A History of Solitude
by David Vincent
Published June 2020
Hate Thoreau just a little when you learnAmy Pickworth, from Bigfoot for Women (2014)
his mom packed his lunch, did all his laundry.
We were therefore, every one of us, wicked from birth and had to learn how to be good. “How to be social,” I muttered, getting a little sullen now.Jenny Diski, On Trying to Keep Still (2006)
In March 2020, as the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic began to sink in and people began en masse to self-isolate and work from home, a few common themes emerged in the sentiments circulating among the various introvert, neurodivergent and disability activist clusters – that is, those of us either predisposed to or customarily forced into solitude – I follow on social media.
One of these themes expressed a sense of overwhelm that suddenly all the extroverted types, now longing for human contact, were flooding us with messages. Another was a sense of hope (tinged with exasperation) as the accommodations many of us had been asking for to no avail – working from home; video access to events, panels, classes and so on; reliable internet access for all; no-strings financial support – were suddenly more widely available now that everyone needed them.
And another was a certain sense of satisfaction that suddenly the extroverts, neurotypicals and non-disabled people (or the temporarily able-bodied, as disability activist Lorenzo Wilson Milam pointedly refers to them) were having to come to terms with navigating a world that isn’t made for you. As devastating as this pandemic is, perhaps it could lead to a more compassionate world. The jury is still out on that.
The proliferation of introvert-themed memes via social media is itself an example of what historian David Vincent in his recent A History of Solitude categorises as ‘networked solitude’, one of three main types he identifies. The others are physical solitude (in which one is physically alone) and abstracted solitude (in which one may or may not be physically alone, but occupied with some task such as reading, knitting, jigsaw puzzles and so on). His history, which covers a period of the past two hundred years or so and mostly focuses on Britain, uses these categories as an organising principle to investigate how people have occupied themselves in, and thought about, the absence of company. The overlap between forms of abstracted solitude and networked solitude (in which one may be physically alone but in contact with other minds) is of particular interest to him, and in the context of the global pandemic, is something a great many of us are thinking about. Vincent is also very interested in interrogating the distinctions between solitude and loneliness and how class, gender, ability and their bearing on the degree of control people can exercise over their experience of solitude will affect its quality.
I’m writing this from the privileged vantage point of a sunny studio with a view of the bush and the sound only of birdsong and distant traffic, where I moved six years ago, newly redundant, uncertain about what the future held, but intending to try and make my way as a freelance editor and writer. I have lived here ever since, mostly alone except for occasional visits from friends, going into town once a fortnight or so for groceries, laundry and other errands.
The sense of relief has been vast after a lifetime spent in places that felt almost solitary, almost private, but weren’t: an office with a glass wall and dividers that didn’t quite reach the ceiling, my back facing the door. My studio flat, into which my landlady’s outside light shone bright as an interrogation lamp directly into the windows, which were oddly shaped, making fitting curtains difficult. The landlady could see directly into the kitchen area from her verandah, and in addition, her washing machine was under my stairs, prompting an arduous, enervating process of negotiation about usage. There was a front door to my flat and a side door from her garage, and somehow she’d got the idea that while it was reasonable to knock before coming in through the front, such politesse was not required when entering from the side. The side door had a tendency to stick, and there were a series of Saturday mornings that commenced with a brutal rending and bursting sound from downstairs, before I uncharacteristically stood up for myself. This is not a relaxing way to live.
I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and am in any case highly sensitive to noise and light, which makes office work and being out in the world generally challenging, though not impossible for me. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like being a multisensorial radio, tuned to every station. I do not possess the filter some people have that enable them to tolerate or tune out fluorescent lighting, the feeling of restrictive clothing, the sound of people talking (or breathing) or the smell of their perfume. Free of these distractions, I am able to concentrate. And paradoxically, to engage more fully in the world. Without the constant noise and stress, I’m able to read deeply both for work and pleasure. Many of the books I edit cover history and science, and finally the mess of world events no longer seems vast and impossible to grasp, but all of a piece and my own place in it, what I can contribute, ever clearer.
When the pandemic struck, very little changed for me, except that for the first month I took in an international student who had been abruptly abandoned by the Morrison government, having suddenly lost her hospitality job and unable to return to Argentina, which had enforced one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. With apologies to those who find the recent enthusiasm for fictocriticism grating, I mention these autobiographical details because as Vincent points out, ‘reading has always been a networked experience’. The interlocution of my autobiographical voice in this review is one way of being in dialogue – in company – with the books I discuss. It’s partly political: how I read this history is inevitably shaped by my perspective as a long-term solitary, as a domestic violence survivor, as a person the world sees and treats as female. Or perhaps I’m just really lonely, and talking to books in this semi-public way is a means of being social.
