Alone Again, Unnaturally

Thoughts on solitude

Joseph Epstein in Commentary: More than two centuries earlier, Montaigne wrote at essay-length on the subject of solitude. “Now the aim of all solitude, I take it, is the same: to live more at leisure and at one’s ease,” he explained. To achieve this, it is “not enough to have gotten away from the crowd, it is not enough to move; we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are inside us, we must sequester ourselves and repossess ourselves.” He notes that “real solitude may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is enjoyed more handily alone,” and adds that “the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” Montaigne lived this ideal, retiring after an active political life for the better part of each of his days to a tower in which he kept his books and lived his private life, enjoying his own thoughts and writing them out in his essays.

Some visual art suggests solitude. The paintings of Vermeer do for me, as they did for Aldous Huxley, for whom Vermeer was always the profound “painter of still life.” Closer to our own day, the work of Edward Hopper suggests solitude in contemporary urban settings. Among composers, much of the music of Mozart almost always sends one off to the land of solitude, as does much of the musicof Maurice Ravel.

Some have suggested that there is an age relation to the attraction of solitude. In his book Solitude: A Return to the Self, the English psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes that “the old often show less interest in interpersonal relations, are more content to be alone, and become more preoccupied with their own, internal concerns…. There is often an increase in objectivity toward others combined with a decrease in identification with them.” Storr suggests that this may be why “relations between grandparents and grandchildren are often easier than between parents and children.” I myself prefer to believe the reason grandparents and grandchildren get on so well is that they have a common enemy, but let that pass.

The first distinction that needs to be made in connection with solitude is the one between it and loneliness. This comes up near the onsetof Solitude: The Science and Power of Being Alone, a new study by three authors1 that considers the vast deal of recent research on the subject (so much so that the book sometimes reads as if it were a study of studies). The book attempts to get beyond the quantitative and into the qualitative aspects of solitude, chiefly by quoting from many of the subjects of its research. There is, for example, 68-year-old Brian from England, who speaks soothingly of “peace, quiet, on your own, like you’re fishing, nobody else around, lovely river, lovely location, fishing away. Peace, quiet, babble of brook maybe. Just being with nature, lovely, being on your own.”

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