I can’t shake him.
Several times a day, for months now, he has crept into my thoughts, unexpectedly, during the most mundane moments of workaday life. I might be tweaking a Gmail filter, or skimming a Netflix queue, or day-dreaming while a GitHub repository propagates, and — bam, there he is, rattling around my consciousness, shackled, that mangy face with deep knowing eyes, a prisoner locked in my memory.
I fear I might never stop thinking about The Last True Hermit.
He, The Last True Hermit, was profiled in GQ last year, in impressive prose, though still reducible to a blurb, like everything else of this era:
Dude flees into the deep woods of Maine, never interacts with another human, and involuntarily reemerges 27 years later, muttering like a super prophet.
The haunting profile, which was my favorite, or at least most unshakable, piece of writing in 2014, depicts The Last True Hermit’s solitude like this:
He moved strictly at night. He said he didn’t know if his parents were alive or dead. He’d not made one phone call or driven in a car or spent any money. He had never in his life sent an e-mail or even seen the Internet.
In my head, I prefer to extend that paragraph to include: He’d never argued with another moron on Twitter. He never fretted about a point release software update or programmed yet another season pass into his DVR. He never screamed at a Time-Warner customer service representative. He never untagged himself, nor knew what that meant. He had no knowledge of his follower count, never pondered crashing a media holiday party, and never — not once, no matter how bitter cold the winter — considered attending CES or Sundance or Art Basel.
Dude lived the dream.
2014 was the first year that I thought, It might not be worth it.
(It was the social internet, and it was a crummy year for It.)
Twitter was a hot mess, Facebook was a unhot mess, and Reddit was dang nasty. And stay clear of the comments, unless you enjoy dousing your eyeballs with scalding uric acid.
The only tolerable conversations of 2014 seemed to happen in private — Slack, mostly; plus the occasional fleeting SnapChat action.
But surely, those places can’t remain safe and hidden. Surely, those comfy confines of comity will get hacked in 2015. Surely, this is the year we rummage through other people’s conversations from last year, hacked and released to the public, unfurling even more personal conflict and social unrest.
Surely, this is our future. Surely, The Last True Hermit foresaw this.
When asked about his obvious spiritual doppelganger, The Last True Hermit uses one word to describe Henry David Thoreau: “dilettante.”
Good word. And, in comparison, Thoreau was a rank amateur, a Harvard gentleman with daddy money, who idled away two piddly years on a placid lake. The Last True Hermit is the real deal; a Jesus Christ to Thoreau’s John the Baptist shtick.
The Last True Hermit even talks a better game:
I did examine myself. Solitude did increase my perception.
But here’s the tricky thing — when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant.
The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.
Who talks like that! Who talks like that after not talking to another human for 27 years!!!
Against my curmudgeonly will, I have always been an inveterate internet optimist. For too many years, whenever some silly old person conjured anti-internet hocus-pocus (often in the form of a Times Op-Ed), I just shook my head and thought, Haha, silly old person, go back to bemoaning how the telephone rings too often and the trolley is too loud.
But then, 2014 happened. For the first time I thought, It might not be worth it.
Everywhere you looked this year: ignorance breeding conflict breeding ignorance. Whether it was bumping elbows with GamerGaters on Reddit, struggling through rough nights of #Ferguson on Twitter, or just watching weirdos flip out for being rubbed the wrong way, this year’s internet was a miasma of disagreeable ickiness to ignore, shun, and repress.
And the whole time, The Last True Hermit was there, whispering in my ear: I was completely free.
From the perch of a browser tab, the cold Maine forest looks like paradise.
So saith The Last True Hermit:
What I miss most is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.
I can’t get him out of my head.
The Last True Hermit talks like an aphoristic DeLillo character who somehow found the clear pill in Limitless, mixed it with some melange in Dune, and then chased it down with both pills from The Matrix. The dude found god, on some pre-grid proto-future.
I want to go to there.
I’ll have what he’s having.
Give me liberty or give me death!
Is there a way to contextualize all of this year’s internet ickiness as a good thing? No. But just for fun, let’s pretend this is a counterintuitive thinkpiece.
First, as every thinkpiece architect knows, we need a bit of high-minded historical framework. Here goes:
For decades, social commentators have warned us about the effects of a fragmenting media landscape on society. Two concurrent trends are commonly cited:
- Increasingly politicized news sources (FOX, MSNBC, HuffPo, Breitbart, etc.)
- Increasingly personalized distribution services (Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
Anyone who calls themselves a “social commentator” probably sells bullshit for a living, but in this case, the sociologists and cultural critics were onto something.
Consider how new information gets to you today. If you ignore your crazy uncle on Facebook, he eventually stops appearing in your news feed. If you mute the chatterbox on Twitter, she vanishes. And if you abjure jingoism, Fox News disappears from your reality.
After a while, you literally see different information — a different reality — from other people. And soon enough, those people disappear too.
That’s why 2014 was so jarring.
For the first time in recent memory, you really saw people who have very different political ideologies than you. And it wasn’t fun. Actually, it kinda sucked.
I haven’t disagreed with so many people since college!
Like most reluctant prophets, The Last True Hermit had difficulty making eye contact. When asked about it, he said:
I’m not used to seeing people’s faces. There’s too much information there. Aren’t you aware of it? Too much, too fast.
Marry me, Last True Hermit. Marry me.
Yesterday, a personal breakthrough transpired. A whole day passed without thinking about The Last True Hermit.
But you already saw that coming. That’s how flimsy thinkpieces conclude, with heroes unmasked as narrative props. When the feeble parable ends, the tortoise is still just a tortoise — it doesn’t mean anything.
The Last True Hermit doesn’t mean anything either. He’s just some dude, Christopher Knight, who was dragged into a courtroom last year to atone for his sins.
Oh yeah, The Last True Hermit snuck into people’s homes for 27 years and stole thousands of dollars of potato chips, marshmallows, and bacon to survive.
All prophets are escape fantasies on a mass scale. The Last True Hermit personified the same promise as Moses — freedom on the other side of the water. For The Last True Hermit, it was an especially modern freedom — a freedom from the noisiness of media and culture and people, people, people.
His words were nearly biblical: I was completely free.
But it was a lie. There is no escape, no sea to part, no Canaan to abscond, no deep Maine forest. You are never completely free, because there is always a community whose resources you must pilfer.
So maybe this silly parable has a moral after all: No matter how unsettling it was in 2014, the internet is still like any other intentional community. You get as much as you put into it, and putting in nothing is equivalent to theft.
So that’s my internet resolution for 2015: Stop envying the escapism of The Last True Hermit. I pledge to engage with people, rather than hide under the forest of irony and glibness. I pledge to stop worshiping at the altar of an escapist fantasy.
I pledge to do this, right up until we get hacked. Then, and only then, I’ll meet you in the deep forest.
Rex Sorgatz mumbles hermetic prophesies @fimoculous.