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Cultures of Solitude

Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation

Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler

This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.

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“Alone, Without a Guide”: Solitude as a Literary and Cultural Paradox (Svend Erik Larsen)

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Svend Erik Larsen

“Alone, Without a Guide”: Solitude as a Literary and Cultural Paradox

Abstract: Solitude is an individual experience. Yet, it exists only in a collective cultural universe. As language is a medium of a collective nature, the literary manifestations of solitude are as paradoxical as solitude itself. This essay focuses on this paradox both as an individual experience and in its historical vicissitudes in literature.

1. Standing Alone?

In the very last lines of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (En Folkefiende, 1882), Thomas Stockmann announces his great discovery to the family: It is this, let me tell you – that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone” (act V, n. pag.).1 Stockmann is the idealistic hero who tries to reveal how public mismanagement of the local bath facility poses a risk to the health of both visitors and locals. Yet, the facility also represents a major source of local income. So, the local dignitaries, a greedy and scheming lot, declare him an enemy of the people. Only the family show their solidarity in spite of the aggressive attacks they have been exposed to from the local population. Nonetheless, Stockmann stays firm and stands alone in an ethical and political dilemma.

In a performance I attended some years ago, Stockmann, although standing alone, placed himself in a chair during his bold statement. Gathering the family around him while sitting down, this is Ibsen’s ironic gesture to the audience and it has two effects: first, without himself realizing it, we see that Stockmann’s self-proclaimed solitude is a self-asserting recourse to some kind of collectivity, even with a self-righteousness that is not without similarity to that of his opponents. Second, like all irony, it forces audience and readers to reflect upon the nature and the meaning of human solitude beyond the individual horizon of Stockmann. We can be hit by irony entirely by our own doing, but irony itself is a communicative act that only works in a collective universe of shared meaning production. Couched in irony, Stockmann’s acclaimed solitude presents his own limits of understanding as well as those of the community he is part of. Thus, the irony adds a paradoxical twist to the connection between communality and solitude that is translated into language. When Stockmann shares his solitude with others he also contradicts it, simply by telling them. But he has to share it: otherwise he would just have been a loser, not a solitary hero. ← 45 | 46 →

Paradoxically, language includes solitude in a collective universe and, equally paradoxically, when used for this purpose the collective nature of language is undermined in ambiguities like Ibsen’s staged irony or in other forms of indirectness like metaphors, broken narratives, fragmented subject formation, multilevel discursive strategies, or even silence (Engelberg). In their entanglement language and solitude mark the limits of culture in two ways. If solitude through language marks the limits of what humans can share, then the ensuing ambiguity of language hampers its capacity to reflect on precisely these limits. As Michel Hannoun remarks, it is hard to turn solitude into a concept (46–48, 59).

More recently, Paul Auster in his The Invention of Solitude (1980) has added the self-reflection Stockmann ignores and further intensifies the paradox:

What he experienced, perhaps, during those few moments on Christmas Eve, 1979, as he sat in his room on Varick Street, was this: the sudden knowledge came over him that even alone, in the deepest solitude of his room, he was not alone, or, more precisely, that the moment he began to try to speak of that solitude, he had become more than just himself. Memory, therefore, not simply as the resurrection of one’s private past, but an immersion in the past of others, which is to say: history. (139, emphasis added)

The self-reflection of the protagonist A.’s liminal condition does not dissolve it. By way of language, solitude turns into a subjective reality, his solitude, and, paradoxically, transforms into a shareable quality of human life, even on the limits of language, society, and culture. He becomes “more than just himself” and enters a world of collective memory and history.

We are not dealing with a paradox according to the principle of contradiction from formal logic. Epimenides’s’ paradox that ‘the Cretes say that it is true that all Cretes are liers’ can both be explained and avoided. Here, language works on two levels: a metalevel where truth value is decided and a denotative level where claims are made. In Epimenides’s dictum, nothing is wrong with the two levels taken separately, only with their combination, which we can just avoid. But when it comes to language and solitude, we cannot help producing the paradox that solitude transformed it into its opposite simply by being verbalized. Hence, this paradox is not a paradox in the formal sense but more in the sense offered by Gilles Deleuze and Karl-Otto Apel.

