Monday, August 02, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 4

Solitude and its Graces 4

Returning to Dr Anthony Storr’s interesting little book Solitude I wish to divide this post into two sections (a) the uses of solitude and (b) enforced solitude, two subheadings which correspond respectively to the titles of chapters three and four of the book.

(a) The Uses of Solitude

(i) Grieving: Solitude has been found to be extremely helpful to human beings over the course of their history. One such use it has been put to is in times of grief. It has been well said, and it is a truism, that while the death or loss of someone dear is very traumatic, that only time will help the bereaved soul heal, and often it is silence or some periods of solitude that helps heal that broken and bereaved soul. Storr recounts how in rural Greece bereaved women wear black and grieve for a period of five years, and how during that period they visit the graveside regularly, hold mock conversations with the dead man – a sort of catharsis is at work here. (See op cit., pp. 30-31) It is hard not to disagree with Storr that coming to terms with loss is a difficult, painful, and largely solitary process which may be delayed rather than aided by distractions. The bereaved may (or indeed may not) learn that the meaning of life is not entirely constituted by and in our personal relationships, and that life without intimate relationships can also have a meaning.

(ii) Another interesting point which Storr makes is that solitude also aids us in coming to grips with any sort of change in our lives. This is because habitual attitudes and behaviours often receive reinforcements from external circumstances. Likewise, that is why I feel that my two months living in the South of Italy each summer allows me to sleep on whatever chances there are or must be in my life back at home. Getting away from the normal everyday routine helps me put things into perspective and sort out the real priorities in life. Hence, the use of the word “retreat” in everyday parlance like, “I have a little retreat in the West of Ireland or in San Francisco or in Italy or wherever.” A retreat is, then, a place where I can get my act together, to use a cliché. In Catholic circles a retreat is where one goes to search the soul, meet one’s God in the silence – a spiritual exercise.

(iii) Buddha and Jesus and most of the great religious founders had fairly long intervals of silence in their lives where, they, too, worked things out. Today noise is ubiquitous, almost necessary for modern society to function at all, and we who live in cities are becoming inured to it. Indeed, we are the sad victims of what is called sensory overload. To get beyond the bombardment of all our senses with stimuli of one form or another, silence is a much needed antidote, like an oasis in a desert. TM and meditation practices of all kinds are also important for the overloaded soul to get rid of the weights it is carrying.

(iv) Mysticism: Storr then mentions mysticism, which indeed could have been mentioned with reference to the Buddha and Jesus above or with reference to mystics like John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart but he chooses to discuss it within a more secular context and refers to accounts of solitude left by Admiral Byrd who manned alone an advanced weather base in the Antarctic back in 1934. Byrd wanted to see how good solitude was for his soul. This courageous admiral and William James both experienced what Storr calls “oceanic feelings”, feelings of “oneness” or “unity” with the universe in their experiences of solitude. Another way of putting this would be that they had an experience of encountering the limitless or the unbounded that is, an experience of “the oceanic.” Storr discusses Freud’s view of mysticism as being one of mere regression to an earlier state of that of the infant pining for the mother’s breast as being less than satisfactory. His discussion of that point is interesting and can be read on pages 37-39 of the book. I shall return to Freud and religion in a later post. That topic is beyond the scope of this short post at the present.

(v) Interesting also is the fact that ecstatic states of unity are sometimes, happily rarely, associated with an acceptance of and even a wish for death. The association of such ecstatic states of mind with death is somewhat understandable, Storr maintains. That’s because those rare moments are “of such perfection that it is hard to return to the commonplace...” (Ibid., p.40)

(b) Enforced Solitude

This chapter deals essentially with imprisonment which is mostly where enforced solitude is experienced. Needless to say, it is not a very happy experience and it mostly always breaks its victims down to a shadow of their former selves. This chapter is replete with evidence of such detrimental effects of enforced solitude on prisoners over the years that I shan’t recount too much of the evidence that Dr Storr advances here.

