Solitude by Anthony Storr

I was interested in Solitude because of the repeated insistence by many that we live in a social age. Everything is social now, what you eat, what you wear, and where you go. If you wanted, your movements could be the starting point for social interactions with hundreds of people. I find that possibility frightening and depressing, but I do not think it’s obvious why that should be so. Rather it is a problem for us to understand, as in all ages, the ways that technology is changing us, making us better, and in some cases, making us worse.

So I picked up Solitude on the thought that it would argue for the value of being alone. The book kind of does that, but in a way, it’s better characterized as a psychoanalysis of major poets, literary figures, and philosophers. A lot of the book is taken up with attachment theory and making, what I think, are wild generalizations and suppositions about the most intimate and driving forces about various historical people. This is psychology and not philosophy. Much more concerned with the “why?” then “to what value?”

The best parts of this book are the parts of the book that sympathize most with what I believe about human nature, which is that we need to be alone sometime, and that being alone is an important and valuable activity. A good example is Thoreau spending time at Walden pond, a fact that gets, sadly, almost no mention in this book.

One highlight comes from the quotes that Storr uses — everything is obviously well researched (though he tends to be obsessively devotional toward psychoanalytical pioneers and there petty debates about the intricacies of their theories). Here’s a quote from Montaigne that gets included that I like. Montaigne writes, of solitude, “We must reserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.”

Other points of interest are the vivid description of people being alone with themselves and enjoying it, but also the psychoanalytical case for being alone, which is that it helps us generate our creativity and stories of patients who, in a clinical setting, were cured by the SILENCE of the psychoanalyst. Storr thinks that this shows that sometimes the psychoanalyst must recreate alone-ness to bring about psychological health.

My own theory is less about psychoanalysis and I think, more about rationality. The first thing to note is that people, when social, are interacting, hugely, by automatic processing. This is good. We can respond rapidly to conversation, recognize faces, cycle through a complex series of emotions, and express our feelings, all through the magic of the neurons dedicated to processing smiles, eye movements, and speech. However, when are on “autopilot” we are not thinking. We are engaged in habits, a whole network of automatic cues and signs. To break out of it, we must free ourselves from social conventions, expectations, and demands. This is how we are able to activate our creativity, our labor-intensive ability to mull something over and ask “but why?”

This goes along with the point that our alone time is inherently self-conscious. Through most social situations, we are lost in the conversation and so do not attend to our own psyche. We do not know ourselves. If we don’t refresh our knowledge of ourself. If someone were constantly engaged in a conversation, would the person have any self-consciousness of all? I’m not sure. I’m tempted to think this person would be no different than an animal.

Here are some other areas that Storr uses to argue that being alone is essential to the human condition.

1. bereavement. We must be alone to re-understand the world without the loved person

2. dreams. Dreaming is something we must be alone for and which we work out, for ourselves, the interplay of psychic forces in our life.

3. creativity/philosophy/science/mathematics. You need to be alone to do these things at a high level.

Here are some people he uses as examples

1. ****Admiral Byrd. Voluntarily manned a weather base in Antarctica in 1934. He insisted that he do the task alone. “Nothing whatever, except one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full, to be by himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.” (Byrd) pg. 35. He goes on to say more at pg. 36

2. “Removing oneself voluntarily from one’s habitual environment promotes self-understanding and contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in the hurly-burly of day-to-day life.” pg. 34 (Storr himself)

3. Beethoven. Storr discusses how is deafness may have enhanced his creativity by isolating him from the world around him. pg. 52

4. Goya. About him, Prof. Andre Malraux wrote “To all his genius to become apparent to himself it was necessary that he should dare to give up aiming to please. Cut off from everyone by deafness he discovered the vulnerability of the spectator, he realized that the painter has only to struggle with himself and he will become, sooner or later, the conqueror of all.”

5. Boethius (pg. 57)

6. Sir Walter Raleigh (57)

7. Dostoevsky (from his time in a prison camp in Siberia)

8. Edward Lear (pg. 112). Was the 20th child of his parents but when debt destroyed the family he had to live with his elder sister Anna and ended up living a life of unconsummated homosexuality. Here Storr gives one of his wild and seemingly unsupported statements, “Perpetual travel, or frequent moves of house, are often engaged by the maternally deprived or by those who, for other reasons, find it difficult to create a place which they can consider `home.’

9. Rudyard Kipling. Lived away from his parents with two abusive caretakers. He was relentlessly bullied and cruelly punished. He wrote “the stoic lessons that the mind must make its own happiness; that any troubles can be endured if the sufferer has resources of his own to sustain him.

10. P.G. Wodehouse. Had a very lonely childhood, but he was not desperately unhappy and mentioned that he actually enjoyed it, comparing it favorably to Kipling. “When his wife was looking for an apartment in New York he asked her to find one on the ground floor. “Why?” she asked, and he replied: “I never know what to say to the lift-boy.””

11. Simenon (120). Said, “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.” Storr writes, “Simenon reveals that, as a young boy, he became acutely aware that complete communication between two people was impossible. he says that this gave him such a sense of solitude, of loneliness, that he would almost scream.”

12. Newton.

Other highlights. Chapter 6 is a great potted history of the concept of “individualism” as it evolved in history.


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