According to Deleuze, “[t]he principle of contradiction is applicable to what is real and what is possible, but not to what is impossible from where the principle itself emerges, that is to say not to the paradoxes or rather to what they represent” (102, my transl.). The phrase “what they represent” is most important here, not the paradoxes per se. What they represent is the boundary of a shared culture and its identity formations. Yet, a paradox only represents its existence without being ← 46 | 47 → able to provide it with a straightforward meaning. As Umberto Eco has pointed out, this kind of paradox is essential in the hermetic tradition where it represents the highest attainable knowledge and thus the limits of human recognition, an understanding also cultivated in Zen-Buddhism. Hence, solitude is not just an individual state but also a phenomenon that enables a culture to see and question its own horizon from within.

If Deleuze underlines the representational dimension of paradox, Apel points to its performative nature. A.’s discovery does not grow out of language as such, but only in the moment he uses it, that is to say as an enunciation. This is what Apel calls a ‘performative paradox’ in the context of an extended speech act theory. A performative paradox occurs when a speech act does not respect the conditions that are necessary for the speech act to be what it claims. If it appears to be a statement that should be verifiable, a constative, then it is a performative paradox if the utterance in itself contradicts its truth claim. When I, for example, say ‘I am alone,’ even in complete isolation, then the very fact that I do so in a common language contradicts the truth claim. In terms of speech act theory, the utterance moves from the area of constatives to the area of performatives and becomes a performative paradox (Apel). Rather than provoking questions on the feeling of solitude itself, it generates questions concerning the boundary of human culture and identity and of the means we have to approach it, language in particular (Larsen, Speak).

This dynamics of paradoxical representation and enunciation is central to literary production, not least when solitude is at stake. This is so because representation through language is always situated, even for a short amount of time, as in Auster’s text: A. is just briefly in his room on Varick Street at the end of 1979. Without being situated somewhere at a certain point in time, there can be no enunciation and hence no human subjectivity. What the protagonist experiences is precisely a situated condition that enables him to speak and thus to turn his solitude into human identity on the limits of a collective space.

Being situated is always a matter of embodiment. Auster’s protagonist is still physically present in the “deepest solitude of his room” when this recognition hits him. Stockmann is encircled by his family when he makes his statement. Apparently, A.’s own reflection only concerns the emergence of language and its collective implications, not its situated embodiment. The discrete “perhaps” in the Auster-quotation above reveals the limits of his understanding.

When Octavio Paz opens The Labyrinth of Solitude (El laberinto de la soledad, 1950) with an image of the myth of Narcissus, he comes a step closer to the embodied complexity of solitude: ← 47 | 48 →

The adolescent … is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being … becomes a problem and a question. (9)

Ibsen’s Stockmann, Auster’s A., and Paz’s young person, all three recognize their solitude in a sudden glimpse of bodily presence. The level of their reflection is different, and the self-awareness of the situated embodiment only belongs to the male teenager. He is led to self-reflection by the perception of his own body in transformation. It is at the same time ‘his’ body and ‘not’ his body and must actively be re-apprehended as ‘his,’ in spite of its new foreignness. Although the body is the ultimate sign of our individual uniqueness, it only becomes ‘mine’ by bridging these two positions as mediated solitude.

As the phenomenology of perception points out, we can never perceive our own body as a whole when completely alone (Merleau-Ponty). We can neither see nor scratch our back without the mediation of mirrors, prosthetic tools, or the hands of others. It takes the eyes of other bodily human beings to allow the totality and particularity of ‘my’ body as a whole to be transmitted to me as the foundation of ‘my’ identity, equipped with a name. Even the most solitary body has been shaped as a human subject through the mediation of other human bodies, if only an imagination of others in a mirror.

Paz’s young man does not say anything, but having a body also enables him to be a linguistic subject. His solitary and reduplicated body becomes “a problem and a question.” An utterance is uniquely ours when we speak, yet in the collective medium of language. However, this collectivity is not part of his immediate situated embodiment, but works on another discursive level, addressing the readers through the narrator’s evocation of the myth of Narcissus. The youngster re-enacts the age-old myth and, like Auster’s A., he enters the domain of “memory” and “history.” If the body marks the boundary of a shared human life world from the perspective of the solitary human, language marks the same boundary from the perspective of the shared life world.

Each of the three texts I have referred to above points to one important component of solitude: its collective, its self-reflexive, and its embodied nature. Yet, they do not regard solitude as one complex totality in the life of individual human beings and during the course of cultural history. This is where Henry comes in.

