Is the Age of the Artistic Recluse Over?

Photo
Is the Age of the Artistic Recluse Over?
An image from Chris Buck’s “Presence,” a series of portraits shot from 2006 to 2010, in which the famous subject of each picture (in this case the rapper Nas) is present — but not visible. Credit Chris Buck

IN THE EARLY 1880S, a recent arrival to Amherst, Mass., gossiped in a letter about her neighbor, “a lady whom the people call the Myth. She is a sister of Mr. Dickinson, & seems to be the climax of all the family oddity. She has not been outside of her own house in fifteen years.” The details were tantalizing: “She dresses wholly in white, & her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her.”

More than a century later, a gentleman in Yonkers wrote an article for his local paper about a man named Don DeLillo, who lived on the same street and whom he’d often run into while walking his dog. “DeLillo didn’t seem all that approachable,” he noted of the author, admitting he was more of a Carl Hiaasen fan. “Oh, he’d nod and smile faintly when we passed on the parkway bridge leading to Bronxville. But serious writers don’t advertise their presence. They tend to be quiet, solitary types who fight internal battles. You don’t want to bug them during their death struggle with writer’s block.”

It’s hard to say when, precisely, the myth of artistic reclusiveness finally lost its luster — certainly before Sia came out from behind her wig, or even before Thomas Pynchon, the last of our great literary recluses, voiced himself on “The Simpsons,” appearing on two episodes in 2004 drawn with a bag over his head. (The irony, of course, is that if Pynchon simply had a recent author photo — the only known portraits of him are from the 1950s — no one would really care about unmasking him anymore.)

Photo
Is the Age of the Artistic Recluse Over?
More images from Chris Buck’s “Presence” series. Hiding somewhere in the frame of the above pictures are (clockwise from top left): Jack Nicklaus, David Byrne, Paul Anka, Anthony Bourdain, Michael Stipe and Jonathan Franzen. Credit Chris Buck

Part of the myth’s allure, naturally, was the notion of the artist as a kind of fragile oracle whose genius must be protected from the world, historically by “muses” (often wives who dealt with domestic and managerial affairs). But as the boundaries of private life dissolve, there’s not much space for reflection, to say nothing of vulnerability. No one wants to imagine Virginia Woolf on book tour, or Joseph Cornell submitting to a magazine profile, showing off his files of Hedy Lamarr cutouts in his Utopia Parkway basement. Once upon a time, not turning up for an awards ceremony held a kind of clout: “When a writer doesn’t show his face,” as DeLillo wrote in his 1991 novel, “Mao II,” about a reclusive novelist who becomes a prisoner of a terrorist organization, “he becomes a local symptom of God’s famous reluctance to appear.” Now it feels a little rude, like not showing up to a dinner party held in your honor. Terrence Malick, who disappeared for two decades following 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” reappearing in 1998 with “The Thin Red Line,” may be the last person in Hollywood with the God-like privilege of opting out of self-promotion. To be left alone with one’s work, in an era in which even Banksy is on Twitter, is an uncommon luxury.

What could be more noble or pure than forsaking society and vanity for one’s art? Henry David Thoreau’s call in 1854 to “simplify, simplify” was a kind of recluse’s mantra, as well as an act of protest against the modern world that would serve as a future model for solitary artists, but as Kathryn Schulz argued in a Thoreau takedown in The New Yorker in 2015, reclusiveness can also breed narcissism and sententiousness. Today, it can feel a little adolescent. It’s hard to buy into Thoreau’s concept of self-reliance while knowing that his mother was doing his laundry. Reclusiveness can also appear to arrest people in time, rendering even the most brilliant high-mindedness eccentric and sad, the most famous example being the late J.D. Salinger, who was still railing against “the phonies” and writing to teenage girls from his New Hampshire farmhouse well into middle age, 20 or so years after he began his self-imposed exile in the 1950s. Thomas Bernhard’s neighbors in his Austrian village used to warn their children when they misbehaved that they would send “that weird recluse” after them.

Continue reading the main story

Now that we have terms like social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia and drugs like Paxil, retiring to one’s bedchamber feels less Emily Dickinson, more hikikomori. It’s all too easy to believe the age of the artistic recluse is over, given that most artists now cultivate a cyclical relationship with the spotlight, intermittently stepping into and receding from it. It’s almost impossible for the artist not to engage with the public today, and so the standards of privacy have lowered. These days, using a painting of yourself as an album cover (Lorde) or limiting press interviews (Frank Ocean) seems to count as mystery.

But what has increased in the age of distraction is our concern for the necessary conditions in which art could flourish. No longer can the world be kept at bay with the closing of a door; Woolf’s room of her own is now wired for internet. To look at my shelves of favorite novels written in feverish solitude and think that they might never have come to pass is also to know there must be many more today that are simply not being written. And so the greater truths found in solitude — in nature, like the Romantics’ “thoughts of more deep seclusion,” or in a country in which you don’t speak the language, in which no one knows your name — have never felt more rare and hard-won. The hermit sits alone no longer; he has a Facebook page to update.