The degree of choice you can exercise over an encounter with solitude obviously affects its quality. The prisoner in enforced solitary confinement experiences something very different from the aristocrat who withdraws to his country estate. It’s the latter view that has dominated much previous writing on the subject, and in this book Vincent, whose earlier work has focused on working-class history, provides a welcome balance, foregrounding many of these less privileged experiences. He pays close attention to the pointless cruelty of solitary confinement as a reformative or redemptive strategy in prisons, noting that since its inception, ‘all that was systematically recorded was failure’. The most useful lesson is that ‘the best defence against the terrors of solitude lay in the state of mind that had caused the incarceration’ – that is, if you were in for insubordination of some kind, your best chance of surviving it mentally is to maintain the rage.
In a chapter on walking, Vincent notes that historically, opportunities for deliberately chosen solitude were few, and depended greatly on class. The houses of most working-class people consisted of a single room in which the entire family lived; going for a walk was often ‘an important means of enjoying privacy for the large majority of the population who lacked the domestic space to withdraw’. He divides his analysis between the poorer classes, for whom walking was their main mode of transport as well as an opportunity for respite, and middle-class ramblers, for whom it was a leisure activity to which expensive accoutrements and corresponding industries could be appended. He pursues this line of inquiry further in the chapter on hobbies that facilitate ‘abstracted solitude’ such as stamp collecting, jigsaw puzzles and embroidery, observing that capitalism is quick to catch on to ways to monetise moments of leisure.
Vincent gives close attention to the accounts of working-class writers such as the poet John Clare, agricultural union leader Joseph Arch, and child labourer Charles Shaw. The writing maintains a skilful balance, discussing the benefits of solitude for these men while avoiding romanticising either their need to cover long distances for work, or the isolation of much agricultural labour. As Vincent emphasises throughout, whether solitude is a lonely hell or a welcome relief is all down to the degree of choice and control a person has – and that gender affects their degree of autonomy.
It is only a small section – Vincent has covered the subject of privacy more extensively in his 2016 book Privacy: A Short History – but in this historical moment, as people are negotiating shared and separate space anew on a vast scale, it jumps out. And reverberates for me, for other reasons.
In a midlife career change, I began training as a psychotherapist. Attachment styles are one of the first things we study. I am not in the least surprised to discover I lean towards ‘avoidance’; my fears are all about feeling trapped, intruded upon, engulfed by the needs of others. For as long as I can remember my fantasies have been about getting away from people, being independent, having quiet and calm and space. Being this kind of person, I’ve tended to attract my equally anxious counterpart: the ‘ambivalently attached’ – those who wish to merge with another. I’m oversimplifying wildly here, and the ‘disorganised’ attachment category (frightened/frightening) also applies, but that’s for another time. The basic pattern is this: the more the avoidant party withdraws, the harder the ambivalent one will pursue them. Every relationship of my twenties looked like this, culminating in an ironic nightmare: a tiny studio flat in another country. A man on whom I was completely dependent, given to frightening rages, who would scour my notebooks, laptop and emails for ammunition for his attacks. I was, at least, able to go for walks, and got into the habit of having a tiny notebook I kept in my bag, which I tried to keep on me at all times.
I re-read this notebook recently, hoping for notes that might help me retrieve some of the emotional memories I’ve blocked out from that time, but found instead it was filled with practical information: phone numbers of people who might be able to help, addresses of flats I might be able to move into, jobs I might be able to apply for, addresses of domestic violence services.
At that time the popular understanding of psychological abuse and its place in the continuum of domestic violence was rudimentary at best; there was a poster I often used to see on the backs of buses as I walked, alone, around Bristol. It featured a woman with a black eye and a slogan something like ‘Violence is never okay’. My husband had proudly told me, at the beginning of our relationship, that he’d never hit a woman. Although, he went on to say, his hands tightening around the steering wheel, ‘if she hit me first…’ He wasn’t hitting me, so what kind of help could I reasonably ask for? What was even my problem? Just that, despite close daily contact with this other human being, I felt lonelier than I’d ever felt in my life. Only on these solitary perambulations around Bristol’s cobblestoned streets – city of Thomas Chatterton, Angela Carter, Helen Dunmore, writers I clung to like a lifeline, a tether back to the world in which I might again be a person whose mind and autonomy could be respected – did I feel even vaguely like myself. Much of the time I felt as if I were watching the world through a thick wall of ice or glass; watching myself operating in that world as if acting in a play, an experience I now recognise as the dissociation caused by trauma, in which one is cut off even from oneself. I’m not sure there is anything lonelier.
