It is the end of the first week of 2016 and I think I may have found my Book of the Year already. This one is going to be hard to top.
You know when you read a book and love it so much that you deliberately read it extra slowly, so that it lasts longer? This was one of those.
I picked it up in Waterstones when I was waiting for another place to open. It called out to me from the shelf and I decided to take it home, even though my reading list is currently quite extensive already.
Solitude by Anthony Storr, an academic and eminent psychiatrist, challenges the idea that people who choose a solitary lifestyle are wrong to do so. Through examples from history and an investigation into various psychological theories, Storr discusses the advantages of the solitary life, and how we should pay more attention to the great satisfaction that can be gleaned therefrom.
Choosing a solitary life is a difficult thing to do, especially in today’s constantly switched-on society. People are always asking how your love life is, whether you have a social life, and (sometimes not so) subtly pushing you towards being more “normal”.
There is something to be said for the ability to be with others and to form healthy relationships, of course, and Storr acknowledges this. But there is also much to be said for the ability to be alone – something which is far more widely overlooked.
It was refreshing to read a book that doesn’t assume you’re wrong to prefer your own company a lot of the time. To hear someone else say that choosing not to have a romantic partner in life is OK. That being on your own can be a great thing; which I knew already, but it’s nice to have it backed up.
Kierkegaard has been my favourite philosopher ever since I read Fear and Trembling when I was seventeen. At university, I fell in love with a dynamic and intelligent man. I broke up with him several times, stating that I wanted to be alone: that a life of solitude was what I had chosen for a variety of reasons, and citing Kierkegaard’s situation with his love Regine Olsen as an example to back up my view.
We had various philosophical debates on the subject. He, a romantic Nietzschean (yes, they exist), believed love would conquer all. I, a cynical Kierkegaardian, believed that in order to pursue the philosophical lifestyle that would ultimately prove fulfilling, I needed to choose solitude.
In the end I caved in. We moved in together, got married, and several years later we’re now in the middle of a divorce. Why? Well, for many reasons, but largely because that first reason never went away. Throughout my married life, I was searching for something I felt I had lost; something which required solitude in order for me to be able to carry it out. Something I couldn’t quite define, but which had its roots in my intellect, my intelligence, my philosophical nature.
Storr puts it much more eloquently than I:
“Kant, Wittgenstein and Newton were all men of genius who, however different they may have been in other ways, shared a vast capacity for original, abstract thought with a lack of close involvement with other human beings.
Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that, if they had had wives and families, their achievements would have been impossible.
For the higher reaches of abstraction demand long periods of solitude and intense concentration which are hard to find if a man is subject to the emotional demands of a spouse and children.”
But what about love? Doesn’t it conquer all? That amazing, all-encompassing feeling that seems to surpass everything you’ve ever experienced before, doesn’t it make you want to throw aside everything else in your life and pursue this thing that will bring you greater joy than you’ve ever known?
After all, that’s what romantic movies tell us, so it must be true.
Storr has something to say about that as well, and I whole-heartedly agree, not least because he doesn’t deny the bliss that can come from romantic attachment, but discusses it in the context of a whole life, rather than how it feels in the moment:
“If life is to continue, one cannot linger for ever in a state of oceanic tranquillity… man’s adaptation to the world is the result, paradoxically, of not being perfectly adjusted to the environment, of not being in a state of psychological equilibrium.
The ecstatic state of wholeness is bound to be transient because it has no part in the total pattern of ‘adaptation through maladaptation’ which is characteristic of our species. Boethian bliss is not conducive to invention: the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from the realisation that something is missing, from awareness of incompleteness.”
And some of what he says touches on asexuality, as well. Discussing how much the concept of sex underlines not only many humans’ daily lives, but also a lot of psychological theory, Storr writes:
“however sincerely one subscribes to the evolutionary view that man’s prime biological task is to reproduce himself, the very fact that the lifespan extends for so long beyond the period at which, at least for women, reproduction is possible, raises doubts as to whether the act subserving reproduction entirely deserves this pride of place.”
Solitude is, in summary, a book that has immediately rocketed up the ranks to join my favourite books of all time. Whether you are a solitary type yourself, or just someone who wants to understand why someone would choose such a lifestyle, Solitude is a book that you must read.