29 March 2017

Followup on the North Woods Hermit

I received a letter from someone thinking I had treated Christopher Knight too harshly and judgmentally in my post on the book about the North Woods Hermit in Maine. I cannot post the letter here because the author asked that I not do so. He believed I was unfair to Christopher Knight, judged his inner life, and failed to understand there are different types of hermits. I responded with the following letter. It occurs to me that perhaps my first post was too easy to misunderstand and I hope that this letter explains my criticisms with greater clarity. I hope their focus is sharper, especially the fact that they were mainly directed at Michael Finkel's conclusions and narrowing of the eremitical vocation rather than at Knight per se.
Dear [Reader],
       I think you  may have misread my post. I have not been at all judgmental about Christopher Knight. [Criticism is a different matter; I have been critical of his life in the woods.] What I can and did say about him is that no one knows WHY he did what he did. I also said he survived by thievery. These truths are simple and public facts; so is the fact that Knight never notified his family when he simply walked off and stayed away for almost three decades. These are problematical dimensions of his life; Knight lived a stereotypical antisocial “eremitical” life and that can be criticized. However,  I do agree Knight did not make claims about himself at all. He never really claimed the label “hermit” except in response to Maine's casual label of him.  Mr Finkel, however, did all this and that was the truly neuralgic piece  in his work.
        It is Michael Finkel who provided the biological and genetic basis and (for whatever reason) went no further than that. My more serious criticisms were [reserved for] Michael Finkel's tendency to stereotype and be too narrow in his own definition of hermits. The idea that Christopher Knight was “the last true hermit” is an absurd claim. So is the notion that “hermit” is defined merely in terms of isolation and physical solitude. The word comes from the Greek for desert-dweller, a much richer term. I don’t think Finkel ever even provided the definition. Moreover, Knight is not the last true hermit any more than I am. To call someone this is unknowable and meaningless. It is an absurd assertion. I agree with you completely that eremitical life is diverse. My point was that Finkel narrowed things with his treatment of Knight (which may have been  the only treatment possible for Finkel given Knight’s difficulties in sharing) and is open to criticism for this reason in particular. 
       On that we may disagree but there isn’t anything judgmental in my concluding that. I said in my post that it was Finkel's claims which crossed the line into apologetics and made life more difficult for those living eremitical lives in the name of the Church. Of themselves, because of Knight's burglaries and dislike of society with others, Knight’s actions do this as well. That is also simple truth; my post described this. Diocesan hermits’ vocations proclaim and protect the diversity of this ec-centric (out of the center) form of life and are inimical to stereotypes. Finkel's take on things does not protect this diversity; instead it fosters the stereotypical. For someone who claims to have spent a year reading much of the most central available literature on eremitical life, that is particularly disappointing.

all my best,
Sister Laurel