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“Should I also make a garden out of the desert?”: A Case Against Invisible Hermits

Bernardo Marin Diniz Aires FERREIRA


Ever since Aristotle’s conjoining of the creative and the melancholic state of mind – in the 33rd section of Problems –, much has been written about the relationship between artistic output and melancholy, depression, isolation or even madness. The artist – but also the philosopher – is caught at the centre of a polarising and ongoing debate, with those who wish to see him in a purity of inward contemplation that is unreconcilable with communal living on one side, and those who believe that his main purpose should be to create for others, that there can be no humanity in the search for solitude, on the other. But the figure that best encompasses Aristotle’s description of melancholic isolation as well as its inwardness and detachment from the physical world is none other that the hermit.
This paper explores the question of eremitism, the dilemmas between communal living and inward contemplation, using the figure of the hermit also as an image for the melancholic individual. It traces its particular issues and problematics as portrayed in various sources of criticism of the phenomenon and contextualises the discussion as a matter of spatial analysis, focused on the images and places of eremitism and melancholy: the city and the desert. This perspective also emphasises a number of questions related to eremitism and its “problem”: how far away (isolated) should the hermit be? Should he ever return and, if so, when? And the most important question of all: why must the hermit move toward isolation, toward the desert?
Looking into not just Aristotle but also texts by Szymborska, Tennyson, Buzzati (as well as the hermit in the visual arts) this paper traces the discussion around these questions and attempts to provide some answers.

Keywords: Eremitism, Melancholy, Desert, Isolation, Space

DOI: 10.24193/ekphrasis.21.3