While reading Fenton Johnson’s essay [“Going It Alone,” Folio, April], I found myself thinking of Arthur Schopenhauer, a notorious misanthrope who, in solitude, developed one of the most cogent and logical analyses of the human condition of any philosopher to date.
Schopenhauer never married. In the last third of his life, from the age of forty-five until his death, he lived alone (though he did keep French poodles, named Atma and Butz) in Frankfurt and followed an unvarying daily schedule. He awoke each morning at seven o’clock and washed. After having a cup of coffee in lieu of breakfast, he wrote at his desk until noon, when, satisfied with his work for the day, he practiced the flute for thirty minutes. For lunch he frequented the Englischer Hof, an inn near the city center, and afterward he read at home until four o’clock, at which time he took a two-hour walk, even in bad weather. At six he visited the library to read the newspaper. He went out in the evening, perhaps to a concert or the theater, and to have dinner, and returned home before ten o’clock. He retired early, unless he was entertaining a guest, which happened occasionally. He died at home, at the age of seventy-two, and was found sitting in his armchair by his physician.
It was Schopenhauer’s solitude that gave him room to explore the human condition with astounding depth and clarity. In my life, there has not been much room for solitude — except when I surf. Out in the ocean, idling alone on a surfboard while waiting for waves to swell up from the surface affords a couple of solitary hours. The quiet of such moments is golden.
Fenton Johnson’s assertion that “solitaries” have an influence on history that is quiet yet powerful recalls Hermann Hesse’s essay “War and Peace,” in which Hesse writes about “the knowledge of the living substance in us … of the secret magic, the secret godliness that each of us bears within him.”
Hesse makes the claim that peace in the world will not come about through “commandments” or “practical experience” — just as Johnson argues that reversing the great noise of unreflective contemporary life “requires no trillion-dollar investment.” By simply sitting and reading — or not reading — we each have the resources we need to affect the world indelibly.
Fenton Johnson’s glorification of suffering mars his otherwise valuable discussion of solitude. His rhetorical question, “How else do we learn the dimensions and power of love except through suffering?” invites other questions. How about through shared joy? Don’t the thrill of passion and the marvelously reassuring dependability of long-term intimacy teach us plenty about the dimensions and power of love? Although Johnson says that “the path to liberation runs through suffering,” I have always experienced suffering as far less liberating than joy.
Johnson writes, “The call to unrestrained consumption … is trotted before us at every hour of every day in every popular medium.” But we are living in a therapeutic age at least as much as in a consumerist one. America’s culture of therapy invites us to treat suffering as an opportunity for personal growth, imposing an extra burden on those who have more than enough to contend with and encouraging their families and friends to be unsympathetic if the sufferers fail to measure up.
Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Professor, Brown University
A review by Terry Castle [New Music, May] misstates the given name of a jazz musician. He is Albert Ayler, not Alfred Ayler. In the same review, Robin Williamson’s place of residence is incorrectly identified. Williamson lives in Cardiff, Wales, not in California. We regret the errors.