In my adolescence, summer was a time of self-improvement. I planned my reinvention meticulously. Come the fresh school year, I’d breeze through the doors of my high school with perfect hair, new clothes, and a laser focus. Of course, I had a limited budget, hair that refused to straighten completely, and a tendency to get discouraged or distracted by the slightest obstacle. To be honest, the fun wasn’t in the result. It was the daydreaming, the dog-earing pages of Seventeen and the endless bookmarking of WikiHow articles in Internet Explorer that made everything seem possible.
This summer is my twenty-seventh. I’m looking forward to self-reflection, but I won’t be switching shampoos or going on a shopping spree. Instead, I’m going to live alone for the first time.
The base of Solitude Mountain, Utah. Photo by Krista
The advice offered to me by people when I explain I am going to live by myself in the woods for a week varies from the sensible (“Develop a routine”) to the frankly awful (“Take some weed!”).
But it is Michael Harris, the Canadian author who published a book in 2014 called The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, who I pay most attention to.
Like me, Harris decided to try and face his fears. He gave up the internet and his phone for an entire month, though not, it must be said, human contact altogether. Nevertheless, “crushing loneliness,” is how he describes the initial effects of his experiment.
“You have to remember, people who design our online experiences have devoted enormous resources toward making them as addictive as possible,” Harris says. “Walking away from it makes you feel like shit, because suddenly all your magic powers are gone.”
He is talking about the way email alerts and social media notifications are rewiring us by triggering endorphins in our brains.
“You have to burrow through that discomfort before you start to see the rewards on the other side. When you’re living online, there is a certain apparatus of approval. What you do, what you think and what you believe is governed by certain corporate interests and the interests of your friends—something becomes worthy if it gets 12 retweets, say.
“When you cut yourself off from the internet,” he says, “you’re forced to construct a personal approval system—something that is not beholden to the opinions of others.
In Esquire, Sam Parker quits the Internet cold turkey, experiencing classic withdrawal symptoms including anxiety and panic after traveling to a remote Scottish bothy in a bid to find true solitude.
The social world, for all of its fundamental gifts — love, empathy, the lessons arguing provides — obscures the whole self, allowing each of us to mute what is harder to absorb about ourselves in a din of habit and distraction. When an artist breaks through that din, which seems to grow ever louder, she reflects solitude’s crisis: the challenge of being, unmasked.
“I wanted to be quiet in a nonquiet situation,” the composer John Cage wrote in 1948, while he was still formulating a solution that would eventually lead to his famous innovation of writing music with no notes at all. In 1949, the most famous monk of the last century — Thomas Merton — lamented that even cloistered religious people had become too conscious of what their renunciations might do, keeping silence as a form of payback for all the clatter in the world, instead of accessing the real self that was no self, that couldn’t show off by fasting or rising at midnight to sing. In 1961, as part of a dialogue with the Zen master D.T. Suzuki, Merton found it necessary to remind the era’s many spiritual seekers that Paradise, if not Heaven, was a place on earth that could only be achieved by ceasing the constant reactivity that had become the human condition, “the emptiness and purity of heart which had belonged to Adam and Eve in Eden,” where they sought “paradise within themselves, or rather above and beyond themselves.” This was the same goal the secular pilgrim Cheryl Strayed sought when she walked 1100 miles alone up the Pacific Crest Trail in 1994. She found liberation from self while lost above the treeline, shouting into silence she ultimately couldn’t affect, realizing, was she wrote in her memoir, “Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself. The sky didn’t wonder where it was.”
—Ann Powers, writing for NPR about how musicians confront solitude. Her piece uses recent albums by Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens as a lens to explore the subject.
AP Photo/Prensa Latina via AP Images/Celso Rodriguez
In the winter of 1981 Peter H. Stone interviewed Gabriel García Márquez for The Paris Review. The interview took place over three afternoons in the studio behind García Márquez’s home in Mexico. Although García Márquez’s English is “quite good,” he spoke mostly in Spanish:
You often use the theme of the solitude of power.
The more power you have, the harder it is to know who is lying to you and who is not. When you reach absolute power, there is no contact with reality, and that’s the worst kind of solitude there can be. A very powerful person, a dictator, is surrounded by interests and people whose final aim is to isolate him from reality; everything is in concert to isolate him.
What about the solitude of the writer? Is this different?
It has a lot to do with the solitude of power. The writer’s very attempt to portray reality often leads him to a distorted view of it. In trying to transpose reality he can end up losing contact with it, in an ivory tower, as they say. Journalism is a very good guard against that. That’s why I have always tried to keep on doing journalism, because it keeps me in contact with the real world, particularly political journalism and politics. The solitude that threatened me after One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn’t the solitude of the writer; it was the solitude of fame, which resembles the solitude of power much more. My friends defended me from that one, my friends who are always there.
There can be something enjoyable, even revelatory about that feeling of self-protection, which is why we seek out circumstances in which we can feel more acutely the contrast between the outside world and our inner selves. Woolf was fascinated by city life—by the feeling of solitude-on-display that the sidewalk encourages, and by the way that “street haunting,” as she called it, allows you to lose and then find yourself in the rhythm of urban novelty and familiarity. She was drawn to the figure of the hostess: the woman-to-be-looked-at, standing at the top of the stairs, friendly to everyone, who grows only more mysterious with her visibility. (One of the pleasures of throwing a party, Woolf showed, is that it allows you to surprise yourself: surrounded by your friends, the center of attention, you feel your separateness from the social world you have convened.) She showed how parents, friends, lovers, and spouses can become more unknowable over time, not less—there is a core to their personhood that never gives itself up. Even as they put their lives on display, she thought, artists thrive when they maintain a final redoubt of privacy—a wellspring that remains unpolluted by the world outside. “A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter,” Clarissa thinks, at the end of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Of course, it’s the chatter—the party—that helps her know that she has something to lose in the first place.