Blank Days: Michael Harris, Solitude

There must be an art to it, I thought. A certain practice, or alchemy, that turns loneliness into solitude, blank days into blank canvases. It must be one of those lost arts, like svelte calligraphy or the confident tying of a wedding cravat. A lost little art that, year by year, fades in the bleaching light of the future.

My favorite part of Michael Harris’s Solitude was the epigraph to Part I, which comes from one of Edith Wharton’s letters:

I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity–to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.

This lovely and evocative passage reminded me very much of May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep, which along with Journal of a Solitude chronicles the challenges but also the beauties of a life both isolated and receptive. I was surprised to find that Harris never mentions or quotes from Sarton: I think my disappointed expectation that he would is a symptom of the mismatch between what I went to his book for and what I found.

I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with Harris’s book on its own terms, though it turned out not to be the book I was looking for. It’s primarily about the challenge (as Harris sees it) of finding and coping with solitude in our hyper-connected technological age. As he tells it, nearly every activity that used to be solitary has become social. But while there’s no doubt that everything from reading to dating can now be carried on in a hyper-linked-up way, I thought he too hastily and completely conflated “using technology” with “not being alone.” Also, like many authors of this sort of book, he seemed to rush from his own habits and experience to universal proclamations. “Is there no middle road,” he asks,

a way to secure some isolation within the glory of all that connectivity? Is there not a way to get past [Anne Morrow] Lindbergh’s starfish problem, where essential parts of our selves are ripped off each time we enter and exit our solitude? Is there a third way that each person, alone, could discover for themselves?

Yes, is the obvious answer: turn things off, opt out, calm down. I keep the WiFi off on my Kobo reader except when I want to download new books; I have opted out of all the notifications on the Kobo app on my iPad. Just because I’m reading electronically doesn’t mean I want to bring a whole crowd of strangers into the experience. I usually have “mobile data” turned off on my phone: I can’t check email or Twitter when I’m out and about unless I really want or need to, and that’s a conscious decision. There’s no need for the false alternative of either a wholly porous existence or a week of total social isolation in a cabin in the woods.

I appreciated the questions Harris raises about the role of solitude in our lives, as well as the evidence and anecdotes he gives about its benefits. What I was looking for, though, was not a disquisition on Wattpad but insight into achieving what Wharton describes and Sarton comes close to. I hoped, I suppose, for a book that would complement Emily White’s Lonely: if loneliness is, as Harris proposes, “failed solitude,” how can we succeed at it? Harris’s book spends a lot more time answering “why should we want it?” instead. Though Harris might not believe it, I’m already solitary enough; it’s the “unassailable serenity” that eludes me. To find it, or to fill the time so I don’t miss it, I’m better off with different writers.

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