Diary entry: On Solitude – welcome to the mind of a writer.
The narrowing gap between solitude and society. Is it possible to be left alone, to be truly free? Solitude is becoming more and more a far-fetched dream. To fully acquire it now needs an ever more extreme step. So extreme it has become dangerous.
When we read we are alone. We are lost in a world that doesn’t oppress us. With Hemingway I go to Spain or Cuba, with Conrad I go to Africa, with Bellow to America, with Rushdie to India – all alone. Without responsibilities, without social media: there is no Facebook in The Sun Also Rises. The books I read offer me complete solitude without paying the price.
Even this piece of writing gleefully defeats the sombre yearning for solitude. The art of writing is solitary but there is nothing a writer craves more than readership, attention, admiration, affection. If some Genie were to offer me golden fame: would I give solitude a second thought? Is it possible to be a hedonist and a hermit?
Writing is, like its cousin reading, the perfect, price-less solitude. But it is it enough to make it great? Is the success of the literary novel declining in proportion to the possibility of solitude? If you were Emily Bronte living in a secluded parsonage in the vastness of the Yorkshire moors, a grand, in-depth, thought-provoking novel like Wuthering Heights is just what you’d read/write.
But if you are, like the general readership, living a life full of work, gym, ambition, parties and career: wouldn’t you much rather read something fast, that will take you away, to take you to to times, places and peoples you don’t have time to visit?
But then, here is where the literary element still, must, come in. Pure fantasy just won’t do. It’s too out there, too other. Even modern readers want something to relate to, to read something that not only understands them, but explains them. A literary compromise: the type Hemingway, Conrad and Greene reached.
The question of solitude is a far-reaching one because it demands answers. Solitude, bear in mind, is not loneliness. They are related: but solitude is a choice. It is a necessary tautology to add: loneliness is not a choice. Don’t lets commit the fallacy of the age and be extremists. To choose solitude is not to exclude social interaction (often, however, it is not true in reverse).
The issue boils down to one of control. Too much of life makes you a pawn. Too little of it makes you a king: and that won’t get you far. What you want is to refuse being a piece on the board and choose to be the prime mover. After all, who says that all life’s pleasures require other people? Does swimming, reading, listening to music, thinking creating? These are no less valuable pleasures than those more sociable ones: drinking, eating, loving, travelling, friendship, chess, cards.
There is then the greater sphere of things: politics, religion, conservation, activism. These are things which leave little time for solitude, indeed are antithetical to it. But surely, there are people, lets say Martin Luther King or Rachel Carson; surely even they cherished their moments alone, indulging in silent pleasures and violin-strung thoughts. And I would bet money that at some point they came close to giving it all up and being self-indulgent. Yet, they didn’t.
Society today doesn’t revere solitaires. It puts on a pedestal super-men and super-women. Those who climb Kilimanjaro for a charity. Those who help refugees escape warzones. Doctors-without-borders. And lets face it, if we didn’t have these action men and women no progress would ever take place. So really, the remit and territory of the quasi-exclusive solitaire shrinks ever further.
Retiring from the world, on its own, brings little collective merit. Monks, cloistered and reclusive, have the wrong idea: you can’t help people by fastidiously praying for them. You help them by helping them. And yet, what if the solitude can be productive?
A handful of men and women throughout history have contributed enormously to the great human endeavour by being, if not pure hermits. at least very reclusive. Charles Darwin was practically forced into solitude by his obsessive studies and his illnesses. Fernando Pessoa, greatest poet of Portugal, was a stay-at-home alcoholic dreamer. Marcel Proust spent the last 17 years of his life holed up in his Paris apartment. And to give credit where credit’s already been assigned, great works of literature, art and philosophy (and beer) have been produced in far-flung monasteries. So we will tolerate those who have a solitary disposition: so long as their solitary is fruitful to us.
In the end it’s a matter of confronting your dreams. For it is your dreams (bot fulfilling and chasing them) that make your life worth living. But dreams are elusive things. Sometimes they wear fake costumes to deceive us. Sometimes they guide us into the valley of death volley and thunder. As Oscar Wilde said: “When the gods seek to punish us they answer our prayers.” So confront those dreams, subscribe to reason, logic and unrelenting scepticism. Don’t be superficial about it or they will destroy you – or worse, imprison you in a meaningless life of self-deceptive ennui.
I need to be that writer: the one that gives people back their dreams. And to know what your dreams are you need to embrace some solitude. The best I can hope for is that my books are the ones people choose to accompany them in their days of silence. I want to tell them that there are people who are hurt by their dreams – either because they can’t fulfil them or because they have (what do you do when you fulfil a half-arsed dream?). I want to tell them that life is an endless a la carte menu of possibilities. No dream is farcical. Some people climb mountains others own aviaries. I want to warn them too: following your dreams is hard work. In fulfilling our dreams we should all be working-class. Dedication is a bare minimum. And hell, you need to be just as dedicated in maintaining your dream once you have it. If it slips away the dust steals in.
And if I can’t show them any of that, I can at least give them some fun and wisdom. And really, what more does life need?
Devil’s Advocate Footnote: Being denied your dreams can lead yo great horrors. Terrorism, piracy, suicide, rapists, murderers: these are all territories ruled over by the Great Denies. Be they denied by an illness, society, birth, ability, themselves, others… this is painful stuff. But those psychos must not be forgiven. So yes, there is merit in taking yourself away from life, isolating yourself so as not to harm others. Maybe just maybe your exile will proffer some peace.
And the terrifying fact remains some people are born with the wrong stuff for their dreams. Like those who crave love but are too solitary to share their life. Or those who dream of Hollywood but just don’t have enough talent. I want my novels to show people that. The suffering of those who can’t satisfy their life’s self-chosen purpose. And I don’t have any answers for them. Novels aren’t for answers. They are exploring. They will highlight suffering but it is up to the hopeless reader to extract hope.