Magazine June 1, 2020, Issue

Alone Again (Unnaturally)

Monument Valley, United States (Xavi Talleda/Photo Collection/Getty Images)
On solitude chosen and solitude enforced

An aptitude for solitude, I have come to believe, is one of the grand gifts. Not to fear solitude but to look forward to it, to enjoy it, is unavailable to the extroverted and the gregarious. As a boy, I qualified as both extroverted and gregarious. I yearned for company and had no trouble finding it on playgrounds, athletic fields, among a wide variety of friends. In those days the good life for me was the socially crowded life, filled with sports, dances, card games, just hanging out. I should like to be able to report how in those days I dealt with solitude, which I would then doubtless have characterized as loneliness, but, apart from the occasional illness, I don’t recall ever having to deal with it at all. Solitude and I were unacquainted.

All this changed when, sometime during my college years, I determined, fit for nothing else, to become a writer. I spent one quarter at the University of Chicago staying up all night, and, after classes, sleeping days. I was of course up alone, reading, thinking, dreaming up stories, letting my mind wander (the mind, the rabbis tell us, is a great wanderer). This was solitude in pure form, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Easily the longest stretch of solitude I have known came during my second year as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army. I spent that year, 1960, as a clerk-typist at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark. There being no Army post near Little Rock, I lived, alone, in a studio apartment backing onto the governor’s mansion. In that apartment I had no television set, no radio, no telephone. Apart from a refrigerator, stove, bath, and toilet, my only appliance was a portable Olivetti typewriter. Five days a week I was by myself from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. Weekends I was entirely alone. So much time did I have on my own that I bought a basketball, and would occasionally dribble it a few blocks away to shoot baskets by myself at a nearby schoolyard. I read a great deal, I wrote and published my first magazine article, I ate lots of Campbell’s soup. Today I think of these months as idyllic.

I set all this down to establish not only that I am no stranger to solitude but that I may even be said to have, more than an aptitude, a distinct taste for it.

A distinction needs to be made between solitude and loneliness. Solitude, though it implies aloneness, is of course much the preferable of the two. One chooses solitude, one is afflicted by loneliness. The American Heritage Dictionary definition of the two words suggests their radical difference. The definition of solitude is “the state or situation of being alone: she savored her freedom and solitude.” Loneliness, on the other hand, is defined as “sadness because one has no friends or company: feelings of depression and loneliness.” Solitude, note, suggests freedom; loneliness, depression.

One of the subsidiary pleasures of reading is that it is done in solitude. Reading gets you away from others, leaving you to the luxury of your own thoughts and those, if you select your reading with care, of someone likely to be more intelligent than you. Proust notes that books have over friends that you can call upon them only when you wish and dismiss them at your discretion. Proust also felt that reading could be an aid to solitude, especially to the indolent mind that is unable to think in solitude but requires rubbing up against, through the stimulus of reading, a finer mind than itself. I suspect Proust thought his own was a mind of this kind. I am certain mine is.

For some solitude is so essential that they make it part of their daily ritual. Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, used to set aside an hour or so every afternoon to repose on the couch of her Manhattan apartment and there do nothing but think in solitude. About what? One assumes about philosophical and political subjects, about the state of the world, about her own writing. I attempted this myself, but without success, once actually nodding off to dream about Chinese food. I apparently do best to take my solitude where I find it and not attempt, like Miss Arendt, to organize it.

Literature and literary life are filled with examples and scenes of solitude. Henry David Thoreau tells us that he took up residence at Walden Pond seeking the profound connection with life that only solitude allows, though it has been revealed that Thoreau, who often needed the stimulant of company, may have written a better game than he lived. Emerson, in his essay “Self-Reliance,” noted that “it is easy in solitude to live after our own” opinion, “but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Herman Melville’s character Bartleby the scrivener would seem to have solitude thrust upon him by his very nature. Perhaps the most profound scene in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady has Isabel Archer, in solitude, understanding the grievous error she has made in marrying Gilbert Osmond and coming to realize why she must nonetheless remain in that marriage. Of course all the soliloquies in Shakespeare are delivered in solitude; in its stem the word “soliloquy” suggests solitude. Nearly all lyric poetry appears to be the result of thought created in solitude, though one of the few poems I know that are directly on the subject of solitude is Emily Dickinson’s poem #1695:

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself —
Finite Infinity.

