As an aspiring hikikomori myself, I am fascinated by recluses, particularly those who carry on active careers in the arts. There are of course all sorts of reasons one might wish to shun society, from the mundane to the pathological. But to do so, at least in part, in the service of one’s art carries, for me, a sort of nobility.

I dealt a while ago with Setsuko Hara, who maintained quite a wall around her personal life even as she was one of Japan’s most famous actresses in the 1950s. But after she retired from acting in 1963 at the age of 43, she became positively Garbo-like (and has remained so to the present day) in her refusal to be photographed, do interviews, or even appear in public. We’ve also been acknowledging this week the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, the only published novel by Harper Lee. Aside from a very few ceremonies, mostly at schools, Lee, like Hara, basically does no interviews and makes no public appearances.

In an upcoming note, I’ll talk a little about one of my favorite reclusive musicians, one whose compositions – some of which are as vast and complex as any music ever written – have received ever-increasing attention since his 1988 death, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji.

Another artist that has recently captured my imagination, one who has become one of the quintessential figures in what is now known as “outsider art,” is Henry Darger (1892-1973). He was, as far as anyone knew during his lifetime, a quiet, religious, rather strange but harmless guy who was a janitorial worker in Chicago for many years. It was only after his death that his landlords discovered what he’d been up to all that time in his shabby apartment: the creation of a 15,000 page novel, The Realms of the Unreal, or “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion,” as well as a 4,600 page autobiography, another voluminous novel and other writings, and several hundred paintings and drawings. While I’ll admit that I’ve read only the smallest bits of his writings, it must be said that his paintings, many of them on a quite large scale, have a genuine, wild magic about them.

There’s a fine documentary film on Darger by Jessica Yu, In the Realms of the Unreal, available at both Amazon and Netflix. Many of his paintings can be viewed online. You can read more about Darger here, as well as in the second of these two lists of reclusive artists, all of them most admirable creators.

The Lost World of Tibet

Yesterday was the seventy-fifth birthday of the Dalai Lama, and it seems an auspicious time to call your attention to one of the finest documentaries I’ve encountered recently, one in which the Dalai Lama is a major participant. “The Lost World of Tibet” – a co-production of the BBC and the British Film Institute, and recently released on a BFI DVD – features rare color films made in Tibet in the 1930s through the 1950s, before and up to the time of the Chinese invasion of the country. Hosted by Dan Cruickshank, a familiar host of BBC documentaries on art and architecture, the documentary provides a window into a way of life now long past. (See below for details on the DVD itself, which hasn’t been released in the United States.)

These old films, gathered by the BFI over the last several decades, were taken by a British diplomatic delegation that spent time in Lhasa in 1936 and 1940, a Scottish medical officer, a botanist, and a member of the Chinese legation to Tibet. They are supplemented by some propaganda documentaries China produced after their invasion of Tibet (or, as they would put it, their liberation of the Tibetan people) in 1950.

“The Lost World of Tibet” is an utterly fascinating look at a country that, until the political, spiritual, and cultural turmoil of the Chinese invasion, was ruled by aristocratic families and Buddhist monks. Isolated between China and the British empire, Tibet was very religious, conservative in outlook, and, according to Tibetans themselves, resistant to modernization. Much of what we see in 1940s Tibet probably looked very similar centuries before. Read more