Saturday, July 19, 2014

Should You Embrace Solitude?

As per my last post, social psychologists fully recognize the therapeutic benefit to striking up conversations with strangers. Human connections, they understand, are the cure for feelings of anomie, disaffection, isolation and rejection.

If you are practicing psychoanalysis, as Adam Phillips is, this call to connect with other people would threaten to put you out of business. In classical psychoanalysis patient and analyst do not connect. The process itself, as I have put it, doubles down on anomie.

So, a serious psychoanalytic thinker like Phillips knows perfectly well that he must explain how self-absorbed mental meanderings can benefit an individual.

In presenting Phillips’ argument, Maria Popova  begins by quoting Pascal, who said, as I translate it: “I discovered that all of man’s problems derive from one source: the inability to sit alone in a room in repose.”

Surely, this is a profound thought. And yet, it’s being profound and Pascalian does not necessarily make it true. Frankly, I do not think that this idea is even remotely true.

In the meantime, Phillips has developed concepts of “fertile solitude” and “productive solitude:”

A fertile solitude is a benign forgetting of the body that takes care of itself… A productive solitude, the solitude in which what could never have been anticipated appears, is linked with a quality of attention.

One accepts the concept of productive solitude, but “fertile solitude” is a clumsy metaphor. Surely, Phillips did not intend it, but “fertile solitude” seems like a euphemism for parthenogenesis.

Here, Phillips is speaking as a psychoanalytic patient, lost in his thoughts, letting his mind wander, spewing out whatever comes to mind, regardless of the response he receives from his analyst.

And he seems to recognize—how explicitly I know not—that Lacan was correct when he compared psychoanalysis to a mystical journey into the mind.

Of course, productive solitude is another story. A man sitting in a room ruminating about his children or his childhood is not really doing anything productive… unless he is collecting material for his next book. A man sitting alone in a room planning his new business is doing something productive with his solitude. Then again, if that is what he is doing, he probably does not feel very alone, in the sense of disconnected. He feels part of a team, perhaps actual, perhaps eventual.

True enough, solitude does not often feel good. For a child, solitude feels like abandonment. For an adolescent it feels like isolation.

And yet, aside from the fact that it might also be a respite from a day’s activities-- a moment to reflect over what happened and to plan the future-- solitude contains the sense of being rejected, of being disconnected.

Phillips declares that some people become phobic about solitude, but he should have added—and would have if he was not trying to encourage people to undergo psychoanalysis—that the objects of phobias, as Aaron Beck pointed out, are truly dangerous.

As I said in the previous post, the cure for anomie is connection. Discovering why you feel disconnected does not make you any more connected.

One might also ask whether there is such a thing as doing nothing. The man who is lying out in the sun working on his skin cancer is not doing anything productive. For all we know he might be engaged in a ritual worship of the sun god. If, however, he is thinking through his sales pitch or mulling over his budget, one would have difficulty saying that he is doing nothing.

If productive activity, solitary or not, involves directing oneself toward the future, psychoanalysis cannot be called productive.  It is about exploring the past… by disconnecting from the present and the future. If so, there is nothing productive about it, in the sense that it contributes to a work project.

For all we know, people who, when isolated, meditate over past experiences are simply telling themselves—perhaps not very convincingly-- that they are not alone.

More philosophically, Phillips quoted Nietzsche, a man who was not exactly a beacon of mental health and emotional tranquility:

When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul and I grow angry with everybody and fear everybody.

The least one can say is: don’t try this at home.

If you are a great philosopher, if you are a genius, then you incur a duty to cultivate your genius. This will, in many cases, make you fear social contact, especially if you believe that your genius must place you at odds with the rest of the world.

But, Nietzsche believed in creating himself as his own work of art. Many psychoanalysts believe that they can offer the same thing. Their frame of reference is aesthetic, not ethical.

Here we have a problem with definition. Ethically speaking, there are two kinds of solitude. There’s the solitude you feel when you understand that you and you alone are responsible for a failure. And then there is the individuality you feel when you and you alone are put on trial for having committed a crime.

As it happens, the criminal’s individual guilt is less difficult to deal with than is the shame of the man who has failed. The criminal and only the criminal is tried for his dereliction. And yet, he knows what he must do to pay his debt to society. Moreover, and not insignificantly, if he pays by doing time in a prison, he will join a company of other criminals. Thus, he will become part of a new social group.

Unless he is placed in solitary confinement, a punishment that is extremely painful, a criminal will enjoy the company of others.

The individual whose moral failings bring shame will have a harder time attenuating his pain. Since shame is about how he looks to other people, it is not very easy—short of mind control—to modify the way other people see him. In that he is not merely alone, but he faces a daunting task if he wants to recover from shame.

The feeling of isolation, of rejection of disconnection, of feeling ostracized cannot be papered over by lofty thoughts about solitude.


Socially Extinct said...

“I discovered that all of man’s problems derive from one source: the inability to sit alone in a room in repose.”

This is not to be taken at face value (sorry, I eschew legal and Latin phrases).

The inability to sit alone in a room in repose has little to do with rooms or sitting, or even repose. Rather, it is a metaphorical recognition of that very rare human practice of disassociating oneself from our conscious ego container...the same one that tells us we must blather to strangers so as to avoid "anomie, disaffection, isolation and rejection."

The root of these "undesirable" qualities is from that experienced when the view from the windows of our room drastically or subtly are at variance with the world we actually experience as we step out the door.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

If the statement means anything, it must work as a function of the chosen image or metaphor. If it says that human beings would not have problems if they were more spiritual or in closer touch with God-- the idea is certainly doubtful, to my eyes at least.

And obviously, engaging in conversation with other people counts among the most effective ways to overcome egocentrism. Isn't that the point?

David Foster said...

"There is a density of being in a Dominican at prayer. He is never so much alive as when prostrate and motionless before his God. In Pasteur, holding his breath over the microscope, there is a density of being. Pasteur is never more alive than in that moment of scrutiny. At that moment he is moving forward. He is hurrying. He is advancing in seven-league boots, exploring distance despite his immobility. Cezanne, mute and motionless before his sketch, is an inestimable presence. He is never more alive than when silent, when feeling and pondering. At that moment his canvas becomes for him something wider than the seas."

--Antoine de St-Exupery, Flight to Arras

Anonymous said...

Had Enough Immigration?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

A man promoted by the west as a 'moderate Muslim'.