Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/17/2011

“Solitude is border country”

A Lady of "Solitude"

A Lady of "Solitude"

Each of my classes has fifteen students, and I have divided them into groups of three. Arbitrarily. I had a goal when I made the divisions—to insure diversity (how “liberal” of me) in the groups. All of my classes are minimally racially diverse. Three of the classes are balanced by gender, but the fourth has only four girls.

Each group works on a different topic although all address somehow the possibility that one of Mary Shelley’s purposes (if a novelist can has a “purpose”) in Frankenstein is to warn against hubris-driven scientific experimentation. How original of me!

One group comprises two students, a boy and girl who are articulate and easily discuss the project, and an athlete, a member of the football team, who is infinitely more gregarious than the others but less interested in focusing on the project. (Don’t. Don’t go there. I treasure my work with athletes. They are wonderfully high-spirited; it’s impossible not to be affected by their liveliness. And they know something few other students know: discipline.)

The group was sitting together talking face to face, but the athlete was texting on his iPhone—not really being part of the discussion. I asked him why. He said he was texting with his roommate “who can’t do anything for himself and is always having some kind of problem.”

All of this, in case you missed the point, is leading to pondering solitude. My solitude.

I’ve been even more solitary than usual the last several days. When I go a week without posting on my blog, something is up. I am reluctant to admit that I need, crave, have to have solitude because we

tend to deny the very loneliness that is likely responsible for many of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. People seem to feel ashamed when they do admit to loneliness—which is socially stigmatized and is seen as a weakness in the western culture. As such, it is widely believed that loneliness should not affect normal, healthy, and strong people (1).

I hardly know where to take my thoughts from here. Loneliness should not affect normal, healthy, and strong people. So admitting to being lonely means I am abnormal, unhealthy, and weak. I am part of a group of (mostly gay) men who regularly talk together about various matters of great importance to all of us, and to whom I have admitted to a certain degree of social anorexia. That means, of course, that I embrace solitude, that I refuse social interaction.

When St. Michael and All Angels Church honored my request to memorialize my father with a service this Saturday, I drew up a list of friends I wanted to be with that day. My webmail (someone please help me reconfigure Outlook on my restored computer!) allows me to address emails to only twenty people at a time. Not to worry. I couldn’t think of more than that the first time I invited my friends. Later I thought of about ten more—a total of fewer than thirty.

That’s probably nothing to worry about. Almost no one in Dallas knew my father. And so it would seem presumptuous to invite a lot of people to a service for him. But we all know the service is for me and for my family who are scattered around the country and cannot be here. So I should invite all of my friends to join me in this celebration. And I could think of only twenty or so people to invite.

A Lady of "Solitude"

A Lady of "Solitude"

None of them is a boyfriend. Three are cousins. Only two are colleagues from my work. A few are members of that men’s group. A few are from the church where I was organist for seventeen years. One is from St. Michael and All Angels Church. None (except the church’s organist) is an organist (or any other variety of musician).

Is this a bad thing? Or is it merely my recognition of the difference between “acquaintance,” “friend,” and “confidante?” I’ve done some thinking about how many people might show up for a similar celebration of the fathers of various friends. For one, I can imagine hundreds—but he is (to me) unbelievably gregarious and grew up in Dallas. For others I can imagine scores because of their active membership in churches or other organizations.

But my inability to think of more than a handful of friends to ask to come to this service out of caring or mutual respect or community with me is somewhat surprising. I often think about my having become the poster child for the controversy between

self versus society, private versus public, country versus city, contemplation versus action—that stretch[es] back to antiquity. Classical thinkers tended to favor sociality as more conducive to virtue, with Aristotle’s denunciation of solitude as fit only for beasts or gods setting the dominant tone (2).

Solitude is fit only for gods or beasts. So my students collaborate—and one student who has difficulty working with his peers is electronically attached to a roommate who needs his help. Even I have to admit that I derive great pleasure from working with guys (and girls) with whom I have almost nothing in common.

Researching Mary Shelley for this class, I (of course) encountered material about her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the great early feminist. After a journey to Scandinavia when she spent much time alone, she published her fictional Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden.  In that work she acknowledges that while she was alone, she

considered [her]self as a particle broken off from the grand mass of mankind . . . alone, till some involuntary sympathetic emotion, like the attraction of adhesion, made me feel that I was still part of a mighty whole, from which I could not sever myself . . . [even] by snapping the thread of . . . existence (3).

A Lady of "Solitude"

A Lady of "Solitude"

She could consider herself alone until some involuntary. . . emotion like the attraction of adhesion made her feel connected. Much of the time I consider myself as a particle broken off from the grand mass of mankind.

I would like to think that in my solitude I am in the process of making meaning, the process of

(re-)construction of schemes and representations, so that the feeling of. . . coherence is reestablished. . . the perspectives that [I have] on the world and [my]self, the goals that [I want] to achieve and relevant events for these goals. [I understand that] in order to recover when experiencing a disruptive life event, the person initiates, both consciously and unconsciously, a search for meaning (4).

My fear is that, rather than a search for meaning, my inability to socialize freely has become isolationism. Or perhaps I should simply relax and understand that I have this in common with Wollstonecraft.

Solitude is border country, the boundary zone where self and other negotiate for possession of what Wollstonecraft would have called her soul (5)

and that is just fine. I am in negotiation for possession of, if not my soul, my self.
(1) Rokach, Ami. “From Loneliness to Belonging: A Review.” Psychology Journal 8.2 (2011): 70-81.
(2) Taylor, Barbara. “Separations of Soul: Solitude, Biography, History.” American Historical Review 114.3 (2009): 640-651.
(3) Wollstonecraft, Mary. Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), in Wollstonecraft, The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, 7 vols. (London, 1989), vol. 6. Quoted in Taylor.
(4) Marcu, Oana. “Meaning Making and Coping: Making Sense of Death.” Cognition, Brain, Behavior 11.2 (2007): 397-416.
(5) Taylor, op. cit.


  1. I’ve just come across this blog. Mary Wollstonecraft knew the value of solitude: she was a writer, and what writer does not need time alone? But she was also sociable, and of course lived in the days when ideas were largely conveyed face to face. Famously, she and William Godwin first met at a dinner party given by their publisher. He didn’t think much of her, but years later they married. I write more about her at A Vindication of the Rights of Mary. Bee Rowlatt is retracing Mary’s solitary steps, likewise with a baby and a book idea.


  2. […] have a rather bad case of social anorexia. Of course, when I make statements like that, people shake their heads and say (or at least think), […]



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