On Solitude and Society

I’m a big fan of Stefanie’s weekly posts on Emerson, and this time around she was discussing his Society and Solitude. As ever, this started me thinking, and never more so than when I read the following:

The sin of solitude, if I can use sin in its secular sense because Emerson did not believe in religious sin, the sin of solitude is pride. The sin of society is vulgarity. Too much solitude and we lose our sympathy for others; too much society and end up becoming “the victims of words.” So we should aim for the diagonal between the two.

I like what Emerson has to say (via Stefanie) about the difference between solitude and society, and yet it struck me as a very socially-aware argument. What I’m trying to say is that being proud or vulgar is all about how we think we look from the outside, whereas what interests me about our desires for society or solitude is how we feel on the inside. As a deeply anti-social person who likes, and feels great empathy with, people, I thought I might be too perverse in my own tastes to discuss this with any clarity, and so I’m calling on the intellectual might of the wondrous Adam Phillips to help me out here. What follows is my reading of his psychoanalytic wisdom and insight.

Let’s look at being in society first. I’m kind of with Freud here, in the understanding of human beings as requiring stimulation all the time, whilst desperately fending it off. The world is intrusive, and perpetually throwing us into internal disarray with its constant demands, threats, promises and temptations. Stimulation makes us intellectually eager, quick to respond and alive to our sensations, but all these qualities can easily topple over into their negative opposites; suddenly we can become paranoid, confused, needy or hypersensitive. For some people the consequence of this is a need for self composure. Now I don’t think for a moment everyone feels the same way – there’s always a sliding scale and my personal thesis here is that the more you need to feel composed in society, the more difficult it is to relax and feel comfortable within it. To be composed is to create a little work of art of yourself, to produce a coherent fiction that will stand in the place of the chaotic being you really are, and mask those anxieties and flaws that you’d rather other people didn’t see. The need for composure is a comment upon the internal insufficiency that everybody feels (no one gets away without some sense of having been dealt a rubbish hand), but which not everyone feels the need to hide.

For Freud this composure was a vigilant form of self-control, but other analysts have seen it less aggressively. For the lovely Winnicott, composure was a form of careful self-containment that pops up in moments of disaster, rather like an inflatable life raft, and which will carry us bobbing about for a bit until we find land again. But most analysts agree that at the heart of it lies a complex game of taming internal need so that it shouldn’t make us any more vulnerable than we already feel. ‘The mind creates a distance in the self – often in the form of an irony – from it’s own desire, from the affective core of the self, and manages, by the same token, a distance from everybody else’ Phillips writes. So being in society can be difficult when it takes us away from our vulnerability and uneasiness because, like it or not, they make up a very significant part of our selves. Much as we may wish to deny them, we do so at the risk of distancing ourselves from our true feelings, from our basic needs.

Now the joy of solitude is that we don’t need to keep up all that tremendously hard work of maintaining the façade of composure. When no one is watching, it’s fine to let it all hang out. Or at least, we are now back to our sliding scales, only this time one end represents a perfect freedom in being alone, whilst the other represents the terror of the shadowy beasts that might leap out and get us when there is no chattering, distracting, mind-expanding society to hold the door shut. Being alone represents a different kind of risk, this time the absence of the other person to tend to and consider our needs. Being alone challenges our stamina for self-reliance, which can be understood as a way of taking care of ourselves without feeling that the self is something which particularly needs to be taken care of. Can we be unconcerned enough about our needs to be solitary? Can we be courageous enough to run the risk that we might suddenly experience a need that requires the presence of another person to assuage it? Adam Phillips argues that to be alone successfully, the individual needs to have taken plenty of risks in a way that reassures us of our capacity to survive. In some ways we can understand this as a form of internal composure to ourselves, but a much better, healthier kind than the pretending sort we might present to the world.

A talent for solitariness can have surprising benefits. Winnicott had a particularly high regard for the creative artist, and part of this came from his belief that they were the people most intent on being alone, and most ruthlessly able to insulate their solitariness from the demands and intrusions of others. I should also say that he considered this to be a very good thing. To illustrate this point, Phillips quotes a letter from Rilke, in which the poet writes: ‘Except for two short interruptions, I have not pronounced a single word for weeks; at last my solitude has closed in and I am in my work like a pit in its fruit.’ And in doing so, Phillips suggests that ‘He relinquishes an environment of external objects and becomes the seed of himself.’ This is solitude as fertile ground, as a growing environment, where new ideas might cluster and blossom around the self, new vitality suddenly spring from what seemed barren and bare. William Gass, writing on Rilke, proposes that ‘The Duino Elegies were not written; they were awaited. They were intended to be oracular and inspired. Their Being was to be beyond the poem.’ In solitude and silence, Rilke patiently waited for creativity to come to him, offered it fertile ground and cosseted its growth. That’s a fine example of the creativity solitude can offer, if we have sufficient belief in our ability to both risk and sustain the waiting. But I think there is also a creativity to be had in the social, in which two people (or more) bounce ideas off each other, encourage their growth in collaboration, urge each other on to ever greater inspirational heights. That’s a fine form of creativity, if we can risk the openness involved, the vulnerability to the other’s gaze.

So, all in all, my own thoughts about solitude and society concentrate on which parts of our selves we feel most able to risk. Whether we can risk being seen, in a bright honest blaze of light, or whether we can risk exposing ourselves to the shadowy shapes that haunt the darker edges of the mind. I like Emerson’s faith in the diagonal line that connects solitude to society, but I wonder whether, on paper, it might not look more like something that Escher had drawn.


12 thoughts on “On Solitude and Society

  1. I don’t particularly care for solitude, but I am definitely anti-social. I think I have too high expectations of others. Anyway, what I really wanted to comment on was how in-tune with creativity, life, and himself was Rilke.

