In the Emmy-winning 1997 version of Rebecca , there’s a scene in which the new, young Mrs. de Winter is harassed by one of the film’s less savory characters for claiming to enjoy being alone at the vast Manderlay estate while her husband is away on business. From our present-day perspective, there’s something unsavory in itself about a rich old man popping off on profitable travel without any regard for what his homebound wife might want or not want to do in his absence. But for this and a variety of reasons, in and of themselves not unreasonable, we’ve developed something of a bad case of solophobia, exacerbated now in unsettling ways by the ‘social turn’ taken by the internet and its biggest boosters.

I’m going to tread carefully here because, again, I like blogs, like having friends, have a professional and personal stake in good and frequent communication, etc., etc. From ideas like “a woman stuck alone at home is having her pursuit and enjoyment of her full human capabilities unjustly truncated and crippled,” we have progressed, it seems, to ideas like “solitude is in and of itself troublesome, dissatisfying, and even hateful,” or “anyone who likes to spend most of their time alone is weird or unhealthy.” The key to these notions involves the concept of experience as being central to our felicity — something you can find as far back, Michael Oakeshott teaches us, as Hobbes. However, something funny happens to the phenomenology of experience in history. Whereas once, and as late as Burke, ‘experience’ was a category that referred us to the eternal — the consequence of custom and judgment accumulated since time out of mind, and the cause of a prudence that enabled us to assimilate new events and situations to now-timeless patterns of thought and action — rather quickly ‘experience’ became a category referring us to the novel itself — an episodic ordeal with privileged status as something real, in which precisely custom, judgment, prudence, and habit were discovered to be inadequate to the purposes of fully, well, experiencing it (if not obsolete entirely).

This is quite a reversal, and it’s changed our outlook on solitude. Although the Romantics, following Rousseau, had an appreciation for solitude bordering on the really anti-social and obsessive — for Meaning was to be found in Nature, and Nature could not be experienced at all in Society — today we have determined that Meaning is to be found in Experience, and the most important, and thus meaningful, kind of experience to be had is Social Experience exactly. We champion this idea even to the point of absurdity, to the point of its thinnest and most artificial incarnation as a ‘sense of belongingness.’ But champion it we do. We people, not nature, have taken over as the definitive site of meaningful experience. And by nature social experience is much more a parade of novelties than non-social experience.

An example of what I mean, tying all these threads together, has just been provided by Alan Jacobs :

Kelly’s typically hyperbolic statement fails to see that, if we pause for a moment to think, everything is not equally related to everything else: connections are variable in strength and tenacity. The passage early in The Lord of the Rings in which Gandalf expresses approval of the mercy Bilbo showed to Gollum is especially closely connected with the book’s final scene on Mount Doom — much more than to hundreds of other pages of the book. Kelly in his enthusiasm lacks any sense of the need for intellectual discrimination.

Think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.

Johnson does not even seem aware that to many, many people this vision is nightmarish. There are readers, and there will always be readers, who love books precisely because they offer the opportunity to be alone with another intelligence — one other intelligence. This has indeed been one of the chief joys of reading as long as people have read, and Johnson seems to think it is simply going to disappear, and that people will be perfectly happy to see it disappear. Absurd.


‘Surprisingly’, it transpires, in solitude we’re not really alone — or, to be topical about it, there is a world of difference between solitude and solitary confinement. From this perspective, socialization-happy critics of solitude actually appear jealous of what privileged experiences of meaning might be going on behind the backs of the herd. “If you’re not with us , you’re not happening!” Not only are people not allowed to be alone in peace, they’re not allowed to be alone together. The sacred quality of the pair is, and I don’t think I’m being terribly hyperbolic in saying this, under attack. There is, even within our own crazy culture, a huge pushback against this — in the form of our super-romantic idea of soulmates, an idea which has gotten stronger even as it has gotten weaker. Ours is the era of Adult Services on Craigslist as much as it is the era of eHarmony. But the result of this friction has been a desperate romanticization of doomed soulmates — not doomed, crudely, Romeo and Juliet style, with the lovers still stuck in an eternal frame anyway, but doomed to be novel, fleeting experiences to one another, experiences with a shelf life. We are building in as a coping mechanism the idea that everybody is increasingly likely to be an eminently nonpermanent fixture in our lives. But rather than viewing this as what it is — a persistent love for experiencing one another in a way that doesn’t revel in the novel at the expense of the eternal — we have already begun to describe it as just more solophobia.

MORE . . . Running out to get some milk I forgot the coup de grace . Alan is right to imply that this techno-sociableness fetish artificially polarizes the world into individuals on the one hand and ‘communities’ on the other (I am still unsure what a community is). What is a regular ordinary non-virtual book club by these falsely polarized lights? Where does it fall on the non-continuum? Between the cracks — into oblivion!

More on: Books, Culture, Film, Love

Articles by James Poulos

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