William Deresiewicz on solitude
Salvador Dalí, Woman at the Window (Muchacha en la ventana), 1925
“We live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. (…)
Romantic solitude existed in a dialectical relationship with sociability — if less for Rousseau and still less for Thoreau, the most famous solitary of all, then certainly for Wordsworth, Melville, Whitman, and many others. For Emerson, “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society.” The Romantic practice of solitude is neatly captured by Trilling's “sincerity”: the belief that the self is validated by a congruity of public appearance and private essence, one that stabilizes its relationship with both itself and others. Especially, as Emerson suggests, one beloved other. (…)
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.” The university was to be praised, Emerson believed, if only because it provided its charges with “a separate chamber and fire” — the physical space of solitude.
Today, of course, universities do everything they can to keep their students from being alone, lest they perpetrate self-destructive acts, and also, perhaps, unfashionable thoughts. But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. Emerson said “The saint and poet seek privacy.” (…)
— William Deresiewicz, The End of Solitude, The Chronicle Review, January 30, 2009
“Emerson says that you need to not travel all the time in other people’s opinions. If you want to be able to think for yourself, if you want to be able to have original thoughts, which is not only good for you, but good for all of us, that we have people who are thinking creatively, you need to get away from other people’s opinions, other people’s values also, so you can chart your own direction. I think that’s the first value of solitude.
I also think we live such connected lives, such networked lives, that in a way, that’s a little harder to define. We lose a sense of our own integrity or our own selfhood. (…)
Mrs. Dalloway from Virginia Woolf’s novel goes up into her room in the middle of this very busy day of hers and just looks in the mirror and gathers herself together and remember who she is apart from her husband and the friend she’s inviting to her party and the busy London streets that she’s just been walking through, and very happily walking through.
But she needs that time to, as I say, gather herself into herself. I think that’s another thing we lose when we lose solitude. (…)
Soliton is incredibly important to me. I generate most of my ideas by thinking, sitting in my armchair and just thinking about things, thinking about what I’ve been reading, thinking about what I’ve been hearing. The interactive part is very important. I talk to friends about things. People write to me about things I’ve written. I do read things online and not online. But I need a lot of time to be able to process all these and to be able to think about it, and to be able to remember also what it is that’s important and what it is that I want to do. So solitude is very important to me, and I do guard it jealously and that’s why I don’t have even have a cell phone. (…)”
— William Deresiewicz Interview on “The End of Solitude”, Spark, CBC Radio, Feb 19, 2009
☞ William Deresiewicz on Solitude, Leadership and multitasking, The American Scholar, spring 2010
☞ William Deresiewicz on multitasking and the value of solitude
☞ William Deresiewicz on Solitude and Leadership
☞ Leon Neyfakh, The power of lonely. What we do better without other people around, The Boston Globe, March 6, 2011”—