Monday, January 26, 2009

On Solitude

After a false start last summer, I recently read (and finished) The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie, a look at four American Catholic writers in the middle of the 20th century: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

I enjoyed the whole thing, but Merton's story was the most interesting to me, because he was a worldly person who forced himself into solitude, and I've often wondered to what degree genuine religion is an attempt to feel comfortable alone. This is just preface to a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education by William Deresiewicz, about technology, youth, and the nearly vestigial ability to be by ourselves. He writes:
Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone. As a result, we are losing both sides of the Romantic dialectic. What does friendship mean when you have 532 "friends"? How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven't seen since high school, and wasn't all that friendly with even then) "is making coffee and staring off into space"?
After writing about Romanticism and Modernism, he tackles current trends in psychology:
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. Evolutionary psychology tells us that our brains developed to interpret complex social signals. According to David Brooks, that reliable index of the social-scientific zeitgeist, cognitive scientists tell us that "our decision-making is powerfully influenced by social context"; neuroscientists, that we have "permeable minds" that function in part through a process of "deep imitation"; psychologists, that "we are organized by our attachments"; sociologists, that our behavior is affected by "the power of social networks." The ultimate implication is that there is no mental space that is not social . . .
And he uses Virginia Woolf's work to illustrate the timeless truth that we're always, on some fundamental level, alone:
In the middle of Mrs. Dalloway, between her navigation of the streets and her orchestration of the party, between the urban jostle and the social bustle, Clarissa goes up, "like a nun withdrawing," to her attic room. Like a nun: She returns to a state that she herself thinks of as a kind of virginity. This does not mean she's a prude. Virginity is classically the outward sign of spiritual inviolability, of a self untouched by the world, a soul that has preserved its integrity by refusing to descend into the chaos and self-division of sexual and social relations. It is the mark of the saint and the monk, of Hippolytus and Antigone and Joan of Arc. Solitude is both the social image of that state and the means by which we can approximate it. And the supreme image in Mrs. Dalloway of the dignity of solitude itself is the old woman whom Clarissa catches sight of through her window. "Here was one room," she thinks, "there another." We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood.
(Via The Browser)


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