Thursday, September 3, 2009

The End of Solitude/The Dawn of Isolation

Hannah Davis, What we had both forgotten

The End of Solitude

From William Deresiewicz's "The End of Solitude", an essay written for the Chronicle of Higher Eduction.

This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible.

The great contemporary terror is anonymity.

If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude.

Reading, as Robinson puts it, "is an act of great inwardness and subjectivity."

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."

Solitude becomes, more than ever, the arena of heroic self-discovery, a voyage through interior realms made vast and terrifying by Nietzschean and Freudian insights.

But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd.

The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity.

Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection.

Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.

The alternative to boredom is what Whitman called idleness: a passive receptivity to the world.

But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom.

This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude.

If the Romantics had Hume and the modernists had Freud, the current psychological model--and this should come as no surprise--is that of the networked or social mind.

Today's young people seem to feel that they can make themselves fully known to one another. They seem to lack a sense of their own depths, and the value of keeping them hidden.

We are not merely social beings.

To remember this, to hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one's way beyond it.

But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude.

Hannah Davis, What we had both forgotten

The Dawn of Isolation

About three years ago, I embraced social networking on the Internet with a passion. I understand exactly what Deresiewicz means when he calls the Internet "an incalculable blessing". I am the kid who "sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot." I was "lost in space" for my entire childhood and adolescence.

The explosion of social networking came as a blessing to me because I have always been alone. I spent much of my college life alone. Even when I went to parties I felt alone.

Drugs became like good company to me, replacing people. Drugs made me feel popular, even though I did them by myself.

As I slowly let go of this attachment to drugs, realizing that there is no possible way for me to lead a healthy, prosperous life and use drugs; I cling to the Internet as my safety.

Not much has changed since high school and college. I am still alone. I cannot stay in a relationship longer than a year or two. I have no intentions of marrying or raising a family.

And unlike the contemporary zeitgeist that Deresiewicz describes, I love being alone, I love being alone more than most people, more than the generation below me, my sister's generation who "has lost the ability" to be alone.

The Internet was/is my blessing. The weight of that loneliness which haunted me my entire life, the loneliness I staved off with excessive drug use and manic behavior, temporarily lifts when I am hypnotized by my online interactions.

Social media networks remind me that there are other people in this world, and many of them, thousands, millions, all with distinct personalities, interests, desires, and motivations . . .

I'm reminded that you exist. Which is particularly important because I do not have a conventional job, I do not go to work, I do not have a family, and most of my friends I hardly ever see.

I chose this life of isolation. Because I value my freedom above most everything else. To be sure, I miss out . . . I miss out on love, friendship, bonding, intimacy. I miss out on a lot!

And believe it or not, Twitter cushions the blow and it does a pretty damn good job. (Better than Facebook).

But when I look at the reality of my life, the solitude is not solitude; it's isolation.

I hardly see people anymore. I used to visit a friend and have dinner over at her house maybe once or twice a month. I'm not even doing that these days.

I called my father earlier today to tell him some bad news, that my housemates are leaving, the couple who rents a room on my second floor. I felt the need to see my father and be with the family. I felt the pang of my isolation. At least these people living in my house provided me with the illusion of a social atmosphere--although we never even ate one meal together.

I told my father I was coming to Chicago for Labor Day Weekend. I'd have dinner with the family and stay the night in his apartment. But after I woke up from my afternoon nap, I called him back to tell him that I didn't really want to be around "so many people". His girlfriend's mother was in town and she'd be eating with us.

I only wanted to spend the time with my father, and maybe my sister and my aunt. But if there were going to be other people, people I've never met, then I'd just rather stay home.

Read this essay, "The End of Solitude." It makes you think. It's making me think right now. It's making me think about my life.

I joke around about my solitude. I tell people it's not voluntary. I really would like to have an entourage, I say, jokingly. My presence on the Internet as a writer demonstrates that I really do want to be visible. I want to be popular . . .