Photo
Is the Age of the Artistic Recluse Over?
J.D. Salinger, caught on tape for a 1999 documentary in a rare public sighting outside his New Hampshire home. Credit From the 1999 documentary “J D Salinger Doesn’t Want to Talk,” courtesy of the BBC and Big Talk Productions

IT’S SURELY NO COINCIDENCE that the more we live our lives in public, the more we yearn to flee it. In a troubled, fractious world, in which political debates and social change occur in hashtags, Thoreau’s form of civil disobedience, to withdraw instead of to Tweet, has a profound appeal, regardless of whether or not he was, to steal Salinger’s word, a phony. But even we technological Bartlebys who would prefer not to post the contents of our closets/bookshelves/hearts on social media have to concede the internet’s potential for connectivity, inspiration and serendipitous expression. Publicly responding to the news of the day is now as important a prerequisite for a serious artistic persona as restraint was for Pynchon’s generation. For every Jonathan Franzen, with his sealed Ethernet port and noise-canceling headphones, there’s an Elif Batuman, who uses social media as a natural extension of her creative self. For each of us who believes that a selfie might, in fact, damage the delicate membranes of our souls, there’s another who believes it might be an asset for a shy artist, amplifying a presence that might otherwise remain unknown. While it’s disconcerting to imagine a parallel literary history with Proust Instagramming madeleines, just think what a sensation Dickinson, the woman who seemed to think in 140-word epigrams, would have been on Twitter. (To say nothing of Miss Havisham on Tinder.)

What has endured in the act of creation is the idea of getting lost in order to be found in art. This negotiation can also go terribly wrong: Nell Stevens’s darkly funny memoir, “Bleaker House,” recounts the six weeks she spent in one of the most remote parts of the Falkland Islands with the hopes of writing a novel, only to find herself watching “Eat Pray Love” over and over again and making lists of things she would Google if she could. Isolation has a way of becoming its own subject. But then I think of Howard Axelrod’s “The Point of Vanishing,” the extraordinary book he wrote about the two years he spent alone in a wooded Vermont cabin after losing the vision in one eye. “Some people say solitude is their biggest fantasy; some say it’s their biggest fear,” he told me recently. “But when I ask why, they all give the same reason: hearing themselves think.”

Photo
Is the Age of the Artistic Recluse Over?
Thomas Pynchon (behind the door, giving a peace sign), at his Los Angeles home in 1965 with his friend Phyllis Gebauer. Credit Photo courtesy of the U.C.L.A. Extension Writers’ Program

The desire to uncover our one true voice, the dread of hearing what it has to say: This seems to me the tension of modern life, the thing that has us searching for a cell signal on yoga retreat. Being in a place where nothing has an agenda for your attention, as Axelrod found, means looking and listening in an unguarded way. “Natural curiosities and affinities emerge,” as he puts it, “becoming the filters for experience.” How we breathe in the world, then, defaults to a function of an unbidden part of identity, rather than a function of what others want us to be — or, perhaps even more crucially, how we want others to think we are.

Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose pseudonymity became part of her mystique, once wrote to me in an email interview, “If my book were publicly mine from the beginning, I would be careful not to damage my image, I would censor myself.” Writing was a “battle against lying. Only with the confidence of anonymity can I decide occasionally to publish. In the end, if I’m forced to choose, I prefer to lose the role of writer rather than spoil my passion for writing — that’s the way it’s always been.” When she was allegedly unmasked by an Italian investigative journalist, her fans were outraged at the violation. It was invasive, they argued, which it was, but it seemed to me that not only were they defending Ferrante from the indignity of having her financial and real-estate records unveiled, they were also defending their own right not to know, to be free to imagine that she was, in fact, Elena Greco, the narrator of her Neapolitan Novels, the woman they knew with the intimacy and deep interiority only possible in literature.

And so contemporary artists find ways to battle for truth on their own terms. I think of young women like Emma Cline, who push back against having their photos on the dust jackets of their books, or David Hammons, who declines to participate in the accepted machinations of the art world, or Bob Dylan, who took nearly two weeks to even publicly acknowledge that he won the Nobel Prize in literature last year. But maybe the best display of resistance against the role of artist-as-performer was the quietly myth-demolishing article by this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote for The Guardian about the four-week period of seclusion in 1987 he and his wife called the “crash,” a desperate attempt to “reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.” The result was “The Remains of the Day,” a monumental yesteryear portrait of renunciation, and a life passed by, tragically unlived. Now, of course, all is reversed: It’s renouncing the world that requires nerve and imagination, and the roar of silence that dares us to listen.

Continue reading the main story