This past week I’ve been laid up with bronchitis following my trip to Melbourne. I’ve been feeling pretty wretched and just wanted to stay in bed and rest, so I decided it was a good time to finish reading Robert Kull’s Solitude.
This is the record of a man in his mid-50s, missing a foot as a result of a motorbike accident, who decides to spend a year on a remote island off the coast of Chile, in order to immerse himself in the experience of wilderness solitude.
His ‘study of himself’ is his PhD research. But the book is not his dissertation (at least I don’t think it is – if it is, it reads like no dissertation I’ve ever read, and thank goodness). It’s a pretty raw look at the struggles he faces — physical, emotional and spiritual — over the 12 months he is there.
The first months centre around building his cabin and getting to grips with the island, the weather, the wildlife, the wind and the cat he brought with him (supposedly to act as Taster – if the cat ate shellfish and died it meant the shellfish was poisoned by algal bloom.) Gradually he settles into the environment more and more and the urgent and aggressive approach to survival falls away to allow him more time and space to examine his relationship to where he is and what he’s doing.
As the year and the journal progress, he gradually moves towards a place of greater acceptance that he is a part of the world in which he is living, and frankly, I found this a relief as the early parts are pretty hard going (at least I found them so as a reader – I can only imagine how much harder they were in person for Kull).
I got quite upset by his treatment of Cat (his naming of the cat thus seems to sum up his ambivalence about the animal’s presence). Cat suffers seizures and seeks warmth and comfort as all cats do, but Kull seemed to resent Cat and was at times cruel in his treatment of him – at the same time as he was writing about his desire to sustain the feelings of transcendent unity with the living world that he was occasionally experiencing thanks to dolphins, eagles, ducks and limpets. It seemed to take him until the end of the year before he realised that he was projecting onto Cat all the human qualities about himself that he resented, and his cruelty to Cat was an acting out of his lack of compassion for his own weaknesses.
The book is a journal, so it reflects his day to day thoughts and experiences, and it can be repetitive as he circles back over old ground time and time again. It’s not a compendium of ‘Things I Learnt While Living Alone’ and it doesn’t pretend to offer any profound insights into spirituality to anyone else.
Perhaps most interesting to me was the fact that Kull rarely talks about loneliness, or even the fact that he is alone, as being an issue in his year’s ‘experiment’. He is more concerned that the temptation of contact via email (he does monthly email check-ins to let people know he is alive and okay) will overwhelm him and undermine the solitude. I’m not sure he ever felt particularly lonely. Loneliness certainly isn’t a dominant motif in the book.
If it had been, I think the whole book would have taken on a vastly different tone and would have made it an unbearable read. Kull clearly is used to being alone, is comfortable being alone and enjoys it. If he suffered from loneliness and had undertaken this experience as a way to learn to live with loneliness, it would be a very different book, and one I’m not sure I’d have wanted to read.