For Billie Holiday, solitude was no bargain. “In my solitude,” she tells us in one of her signature songs, she sits in her room, filled with despair, gloom everywhere, eminently sad, certain she’ll soon go mad. Were she alive today, Ms. Holiday would be astonished to learn that solitude is no longer the dark and dreary state described by the lyricists Eddie DeLange and Irving Mills, but one, au contraire, that needs to be cultivated on the way to a rounder, fuller, in many ways more healthy mental life.

The zeitgeist shifts, and all but the earth shifts with it, causing the meanings of words to change, basic concepts to lose their traditional standing. In 2000, Bowling Alone, a book by the political scientist Robert Putnam, held that Americans had lost all sense of community and that “we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and now social structures—whether they be PTA, church, or political parties—have disintegrated.” A review in the Economist declared that “until the publication of this groundbreaking work, no one had so deftly diagnosed the harm that these broken bonds have wreaked on our physical and civic health, nor had anyone exalted their fundamental power in creating a society that is happy, healthy, and safe.”

Family, community, high sociability generally—here was where fulfillment was thought to be found. The vigorously social life was the good life; “was,” but apparently no longer quite is. What happened? With the advent of cellphones, podcasts, social media, and more, everyday living became quicker, more crowded, less under control. Especially among the young, therapy has become more frequent. Not more but fewer friends now seemed the ideal. Solitude has come to seem, to many, not such a bad idea.

Not that that attraction of solitude was an entirely new phenomenon. John Keats has a sonnet with the title “O, Solitude!” Wordsworth, in his Prelude, wrote:

When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired.
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

More than two centuries earlier, Montaigne wrote at essay-length on the subject of solitude. “Now the aim of all solitude, I take it, is the same: to live more at leisure and at one’s ease,” he explained. To achieve this, it is “not enough to have gotten away from the crowd, it is not enough to move; we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are inside us, we must sequester ourselves and repossess ourselves.” He notes that “real solitude may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is enjoyed more handily alone,” and adds that “the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” Montaigne lived this ideal, retiring after an active political life for the better part of each of his days to a tower in which he kept his books and lived his private life, enjoying his own thoughts and writing them out in his essays.

Some visual art suggests solitude. The paintings of Vermeer do for me, as they did for Aldous Huxley, for whom Vermeer was always the profound “painter of still life.” Closer to our own day, the work of Edward Hopper suggests solitude in contemporary urban settings. Among composers, much of the music of Mozart almost always sends one off to the land of solitude, as does much of the music of Maurice Ravel.

Some have suggested that there is an age relation to the attraction of solitude. In his book Solitude: A Return to the Self, the English psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes that “the old often show less interest in interpersonal relations, are more content to be alone, and become more preoccupied with their own, internal concerns…. There is often an increase in objectivity toward others combined with a decrease in identification with them.” Storr suggests that this may be why “relations between grandparents and grandchildren are often easier than between parents and children.” I myself prefer to believe the reason grandparents and grandchildren get on so well is that they have a common enemy, but let that pass.

The first distinction that needs to be made in connection with solitude is the one between it and loneliness. This comes up near the onset of Solitude: The Science and Power of Being Alone, a new study by three authors1 that considers the vast deal of recent research on the subject (so much so that the book sometimes reads as if it were a study of studies). The book attempts to get beyond the quantitative and into the qualitative aspects of solitude, chiefly by quoting from many of the subjects of its research. There is, for example, 68-year-old Brian from England, who speaks soothingly of “peace, quiet, on your own, like you’re fishing, nobody else around, lovely river, lovely location, fishing away. Peace, quiet, babble of brook maybe. Just being with nature, lovely, being on your own.”

The authors of Solitude recognize how painful loneliness can be, but argue that solitude, far from causing pain, “is not a shift away from others but an intentional move toward our best possible selves.” They believe that “time well spent in solitude is critical to embracing an insightful, meaningful, and peaceful life.” Solitude, for them, “is not the absence of anything, not really, but rather the presence of everything.” They define the word as “a state in which the self is placed in the center of one’s attention and, if not physically alone, then mentally distanced from others.”

Solitude breaks down the phenomenon into four types: complete, private, companionate, and public. Complete and private are obvious enough, but “companionate” entails sharing solitude. The authors of Solitude quote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke assigning his wife as “guardian of his solitude.” Rilke wrote: “I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.” My own marriage is a variant of Rilke’s. My dear wife allows me all the time I require to read and write, and for my mind to wander off to the land of solitude. Public solitude features enjoying solitude even when out in the world: dining alone, walking in a crowd, at a classical music concert, or even a sporting event.

