by Brooks Riley
Try to see it this way: You’re up in the attic of your own body, there where the thoughts are stored. The vaulted ceiling of your cranium slopes gently down to the two windows through which you view the world and let the sun shine in. Left and right, two speakers pump in sounds from somewhere else. And down below those two front windows, is the front door where you let the cat out, through that orifice which allows a few of those thoughts to wander out into the ether as articulation. There are no bars on your windows, and no locks on the door, but make no mistake, you are in solitary confinement. You’ll never get out of there. And no one will join you up there in that attic, ever.
Solitude is not for the faint of heart. That said, we all experience solitude nearly all the time. Whether we enjoy it or not is another question. Even if we’re never alone for a minute, even if we talk our heads off, or spend hours interacting with others, we are trapped inside our heads. We’re alone up there, in solitary, imprisoned by the cranium and our singular perspective. (Social interaction kindly provides the illusion that we are not alone.)
Take a look around and it’s surprising how much space there is to store things. Somewhere near the back are shelves piled high with memories, experiences, thoughts, knowledge, dreams and music. Behind these shelves is the operating system. We don’t go there. It just hums along of its own accord, allowing us to function in blissful ignorance of its machinations.
Many phrenological illustrations portray the brain as a tightly packed oval of small cubicles, each with its own function—a corporate flagship, or musty old factory, with every cogwheel doing its part to keep the enterprise afloat. It’s very crowded in those pictures, claustrophobic.
Not my view at all. There’s infinite space up there, plenty of room to have an alchemist’s laboratory where thoughts are put together from different elements in the cellular database. I don’t know how you see your brain, but I see mine as a spacious atrium with good natural light from above (no eureka lightbulbs). In the center, there’s a long old refectory table where I work and play. At one end there’s music, at the other, painting. In the middle, where the light shines brightest, is where I craft my ideas and observations from the contents of the infinite number of drawers and cupboards that line the room. This is the point of departure for travels far and wide across the geography of the imagination.
Prisoners in solitary confinement suffer from double solitary. They’re alone inside their heads, as we all are, and then they’re locked inside a windowless room, which most of us are not. Many of them are unaware of the possibilities of escape inside their minds. Their suffering emerges from social and sensory deprivation, from a lack of external input. Solitude in a vacuum is deplorable, but our brains can help us cope with even the most extreme form of isolation. Up there in that attic, it’s a Burning Man festival of one, if only we realize it and learn to exploit it. Imposed solitude can be dangerous and debilitating, especially for those who don’t know what to do with it. And because of that it’s also inhumane. Voluntary solitude is something else.
Solitude gets a bad rap these days when we’re cajoled into constant communication with others. One can’t even play solitaire solitaire anymore. Microsoft strong-arms us to join all those others playing out there. And the Stasi of Silicon Valley, from Facebook on down, have chicer ways than their East German predecessors to know all about you. They don’t have to hire snitches, you snitch on yourself, telling the world what you’re up to and what you’re thinking, when maybe you’d naturally only tell those near and dear. Try to google ‘offline to-do list app’, and you’ll find that there isn’t one: Everything has to be cloud-bound, even your intentions. The millennium definition of solitude is not having a Facebook account.
It’s no wonder, then, that Generation Facebook views Henry David Thoreau with suspicion and resentment, as a recent article in The New Yorker bears out. Trolling his works and pouncing on contradictions, the writer Kathryn Schulz outs the old author of Walden as more or less a fraud and a scumbag (the article was called Pond Scum). A heartless one, too. At the scene of a shipwreck he fails to be moved by so many dead bodies in open coffins, suggesting that one body alone on the beach might have been a more powerful image. In the wake of the recent worldwide response to one dead Syrian boy on a beach, I daresay Thoreau was right. Coincidentally, Donovan Hohn made the same observation in his fine rebuttal of Schulz in The New Republic.*
As a writer of the ‘like’-button school of opinion, Schulz finds in Thoreau ‘a man whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.‘ One is tempted to retort ‘He’s just not that into you,’ but that would be dead wrong, as knowledgeable Thoreauvians have since pointed out, in reactions to the article. Thoreau loved his friends and they loved him.
Schulz goes on: ‘Perhaps the strangest, saddest thing about “Walden” is that it is a book about how to live that says next to nothing about how to live with other people.‘ Well, the book isn’t about living with other people, is it? It’s about living with and by yourself–among other things—and about solitude, a state which Schulz seems to confuse with surviving in the wild, while she measures its authenticity in the distance from Concord, misunderstanding solitude altogether.
