Monday, August 17, 2009

The End of Solitude

The Chronicle of Higher Education just re-ran the excellent essay from January, 2009, by William Deresiewicz, The End of Solitude. If you have a Chronicle subscription and password, you can read it in full at this link. I will attempt to summarize a bit of it here, but he makes complex arguments and ties into many writers and thinkers. It is a lovely essay and very worth reading in full.

Part of what I like about it, though, is the sense, that many of us have, that we are seeing a watershed in our culture. We feel that something basic is shifting in the way we think and relate to the world and to one another. This essay is an excellent attempt to capture that.

What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge ... 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 visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. 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 alone. Though I shouldn't say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can
The author asked several of his young students who admitted that they were unnerved by being alone. Several could not understand why anybody would want to be alone. Deresiewicz then surveys a number of cultures throughout history to elucidate the value that solitude has held for poets, for philosophers, mystics and saints. He notes that the Reformation "democratized" solitude and Romanticism "secularized" it.
...Calvinism created the modern self by focusing the soul inward, leaving it to encounter God, like a prophet of old, in "profound isolation." To ... Calvin, Marguerite de Navarre, and Milton as pioneering early-modern selves we can add Montaigne, Hamlet, and even Don Quixote. The last figure alerts us to reading's essential role in this transformation, the printing press serving an analogous function in the 16th and subsequent centuries to that of television and the Internet in our own. Reading, as Robinson puts it, "is an act of great inwardness and subjectivity." "The soul encountered itself in response to a text, 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, everyone.

But it is with Romanticism that solitude achieved its greatest cultural salience, becoming both literal and literary. Protestant solitude is still only figurative. Rousseau and Wordsworth made it physical. The self was now encountered not in God but in 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 model.
Now we have entered familiar territory for people of my generation. Reading, solitary walks in nature, musing in the woods and at the beach... and Thoreau as our culture hero. As cities became larger, in response, writers and our culture became more focused on the individual seeking into him- or herself for wisdom and self-validation. But our younger generation did not grow up in a city, but a suburb. They do not fear being subsumed in a mob. They fear isolation.

In a very interesting analysis, Deresiewicz states that neither boredom nor isolation were understood in the modern, negative sense before the 19th Century. He cites the Oxford English Dictionary in support of his argument that both sensations existed well before then, but were not experienced as bad things until a palliative was developed. The author offers his own experience growing in the 1960s with television teaching him that nothing entertaining him equalled boredom and that was a bad thing. He considers himself damaged by the experience and regrets it. He sees a parallel in the current experience of young people afraid of experiencing isolation, and avoiding it through constant interaction with others through cell phones, texting, and other electronic contact.
The alternative to boredom is what Whitman called idleness: a passive receptivity to the world.

So it is with the current generation's experience of being alone. That is precisely the recognition implicit in the idea of solitude, which is to loneliness what idleness is to boredom. Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely. But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. ... If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.

And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness." Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity. This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude.

But we no longer believe in the solitary mind. If the Romantics had Hume and the modernists had Freud, the current psychological model — and this should come as no surprise — is that of the networked or social mind. ... One of the most striking things about the way young people relate to one another today is that they no longer seem to believe in the existence of Thoreau's "darkness."

... Today's young people seem to feel that they can make themselves fully known to one another. They seem to lack a sense of their own depths, and of the value of keeping them hidden.

If they didn't, they would understand that solitude enables us to secure the integrity of the self as well as to explore it.
This is a wonderful essay and I urge you to read it in full. I can do nothing here but bring you a few highlights. I was so struck by his analogy between television teaching us to learn boredom instead of idleness as an opportunity for meditation, and the Internet teaching us to fear isolation rather than using solitude as the same opportunity to meet ourselves. These are hard lessons to learn for the modern mind. It's OK to do nothing. And it's fine to be alone. Thinking nothing we sometimes make great discoveries.

1 comment:

dan said...

i am danny bloom in taiwan. i read your blog post about Dr WOlf's book about the Squid and reading. your last sentence especially was importnat i felt, about how digital natives might experinece reading in the future. because of yoru blog i got in touch with Dr Wolf since I am a Tufts 1971 grad. news reporter and editor in Taiwan. I have a blog i want to discusss with you by email first and maybe one day uyou could post on my work, it is about the differences between reading on paper and reading on screens, and nobody is doing the work i am doing, the approach I am taking that is, i think because i am not a scientist or a pHD but just a normal bloke who loves to read and think. can you email me at danbloom at gmail dot com and we can chat? THANKS

MY BLOG is at