The London Magazine
The Glory of Being Alone
A History of Solitude, David Vincent, Polity, 2020, 336pp, £25 (hardcover)
Being alone was, in centuries gone, the most obvious means of simplifying life down to its essentials. Only when they could escape the chatter of kinsfolk, the clatter of factory machines, the impress of society with its expectations and opinions, were individuals at liberty to listen to their own inner voices, their own minds and souls. Where life among extended families in overcrowded homes, or the exigencies of the working day, refused to permit the physical removal of the self, a line could be cast into the reflective depths by the practice of abstracting oneself mentally from the tumult, drifting off by the fireside, letting the wheels of cogitation go on spinning in the engulfing dark at bedtime. Solitude was a retreat, a licensed indulgence in which the subject could almost see the Almighty as clearly as he saw them.
For Montaigne, in the 1570s, solitude marked a graceful withdrawal from the world of affairs in late life, but it only worked if it was accepted and embraced with enthusiasm, which meant properly leaving the world behind, abandoning the ambition and emotional investment one had brought to it. There was no point in withdrawing if half your mind was still on the society out there. Tranquillity was the potential reward. Already, though, there is a suggestion of conflict about the status of the self in retreat: if you still have yourself, you have lost nothing, he assures the reader, not long after quoting the countervailing remark of Socrates; that a man who had found travelling alone disagreeable should not be surprised at the failure of the enterprise, since he had still travelled with himself.
Since the early modern period, as David Vincent illustrates in this resourceful study, a rich accretion of conflict has precipitated around the notion of solitude as both existential condition and as ideal. Taking as his starting point the Swiss writer Johann Zimmermann’s reflections on the matter from the 1780s, a text that was dyspeptically received on its translation into English a few years later, Vincent traces the evolution of the state of aloneness from its elevation to a philosophical discipline in
the solitary walking of the Romantic era, through the enforced isolation of women and the bereaved elderly in domestic spaces, of prisoners in solitary confinement, of votaries in enclosed monastic and conventual orders, through to the hobbyists, spiritual retreaters, dog-walkers and smartphone users of the present day. He points out that this history has not only continually revised the relations between solitude and sociability, so that they are no longer in simple antithesis but have a complementary relation one to the other, but also takes a magnifying-glass to the hair-fine line that separates solitude from one of the most scrutinised global maladies of our own day, loneliness.
Fear of loneliness is what drives even paid-up misanthropes into the arms of the kind of company they despise, as bitterly documented by the sulphurous distaste Philip Larkin visits on a social invitation in the poem ‘Vers de Société’– ‘My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps / To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps / You’d care to join us?’ If the intimations of mortality that steal over him in the drink-nourished evening hour are what turn the ‘Never-in-a-million-years’ into a sickly ‘I’d-bedelighted’, the ideal of unencumbered autonomy is only burnished in its betrayal. ‘Our language has wisely sensed those two sides of man’s being alone,’ the German theologian Paul Tillich is quoted as observing in A History of Solitude. ‘It has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.’ Vincent renders this even more succinct by suggesting that loneliness is solitude that has gone on too long, but his unmistakable point throughout this book is that the modern obsession with loneliness is, to a great extent, a figment of professional sociological concern. The determination to uproot isolation, which has extended to the appointment of a government minister whose job it is to identify and ameliorate the condition, is in danger of closing our eyes to the benefits of withdrawal.
In any case, modern communication technology has had the effect of accentuating such withdrawal by enabling it to take place in company. A railway carriage, a doctor’s waiting-room, even a restaurant table with its two occupants, is a scene of private immersion in a connectivity that specifically excludes the potential connections available in the immediate physical vicinity. Online networks, instant messaging, contact apps, texting, even the incipiently moribund email, are all ways of liberating users from
the one-dimensionality of face-to-face interchanges, and releasing them into the global wild delivered to them by the tiny screen that wholly absorbs attention when it is being consulted, and peripherally nags at the borders of consciousness when it is lying ostensibly idle by one’s side. These virtual conversations permit the kinds of discursive strategies – sudden switches of topic, changes of attention from one interlocutor to another, monosyllabic dismissals, responses by emoji alone – that IRL encounters, with their imperatives for a minimal residual courtesy, still tediously prohibit.
Where solitude is an inescapable condition, whether to the prison inmate who was being given the chance, in the benevolent intent of philanthropic clerics, to bare his soul to God while locked in a cell with just a board bed and a bucket, or to the rural lads who were employed to stand in fields during the day flapping the birds off the crops before the invention of the scarecrow, it does undoubtedly gnaw away at emotional stability. It may equally be, though, as Vincent suggests, that it only chafes at the spirits when a real or imagined view of the life in company that everybody else is enjoying, its sensuosity and generosity, throws one’s own solitary existence into bestial relief. Aloneness is for spiders, sloths, giant pandas on their withering way to extinction, for creeps who whip themselves in unlighted abbeys, ascetics squatting on pillars with their defecations, peering down at the forsaken world that goes on bustling way beneath them.
By contrast, togetherness is the presumed elixir that makes our passage through the vale of tears less fretful. Cave-paintings of hunters in groups, or of forests of disembodied waving hands like Glastonbury ravers, testify to the survival advantages of cooperation. Scenes of enthusiastic coupling in Greek vase decorations and Roman murals, the stone pair on the Arundel tomb holding ungloved hands in confutation of the card-carrying solipsism everywhere else in Larkin, all bear witness to the soul’s volition that it not wade through unaccompanied. Depictions of the solitary in art, by contrast, must deploy the imperious assurance of the society portrait if they are not to be readable as studies in reclusion.
Which is it to be? Horatian withdrawal into the countryside or Anacreontic delight in the bodies of others? The Thinker or The Kiss? Lack, as always, supplies the shape of plenitude, and our postwar culture fears isolation worse than rabies. The psychologist Anthony Storr made a gently argued start on undoing this assumption in his 1988 study Solitude,
considering the non-negotiable nature of bereavement as compassionately as the abrading hurt of those who have nobody to love them. What unites his book and the present study is that, if we pathologise the condition of being alone, we denude it of its comforts and its balms, its potentials and its proper sense of liberty.
This is rightly a much pondered issue of late. Michael Harris noted in another recent contribution, Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World (2017), that ‘[a]s we adapt to evolving technological environments, as we respond to shifts in living arrangements, as we inhale the rhetoric and poetics of our own time, our relationship to solitude keeps changing.’ It was a point amply investigated by Olivia Laing in her 2016 work, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, when her own suddenly isolated transient existence in New York produced not only a series of richly nuanced reflections on a clutch of twentieth-century American artists, but an objective examination of the often quizzical habits of her own solitude. The two essential facets of solitude are ‘learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.’
A properly dialectical interplay of the virtues of solitude and everyday sociability is surely the means of such resistance. Just as being alone allows the thinker to prepare for and welcome the next access of company, so life among one’s confederates regularly sharpens one’s appetite for the next experience of solitude, while those people condemned to an unrelieved regimen of the one or the other, against their own instinctual impulses, are the ones who most urgently need a break. Even as more of us choose to live by ourselves, we have to decide, David Vincent proposes, what it is that we otherwise fear about being alone, and then placate it. The insight will doubtless dawn, where it does, in solitary recreation on the riverbank, on the deserted strand at evening, in abstracted contemplation of the landscape gliding alongside the train window, on returning to a generously empty room in which nobody is expecting you to do anything, say anything or be anything.