Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Solitude and its Graces

Solitude and its Graces 1

Reading serious philosophy, like that of Kant or Schopenhauer, is both exhilarating and frustrating. I have long been a subscriber to the view that if anything is worthwhile it will require much work and perseverance. Therefore, the struggle and the frustration will be worthwhile – say in working out an intricate maths problem, learning a new language or say even doing serious DIY or learning to play a new game or take up a new sport – because one now has achieved something new and different for oneself.

With philosophy, one of the things I like to do is to let the ideas settle in my mind for a while, play with them, leave and come back to them. That way I find I end up being able to grasp something of the import of the ideas the particular philosopher is expounding. Therefore, while I continue to struggle with Schopenhauer, I need to take a break from writing about his philosophy until I have digested his ideas somewhat more. To write about his ideas now would end up with my style being unclear which would give any reader indigestion.

And so other thoughts come to take the place of Schopenhauer like the volumes of poetry I miss perusing which are all at home in Ireland, the various novels I have lined up to read now that I’m on holidays and just the sheer joy and relaxation of having absolutely nothing to do but simple be. Simply being, of course, can be problematic for some. In other words some of us hate being alone, become bored very quickly because there is no activity to fill our waking moments. Schopenhauer, whom I have decided not to reflect upon here, ironically comes to mind. He gives us, I believe, as I have explained in a previous post, an interesting insight into boredom, and why it is such a universal complaint among us humans. He argues that boredom is a distraction-free state which very soon reveals to us many underlying unpalatable truths about ourselves, and indeed about our very existence – our insignificance, our meaningless existence, our inexorable and inevitable deterioration and eventual death. There is a lot of truth in this contention.


I am here in Italy on my own, quietly surrounded by the verdant hills of Calabria and the azure Ionian sea, calmly lapping barely 500 metres from my front door, with the swallows nesting somewhere in the eves above me, with the promise of cricket song all night long, the blessing of a warm and friendly sun by day and the gentle presence of a full moon bathing its rays in the calm sea by night. Yes, I am alone, but happy, peaceful and content. The great nineteenth century Cardinal and theologian, John Henry Newman was wont to use the Latin adage with respect to solitude – “Nunquam minus solus quam cum solus” which translates “Never less alone than when alone.” For this orthodox religious man, obviously he meant by this felicitous aphorism that he felt closer to his God when he was alone. We moderns, who might be somewhat religion-less or agnostics or atheists or new age spiritualists, can still benefit from this wisdom insofar as we might feel closer to our own spiritual centre, to our own creative hub or to our own soul, or inner being or inner self. You see, the formulations of expression are different, but I believe the essence is the same.

Dr Anthony Storr, the late great British psychiatrist whose books are always an edification and enlightenment to read, has written quite a little classic called Solitude (Harper Collins, 1997) which I read last summer here in Calabria, but did not get around to writing about it in these pages. Fortuitously, it is still on the shelves in the lounge. He has some interesting things to say about solitude which are worth repeating here, reflecting upon and assimilating. This book is worth reading for the epigraphs alone with which he begins each chapter in this little classic, and that task would only take you a matter of a few minutes.

Without doubt the human being is a social animal and yet most of the major creative geniuses of history have been loners. Storr mentions the following, but there are surely hundreds, if not thousands, of others who could be mentioned: Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. Some of these men of genius, he points out, had transient affairs with other men or women: others like Newton remained celibate. (See Solitude, p. ix.)

While human attachments and intimacy are central to human well-being and happiness, Storr argues that they are not the only things which make for human contentment. As he puts it, the modern insistence that “true happiness can only be found in intimate attachments, more especially in sexual fulfilment, does not allow a place for characters like Gibbon.” (Ibid., p xi) Edward Gibbon, the author of the monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, had been notoriously unlucky in love – he had to forsake his one true love, Suzanne Curchod on the order of his father, but went on to live a very happy and fulfilled life as he himself and many of his friends attest. While sexual love may have played little if no part in Gibbon’s life, his many other relationships were rewarding.

Storr argues his case for the importance of solitude, alongside social interaction needless to say, very well. Like everything else in this world, it is indeed a question of balance. For some reason from the time of Freud onwards we Westerners have got the balance wrong. I wholeheartedly agree with Storr that the notion, which has its great big taproot in Freud, that heterosexual fulfilment is the sine qua non of mental health is very much an extremist position. Demonstrably this is not the case. We only have to look at the Gay Pride parades even in Dublin, Ireland, to realise that there are other ways to happiness. And then, even outside sexual activity, there are other ways to happiness and contentment too. As I have said, it is a question of balance and not a question of “this is the way life is, and that’s that.” No, with Hamlet we can agree that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of” in our philosophy.

Interestingly enough Storr quotes a wonderful little insight from Freud which is worth giving due consideration to. Once, when the father of psychoanalysis was asked what constituted psychological health, he answered the ability to love and work. (See ibid., p. 8) Now this is a particularly balanced statement. Like what Shakespeare said about Scripture we can all, including the devil, take statements from any author or expert to prove whatever we like. Once again, it is a question of context and balance and of knowing the author’s work in detail. In that way one does not skew the results, end up giving an extreme viewpoint, misrepresenting the author or whatever. It would seem to me that Freud was particularly balanced in his answer here. We all do need love and intimacy, or what the great John Bowlby, psychiatrist and possibly the greatest expounder and exponent of the “object-relations theory” in psychoanalysis called necessary attachments to significant others, and especially so in early life. This goes without saying. However, once again, the balance comes in when we say to ourselves, “Yes, Bowlby is correct indeed, but attachment is not everything. It is not the whole of the story. This, my friends, is balance.

I remember years ago an old teacher I knew talking about an old proverb which was often quoted in the Gaelic, and it translates thus: “Always fear or suspect the man of the one book.” In other words, be sceptical of those who preach one line on a topic only and get the balance all wrong. That’s the brilliance of philosophy because it teaches its user to think about topics from as many angles as possible and not, to use another proverb which has become quite a cliché, to “put all one’s intellectual eggs into the one basket.”

Storr finishes his first chapter in this delightful little book with a quotation from the great Dr John Bowlby whose wonderful work grew out of research he had done for the WHO on the mental health of homeless children. Bowlby argues well that “intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves,” but Storr adds a wonderful qualification to this obviously true statement by saying that such intimate attachments are “a hub... not necessarily the hub.”

What has always impressed me about Storr is the wonderful perspective of balance we get in his books. And here he brings in the wonderful balance of solitude which I have described above and which I am experiencing here and now.

A fine solitary tree at San Andrea.

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