THE END OF SOLITUDE
What does the contemporary self want? The camera created a culture of celebrity; the computer has created a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge—broadband tipping the web from text to image, social networking spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider—the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: it wants to be seen. If not by the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then by the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.
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, but it is also taking away our ability to be by ourselves. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told that a teenager I know had sent three thousand instant messages one recent month. That’s one hundred a day, or about one every ten waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunchtime, homework time, and tooth-brushing time. So, on average, she’s never alone for more than ten minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone. I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she will sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anybody want to be alone?
To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Humans may be social animals, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has always been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the community renews its relationship with God. The prophet and the hermit, the sadhu and the yogi, pursue their vision quests, invite their trances, in desert or forest or cave. Social life is a bustle of petty concerns, a jostle of quotidian interests, and the still, small voice speaks only in silence. Collective experience may be the human norm, but the solitary encounter with God is the egregious act that refreshes that norm. Religious solitude is a kind of self-correcting social mechanism, a way of burning out the underbrush of moral habit and spiritual custom. The seer returns with new tablets or new dances, their face bright with the old truth.
Like other religious values, solitude was democratized by the Reformation and secularized by Romanticism. In Marilynne Robinson’s interpretation, Calvinism created the modern self by turning the soul inward, impelling it to encounter God, like the prophets of old, in “profound isolation.” To her enumeration of Calvin, Marguerite de Navarre, and Milton as pioneering early modern selves, we can add Montaigne, Hamlet, and even Don Quixote. The last of these alerts us to the essential role of reading in this transformation. “[T]he soul encountered itself in response to a text,” Robinson writes, “first Genesis or Matthew and then Paradise Lost or Leaves of Grass.” With Protestantism and printing, the quest for the divine voice became available to, even incumbent upon, all.
But it is with Romanticism that solitude achieved its greatest cultural salience, becoming both literal and literary. Protestant solitude was still only figurative. Rousseau and Wordsworth made it physical. The self was now encountered not in God but Nature, and to encounter Nature one had to go to it. And go to it with a special sensibility: the poet displaced the saint as social seer and cultural exemplar. But since Romanticism also inherited the eighteenth-century idea of social sympathy, Romantic solitude existed in a dialectical relationship with friendship. For Emerson, “The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society.” The Romantic practice of solitude is neatly captured by Trilling’s “sincerity”: the belief that the self is validated by a congruity of private essence and public appearance, one that stabilizes its relationship with both itself and others. Especially, as Emerson suggests, one beloved other. Hence the famous Romantic friendship pairs: Goethe and Schiller, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hawthorne and Melville.
Modernism decoupled this dialectic. Its conception of solitude was harsher, more adversarial, more isolating. As a model of the self and its interactions, Hume’s social sympathy gave way to Pater’s thick wall of personality and Freud’s narcissism—the sense that the soul, self-enclosed and inaccessible to others, can’t choose but be alone. With exceptions, like Woolf, the modernists fought shy of friendship. Joyce and Proust disparaged it; Lawrence was wary of it; the modernist friendship pairs—Conrad and Ford, Eliot and Pound, Hemingway and Fitzgerald—were altogether cooler than their Romantic counterparts.
The world was now understood as an assault on the self, and with good reason. The Romantic ideal of solitude developed in part as a reaction to the emergence of the modern city. In modernism, the city is not only more menacing than ever; it is inescapable, a labyrinth: Eliot’s London, Joyce’s Dublin. The mob, the human mass, presses in. Hell is other people. The soul is forced back into itself—hence the development of a more austere, more embattled form of self-validation, Trilling’s “authenticity,” where one’s essential relationship is with oneself. Solitude becomes the arena of heroic self-discovery, a voyage through interior realms made vast and terrifying by Nietzschean and Freudian insights. To achieve authenticity is to look upon these visions without flinching; Trilling’s exemplar here is Mr. Kurtz. Protestant self-examination becomes Freudian analysis, and the culture hero, once a prophet of God, then a poet of Nature, is now a novelist of self—a Dostoyevsky, a Joyce, a Proust.
But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. After World War II, urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated—we could live farther and farther apart—technologies of communication redressed—we could bring ourselves closer and closer together. Or so, at least, we imagined. The first of those technologies, the first simulacrum of proximity, was the telephone. “Reach out and touch someone,” the slogan went. But through the ’70s and ’80s, our isolation grew. Suburbs became exurbs. Families grew smaller or splintered apart. Mothers went to work. The electronic hearth became the television in every room. Even in childhood, certainly in adolescence, we were trapped inside our own cocoons. Soaring crime rates, and even more sharply escalating rates of moral panic, pulled children off the streets. The idea that you could go outside and run around the neighborhood with your friends, once unquestionable, became unthinkable. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.
In these circumstances, the internet arrived as an incalculable blessing. We should never forget that. It has allowed isolated people to communicate with each other and marginalized people to find each other. The busy parent can stay in touch with far-flung friends. The gay adolescent no longer must feel like a freak. But as the internet’s dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing. Ten years ago, we were writing emails on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our BlackBerrys, posting pictures on our MySpace pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired into the electronic hive—though contact, or at least two-way contact, seems increasingly beside the point. The goal now, it seems, is simply to be known, to become a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are following me on Twitter? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now it is impossible to be alone.
Which means that we are losing both halves of the Romantic dialectic. What does friendship mean when you have 532 “friends”? How does it enhance my sense of closeness when Facebook tells me that Sally McNally (whom I haven’t seen since high school, and wasn’t really friends with even then) “is making coffee and staring off into space”? Exchanging emails, let alone instant messaging or writing on people’s “walls,” is very far from having a sustained conversation. Never mind the information that facial and vocal cues convey. We respond instinctively, deep in our bodies, to faces and voices. Letters, which had their own sensuality, once sought to reproduce the contours of the voice through the medium of language, but to pull off that trick, one needs to know how to write. Emoticons won’t do it. My students told me they have little time for intimacy. And, of course, they have no time whatsoever for solitude.
Copyright © 2022 by William Deresiewicz