In thinking about Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, I was brought back again to some reflections on solitude that I had written some time ago. There I described my own encounters with solitude that, even as a relatively young man, were fairly frequent.
In contrast, William Dersiewicz writes that today solitude is virtually unknown among the youth of this country. He says “we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration and it is also taking away our ability to be alone.”
He describes the case of one “teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes…So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.”
He asks his students about the role of solitude in their life and is rather taken aback by their answer. “One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she’ll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?”
Dersiewicz attributes the “terror” of being alone to the Internet. He says [The Internet] has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another…But as the Internet’s dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing.”
First it was the telephone and then the television and now e-mailing and texting and the constant stream of whatever it is that people are staring at on their cell phones. Rarely do I see a young person walking about without their eyes focused on their cell phone or talking to someone with the thing. What is it that they are talking about? How can they have so much to say to one another?
At dinner one night at an outdoor café in Italy, I observed a couple sitting silently together at their table. Each one was peering at their cell phone. I never once saw them speaking to one another. Instead, they spent the entire time I was there talking to someone on their mobile. And when they were finished speaking, they continued to fiddle with it, no doubt searching for the latest text message or poking around the Web. I thought they were surely a couple on the verge of a meltdown.
In Exit Ghost Philip Roth writes:
“Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the drivers were on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking to a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect.”
What is lost when people no longer experience that “separation” and our desire, even ability, to be alone for any length of time? Deresiewicz responds that “First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self…Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading.” And else where he says they have also lost the ability to be still and to appreciate the experience of idleness.
Solitude as Deresiewicz admits isn’t easy and clearly isn’t for everyone. Yes, “the silent apartment” is ever present. But that rarely seems to bother me. I feel much like the librarian in Martha Cooley’s The Archivist who confesses: “But once again I’d tasted solitude as an alternative to the life I was leading, and the possibility of its permanence scared and attracted me.”
Below are additional comments on solitude that I collected from Deresiewicz’s essay:
The great contemporary terror is anonymity.
So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration and it is also taking away our ability to be alone.
Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience...You cannot hear God when people are chattering at you.
Solitude becomes, more than ever, the arena of heroic self discovery…
…our great fear is not submersion by the mass, but isolation from the herd.
Now it is impossible to be alone.
My students told me they have little time for intimacy. And, of course, they have no time at all for solitude…have never heard of it, can’t imagine why it would be worth having
…our use of technology—seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude, a continuous attempt, as we sit alone at our computers, to maintain the imaginative presence of others.
The more we keep aloneness at bay, the less we are able to deal with it and the more terrifying it gets.
Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence.
…solitude enables us to secure the integrity of the self, as well as to explore it.
We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood.
But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral can arise without solitude.
The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn’t very polite.
Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.