The End of Solitude revisited
I just read an article published in The Chronicle in 2009 entitled “The End of Solitude.” It was written by former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz. It is one of those articles I hold my breath as I’m reading, pouring over it with a mixture of delight, admiration, and disappointment. Delight at my experience of pure resonance, admiration of beautiful sentences (“The great contemporary terror is anonymity”), and disappointment that I didn’t write it, that I haven’t nailed the topic like he did.
Mostly I’m inspired. Like Deresiewicz, I talk to my students about solitude, challenging them to consider the value of being alone with their thoughts, of learning to “talk reflexively to themselves” through writing. And I meet the same resistance, though many of my students from rural Arkansas likely have a better grasp on the concept of solitude than Deresiewicz’s Yale students. I’ve never been deer hunting — a common practice in rural Arkansas — but I understand it is a genuine exercise in solitude, as are other types of hunting, fishing, & being outdoors. But that’s another topic for another day.
Regarding the end of solitude, Deresiewicz does a great job of answering the question “why would anyone want to be alone?” He points to solitude as the place to encounter the divine, to see with new eyes and be changed. In what might be seen as a disappointment, he surmises that solitude has always been the domain of a select few: first the saints, then the poets of Romanticism, and finally the “novelist of self,” writers like Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and Proust.
It is this point that surprised me, challenging my rhetorical approach on this topic. For that I’m grateful. Every rhetorician addresses an audience; my tendency is to always be as inclusive as possible, to address as broad an audience as possible. That can be a weakness for a writer, I think. Deresiewicz doesn’t seem to be concerned with addressing society at large, or young people, or teachers. His conclusion might even be considered dark: “One is powerless to reverse the drift of culture. One can only save oneself — and whatever else happens, one can still always do that.”
Reading those words, it bothered me that Deresiewicz seemed to be capitulating, then it hit me: Deresiewicz is not capitulating at all; he’s only concerned with addressing the true believers. Rather than bluster into the atmosphere like I tend to do, he’s raising the bar and challenging anyone who has ears to hear. He knows what I too easily forget: it only takes one or two who are willing to pass through fire to make a world of difference. As he says “those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.” So too those who would write about it must not be afraid to address a very narrow audience.