Tag Archives: Solitude

Toward the end of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt provides an analysis of loneliness and solitude. Solitude, she says, is a state in which one withdraws from society in order to spend time with oneself. Though in one sense alone, in solitude one keeps oneself company, carrying on an internal dialogue of thought. Loneliness, by contrast, is as often (or more often) to be found in society as outside it. It is captured by the breakdown of connections with others, even if those others are physically near. Arendt’s aim in introducing this distinction is to make the case that totalitarianism preys on—and actively works to generate—loneliness, that it works to create a society of atomized individuals.

I am not competent to evaluate this as an analysis of totalitarian government, but I can’t help thinking about it as I am starting to read the poetry of Paul Celan (in the collection Breathturn into Timestead, translated by Pierre Joris). Celan is himself a product and survivor of the Nazi occupation of Romania. While I am only a few poems into Breathturn (Celan demands to be read with the utmost unhurriedness, and is hard to manage in large doses), already I am getting a sense of his work as an attempt to escape from loneliness into solitude.

Many of the poems, including each of the first five in the volume, capture an interaction between an unnamed “I” and an unnamed “you”, whose relations are variable. This might seem to be the dialogue of solitude, only—something in it is broken. Consider the following poem:

Paths in the shadow-break
of your hand.

From the four-finger-furrow
I root up the
petrified blessing.

The poem begins in fortune-telling, palm-reading, although the description of the paths as in the “shadow-break” of the hand indicates obscurity and uncertainty. The future is not clear; the “I” must go digging. So he does, and finds a “petrified blessing”. This rich phrase speaks volumes. It is a blessing, a sign of a real connection between the “I” and the “you”. But it is petrified. This signals, of course, that it is dead, a thing of the past. But it signals more than that. In the process of petrification, the original material of a living thing is gradually replaced by mineral deposits, so that what remains is a mere simulacrum of the original.

Almost the entire emotional weight of the poem rests in that one word, “petrified”, which points toward a past relationship that has vanished and cannot be rejuvenated. The company of solitude is lost—the poem’s “I” is lonely.

Signs of such disconnect are abundant in these poems. Take, for instance, the first poem in the volume:

You may confidently
serve me snow:
as often as shoulder to shoulder
with the mulberry tree I strode through summer,
its youngest leaf

This poem has the structure of cause and effect (or justification and action), only in reverse order. You may confidently serve me snow, because… Crucial to understanding this structure is the polysemous word “serve”. Is the “you” providing a service for the “I”? Or is the “I” being served with a sentence for a crime? This remains unsettled through the first four lines, as the “I” strides, apparently confidently, through summer. In the final two lines, however, we find that as he does so, “its youngest leaf / shrieked”. Something about his presence is a disturbance to the world around him, and for that reason it is right that he be “served” snow: the isolation and desolation of winter. The glut of life seen in summer does not belong to him. Once again, then we see the failure of an attempt to escape loneliness, even if only for solitude.

Not all of the poems indicate such an absolute disconnect. Consider this poem:

To stand, in the shadow
of the stigma in the air.

for you

With all that has room in it,
even without

Here we find the “I” standing “for you / alone”, which admits of at least some hope. To be sure, the “I” is standing “in the shadow / of the stigma in the air”. It is a connection that exists only in the aftermath of disgrace. And, too, the “I” is unrecognized—full connection, mutual recognition, has not yet occurred. But I cannot help but hear, in the final stanza, its “room”, that there might be space for such recognition. The search for solitude may not be easy, but it is not hopeless.

Similarly, consider this poem:

With masts sung earthward
the sky-wrecks drive.

Onto this woodsong
you hold fast with your teeth.

You are the songfast

The richness of the imagery hear requires unpacking. The “you” is understood as a “pennant” attached to the mast of a ship, albeit a ship in the sky, descending to earth (the journey of the soul to its body?). A “pennant”: meaning, a mark of identification, but not essential to the function of the ship. Thus the “you” is powerless to change the course of the ship, which is a “wreck”, is descending. And yet… the “you” is nonetheless shown clenching the mast with its teeth, a visceral image of doggedness. If the previous poem considered shows determination on the part of the “I”, a willingness to stand unrecognized in the shadow of a stigma before the “you”, this poem shows that same determination in the inverse direction.

These are very much first thoughts; I cannot say how I will look back on them after I have read more.

