Virtual Identity

We live in an age when private life is being destroyed.
Milan Kundera

Have you ever wanted to live in a monastery, a secular one where contemplation, rather than prayer is the order of the day? I think you have to be a peace with solitude in order to ever consider that kind of life. Of course, you don’t have to move into a remote monastery to live like that. It is enough to live alone and try your best to bracket the ordinary distractions that seem to have overtaken contemporary life.

Yesterday I went to an exhibition in Florence that was a multi-media reflection on the theme of Virtual Identity. It dealt with the emerging way we define our self, both personally and collectively in the new digital culture, where we are constantly available and interacting with smart phones, social networks, computers, etc. “In today’s communication society, one seems to exist only if traceable online and in the constant flow of information”

The exhibition echoed a theme that many have written about, concerned not so much with the nature of the “communication society” but rather it’s cost, what is lost, what we are not doing as a result of our constant need to connect. And what is lost is the experience of solitude, of being alone, and having time for reflection and mind wandering, if you will.

When asked by an interviewer “Do you need a lot of solitude to write?” James Salter replied: “Complete solitude. Although I’ve made notes for things and even written synopses sitting in trains or on park benches, for the complete composition of things I need absolute solitude, preferably an empty house.” I believe almost every writer would reply similarly.

Recently I read A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor was a British author, scholar and soldier and a highly regarded travel writer. He died last week and was eulogized with much admiration. In A Time to Keep Silence he describes his life in a French monastery and how he responded at various stages to monastic silence and isolation.

“If my first days in the Abbey had been a period of depression, the unwinding process, after I had left, was ten times worse. The Abbey was at first a graveyard: the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity.”

He reports that after a painful period of adjustment he found that it was not long before he achieved a degree of peace and clarity of spirit that he had never known before.

He writes about the “staggering difference between life in the abbey and the world outside.” Indeed, I suspect most people today view monastic life as alien to their values and seem almost joyless. And I think this true for most forms of solitude that are often depicted as a lonely, boring type of existence.

In an essay, “One Hundred Fears of Solitude” published in Granta last year, Hal Crowther notes that the various digital communication techniques have destroyed the experience of silence, of autonomy, of privacy.

When his class was over one day“Two hundred students all pulled out their cellphones, called someone and said, “Where are you?” People want to connect.”

And later Crowther cites what a woman with a master’s degree told a reporter: “I lost my cellphone once. “I felt like my world had just ended. I had a breakdown on campus.”

In Exit Ghost Philip Roth writes, What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? 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…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 inevitable have a dramatic effect.

At dinner one night a few years ago at an outdoor cafĂ© in Fiesole, a town in the hills above Florence, I observed a couple sitting silently together at their table. (Since then, I’ve seen this scene repeated over and over again.) Each one was holding their cell phone. I never saw them speaking to one another. Instead, they spent the entire time talking to someone on their phone. And when they were done speaking, they continued to fiddle with their gadget. I suspected they were searching for their e-mail messages or poking around the Web. I thought they were a couple on the verge of a meltdown.