2. The Changing Sense of Solitude

Henry “went to his hut and crawled through the intricate hole that served as a door. He wished to be alone with some new thoughts that had lately come to him” ← 48 | 49 → (Crane 4). Henry, an eighteen-year-old Unionist volunteer, is the protagonist in Stephen Crane’s classical war novel The Red Badge of Courage (1899) set during the American Civil War. Yet, war is only the surface and solitude is really at the core of the novel. Faced with the reality check of the camp, Henry realizes that the heroism of great epics that enflamed him when he enlisted does not match the reality of war. Alone in his hut, he now contemplates the possibility of deserting. When he left home, Henry’s schoolmates saw him as unique and he had “felt the gulf now between them and had swelled with calm pride” (8). There are two different kinds of solitude here: the former is a public form of solitude, the sense of being one of a kind elevated above the ordinary lot. The latter is a private version of solitude and it is only addressed shamefully in a withdrawal from other men. Eventually, Henry does manage to escape in the general confusion of battle, but ends up getting a blow to his head and falls unconscious. When he is coming back to his senses, he finds his regiment again and is, surprisingly, received as a wounded hero of war by his awestruck mates. They ironically see in him a hero of mythological proportions. Only Henry knows he is lying, but continues to pretend that he has returned to the elevated status he imagined for himself back home.

The narrator occupies a position on the limit of Henry’s consciousness and addresses the reader in an irony shaped by the double perspective from both inside and outside. The use of free indirect discourse renders Henry’s vacillating thoughts while the keen external observations partly contradict them. This position makes the limit a moving boundary that constantly requires Henry’s re-interpretations of himself and, consequently, the readers’ re-interpretation of him and also of the larger meaning of his changing take on solitude as imagined hero, as deserter, and as fake hero. This change activates four aspects of solitude that embrace the complete individual experience of solitude.

One is the ‘psychological’ solitude, Henry’s own feeling of not belonging to the collective life of the camp, first by being alone with his ideas about running away, and later when he lies about his escape: “He felt alone in space when his injured comrade had disappeared … He was a mental outcast … Furthermore, he was much afraid that some arrow of scorn might lay him mentally low before he could raise his protecting tale” (18–19, 65, emphasis added). In both cases the psychological solitude occurs in a confrontation with linguistic and bodily limits: he cannot find a tale to represent his solitude, and he feels the spatial and thus bodily absence of the departed comrade.

To this solitude is added the ‘social’ solitude when Henry’s solitude is reflected in the eyes of others. On the one hand, he isolates himself, uneasy with the other soldiers’ boasting comradeship: “The youth, considering himself as separated ← 49 | 50 → from the others, … kept from intercourse with his companions as much as circumstances would allow him” (17, emphasis added). But on the other hand, when he returns wounded, the tables have turned. From being below everybody else, he is now above everyone else, a mythological monster slayer, “a war devil” (92). Also, the social solitude is articulated through liminal experiences of language and body. When null and void, he silences himself by moving his body out of sight; when admired, he creates a distant sense of awe, readable in the bodily demeanor of his admiring mates. At the same time, his status cannot be contained in the everyday chatter of the normal conversation.

A third level has to do with the impracticability of ‘mediated’ solitude. Some experiences leave Henry completely alone with a faltering sense perception face to face with a threatening unknown or a naked inhuman materiality. Repeatedly, the view of the battlefield is a muffled perception of smoke, movements, and sound with no clear origin or cohesion. A similar experience is his encounter with a dying soldier. Henry is at a loss for words and becomes absorbed by death itself. He can only call “Jim – Jim – Jim” while his “face had been twisted into an expression of every agony he had imagined for his friend” (55–56). Here Henry does not only experience a psychological and a social solitude, which he may be able to overcome. He is faced with a limit for what is humanly possible to shape in words and ordinary bodily behavior.

At this point, Henry is close to the ultimate aspect of solitude, the ‘ontological’ solitude. He frequently feels that he is outside humankind, even dehumanized: “He was an unknown quantity” (10), “an automatic affair” (33), only a knot or bolt in the huge machinery of war – a frequent metaphor (see, for example, 48). He also imagines the non-human in the shape of monsters and animals, both identifying with them and being confronted by them. Throughout the novel other soldiers, the enemy, the army as a whole, and the war itself are called dragons, monsters, serpents, buffaloes, and other animals of various kinds (see, for example, 6, 19, 24, 31, 33, 39, 60), culminating in his own identification with a non-human creature, “a war devil” (92).

