The view of Coolidge Point near Manchester Massachusetts and home to my friend Laurel, a hermit artist extraordinaire. Being a 21st century Thoreauian is a singular stance.

More on the theme of isolation, solitude, quiet (see the earlier post Where it Works.) Online artists and friends Walt Pascoe, Luke Storms and Holly Friesen directed me to an essay that appeared two years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Learning titled The End of Solitude by William Deresiewicz. Tracing the concept of solitude from Ancient Greece through Romanticism, Modernism and now Postmodernism, Deresiewicz illuminates a rich history of how time alone has been viewed. During certain periods, such as the Romantic age, it was highly valued. At other times, like our current era, not so much.

Deresiewicz captures the essence of our time in a word:

Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

Say it isn’t so, Joe. I value the qualities of sincerity and authenticity, and most art that I respond to has a strong relationship with both of those concepts. But Deresiewicz is naming something that has shifted significantly in the last ten years in so many aspects of our lives.

As an artist, the visibility-first approach to art making and marketing is something many of us find deeply disturbing. I’m not shunning the value of visibility for anyone who is a maker. We need audiences to read our poetry, look at our paintings, listen to our music. And when the Internet can help us find those who are receptive, that’s a plus. But is visibility the grounding for the contemporary self? Is it possible to do your work with sincerity and authenticity and still have a high Klout score? These are questions I’m not sure can be answered just yet.

Deresiewicz’s essay is worth the read in its entirety and full of insights on a number of themes including generational differences, cities, suburbs, friendship, cultural history. But here are just a few other passages that speak most directly to my own solitude-seeking, hermit-hearted self:

* * *
And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.” Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity.

* * *
To hold oneself apart from society…is to begin to think one’s way beyond it. Solitude, Emerson said, “is to genius the stern friend.” “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus — especially, Emerson added, during youth. “God is alone,” Thoreau said, “but the Devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion”.

* * *
No real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. “The saint and poet seek privacy,” Emerson said, “to ends the most public and universal.” We are back to the seer, seeking signposts for the future in splendid isolation.

* * *
The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn’t very polite. Thoreau knew that the “doubleness” that solitude cultivates, the ability to stand back and observe life dispassionately, is apt to make us a little unpleasant to our fellows, to say nothing of the offense implicit in avoiding their company…But Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.

Advertisements