No accounting, apparently, for the appetite or the aptitude for solitude. Introverts do not seem to have any greater propensity for it than extroverts. Genes appear to have little or nothing to do with it. As Storr concludes, “the events of early childhood, inherited gifts and capacities, temperamental differences, and a host of other factors may influence whether individuals turn predominantly toward others or toward solitude to find the meaning of their lives.” Recall here those two famous solitaries in American literature, Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson.

Some people more than others have a taste, a knack, a need for solitude. I had to wait until I was in my early twenties to discover that I am among them. I discovered it while in the Army. For the last year of my two as a draftee, I was a clerk-typist in a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock had no nearby Army post, so those of us who worked in the recruiting station were allowed to find our own apartments, a great luxury after sleeping in the same room with more than 200 fellow troopers in the barracks at Fort Hood, Texas. Mine was a studio apartment 15 or so blocks away from the recruiting office. Apart from a refrigerator and stove, the apartment had no appliances: no phone, no television set, no radio, no record player. In the way of furniture, it had a small dining table, a few chairs, and a bed that rolled out of a closet. I, who had never lived alone before, found great happiness returning to this apartment each evening after work, or waking on Saturday mornings with the prospect of a long weekend alone before me.

Not that I disliked the company of my fellow soldiers at the recruiting office. We all lunched together and shared a common culture of complaint and laughter. But I did not long for their company, nor they apparently for mine. At the close of a day of typing up physical examinations, I was pleased to be alone, to eat a dinner of Campbell’s soup and a sandwich, with ice cream out of the carton for dessert, reading a book taken out of the Little Rock Library, on some nights attempting to write a short story, and, above all, thinking about my own life—in short, to enjoy the newfound luxury of solitude.

My thoughts roamed upon the subjects of my past, and on my future prospects once out of the Army. Should I continue to live in Chicago, or be off to New York, where, in those days, people who felt themselves talented felt they had to live (“If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere”)? What about marriage? I knew I wanted to write, but what kind of writing was best for me? Solitude allowed me time to range over all this and more.

While living alone, I published my first article, or “piece,” as it’s known in the business, about race relations in Little Rock, which two years before had undergone the federally enforced integration of its Central High School. This allowed me to think of myself as a writer, which also changed my relation to solitude.

Once committed to the writing life, my solitude was less free-ranging. Now much of it was devoted to thinking about stories or essays I was working on. How to end a story, where to place the emphasis in an essay, discovering the true point of a literary criticism: Such matters now occupied much of such time as I had previously given over to attempting to find my true self in the random thinking characteristic of solitude. Often I would find answers to questions about my writing on the edge of falling asleep or just upon waking from sleep. Was this true solitude? I’m not sure.

_____________

Solitude is mental luxury, while enforced solitude can be a torture. Think here about solitary confinement in prisons, which has been known to end in nervous breakdowns. Nazi and Soviet interrogators used enforced solitude to break down enemies. On the other hand, Trappist and other monks opt for voluntary enforced solitude. Prayer, one would think, is best rendered in solitude, yet Jews require a minyan, or community of 10, for their prayers.

The authors of Solitude provide a brief profile of Admiral Richard Byrd, who went off alone to Antarctica, where he lived in a snow-covered hut and, as he noted, could “reason undisturbed and take inventory.” In the silence of his days, he discovered a harmony that “came out of the silence—a gentle rhythm, the strain of a perfect chord, the music of the spheres perhaps. It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe.”

Aging can in itself be an agent of solitude. When young, I made it my business to know the top 10 songs. Now I know no top songs or even the names of popular singers beyond those of Beyoncé, Adele, and Taylor Swift. I once saw every new movie and knew the names not only of the stars but of most character actors. Now, in the checkout line at the supermarket, I read a headline in our version of the gutter press, “Jen Leaves Justin,” and after wondering briefly if Jen is Jennifer Aniston and Justin is Justin Timberlake, remind myself that in any case I could not care less.