In an earlier post, I tried to summarize the core of Emerson’s philosophy in a few dogmatic statements. I managed it in eight. But I think I might have condensed it further, down to the following two:

  1. The individual is fundamentally alone in the world, cut off from others.
  2. The only hope for true, if partial, communion between two separate individuals requires that both burrow deeply into their own individuality, bringing what they find as a gift to the other.

Insofar as I consider myself an Emersonian, I do so because I feel the truth of both of these claims in my bones, and it was Emerson who taught me to recognize that.

I have only just begun Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, but I find myself immediately drawn in by it precisely because Pessoa (or rather Pessoa’s heteronym, Bernardo Soares) grasps both of these truths:

Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes. In these moments my heart beats faster because I’m conscious of it. (6)

In my first post on Pessoa, I spoke admiringly of the distance that stands between Soares and other people, a distance I know well. He sits at a location not altogether separate from them, but neither participating in their joy. He delights in it without participating. This is the right distance, I think, from which to approach these Emersonian theses, for it is the distance from which they are felt most distinctly. One is separate, and thus the aloneness is felt, but one hears the songs in the distance and understands the possibility of communion. I do not say this to suggest it is better to exist at this distance, to always evade participation, merely to highlight certain advantages of the time one spends there.

Now, I have a bit dishonestly cut off the passage in the middle. It continues on to criticize itself:

I live more because I live on high. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place. . . I remember that I’m on the fourth floor of the Rua dos Douradores, and I take a drowsy look at myself. I glance up from this half-written page at life, futile and without beauty, and at the cheap cigarette I’m about to extinguish in the ashtray beyond the fraying blotter. Me in this fourth-floor room, interrogating life!, saying what souls feel!, writing prose like a genius or a famous author! Me, here, a genius!. . .

It is striking how exactly he hits on Emerson’s definition of genius: the expression by one individual of a thought or feeling that speaks to “the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives.” But this, his mind tells him, somewhat patronizingly, is a delusion. Pessoa certainly is more pessimistic here about the second claim than Emerson is, though such pessimism finds more voice in Emerson’s work than many of his readers think. I am not so gloomy about the prospects of communion as Pessoa—at least not most of the time. But I know the mood in which it seems an absurd vanity.

But it should not be thought that this mood is as desolate as it sounds. Though I spend less time there than Soares, it is a solitude to which I often, and happily, retreat.

Most art—more precisely, most of what is called art—is fake, according to Leo Tolstoy in his polemical What is Art? (Penguin Classics). The purpose of art is to convey feelings. To achieve this, it is true, the artist calls upon all of his talent, but the main thing is the sincerity of the feeling and of the desire to communicate it, to bring another to feel it. If the feeling is gone, if only talent remains, if, as Tolstoy puts it “the author never had any other feeling than the desire to write a story or a novel” (p. 117), then what is produced is not art, but a mere imitation of art—indeed in many cases an imitation of an imitation.

Why should this be? Tolstoy traces it to art having become an upper-class diversion rather than a real contribution to life. The over-educated upper class, with perverted and atrophied sensitivity to genuine human feeling, and above all else bored, seeks in art diversion, pleasure. That is why the philosophy of aesthetics has focused on beauty. (Tolstoy believes he can reduce every account of beauty to a subjective feeling of pleasure.) Bored and wealthy, the upper class pays artists to produce art that is, precisely because commissioned, insincere. Because of their atrophied sensitivity, they cannot tell that what they are paying for is not the real thing.

Tolstoy goes on, weaving more threads into this general narrative, but that is enough for my purposes here. My sympathy for Tolstoy’s views has oscillated as he has unfolded them. His diagnosis of the poverty of beauty as a fundamental aesthetic principle, and his promise to replace it with something integrated with the whole of human life, I found intriguing. Certainly the role that art plays in my life is something more than a mere pleasure-bringer, and if Tolstoy made this point in a manner manifestly unfair to the 150-year history of aesthetics that he surveyed, I was willing to forgive him this.

His proposed replacement principle views art as fundamentally communicative: the true work of art conveys to the public, in a manner accessible to all, a feeling felt by the artist. I do not agree with the exact manner in which Tolstoy characterizes the aim of art, but I do believe that art is (or should be) inherently communicative. (I may have more to say about this in a subsequent post.) And I think Tolstoy is right when he claims that while some art is born out of a felt need to communicate, much is simply the product of a mere desire to write a novel, or a poem, or whatever.