It’s on my mind now, in my position of hard-won solitude, immersing myself pleasurably in this comprehensive, immaculately researched and elegantly written history. I read to my own schedule; no-one to interrupt; no-one getting into my computer when I’m not looking. If I return from a walk, my heart won’t start pounding in fear when I see the light in the window – it will just mean I left it on, not that someone is home, a fistful of pages in hand, waiting to angrily demand what I think I’m doing. I peek in horror at the internet to see another woman murdered by an abusive spouse; overburdened domestic violence services; message boards crowded with women whose marriages are bringing them to despair. Heterosexual marriage always looked like a pretty raw deal for the woman to me, even (especially) when I was in one, but lockdowns and other Covid-19 restrictions have brought the problem into especially sharp relief. Vincent doesn’t really investigate domestic abuse, but does pay substantial and thoughtful attention to women’s relationship to solitude throughout, including the phenomenon of feeling alone within marriage, and is clear that experiences of solitude are always inflected by gender.
It’s a clear example of the difference between solitude and loneliness, a theme Vincent circles around and returns to often. There are few experiences lonelier than being with people who don’t understand or like you; conversely, it’s quite possible to be physically alone and yet feel deeply connected to the world. His penultimate chapter is devoted to interrogating the much-vaunted ‘epidemic of loneliness’, pointing out that ‘current anxieties about the “loneliness epidemic” and the fate of interpersonal relations in the digital culture are reformulations of dilemmas that have surfaced in prose and verse for more than two millennia’. He notes that the instruments for measuring this phenomenon are necessarily flawed, and that public discourse on the subject ‘belongs to the realm of rhetoric rather than diagnosis’. Careful historian that he is, Vincent is extremely circumspect in presenting the various hyperbolic claims that have been made over the past twenty years or so for the supposedly widespread condition. He proposes that, rather,
There are grounds for arguing…that living alone is less a pathology of late modernity and more often a direct and frequently valued consequence of its defining strengths. The key question is under what circumstances solitude tips over into loneliness.
A short section on psychological research looks at the work of attachment theorist John Bowlby and the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who both understand loneliness as originating in attachment trauma. This section is necessarily brief; relatively recent developments in psychotherapy, which Vincent does not address, suggests that they were on to something. The interpersonal neurobiologist Bonnie Badenoch explains that even without the ideal background of secure attachment in childhood, it’s possible to create ‘earned secure attachment’. In this situation a person actually incorporates those with whom they feel attuned – a therapist, trusted friends, a partner – into what she describes as an ‘inner community’; this is what creates the sense that one is part of the world, connected with it, even when one is alone. There’s a difference, as the pioneer of group therapy Irvin Yalom describes, between social and existential loneliness; social loneliness can be addressed by participating in community; existential loneliness – the fact that ultimately, the only person who can live our life is us – is simply a part of the human experience.
Vincent approaches a couple of definitions of loneliness, proposing that one might be ‘solitude that has continued for longer than was intended or desired’. His historian’s angle of analysis is invaluable here, and Vincent presents a compelling case that neoliberal austerity policies in the UK over the past decade have contributed significantly to the phenomenon of social loneliness. He concludes that ‘continuing disinvestment in critical facilities such as public libraries, communal recreational facilities, and adult social services’ mean that there are ever fewer options for making choices and having control over solitude and thus relieving loneliness if you are poor. Ironic, then, that the British Conservative government in 2018 appointed the world’s first ‘Minister for Loneliness’; Vincent opens his chapter with this salient fact. The point is well made, and here in Australia as successive neoliberal governments continue to swing the wrecking ball through public services, it shouldn’t be lost on us either.
There’s plenty for literary history-lovers to enjoy; a section on Matthew Lewis’s wild eighteenth-century gothic romp The Monk entertainingly introduces some of the suspicions that have been – still are – popularly held about claims for the spiritual benefits of solitude. Vincent goes on to illuminate these more fully in the chapters ‘Prayers, Convents and Prisons’, and ‘The Spiritual Revival’. The latter delves briefly into the recent popular enthusiasm for the secularised version of Buddhist meditation known as mindfulness popularised by psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn. Vincent is fairly dispassionate in his discussion but does note that mindfulness is ‘readily commodified’ and that ‘its relation to specific structures of social or economic inequality or injustice is at best optional, at worst non-existent’. He’s not wrong; I resisted practising meditation for years, resenting the apparent emphasis on relieving individual suffering when so much of that suffering is often due to systemic, external causes – precarious labour, climate change, housing insecurity, and the ever-present threat of male violence, to name a few of my own. The fact that mindfulness is frequently co-opted by exploitative workplaces as a means of making employees more productive (or, my cynical mind would snarl, docile) just made me angrier. However, it is very difficult to maintain the mental clarity and calm resolve needed to challenge social injustice when one is constantly being overwhelmed by stress, particularly when your nervous system is highly reactive due to trauma. Some of that stress cannot be relieved by any individual measures I might take, but learning to separate which worries I do have some control over from those I don’t has been invaluable. Meditation can usefully clarify anger; in queer memoirist Michelle Tea’s words: ‘Meditate to come close to the razor’s edge of your fear’.
