A History of Solitude
By David Vincent Polity, 304pp, £25/$35
In one of those strange quirks of timing, David Vincent’s new book, A History of Solitude, couldn’t have been published at a more apposite moment. With several parts of the globe already in lockdown over the coronavirus outbreak, and the British government encouraging people to work from home, practise social distancing and “self-isolate” for seven days if they experience any symptoms, knowing how to cope alone has never seemed more urgent.
Even in the official advice, experts acknowledge that isolation is going to be hard for some, and watching the way this virus has quickly spread around our ever-more interconnected world, it’s clear that for most being alone (if not lonely) is an almost alien concept.
But as Vincent points out early on, this is not a new phenomenon. Even in 1791, opinions were split over whether solitude was “the parent of all human excellence and felicity” or “the depraver of the faculties, and the source of disquietude”. Unfortunately for the readers of this book, Vincent seems to err more on the latter side of this division. In fact, he seems so little interested in actual solitude that he finds it as hard to stick to his subject as some people find to remain indoors.
Pascal famously noted that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”, but this is not something Vincent is interested in exploring, and his literary references are scanty. Thoreau is mentioned here, but only very briefly. Solitude is essential to literature, whether it’s Proust’s cork-lined room, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or William Gass’s great novel of isolation, The Tunnel.
But this doesn’t interest Vincent.
Indeed, he stretches the notion of solitude to the point where he largely ends up writing about something else entirely (he acknowledges this by suggesting these are “themes” of his study). What he seems much more interested in than solitude is psychogeography, referencing authors such as Ian Sinclair, Will Self and WG Sebald. The problem with this is that while walking can be undertaken alone, most of these writers focus as much on companionship as they do on isolation. Much of Sinclair’s finest work operates as a buddy comedy, with the people who are accompanying him on the walk being as important as the observations he makes while alone.
Vincent also seems very interested in stamp-collecting, which while it may involve much time alone, is also an activity with a social element. Similarly, few would consider going to the cinema as a time of solitude, and watching television may be something that you can do in isolation, but it also brings people together, not just in the home but also in pubs.
The best sections of this book are the ones where Vincent does follow his brief, and it’s a shame he didn’t either publish these hundred or so pages separately or with different chapters more obviously focused on his subject. While it’s apparent he has ambiguous feelings about the Catholic Church, he does have some worthwhile observations to make on the role of private prayer for the believer.
The best chapter here is on “Prayers, Convents, and Prisons”, although it is not clear why he has yoked religious isolation together with the role of isolation in punishment (other than a desire to get this over with quickly so he can return to jigsaws and crossword puzzles), and in doing so, he betrays his suspicions about the Church.
It’s not just religion that Vincent seems suspicious about, but also the contemporary notion of “mindfulness”. Again, instead of looking at the value some artists have found in transcendental meditation, he is critical of the practice for what seem like bizarre reasons, arguing that “its relation to specific structures of social or economic inequality or injustice are at best optional, or at worst non-existent”. There are lots of reasons for being suspicious of what some see as the cult of wellness, but these ones seem largely irrelevant.
In his final section, “Solitude in the Digital Era”, Vincent acknowledges that it is too soon to make a definitive judgment about “digital natives”, but again, what one might expect to find in a study of solitude (perhaps a detailed study of the Japanese hikikomori, reclusive adolescents who withdraw from society) is missing.
This may be because he wants to focus exclusively on British culture, but even so, there are lots of things to say about the irony of “social” media existing in solitude, rather than the vague generalisations about men liking email that he gives us instead.
Vincent notes he wrote this book in a converted pigsty and would scurry back to his home for company; no wonder he struggles to portray being alone as anything other than a privation.