The moment that Tolstoy tries to explain how we are to tell these apart, however, his story unravels. Take this:

There are many conditions necessary for a man to create a true object of art. It is necessary that the man stand on the level of the highest world outlook of his time, that he have experienced a feeling and have the wish and opportunity to transmit it, and that he have, with all that, a talent for some kind of art. (p. 90)

But how are we to tell when a man stands on the level of the highest world outlook of his time? What are we to make of the very real disagreement between people about what world outlook is the highest? Further, how are we to tell when the artist has experience a feeling and when he is merely counterfeiting it extremely compellingly? It is not as if Tolstoy is unaware of this family of problems, for he asks a version of it himself. Given that most works of art are fakes, are simulacra, how are we to find those very rare few that are genuine?

How to find this one work, not differing in any way superficially, among the hundreds of thousands of works deliberately made to resemble the true one perfectly?

For a man of unperverted taste, a laboring man, not a city-dweller, this is as easy as it is for an animal with an unspoiled scent to find, among thousands of trails in forest or field, the one it needs. An animal will unerringly find what it needs; so, too, a man, if only his natural qualities are not perverted in him, will unerringly choose out of thousands of objects the true work of art that he needs, that infects him with the feeling experienced by the artist; but this is not so for people whose taste has been ruined by their upbringing and life. (p. 115)

Practically speaking, this is utterly unhelpful. How are we to tell? Well, the right people will know. Now, to be fair, Tolstoy does have a theory of who the right people are and how they got to be that way, but it still strikes me as a slick intellectual move. Does your judgment about a work of art disagree with Tolstoy’s? Well, have you considered that you are simply incompetent to judge? It is means of delegitimizing disagreement, whatever theoretical basis purports to justify it.

Combined with that is the fact that “sincerity,” because it is an inner state of the artist, is not really something one can test. Tolstoy’s criterion of genuine art thus sounds meaningful, but is in fact infinitely flexible: Tolstoy can invoke it to justify his preferences in art no matter works he likes or does not like (unless, I suppose, the work is especially obscure). The charge of “insincerity” condemns nothing of its own accord. It condemns only with the help of the active agency of the one who applies it.

Thus my sympathy for Tolstoy began to dissolve. But then Tolstoy explained, not his theory of art, but the phenomenology of his interactions with art, both negative and positive:

I remember seeing Rossi’s performance of Hamlet, in which the tragedy itself and the actor playing the leading role are considered by our critics to be the last word in dramatic art. And yet, during the whole time of the performance, I experienced both from the content of the play and from its performance that special suffering produced by false simulacra of artistic works. (pp. 118-19)

This “special suffering” is an experience I know, and know well. I find it hard to imagine having that experience with respect to Hamlet, but I know it for other works. And, on the positive side, Tolstoy writes:

The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the perceiver merges with the artist to such a degree that it seems to him that the perceived object has been made, not by someone else, but by himself, and that everything expressed by the object is exactly what he has long been wanting to express. The effect of the true work of art is to abolish in the consciousness of the perceiver the distinction between himself and the artist, and not only between himself and the artist, but also between himself and all who perceive the same work of art. It is this liberation of the person from his isolation from others, from his loneliness, this merging of the person with others, that constitutes the chief attractive force and property of art. (p. 121)

This hardly requires comment for anyone familiar with the experience Tolstoy describes. It is not the whole of positive engagement with art (what if what the artist expresses is not precisely what one wants to express, yet one is glad that it was expressed in that manner?), but it is a major aspect of it.

Recognizing that the experiences underlying Tolstoy’s approach to art are experiences I know as well makes me more sympathetic to his book, not in the sense that I agree with him, but in the sense that I feel I grasp the motivation for it. Of course, the fact that I have these same experiences while liking what Tolstoy deplores (and while certainly falling into his category of the over-educated elite) speaks against his general theory, which requires a sharp dichotomy between those who seek the communication of feelings and those who seek only pleasure.

Ultimately, I think, my verdict on Tolstoy is much the same as Tolstoy’s own verdict on those who attempt to find an objective basis for beauty. Tolstoy thinks that aestheticians can be reduced to two schools: those who treat beauty subjectively and those who treat it objectively. Those who treat it objectively “call beauty something absolutely perfect which exists outside of us” (p. 32). Of course, we must recognize this beauty outside of us, and that is just where the trouble arises:

But since we recognize the absolutely perfect which exists outside us and acknowledge it as such only because we receive a certain kind of pleasure from the manifestation of this absolutely perfect, it means that the objective definition is nothing but the subjective one differently expressed. (p. 32)

Therefore, “in fact, both notions of beauty come down to a certain sort of pleasure that we receive.” Tolstoy has thus reduced all attempts at defining beauty to subjective definitions, dependent on our experience of pleasure.

