Storr refers to the fact in chapter two of this little classic, appropriately called Solitude, that little or no attention has been given to the place of solitude in the child’s early development.
On a personal note one of my earliest memories, if not the earliest, is of myself as a young boy around three or four years old quietly and contentedly playing on my own in the lane at the back of our house in Roscrea, County Tipperary. To this day that sense of contentment in solitude remains with me. I recall also when at school learning a wonderful poem by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. It was called A Christmas Childhood. That poem crystallized all that was good about being a young country boy at Christmas time. The poem is replete with the innocent wonder of childhood, with the sheer clarity of imagination and with actual memories transformed through the prism of that very same imagination.
In line with my thoughts in the immediately preceding paragraph, Storr reminds his readers that many creative adults have left accounts of childhood feelings of mystical union with nature, or “peculiar states of awareness, or ‘Imitations of Immortality,’ as Wordsworth calls them. Such accounts are furnished by characters as diverse as Walt Whitman, Arthur Koestler, Edmund Gosse, A.L. Rowse and C.S. Lewis.” (Op. cit., p. 17) Bernard Berenson describes how he “suddenly felt immersed in Itness” while A.L. Rowse recounts how he felt “an early taste of aesthetic sensation, a kind of revelation.” (Ibid., pp. 17-18) The first of these two writers recalls that he was only five or six, while I remember I was no more than four, but like them I agree that the experience was one of timelessness, an experience with a heightened sense of wonder, but only such an experience as one could taste alone. Solitude was at its very heart.
Storr reminds us, and again it bears repeating today because his timely reminder of the importance of solitude to healthy mental development has not received universal acknowledgement. And, believe it or not, his timely reminder dates back to 1988. However the psycho-analyst, Dr Donald Winnicott, as far back as 1958 had written an important psychoanalytic paper which has become a classic. It is called “The Capacity to be Alone” and in it he states that it is high time that a discussion on the positive aspects of the capacity to be alone should take place. Storr goes on to state clearly:
It is generally recognized that clinging behaviour is indicative of insecurity. The child who will not let the mother leave, even for short periods, is the child who has no confidence in her return. Conversely, the child who has developed trust in the availability of attachment figures is the child who can increasingly experience being left by such figures without anxiety. Thus the capacity to be alone is one aspect of an inner security which has been built up over the years...Winnicott suggests that the capacity to be alone in adult life originates with the infant’s experience of being alone in the presence of the mother. (Ibid., p. 19)
Winnicott, Storr relates, goes on to make the interesting point that “It is only when alone (that is to say in the presence of someone) that the infant can discover his personal life.” (Quoted ibid., p. 20).
From the writings of Winnicott, and from his own experiences and convictions, Storr can state that the capacity to be alone becomes linked with “self-discovery; with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings and impulses.” (Ibid., p. 21)
Personal integration, then, occurs during those times of solitude, and interestingly Storr reminds us not to forget that it also continues during sleep. After all, we are all alone when we sleep. How often have we been happy to follow the wise advice about “sleeping on it” when confronted with one problem or another? Also the act of learning requires solitude, time and even sleeping on it to assimilate what is learned.
In summary, the, we may say that some development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfil his highest potential. Storr finishes chapter two thus:
Human beings easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are facilitated by solitude. (Ibid., p. 28)
A fine lone tree at San Andrea.