Literary hermitage has a nice ring to it, but like most things, its enjoyment probably depends on the details. I’ve been reading the relevantly-titled In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu, translated by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), and encountered again, in these wonderful poems of the eighth century, the idea of retreating to a place to be able to hear oneself think.
Chinese court officials and scholars who wrote poetry (and there were an astounding number, evidently; someone compared them to Tweeters) often had a very civilized idea of hermitage, one that would allow them to write in comfortable homes in beautiful natural surrounds, with family and visitors available, and plenty of joy in the wine jar. Wei’s work is often filled with loss, regret, and longing from war, the death of his wife while their children were still young, and the tumbling fortune of his family, who’d been prominent for generations. But when he talks about “this life of seclusion,” there are quiet ecstasies and freedom: “after the lightest of rains last night / spring plants all at once appeared / dark mountains were suddenly bright / birds circled my hut and sang / sometimes I join men of the Way / sometimes I follow woodcutters….”
(The painting at left, showing a scholar taking his ease, is one that my mom brought back from Vietnam in the Sixties. I don't know its provenance.)
The cover of the collection is a detail from a painting called Ten Views of My Ideal Hut, by Lu Hung, a near-contemporary of Wei. (See The Birth of Landscape Painting in China: The Sui and T’ang Dynasties, by Michael Sullivan [U of California, 1962]). The painting shows a trim little house with a soup pot visible through the door, a fenced garden with an orchard of some kind, and a sizable garden shed where the owner kept his mower, all in front of a canyon and mountains for walking and contemplation.
(The painting is at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, but isn’t part of their digital collection yet. Take a look instead at Dwelling in the Fu-Ch’un Mountains, by Huang Kung-wang [1269-1354] or After the Line "Idly Watching Children Catch Willow Flowers" by Chou Ch'en [ca. 1460-after 1535]. It’s the prejudice of the present in technocratic America to think that life couldn’t have been satisfying without microwave popcorn, but the Chinese had some things figured out a long time ago.)
I fully intend to update the ancient tradition of literary hermitage one day, but for now I’m afraid I’m with early Wei: “I finally saw what caused my troubles / but when I thought about building a hut / I knew it would have to wait for old age[.]” In the meantime I can dream over others’ attempts.
Many are amusing for their relative opulence. Were they really hermitages? I think so, at least psychologically: Gustave Flaubert was famously called “the hermit of Croisset,” but here’s a painting of his house on the Seine; it’s significant that when he shouted his prose aloud in order to tune his writer’s ear, he frightened the servants. Tolstoy had Yasnaya Polyana; Chekhov had a place in Yalta, where he could be a genius and die by inches of tuberculosis.
Mark Twain, who liked a good time as much as anybody, worked in at least a couple of cabins over the years, including this one up on Jackass Hill, and this considerably less rustic one in Elmira, New York. Ernest Hemingway retreated to Key West to write, but when the people came he fled across the straits of Florida, and then to Idaho. He may have chosen out-of-the-way locales so he could work, but he was in favor of “the best of everything.”
I’d be interested in one day having something in size between the family compound of the Chinese poet-recluse and the packing box that Thoreau suggested living in. It’s done pretty well here, even ingeniously, if a tad on the Kaczynski side. Elsewhere, designer Mark Moskovitz’s “writer’s cabin” was displayed, funnily enough, in the atrium of the DaimlerChrysler Financial Services headquarters in Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. (Click on the photo repeatedly to advance through the site.)
Finally, this one is perfect, my ideal hut, but no writer I know could afford it.
For now I sit on our bed, in the room I painted a deep cheerful yellow, next to the bookcase I built, looking out the second-story window at people passing on the walk. “I come here to be alone with my thoughts,” Wei writes. “I regret lacking social skills[.]”
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