, exert freedom, but there is enslavement there, too, and not just the poverty loop, the costly appearances, it’s not only the young and the hopeful who arrive there, every year as if deployed by rota, the big cities are also filled with personal refugees, people who had to flee, who can’t live anywhere else, like I was, bringing with them their opaque pain of the displaced. I learned a lot about myself cohabiting with some of them, and still today nothing makes me more mad than not being able to choose or reject companions, the freedom to choose one’s company as the great human right, the pickiness with which to choose whom you love as your last freedom, I felt it even with my classmates when I was in school, that the closeness of months of birth, and of postcodes, was not enough as a basis for association. You want to be with people for the same qualities as what one day might make you leave them, you move to cities for the same reason as what then makes you move out, I moved looking for better forms of being alone, to build a life where everyone I choose to see is a mensch, to talk only when I deem the words to matter, and to whom I want. To make the soul much freer in the service of people, unrattled by noise of the outside world’s choosing. There’s a silence which makes all the good things grow.
I’m writing this down because I feel I need to be more honest with you, if you’re legible then I must be legible too, to claim author-ity even when I thought I’d long let that one go, one day you wake up less interested in what others have to say about you, the words dislocate from the sentences, stripped down to the stem. Like the distance between your atoms there’s an emptiness that whistles through every morpheme you think you put together, and to me in that wobbliness, that most uncertain knowledge, is where real conversations can begin to unfold.
The hermits sit, lost in Lost in Thought, looking out windows over cities and rivers, they’re knocking at the keys, there is no other sound, the scratching at the codices of the day. I wait for us to call when we’re ready.