- Even love is reborn in solitude. For only in solitude are those who are alone able to reach those from whom they are separated. Only the presence of the eternal can break through the walls that isolate the temporal from the temporal. One hour of solitude may bring us closer to those we love than many hours of communication. [Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), Chapter 1.]
- “Living alone” means to have sovereignty over ourselves, to have the freedom that comes from not being dragged away by the past, not living in fear of the future, and not being pulled around by strong emotions caused by the circumstances of the present. [Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone (Parallax Press, 2011), p. 1.]
Solitude is not loneliness. It is being together with oneself, not out of avoidance but out of quiet satisfaction, in a way that is refreshing and cathartic.
Henry David Thoreau is the icon of the solitary life in the United States.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1898).
- Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 1837-1861.
- Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986).
- While in his fifties, Joshua Slocum sailed around the world alone.
- Geoffrey Wolff, The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum (Knopf, 2010).
- Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone Around the World (The Century Co., 1900).
Other accounts of solitude:
- Philip Connors, Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), on eight summers spent in a lookout tower, experiencing “the drama of the self.”
- Jane Brox, Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements Of Our Lives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019): a “meditation on the pain and the joy of being quiet”
- Chris Rush, The Light Years: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019): “ . . . what’s fresh and interesting about ‘The Light Years’ is its account of gay survivalism — what it’s like to be rejected or adrift from others’ custody; coupling occasionally; at least once in love; and often in profound solitude in the natural world . . . ”
- Fenton Johnson, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life (W.W. Norton, 2020): “Taking a dozen or so historical examples, from Emily Dickinson in Amherst to Bill Cunningham in New York via Paul Cézanne in Provence, Johnson reveals how artists have always removed themselves from the noise and clutter of enforced sociability in order to live closer to the sources of their inspiration.”
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone (Parallax Press, 2011).
- Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Landscape with Lake and Boatman (1839)
- Caspar David Friedrich, Solitary Tree (1822)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Kancheli, Little Imber, for small ensemble, voice, children's and men's chorus. “The sonic events are often separated by periods of silence . . . The instrumental colour is spare, consistently kept in chamber settings or one to a part.” [Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich]
- Dykstra, “In the Snow”
- George Winston, “Plains” album
- Frank Kohl, “Solitude”
- Lotta-Maria Saksa, “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” (We can be in solitude joyfully.)
[In Les Misérables, after becoming successful, Valjean practices a form of solitude among others. This solitude reflects mindfulness, contemplation and respect for others.]
. . . he remained as simple as on the first day. He had gray hair, a serious eye, the sunburned complexion of a laborer, the thoughtful visage of a philosopher. He habitually wore a hat with a wide brim, and a long coat of coarse cloth, buttoned to the chin. He fulfilled his duties as mayor; but, with that exception, he lived in solitude. He spoke to but few people. He avoided polite attentions; he escaped quickly; he smiled to relieve himself of the necessity of talking; he gave, in order to get rid of the necessity for smiling. The women said of him, "What a good-natured bear!" His pleasure consisted in strolling in the fields. He always took his meals alone, with an open book before him, which he read. He had a well-selected little library. He loved books; books are cold but safe friends. In proportion as leisure came to him with fortune, he seemed to take advantage of it to cultivate his mind. It had been observed that, ever since his arrival at M. sur M., his language had grown more polished, more choice, and more gentle with every passing year. He liked to carry a gun with him on his strolls, but he rarely made use of it. When he did happen to do so, his shooting was something so infallible as to inspire terror. He never killed an inoffensive animal. He never shot at a little bird. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Fifth – The Descent Begins, Chapter III, Sums Deposited with Laffitte.]
[Later, when Valjean is living with Cosette, who has grown and is falling in love with Marius, Hugo describes Valjean’s yearning for solitude thus:]
For those who love solitude, a walk in the early morning is equivalent to a stroll by night, with the cheerfulness of nature added. The streets are deserted and the birds are singing. Cosette, a bird herself, liked to rise early. These matutinal excursions were planned on the preceding evening. He proposed, and she agreed. It was arranged like a plot, they set out before daybreak, and these trips were so many small delights for Cosette. These innocent eccentricities please young people. Jean Valjean's inclination led him, as we have seen, to the least frequented spots, to solitary nooks, to forgotten places. There then existed, in the vicinity of the barriers of Paris, a sort of poor meadows, which were almost confounded with the city, where grew in summer sickly grain, and which, in autumn, after the harvest had been gathered, presented the appearance, not of having been reaped, but peeled. Jean Valjean loved to haunt these fields. Cosette was not bored there. It meant solitude to him and liberty to her. There, she became a little girl once more, she could run and almost play; she took off her hat, laid it on Jean Valjean's knees, and gathered bunches of flowers. She gazed at the butterflies on the flowers, but did not catch them; gentleness and tenderness are born with love, and the young girl who cherishes within her breast a trembling and fragile ideal has mercy on the wing of a butterfly. She wove garlands of poppies, which she placed on her head, and which, crossed and penetrated with sunlight, glowing until they flamed, formed for her rosy face a crown of burning embers. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume IV – Saint-Denis; Book Third – The House in the Rue Plumet, Chapter VIII, The Chain-Gang.]
Novels and other works:
- Susanna Clark, Piranesi: A Novel (Bloomsbury, 2020): “Piranesi lives in a house of many halls, filled with magnificent statues and flooded by curious but calculable tides. The house is Piranesi’s whole world . . .” This is a haunting study of confinement and solitude.
- Manuel Vilas, Ordesa: A Novel (Riverhead, 2021): “. . . a Meditation on Yearning, Solitude, and Family”.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; / Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, / And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, / Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; / There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, / And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day / I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; / While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, / I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
[W.B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”]