But I also want to be alone. And here is the rub. Give me celebrity, give me an entourage, social events, parties, loads of friends . . . this is how my younger sister lives, how she has always lived, surrounded by a swarm of admirers and friends. I don't think that's what I want either.

The Internet works for people like me. It gives me control over my social universe. I can partake in conversation and pseudo-friendship, but I always have the choice to run away from it, to be apart.

Friendships on the Internet have a certain quality. While there is nothing that says these sorts of friendships won't last, I've noticed with some "friends", there's an immediate attraction and then a fallout. We're talking five or six times a day and then suddenly I never hear from the person again.

What happened?

Life--if it can be said to exist on the Internet--is temporary. Those rare eternal moments we experience in life don't exist on the Internet. If you thought real life was impermanent (the Buddhist view of things), then Internet life is even more impermanent. The Internet is in constant flux, more changing than the real world. Connections too on the Internet are fluctuating, dancing and disappearing.

What will happen to me now?

I'm spending more time with my books. Yes, I'm reading literature again. I needed to return to my books.

Popularity, visibility, in real life are elusive. On the Internet, they are even more elusive.

"The End of Solitude" has done what every great essay should do. It has made me think deeply about my life at present. And it has made me seriously contemplate my future actions.

Who am I becoming?

What is my mysterious goal and is it still worth chasing after?


swartzfeger said...

Lethe, I see so much of myself in this post it's almost spooky. Thanks for sharing.

jamie nadalin said...

Your honesty, as always, is inspiring.

I completely agree with Deresiewicz's view of my generation, and more seriously those generations coming up after me, and I think it is an incredible shame.

A few years ago a friend of mine said, "we are all alone in our subjective view of reality." the truth and weight of that statement has always stuck with me.

Personally, I love being alone, I crave it and I need it. There have always been extroverts to contrast the introverts, but it seems to me that technology has produced a generation that doesn't understand and subsequently fears or mocks introversion. I deal with being labeled strange and anti-social, but I honestly do prefer to be alone most of the time. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and neither is a desire to connect with others, especially on an intellectual level.

anita lobo said...

This is a topic I often ponder over. Why is loneliness more common and feared now; and the need for solitude; the crying hunger for companionship.

I find people who enjoy solitude also have the most deep friendships.

The social web allows extreme connectedness, and stokes the fear of being forgotten.

A middle way is coming together.

People 'unplug' consciously from the slavery of a 24X7 lifestyle.

Yet for others, the connect symbolises freedom from isolation and escape from a world with limited choices, to one where you can roam unfettered.

This evolution is still under way and hopefully new streams will pour forth between solitude and isolation.

Thought provoking essay Lethe!

Anita Lobo

Lucy Fur Leaps said...

A great big YES to all that! I treasure my solitude. This is interesting
And I agree about Twitter.

Lady San Pedro said...

Thanks for this post!

Can't wait to read the essay. It's been a while since I've stumbled upon anything insightful --both online and off.

Roadsidebetty said...

I am so happy to have found your blog. I love it. I found it thru a post on reddit. So thinking about isolation sort of reminds me of the disappointment that I feel when I meet people and they superficially or on the surface share some promise for a deeper connection and then I realize that they are only willing to contemplate things so far becoming uncomfortable with depth. People eventually always tell me that I am weird and while that may provide some sense of uniqueness that I find flatering I am ashamed to say, it is a poor exchange for my real desire. So in someways I think isolation is the answer to non-acceptance of the reality that some minds who seek something more to keep the mundane reality of being merely human at bay have great difficulty finding it. With internet connections you can only expect so much and the buffet of new possibilities is so large that each promising interaction with so little invested can only disappoint so much. You get what you give. My brother is very similar to what you described in this essay and ironically when he started reading it he said it was too depressing. I don't think it is depressing. I am older perhaps I have just come to terms with it.

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