In the unaccustomed silence of that first year out here, voices from the past rose up. I was shocked to hear myself saying out loud things like ‘I hate myself’, ‘I want to die’, ‘I’m useless’. I didn’t really believe these things, did I? And yet I recognised them, they were profoundly familiar. And with no-one around to distract me, I now had to face them. In despair, I picked up a copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression, which Kabat-Zinn co-authored. I was sure it wouldn’t help, but was desperate enough to try anything. And found it revelatory. At its core, the meditation practice espoused is about actually feeling one’s feelings, staying through the intense discomfort of grief, sadness, fear and anger. I would eventually discover this approach is also at the core of addiction recovery and of therapy, where you do it in company. Easier said than done; I have been blocking my feelings since I was a child. Now that wall must come down. Initially excruciating, the practice became one I found effective, sustainable and very low-cost. My long-overworked nervous system began to calm. The persistent thrum of anxiety that has been with me for as long as I can remember is occasionally absent – and I am present enough to notice. I am on occasion ‘surprised by joy’ – and am present enough to notice it. And crucially, my relationships with others began to improve (although therapy, which I could not afford for a long time, has also been crucial here). Solitude was no longer a desperate, fear-fuelled escape from an overwhelming world, but one enjoyable possibility among many. I began attending a meditation group at the local Buddhist monastery; found myself willingly getting up in the cold and dark of dawn on Saturdays to attend group therapist training.
As I write, another Covid-19 outbreak is underway due to consistent governmental bungling. It’s hard to resist despair in the face of the sheer disregard shown for quality of life and indeed life itself. There are moments when I’m gripped by fear: what if I’m alone forever? With an increased capacity for connection has come a keener sense of loss at its absence. And even though what Vincent neatly describes as the ‘nervous, static labour of writing to recurring deadlines’ is often seen as one of the most solitary of artforms, personally my creativity has always flourished best when I’m in the kind of contact with other creative people that could be classified as ‘networked solitude’.
I don’t realise how much I’ve been starving for it until I join an online workshop with the provocative title ‘How Does Community End?’ run by the composer and artist Julian Day, whose work ‘fram(ing) sound as social and civic practice’ I’ve admired since those early, bewildering days after escaping my marriage, when I would listen to their – free, public broadcast, inventively curated – radio program Up Late, Day’s warm bass voice speaking gently to me through the radio. I spent a lot of time lying on the floor in the near-dark, listening in a trance of abstracted solitude. To be addressed kindly, as an intelligent person with a capable mind, after years of hearing only vituperative harshness was a guiding thread out of that dark labyrinth of pain. This public service – long since demolished – was a prime example of what psychiatrists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl call a ‘parasocial relationship’ – one-sided but for some of us, vitally important in establishing the ‘inner community’ necessary for a flourishing sense of self. For ten days the workshop meets daily for half an hour via Zoom; we respond to icebreaker prompts which, away from the menacing corporate environment in which these usually occur, are actually fun; we discuss books such as Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power and Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Loneliness; we create improvised compositions from scores by Christian Wolff and Pauline Oliveros. Little tendrils of social connection begin to grow between us. Abstracted morphs into networked solitude, and feels far better than the often treacherous terrain of social media; we can see each other’s faces, hear each other’s voices; pick up more emotional information. We co-regulate. Each day, after the session ends, I close my computer and look around the room. It feels bright and somehow full, even though it’s just me and the cats. I’ll carry these people with me for the rest of the day.
David Vincent, A History of Solitude, Polity, 2020
Amy Pickworth, Bigfoot for Women, Orange Monkey Publishing, 2014
Jenny Diski, On Trying to Keep Still, Hachette, 2006
Lorenzo Wilson Milam, CripZen, Mho and Mho Works, 1993
Bonnie Badenoch, ‘The Myth of Self-Regulation’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkI6s3rApXc&t=3173s
Irvin Yalom and Molyn Leszcz, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, Basic Books, 2020
Michelle Tea, How to Grow Up, Penguin Random House, 2015
Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindal Seagal and Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Mindful Way Through Depression, The Guilford Press, 2007
Julian Day, http://www.julianday.com/
Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, ‘Mass Communication and Parasocial Interaction’, Psychiatry, 19:3, 1956