When was the last time you closed the door on the world and didn’t step outside your abode for twenty-four hours? For that matter, when was the last time you spent twenty-four hours out of contact with the world? By which I mean: no phone calls, no emails, no surfing the net, no illuminating of the radio or the television, no engaging with another human being at all? When was the last time you went twenty-four hours without having to put your hand in your pocket to buy something? When have any of us totally disconnected from day-to-day life and embraced one full day of enforced solitude? I got thinking about all this as I was musing in my head about a possible short story concerning someone who – after a particularly bruising series of episodes in life – decides to divest himself of all contact with ‘le monde entier’. But try as he might, as far away as he runs from his life, he simply cannot escape the outside world. Because it always impinges on us.
There is, of course, a great crazed tradition in American life of a certain breed of back-to-the-land, wildly libertarian lunatic who decides to hole up in a cottage in the nowhere reaches of Idaho (to pull a western location of out the geographic hat), determined to live off the land, free of bills, outside the tentacles of federal and state governments, self-sufficient, dependent on no one. And underscoring this quasi-demented dream of an existence upon which no one can intrude or have import there is a rejection of the idea of society and its manifold rules. But society is also a civilizing impulse. And the notion of community is also one which is rooted in the notion of connection. Which is why no man is an island and all that. We all, at some juncture, want to leave the world. The entire corpus of western literature is filled with reveries about disappearing to a desert island and imposing radio silence on the crazed business of life. From “Robinson Crusoe” to Gauguin to Houellebecq, the fantasies which attach themselves to the notion of a ‘terre inconnu’ somewhere at the georgraphic end of the rainbow” has been omnipresent in the human imagination. Shakespeare frequently used the idea of an island apart from life – in both “Twelfth Night” or “The Tempest” – to muse on the illusion of paradise, and the fact that wherever more than one person is present, worldly dilemmas are also present.
My father – a man who often railed against the way his life turned out – frequently spoke of a great missed opportunity: a juncture right after the Second World War when the American government was offering sizeable tracks of land for little money up in Alaska for any citizen wanting to build a homestead.
“I could have escaped all the workaday crap – paying the rent, paying the bills, going to a goddamn office, wondering what all this is all about – if I’d been smart and taken myself up to Alaska”.
But once there he would have, no doubt, be preoccupied by other pressing concerns – like keeping the homestead lit and heated, surviving the brutal Alaskan winters, keeping himself fed.
The impulse to run away to the proverbial edge of things – to unplug, to divest, to free oneself from life’s infernal demands and material trappings – has always been an ongoing one. It is one of those fairy tales that is such an intrinsic part of the human condition, and which we think will be an antidote to all the responsibilities and ties that so define our lives.
But the truth is: in raging against all these responsibilities we are really raging against the choices we have made, and the cul-de-sacs that we have constructed for ourselves. After all, with very rare instances, nobody put a gun to our head to force us to embrace work we don’t really like, get married, have children, indenture ourselves to a mortgage, etc. We are almost always the architects of all that. As such, whenever we dream of running away to the ends of the earth, the subtext underscoring this fantasy is layered with the dark realization: try as we might we can never run away from ourselves.