Even if he went home to his mother for cookies and clean laundry, Thoreau was nevertheless experimenting in radical solitude. He wanted to escape the constant chatter around him. He wanted to hear himself think. But Schulz finds exactly that suspect, like the clique in a schoolyard attacking the one child who stands apart. When she speaks of ‘the rest of us’, she’s exhibiting a classic mistrust of anyone who dares to be different, who forges his own path. If there’s something sad here, it’s her rejection of the diversity of human ambition.
Thoreau had his woods and his pond, I had the mountains and a river where I too hoped to hear myself think. The similarities stop there.
It wasn’t meant to be an experiment. No physical challenges, no pitting of wits against Mom Nature, no damp misery under tarpaulins in a thunderstorm, no idyllic exchanges with the birds or the bears, no metaphoric epiphanies hauled from the deep still waters of a pond–no Walden wisdom. I just wanted to be alone, as alone as one can be without decamping to the woods (or the outskirts of Concord) and living on berries.
I was twenty-three going on eighteen, behind the times. I hadn’t been alone for months, which is a problem for someone who grew up alone, for whom solitude is the most natural of states. In the small farming town in the Alps where I rented a room with a view of the mountains and the Rhine, I planned to spend the next three months by myself.
I wasn’t lonely. I didn’t miss anyone or any place. I got along just fine without social interaction. It was so easy, so right, that I lulled myself into thinking, ‘this is life’, although deep down I knew that this was just a prelude to life, a lull before the storm.
To be truthful, I was forced to exchange a few words each day with someone else: the waiter in the restaurant where I ate my main meal (I ordered my entrée), the landlady who brought me breakfast (I thanked her), the news dealer where I bought the International Herald Tribune (I paid for my purchase) and the bus driver (I returned his greeting of Grüezi!). But I don’t count these soundbites as conversation, especially when I didn’t yet speak the language.
Every day around midday, I’d bundle up and walk down the mountain to the Rhine basin, take the bus to the nearby small city, buy a newspaper and go to the same cheap restaurant for lunch. Walking back up the mountain on my way home was a struggle. By the end of my stay, I could run the whole way up with ease, in spite of smoking. I still have leftover power thighs from those daily climbs.
As the snows melted, I began to wander the foothills, jotting down thoughts, writing a few bad poems, indulging in imaginary conversations with dead emperors, concocting thrilling visions of a life at sea, and daydreaming my future. I was nearly tech free: No cell phone, no Walkman, no Ipod, no laptop—none of these things existed at the time. I rented a typewriter and had a small transistor radio which allowed me to hear the Grand Ole Opry (with German voice-over), the occasional symphony, or that year’s French pop hit ‘La Blanche Caravelle’, sung by Hugues Aufray, a song that haunts me to this day, even if I misread the lyrics. (Months later, when I bought the 45 in Paris, I discovered to my astonishment that the B side was the French version of a song my half-sister wrote for the Kingston Trio.).
Even as I spent the time reading, writing and ruminating–or just appreciating the metaphorical multiplicity of those snowy mountains–there were subtle signs that interaction with others might possibly be a biological necessity after all. Halfway through my stay, I slept for 24 hours straight. For no reason. I wasn’t ill, I wasn’t sad. My brain put me to sleep as if to say, ‘I have to shut down,’ like an artificial coma induced to save a life. Was I in danger of going mad? I don’t think so. But all that solitude clearly required an adjustment at the subconscious level.
Then there were the conversations with a spider in the bathroom, an unwelcome guest with whom I made a pact: He could stay alive if he remained on the wall. If not, he’d have to go. Each time I entered the bathroom, I greeted him and praised him for keeping his side of the bargain. Was I looking for companionship in spite of wanting to get away from it all? One day, I found him crawling across the floor. That’s when I killed him. For days after I felt guilty—and I missed him.
And there was the beast: a vicious black chow-chow who charged out into the street every time I tried to pass the house where he spent most of his time lying on the porch. Each daily encounter with him was terrifying. Teeth bared, he’d try to block my way, snapping at me and barking incessantly. (It didn’t help that I’d once been bitten by such a dog). To reach my alpine sanctum, I had to run that canine gauntlet every day for weeks. Then, one day, it stopped. He remained on his porch and watched me pass by. All those Zoo Story fantasies that had been building up inside me–of bribing him, scaring him, poisoning him, running him over with an imaginary car—instantly evaporated. We’d never be friends but we had détente.
At the end of three months, I was ready to go out and join my friends in the world again—chilled out, happy, and full of hope.
Solitude comes in all shapes, sizes and degrees: An afternoon of solitude at home can be worth a month of magic mountains if it serves its purpose. Solitude can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how it’s perceived. People who seek solitude are not rejecting others, as is so often inferred by those who don’t. They are simply finding their way back into that attic for awhile.