  2. Yes, I think you’re right. I don’t know much about Rilke’s life (beyond his relationship with Lou Andreas Salome) but I think he was a natural artist, given over to his craft and wholly immersed within it.

  3. A lot of this sounds like me. The big social gathering – like more than half a dozen people puts me off. Perhaps it is just too vague, so many people, so little seen, yoked together from disparate places by a connection which is different for each of us. Little time to speak long to anyone, mainly chit-chat. I prefer a very small group (2 or 3)and a good chat that can slip beneath the surface. Of course functions serve other purposes of society, support for something, social cohesion, a kind of regulation. If you don’t go you risk the dialogues of the exterior. There is a long history of this and often gender related -the solitary woman who becomes the village witch, the old maid. Really these people were challenging the social pressure for inclusivity and had to be punished. The visionary was acceptable within the religious traditon, but not outside it. I’m thinking of Blake. How terrible these pressures and attending the social events must have been in the past. You can understand Emma Woodhouse’s outburst at Miss Bates in ‘Emma’. I’ve always had a fondness for Larkin’s line, ‘Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:/However the sky grows dark with invitation cards’in his short poem ‘Wants’. Down the same pathway is ‘Remembering Lunch’ by Douglas Dunn on his experiences of a London literary lunch or something similar, ‘And so I look forward to my tweed-clad solitude, alone/Beside a widening estuary’. Well now I see what a miserable old beggar I am!

  4. this is so interesting.I spend a lot of time on my own now my nest is empty but I find it a means of renewal and consolidation of my reading.In fact although i try to be in society every day so as not to become utterly self absorbed, after too much company I yearn for and need solitude.

  5. Diagonal line as Escher drawing, I like that. Emerson spent quite a lot of time in solitude, but he was also charged by social interactions, talking to anyone and everyone, believing all had something to teach him. His vulnerabiltiy is amazing. But it is also, I think misleading, because his social interactions were generally on his terms, and he was very picky about his social engagements and his friends–a different kind of control or composure. But he isn’t a hypocrite because he encourages everyone to take a similar kind of control of their lives. That takes courage as well as self-knowledge, something it appears Rilke had in abundance but I find difficult to muster on the best of days.

  6. So much of what passes for social life seems to me a matter of repeating more-or-less the same conversations with different people (or worse, repeating the same conversations with the SAME people) that I often wonder why I keep doing this (and in fact do it MUCH less than I used to). Then there are the hours spent with people while in a professional role (teaching, performing). This time does not always seem “real” to me since it is so much a matter of going through the motions. But however unreal it sometimes seems, I find it even more exhausting than social chit-chat events since I feel that I am constantly being evaluated. I usually imagine that I need much more time alone than I actually get, but when I am actually alone for long periods I find myself getting restless and longing for human contact again. I am fascinated by the sort of people who spent extended periods in solitude and used it productively: explorers, hermits, monks and others. I think I would lose my will to go on in such circumstances of extreme solitude.

  7. Bookboxed – what wonderful lines of poetry you quote! And the idea of the solitary individual as challenging social norms is a very intriguing one. I’m also entirely in agreement – 2 or 3 people and no chit chat. Daphne – hello and welcome! I’ve always found reading the most effective way I know to relax and recharge my batteries, and I need my fix every day too. Stefanie – wasn’t Emerson just one of those amazing engaged kind of people? He was so deep into what he believed and thought that he lived it without needing to consciously manage himself. I’d like that sense of unity in myself. Del – isn’t it difficult to gauge the ‘right’ amount of social interaction? I don’t think I ever get it right myself. I love my students, but they wear me out. I can bear quite a lot of solitude, however, and would like to test myself on a period of time in complete seclusion. With a son, that’s just not going to happen right now.

  8. Holy smokes, do I ever need to read Adam Phillips. Your discussion of composure really struck a chord with me — that’s me entirely, a perfectly composed person in society who’s feeling all anxious inside. For me, being “seen” in a social setting is much riskier than being in solitude. What you say in your last comment about teaching rings true too — I love my students but also love to retreat into my office. College teaching is a decent compromise for me — some intensely social times in the classroom that are over fairly quickly, and then a lot more solitude than I might have if I were, say, an elementary school teacher. But still, sometimes even the short hour with my students is too much …

  9. I’m afraid I would be a failure in Emerson’s eyes. I much more prefer solitude to being social. As a matter of fact I tend to being sort of anti-social. My 8 year old niece goes to more parties than me. That said I find that when I am with people that I can start talking so much that I practically embarrass myself–I’m so happy to be able to talk to people. Maybe I need to work on that intersecting line more…I feel rather Escher-like myself!

  10. May Sarton is very interesting on the subject of solitude. As someone who needed to travel in order to lecture and earn enough to continue as a writer she rarely seemed to have the amount of solitude that she craved as a source of nourishment for her that same writing. Although there are many things about her that infuriate me, reading her thoughts on this was liberting for me. She made the solitude that I can’t live without respectable.

  11. You might be interested in reading my “Exclusive Interview with Sigmund Freud” & the follow-up piece, “My Dinner with Dr. Freud” found on my blogsite – “Necessary Therapy”.

  12. Dorothy – you would love Adam Philips’s work. He is brilliant. I’d start with something like Terrors and Experts or On Flirtation, or, actually perhaps the best starting point, Promises, Promises. He is just a fantastic essayist. Danielle – I would so love to see you in a social situation! And I did laugh about your niece. My son is certainly more social than I am! Ann – now you’ve made me realise I need to read May Sarton, and very soon. I’d like my solitude to be respectable! Pistolpete – thank you for drawing my attention to your posts – I’ll certainly come and visit.

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