4. Intellectual islands
Greek mosaic of St Joseph meditating in the desert
Patrick Keigh Fermor described his adaptation as a book writing guest of the Abbey of Fontanelle as a period during which normal standards recede and the strange new world becomes reality. This was a slow, and, at first, acutely painful. To begin with, he slept badly at night and fell asleep during the day, felt restless alone in his cell and depressed by the lack of alcohol.
"The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church-Mass, Vespers and Compline-were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment".
Work became easier every moment; and, when he was not working on his book, he was either exploring the Abbey and the neighbouring countryside, or reading. The Abbey became the reverse of a tomb-a silent university, a country house, a castle hanging in mid-air beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations.
Conversely, if his first days in the Abbey had been a period of depression, the unwinding process, after he had left, was ten times worse. The Abbey seemed at first a graveyard; the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely.
"This state of mind, I saw, was, perhaps, as false as my first reactions to monastic life; but the admission did nothing to decrease its unpleasantness. From the train which took me back to Paris, even the advertisements for Byr and Cinzano seen from the window, usually such jubilat emblems of freedom and escape, had acquired the impact personal insults. The process of adaptation-in reverse-had painfully to begin again".
The abbey had become an intellectual island, a self-contained world, where each day passed in tune with the strictly observed monastic rituals. The mind is freed to order thoughts with no time limit or distraction. So it is with all islands, whether surrounded by water or cut off from the stream of consumerism by gates, fences, or a strenuous climb to a summit.