It seems to me that the same line of reasoning applies to Tolstoy’s attempt to determine what art is sincere: ultimately, it is that art that gives him a certain sort of feeling, of leaving his isolation and loneliness. But must art be truly sincere to give rise to that feeling? There is no reason to think so. We acknowledge it as such only because we receive a certain kind of experience from this manifestation of the sincere. Tolstoy’s apparent objective definition of sincere art is, by his own line of argument, nothing but a subjective definition differently expressed.


Poem: Spring Night
Poet: Su Tung-p’o

Spring night—one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs—threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where the night is deep and still.

[Burton Watson, translator]

A spring night is to be cherished (“one hour worth a thousand gold coins”) for its beauty: the scent of flowers, the sight of the shadowy moon. This is a simple enough thought. It is with the final two lines that the poem becomes a masterpiece.

We hear “songs and flutes upstairs”—thus a third sense is introduced. The audible revelry contrasts with the visual and olfactory beauty of the spring night. Not that it disrupts it (the night remains “deep and still”), but the “threads of sound” are beautiful in a different way.

Even more important than the contrast of the senses, however, is the information this third line gives us about location. The music is “upstairs.” This tells us that the subject of the poem, the voice of the poem, is located downstairs. That is to say: neither with the revelers nor in the night. Rather somewhere halfway between them, enjoying neither. This is confirmed in the final line, where we see an unoccupied swing, unmoving in the night. There is a place for him in the night; he does not take it. We do not know why.

A spring night is to be cherished, in company or alone it does not matter. Here Su Tung-p’o presents us with a person who cannot cherish the spring night: neither the society it offers, nor the solitude.

[It is interesting, with these thoughts in mind, to consider what a disaster the Kenneth Rexroth translation is. Leaving aside that it is unpleasant English regardless of its accuracy or lack thereof, it captures nothing whatsoever of what I find in the Watson translation. By focusing so exclusively on the images themselves, Rexroth entirely effaces the person from the poem. In Watson’s translation this person is in the margins to be sure, is merely hinted it, but that is precisely the source of the poem’s quiet effectiveness. Rexroth’s poem has no margins whatsoever. It thus becomes a trite bit of nature poetry and nothing more.]


Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Poem: Offertorium: December 2002
Link: this review contains a complete text of the poem

Perhaps the most beautiful poem thus far in Without Title, “Offertorium: December 2002” is simple in structure, rich in lyricism. Grammatically, it is not even a complete sentence, merely a collection of dependent clauses describing what Hill’s Offertorium prayer is for. It is for, first, the cloistral solitude of orchids hemmed in by yew trees. The mood of this poem is fixed to that place. It is important that the place first appears as a “stone holt of darkness,” only subsequently revealing itself as possessing a kind of light all its own, “claustral light.”

Once we are ensconced therein, things get more abstract. The Offertorium is also “for late distortions lodged by first mistakes,” a suggestion—if I read it correctly—of our distorted relation to the world that is a consequence of original sin. It is “for all departing, as our selves, from time,” that is, for death. And it is “for random justice held with things half-known,” a somewhat ominous picture of an order beyond our knowledge, that can only appear to us as random. This uneasiness only increases with the “retribution” of the final line and its weighty “if.”

Metrically, the poem is in blank verse. It does not wear its scansion on its face, but rather allows a number of choice points where the reader must choose either how to distribute stresses or whether or not to enunciate or slur a word. These decisions may lead to departures from the base pattern or may agree with it. As I read the poem, there is only one substitution: a trochaic substitution at the start of the third line, prepared by a feminine ending at the end of the second. I scan it as follows (stresses bolded):

stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light.

This is one of the choice points: either “stone” or “holt” could take a stress. Here “stone” calls for attention because it contrasts with the plant imagery that has thus far dominated, whereas “holt” continues that imagery. As the greater departure from expectation, “stone” takes, in my eyes, the line’s first stress. So decided, the substitution takes on special significance: it is a rhythmical hiccup that is immediately followed by admission of a semantic hiccup. The end of the line corrects the first half, replacing the darkness with “claustral light” which is perhaps distinguishable from darkness only to the trained eye, but which is distinct nonetheless.