Further notes on solitude

... I started out last month positing a tentative binary – individualism vs. solitude – that I took from Rousseau. It seemed to me then that Rousseau could not bring together his view of civil society founded on a fundamental equality and his view of the continuing dependence of women The contradiction imploded in his narratives. And the move, late in Rousseau’s life, to elevate solitude seems to me to be a political move, or hold the seeds of a politics. Contra Todorov, Rousseau did not represent his solitude as an exception. It was, potentially, the right to solitude, the development of solitude, that provides us with a whole new view of the relationship between the self and society. Solitude is a social development.

This made me wonder about the right to solitude of women. Solitude, as I am trying to understand it, is not the right of the property holder who can shut the door on the public sphere and stay at home. That kind of privacy does fit with an emerging individualism. But solitude has aspects that are strikingly different from the ideal individual of the individualist ethos.

I’ve held solitude on the margins, so to speak, as I’ve been looking at the culture of respectability, and the question of the condition of England – that is, why England’s greater political freedom was embedded in a palpable moral narrowness, as Herzen, among many other foreign observers, noted. A longstanding story about Britain claims that it was the first developed country to develop a strong, modern sense of privacy. Privacy, self-improvement, order were the hallmarks of respectability. De Stael, for one, attributed the English excellence in the novel to the greater role played in England by the private life. To her, the novel introduces epic proportions into the bedroom and the study, so to speak.

Now, are these rooms of someone’s own the equivalent of solitude?
This is where my binary should help me a bit. I want to associate solitude with extremes, with limit cases – with the sublime that Edgeworth condemns. The extremes are either the retreat from enlightenment to the archaic, or the leap over the enlightenment to the revolutionary. The equal right to solitude, from the point of view of the culture of respectability, muddies the divisions between the public and private sphere. It brings the question of equality, which is the question of justice, into the dimension of how we are to live, here, on our beds, in our chairs, as well as in our work, in our laundry tubs, offices, mines. A right to solitude, rather than a right to property, would give us a much different political discourse, and a much different sense of where politics is going on, and what it is for.

Can solitude bear this weight?

The England de Stael sees in 1793 and in 1814 was, perhaps, passing through its most European phase. It isn’t surprising that German philosophy, sentimentalism, and romantic poetry were creating a cult of solitude, making it one of the central motifs of romantic poetry. Peter Conrad’s in a brilliant essay I need to discuss has claimed that the movement in English literature is to pastoralize epic themes, to release the poem from the heroic in order to celebrate the private. But I think this use of the private, like de Stael’s, is a way of drawing a division between the public and private sphere that goes against the grain of solitude.

In fact, as the modernists of the nineteenth century came to recognize, solitude is more naturally connected with the crowd – as Hoffmann, Poe and Baudelaire saw.


Anonymous said…
beautiful post, LI.


roger said…
Alas, this comments machine doesnt let me make comments. Who is the machine and who is the master, I ask you?
Anyway, let's see if this goes through: thank you, Amie. I really appreciate that comment. And the link.