Folio — From the April 2015 issue

Going It Alone

The dignity and challenge of solitude

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All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.

 — Blaise Pascal

I.

Go to any bookstore and you’ll find shelves of books written about living in a relationship — how to find a relationship, how to hold one together once it’s found, how to survive its falling apart, how to find one again. Churches offer classes, preachers preach, teachers teach, therapists counsel about how to get and stay coupled.

Then try looking for lessons in solitude. You will search for a long while, even though more and more of us are living alone, whether by choice or circumstance. Today more than a quarter of U.S. households have only one resident. Other developed nations report higher figures, as high as 60 percent in parts of Scandinavia. This isn’t just a Western phenomenon: China and India both show rapidly expanding percentages of people living solo.

“Foot on El,” by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Estate. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York City.

“Foot on El,” by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Estate. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York City.

If you return to that hypothetical bookstore, you will find that a remarkable number of the classics on its shelves were written by solitary travelers. Evidently some wisdom is available to these millions of people who are seeking, or at least experiencing, solitude.

After more than twenty years of living alone, I launched an investigation of how these authors lived out solitude in a world that seems so exclusively to celebrate coupling up, that sees bachelor- or spinsterhood as tragic. In search of a rich perspective on the solitary life, I embarked on a tour of the work, lives, and homes of writers and artists. I hoped to learn what they had to teach about the dignity and challenge of such living amid a barrage of technology that is hell-bent on ensuring that we are never, ever alone.

I am not writing about what demographers call “singles” — a word that means nothing outside the context of marriage. Nor am I writing about hermits. I am writing, rather, about “solitaries,” to use the term favored by the Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton. The call to solitude is universal. It requires no cloister walls and no administrative bureaucracy, only the commitment to sit down and still ourselves to our particular aloneness. I want to consider solitary people and those who seek solitude as essential threads in the human weave — “figures in the carpet,” to adapt the title of a Henry James short story narrated by just such a person — spinsters and bachelors without whom the social fabric would be threadbare, impoverished. I want to rethink our understanding of solitude and of solitaries, of those who live alone or who dedicate much of their time to being alone.

Though late in life James warned a young writer about the crushing isolation of writing, he was notably gregarious, as was Walt Whitman. Emily Dickinson, our high priestess of solitude, lived with her family and participated in its social events, which included hosting the leading literary and political figures of her time. Some of the solitaries who interest me married (e.g., Paul Cézanne, Zora Neale Hurston, Rainer Maria Rilke), though the marriages were often stormy (as in Cézanne’s case) or brief (Hurston) or carried on at a distance (Rilke). While their biographies often suggest a lifetime of living alone (e.g., Henry James, Henry David Thoreau), more emphatically and more profoundly I see their solitude enacted in their work, which is their gift to us, their spiritual children. In reading or looking at or listening to their writing or art or music, I recognized that they and I had something in common — a deep core of aloneness, a desire to define, explore, and complete the self by turning inward rather than looking outward.

In 1990, after learning of my partner’s death, a dear friend wrote, “The suffering at such times can be great, I know. But it is somehow comforting to learn, even through suffering, how large and powerful love is.” I would modify his eloquent condolence by substituting “especially” for “even” — for how else do we learn the dimensions and power of love except through suffering? Living amid the culture’s obsession with erotic passion, a solitary exists — let us not deny it — in a state of continual suffering, which is to say, in a continual opening to the possibility and grandeur of love.

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