Death and illness meanwhile continue clearing my social calendar. I used to meet at the deli called The Bagel in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago every few weeks with six or seven friends from high-school days. Within the past five or so months, three have died, one has been rendered homebound by severe sciatica, one cannot leave the side of his dementia-ridden wife, and another has sunk into a peculiar form of dementia of his own that allows him to speak of nothing past the year 1955. Sometimes, unable to sleep, I count neither sheep nor my blessings, but the number of friends and acquaintances among my contemporaries who are now dead. The number is now up to 38.

If one has had the good fortune to attain old age, as I at 87 have, more and more of one’s thoughts in solitude are about death. Montaigne would have approved. He held that to deprive death of its strangeness and terror, “let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death…. We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.” Montaigne adds, “If I were a scribbler I would produce a compendium and commentaries of the various ways men have died.” Montaigne wished to die working on the cabbages in his garden. Instead, alas, he died, painfully, of quinsy, unable to speak owing to paralysis of the tongue, in 1592, at the age of 59.

In his Meditations, honoring solitude, Marcus Aurelius, invokes us to “retire into thyself.” Throughout the Meditations, Marcus reminds us how small is our role, even among emperors, in the drama of eternity. “Do not despise death,” he writes, “but be well content with it, since this too is one of those things which nature wills. For such as it is to be young and to grow old, and to increase and to reach maturity, and to have teeth and beard and gray hairs, and to beget, and to be pregnant, and to bring forth, and all the other natural operations which the seasons of thy life bring, such also is dissolution.” Fame, wealth, power, in the end, Marcus Aurelius insists, none of it matters: “Pass then through this little space of time comfortably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree it grew on.” Marcus Aurelius, like Montaigne, died at 59, in his case in 180 c.e., presumably from the plague.

Seneca, too, implored us not to overrate the significance of death. “He will live badly,” he wrote, “who does not know how to die well.” He also noted that “he who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man.” Seneca was in fact ordered to commit suicide by Nero, his former pupil, who thought him aligned with his, Nero’s, enemies. His death by self-stabbing was a sloppy one—he couldn’t seem to get the job done—and was later captured in painting by Jean-Louis David and Peter Paul Rubens. Perhaps it is best not to give advice on how to die.

My own exercises in solitude have allowed me neither to feel in harmony with the universe nor to overcome my fear of death, that old dark horse coming up fast on the outside. I recall reading that Hannah Arendt, while in her apartment in New York, gave an hour every afternoon to pure thinking. Was she, do you suppose, seeking solitude? I can do so in nowhere near so organized a fashion, taking my solitude alone in my car, where I no longer play music; in the shower; in bed before sleep; even in the hour or so broken up into three-minute units for commercials between innings and during pitching changes in baseball games (thank you, mute button); and anywhere else I can find it.

In the search for solitude, I have also cut down on my indulgences in digital culture, since nothing is more efficient in swamping a person’s free time. I listen to few podcasts, read only two blogs, send out no Facebook notices, have cut off all links to LinkedIn. I continue to be a relentless checker of my email, hoping it will bring me praises, prizes, and other pleasing news. I get occasional lunch invitations from readers living nearby or planning a visit to Chicago but politely turn them all down—my justification, I tell myself, being that my time is better spent alone in solitude.

What do I achieve in my solitude? The authors of Solitude, whose subtitle again is The Science and Power of Being Alone, base their positive view on the subjects of their own study—that being good at solitude entails “optimism (having a positive outlook on life), a growth mind-set (seeing solitude as an opportunity to reflect and grow), self-compassion (being kind to oneself), curiosity (exhibiting an openness to learning and experiencing wonder and awe), and being present in the moment. Apart from self-compassion and curiosity, I fail to qualify on any of these grounds.

My own thinking during solitude is unconnected, less than comprehensive, and far from profound. I wonder if, as a writer, I am capable of genuine thought only with a pen in hand or a computer keyboard under my fingers. One of the divisions among writers is that between those who write well but don’t need to write, Thomas Jefferson, Bernard Berenson, Winston Churchill, George Kennan among them; and those who feel themselves less than fully alive when not writing, I a minor figure among these. For me and others who fall into this latter category, André Gide’s “How do I know what I think till I see what I say” applies.

Writing and thinking, for us, in other words, are coterminous. Solitude, in still other words, for all its advertised virtues, may for us be an endeavor of limited value. Nothing for it, then, but to pull up a chair alongside Billie Holiday’s, and bemoan my own quite different relation to solitude.


1 Netta Weinstein, Heather Hansen, and Thuy-vy T. Nguyen.

Photo: Todd Quackenbush

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