(i) Solitary confinement results in restlessness, insomnia, inability to concentrate and partial failure of memory, a Danish report detailed. Self-mutilation and suicidal attempts were also reported. Also detainees complained of inexplicable fatigue. After prolonged isolation many feared resuming social relationships.

(ii) Solitary confinement is about breaking the prisoner down, stripping him of every vestige of humanity. The cell is small and dark. It usually has only one window which is placed well above eye level so that the prisoner can see nothing of the external world.

(iii) Storr also adduces evidence from written accounts of solitary confinement and techniques used during and before such confinement in the former Communist States. Those suspected of crimes against the State in this scenario are arrested, usually in the middle of the night, and assumed to be guilty, and are never told what crimes they have committed. One can see how real Kafka’s famous Josef K is, that he is not just the figment of an ill author’s mind.

(iv) Storr gives a good account of Brain Washing as used by the former Communist States. There has been much research done into this, and in scientific circles it is called Sensory Deprivation. Above I referred to Sensory Overload in modern society. Well, this is the polar opposite, a hell of deprivation. The effects of sensory deprivation are: falling intellectual functioning, poor or no concentration, inability to follow any train of thought, obsessional and uncontrollable thoughts. Also suggestibility is greatly increased – the prisoner will believe anything. Prisoners also suffer from visual and even auditory and tactile hallucinations. They also often experience panic attacks.

(v) Storr mentions that both blindness and deafness can cause mental suffering and agitation as it did with Beethoven and Goya who both went deaf.

(vi) Interestingly, too, Storr mentions at some length the use of sensory deprivation on political prisoners in Northern Ireland. Many of these captives experienced hallucinations and believed that they were going mad. Psychiatric examination of these men after they were released showed the following on-going symptoms: nightmares, waking tension and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, depression, headaches and peptic ulcers. Eventually Edward Heath put an end to the use of this sensory deprivation technique.

(vii) Some few survivors: There are some very rare cases of people who have survived lengthy periods of captivity and solitary confinement. Storr mentions two, Dr Edith Bone and the famous, or infamous, Birdman of Alcatraz (See ibid., pp.48 and 56). These are extremely rare birds indeed, if you forgive the pathetic pun.

Thomas More as Lord Chancellor Of England
(viii) However, partial enforced solitude has been shown to be good. Alas, all these cases related to people, who had once been in authority and who had held very high official rank within the state. Hence, while they were confined to towers or dungeons or prison cells they were not tortured and were indeed accorded many privileges that the ordinary prisoners did not receive. This list is short, too, though many of the names will be familiar to most readers: (i) The Roman philosopher Boethius who wrote his famous Consolation of Philosophy while in prison in Pavia. However, he was finally tortured and bludgeoned to death in 525 AD. (ii) Sir Thomas More who wrote “A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation” while in the Tower of London, (iii) Sir Walter Raleigh who wrote his book called The History of the World while in the same Tower of London between 1603 and 1616 – He was eventually executed in 1818, (iv) John Bunyan, the famous evangelist and preacher who wrote Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim’s Progress while incarcerated and (v) the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky who spent four years in a Siberian prison camp from where he got much inspiration for his many novels.

(ix) Storr ends by referring to a famous television conversation between Anthony Grey and Arthur Koestler where they both discussed their experiences of having been imprisoned, the former in China and the latter in Spain. This was a very insightful conversation where Koestler said he had on occasion: “a feeling of inner freedom, of being alone and confronted with ultimate realities instead of with your bank statement...” (Quoted ibid.,p. 61) In other words solitude, Koestler is saying can move us from the trivial plane to the tragic or absolute plane. This again, gives me a Schopenhauerian moment, namely that Arthur Schopenhauer would vehemently agree with Koestler’s contention here: that life is inevitably tragic, and that death is the inevitable, inexorable and ultimate end of what we know as life.

(x) However, some good can and does, if rarely, come out of evil. Anthony Grey said that when he was shown a painting by a Chinese friend of a lotus flower growing tenderly out of the mud that his spirit was lifted. It is surely better to end on this little but not insignificant positive note. Unlike Schopenhauer, neither I nor Anthony Storr is a pessimist.

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