Two popular songs that touch on the subject of solitude are Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” and Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude,” the latter sung by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and others, and one of the great torch songs of all time.

Solitude has long been an element of religion. The author of the Bhagavad Gita instructs adherents to “turn all thought to solitude.” Only in solitude, Saint Augustine tells us in his Confessions, was he able to conduct his questionings and subdue his doubts about his own religion. Trappist monks, though not strictly vowed to silence, feel that much talk is a hindrance to the solitude needed to receive God. I don’t know that Judaism, being a community religion, speaks to solitude. A minyan of ten Jews is required for formal prayer, after all.

Might solitude be the silver lining in the vast dark cloud of our current COVID-19 pandemic? Pernicious in so many ways, the coronavirus crisis, requiring decrees in many states that one remain at home, encourages solitude and thereby, one would think, allows greater time for the thoughtful reflection solitude invites. But if the stories are true about the increased number of suicide attempts and actual suicides, the intensified alcoholism and opioid addiction, and the uptick in spousal abuse during the isolation required by the crisis, then the coronavirus is having quite the reverse effect.

One might have thought that I, a lover and self-proclaimed connoisseur of solitude, would have welcomed the isolation imposed by the coronavirus. But I find I don’t, not at all. As an older player I am in self-imposed quarantine, but mine is a quarantine in an apartment that houses 1,500 or so books, two computers, cell and landline phones, and the resourceful mechanical female who calls herself “Alexa” and who on command gives me the weather and plays the music of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Reynaldo Hahn. I share this quarantine, moreover, with a wife with whom I can talk about anything and with whom I laugh a lot and an affectionate calico cat named Dolly.

No, what bugs me is that in the current instance, as never before, my solitude is enforced, specifically, of course, by the fear of death by corona germ. This element of enforcement, I find, is destructive of the rich benefits of solitude. Enforced, solitude feels more like solitary confinement than an opportunity for reflection. As perhaps never before, I long for the company of five or six dear friends. Contacting them by phone or email, viewing and conversing with them through Skype, will not do. If anything, the isolation imposed by the coronavirus has shown the limits of life lived, as it is increasingly in the digital age, remotely.

One of the striking side effects of the isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is to show us how little our many grand toys—smartphones, Netflix, and the rest—avail us in crisis. Something here, surely, to think about, and after this crisis is past I hope to find the solitude to do so.

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?

If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.

LEARN MORE
Joseph Epstein — Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Letters

Letters

A reader responds to Theodore Kupfer and Ramesh Ponnuru’s article, “Coronavirus Lockdowns: Going the Distance.”

Most Popular

Culture

In Defense of Terry Crews

There are many worthy nominees for the craziest moment in the current cultural turmoil, but the controversy over tweets by actor Terry Crews deserves to be high on the list. In one of his offending tweets, Crews said on July 4th: https://twitter.com/terrycrews/status/1279493774679261185?s=21 It wasn’t ... Read More
Culture

In Defense of Terry Crews

There are many worthy nominees for the craziest moment in the current cultural turmoil, but the controversy over tweets by actor Terry Crews deserves to be high on the list. In one of his offending tweets, Crews said on July 4th: https://twitter.com/terrycrews/status/1279493774679261185?s=21 It wasn’t ... Read More
Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More
Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More

Mel Gibson’s Beastmode

Late-period Mel Gibson is probably the best Mel Gibson; in film after film after film he plays ornery old bastards with such conviction that each successive outing feels like a personal trip to the confessional. He doesn’t need the money anymore, and most of these roles are in indie movies that pay very little ... Read More

Mel Gibson’s Beastmode

Late-period Mel Gibson is probably the best Mel Gibson; in film after film after film he plays ornery old bastards with such conviction that each successive outing feels like a personal trip to the confessional. He doesn’t need the money anymore, and most of these roles are in indie movies that pay very little ... Read More