Solitude has always been a blessing and a curse
From a review of two new books (A Biography of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti and A History of Solitude by David Vincent) in The Economist:
The history of solitude is thus partly a history of extremes—of people who have willingly sat on top of pillars for decades and of prison reformers who aim to use loneliness to break men’s souls. But it is also a history of the quest for balance.
The healthiest form of solitude is a flexible kind that combines it with sociability as necessary. Modern technology has made it both easier and harder to get the balance right. On the one hand, it has introduced what Mr Vincent calls “networked solitude”. Just as St Jerome squatted in his cave surrounded by his library, so modern hermits can sit in their flats gorging on downloaded books and films or chatting with friends across the world. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult to enjoy the benefits of solitude. Distraction is always one click away. And the same technology that allows the solitary individual to engage remotely with society also allows society to engage remotely—and sometimes secretly—with the individual. Giant companies watch over you whether you are alone or in a crowd.
There is also something disturbing about the way the boundaries between solitude and sociability are blurring. Visit a gym and you see sweaty solipsists performing private workouts in public. On a train many of your fellow passengers will be insulated by headphones. Those ubiquitous devices are double-edged: they can fill your head with babble or, thanks to noise-cancelling, leave you in Trappist silence. As the two categories mingle, so the quest for balance becomes more intense. Popular modern fads offer a reacquaintance with the virtues of solitude: mindfulness provides access to peace and silence; some of the most popular pastimes in Silicon Valley, the source of so much noise and distraction, are hiking, yoga and meditation.
The lockdown has put the question of solitude at the heart of politics. Social distancing has been a tragedy for those living and, in some cases, dying alone. But for others it has proved a strange blessing. Overworked people have been able to take a break from the treadmill of commuting. Many have picked up long-abandoned hobbies, such as tending the garden or playing bridge. Solitude is both one of mankind’s greatest blessings and greatest curses—and thanks to a virus that has been carried across the world by human sociability, more people than ever are getting the chance to experience both.
More: “Solitude Has Always Been Both a Blessing and a Curse” (paywall)