Saturday, June 5, 2010

Solitude, by Robert Kull

Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes, by Robert Kull. New World Library, 2008. 352 pages. which the author does crazy things and tries far too hard to be profound.

This book is essentially a journal written by Robert Kull as he spent slightly over a year living alone on a tiny island off the coast of southern Chile. As the subtitle implies, his purpose was to obtain some kind of wisdom from his time alone, to reconnect to himself and to the environment. This project also happens to be the basis of his PhD dissertation.

First of all, Kull was hardly living like Survivorman on his tiny island. He was certainly living in a very spartan manner, but he had some basic necessities and comforts. He had survival and camping gear, enough plywood to construct a tiny cabin, tarps, wind generator, solar panels, sat phone, laptop, GPS, enough food for a year, basic tools, a kayak, an inflatable boat with two motors, basic medical supplies... despite all of the equipment he had, the most interesting parts of the journal (for me) were the passages about how he was surviving on the island. His descriptions of picking a campsite, building his cabin, etc were interesting, but the passages where he reflected on less mundane topics were (mostly) either dull or irritating.

My first complaint is that Kull has a habit of capitalizing certain Nouns, in order to give them Significance. This is one of the more annoying Habits he has in his Writing.

Secondly, I find it hard to have any sympathy or empathy for him, simply because he doesn't sound like a very nice guy sometimes. He takes a cat to the island with him; this was an unexpected development that occurred when a woman in Chile gave him a kitten just before he departed for the island. For most of his year in isolation, he seems to find the cat to be a nuisance, and sometimes treats the cat in a manner that is bordering on cruel.

His philosophical/spiritual/metaphysical/whatever musings were sometimes kind of interesting, but for the most part he didn't really say anything NEW, that I could see. Perhaps it is because I am not an especially spiritual person, but I don't really buy in to most of what he says.

One of the more interesting results of his experiment in solitude was how it gave him a very different perspective on world events. During his time in isolation, he asked that no one try to give him news of the outside world unless an immediate friend or family member was dying. His year in solitude took place from February 2001 to late March, 2002, so by the time he returned, the world had seen some pretty significant events take place. His reaction to hearing about 9/11, months after it had occurred, was pretty understated:
Patti also brought news of September 11, 2001. Hearing about it didn't affect me very deeply, because by then all the activities of humanity seemed no more than a vague smudge on the far horizon. From the city, and even from this small town where I now sit writing, the island- and other remote corners of the Earth where we humans have not yet left our mark- seems distant and somehow unreal; a fading remnant of what once was. But on the island, especially during the last months, that far-off region of nature was the ancient center of my world. All the frantic activity of human society- cities, highways, pollution, and endless frothing news reports- were an ethereal dream.
So hearing that two of those phantom buildings, among so many, had been destroyed didn't mean much in the huge endless pulse of the universe... Many more than three thousand people die in the world each day from unnecessary starvation and preventable disease. Probably more people die in the United States each month from gunshots, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, and the lack of affordable medical care. These deaths usually go unremarked and often seem as unreal to most people as 9/11 does to me. (pp 300-301)
Perhaps his hard-won wisdom from his year on the island gave him new insight on the value of human life, and new insight on what makes a death significant. Either way, I think he succeeded in disconnecting himself from humanity, if he thinks 9/11 "didn't mean much in the huge endless pulse of the universe".

In summary: I would recommend skimming the first 100 or so pages for the interesting bits, and skip the rest.

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