The three stages of his development from the imagined heroism at home via his downfall during the war and his resurrection as a hero beyond human proportions are a re-enactment of the classical katabasis, the roundtrip, as it were, to the realm of the dead. Before the descent the person is just a human among humans, after the return s/he is both monstrously non-human and sublimely human. Henry is such a person, he is one of a kind. After being struck unconscious he is like dead among the dead, in retrospect it seems as if he had “been asleep for a thousand years” (76). By returning to his regiment, his solitary status turns him into a collective symbol. ← 50 | 51 → This myth is more complex than the Narcissus myth used by Paz, but the textual strategy and cultural effect are the same.

3. The Cultural Changes of Solitude

Henry’s changing positions of solitude transform him from a solitary individual into a typological character inscribed into a broad cross-cultural perspective. Throughout cultural history such characters have impersonated certain forms of solitude that outline important changes in the perception of human identity over time. I will briefly touch upon four such characters from European cultural history, embodying solitude by selection, as outcast, by choice, and by circumstance, all of them using body and language to mark the horizon of the meaning of solitude.

3.1 Selection

In the opening of The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia, 1321) the I-protagonist – let us just call him Dante – has lost his way and is now alone, away from his social world. Shortly after, during his symbolic wanderings through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise he is also beyond the world of human experience, all the while he is still a man of flesh and blood: “I did not die, and I alive remained not” (Inf, 34, v. 25). Here, he is completely alone. However, he is selected to assume a singular role with a double function. On the one hand, he is supposed to represent the living and their fear, hope, and ignorance among the dead, and time and again the spirits and shadows react to his body (Pur, 14, v. 1–21; 26, v. 12). On the other hand, he is supposed to represent the impossible experience of the entire cosmos to the living. He is told to learn the right words, although he admittedly does not have words enough for this task (Pur, 33, v. 136). He is faced with the paradox of squaring the circle (Par, 33, v. 133–41). In a sense, upon his return he will no longer be a representative for the living, but placed in a solitary category of his own as all persons returning from katabasis.

The circles shaping Dante’s cosmos correspond to levels of bodily experience, ranging from the extreme sufferings in Inferno and the final sliding down Lucifer’s ghastly body (Inf, 34, v. 70–81) to the bodiless visions of Paradise which, however, are rendered in sensual imagery. But the circles also correspond to embedded levels of communication (Inf, 2, v. 39–60). Maria speaks to Lucia who speaks to Beatrice who speaks to Virgil who speaks to Dante. For Dante, the trajectory runs in the reverse order, beginning with Virgil who is almost dumb due to lack of speech training (Inf, 1, v. 64) and ending with Beatrice who is able to read his mind and to respond even before he asks (Par, 1, v. 85–87). ← 51 | 52 →

In line with the overall cognitive paradigm of the Middle Ages, the relation between this solitary position and any communality is based on representation (Zimmermann). The moment a person, a situation, or an experience is singled out as unique, it is made exemplary and thereby representational. Hence, when Dante gets off the road he is midway through “the journey of our life” (Inf, 1, v. 1), on Good Friday in 1300, and he meets a series of strange animals which, however, possess allegorical meanings. Moreover, all the characters he encounters are placed on various levels of the three transcendental regions, each with their particular punishment or reward which provide them with an exemplary status. Further, Dante’s apparently accidental detour in the forest is framed with a historical necessity by his ancestor Cacciaguida who explains that the transition between the old and new Florence has made people go astray. Therefore, there is a great need to establish an exemplary meaning of things through a comprehensive representation of them (Par, 15–16). Finally, Dante is not only confronted with the history of his family and his city, but more importantly with the origin of humankind and the universe weaved into both the doctrine and open questions of scholasticism.

The limits paradoxically pointed to by body and language represent the limits of the representational abilities of the chosen person. He is not only allowed to view God as a trained mystic in his solitude, but to remember and understand as much as possible of what he has seen and then, against all odds, to transmit it to his fellow humans. However, his range of vision is determined by his bodily limitations: he is blinded by the light (Pur, 32, v. 1–12; Par, 14, v. 37–42) and his terrestrial ear cannot grasp the heavenly music (Par, 14, v. 118–26; 31, v. 41–42). He is also tired, cannot find his way, and needs guidance to understand what he perceives, first from Virgil and later from Beatrice, and more and more so the closer he gets to the center of Paradise. But at the end of the day, he is left with his own fragile understanding and limited language (Par, 33, v. 136).

However, Beatrice also invites him to rely solely on his own creative powers:

Therefore my Lady said to me: Send forth

The flame of thy desire, so that it issue

Imprinted well with the internal stamp;

Not that our knowledge may be greater made

By speech of thine, but to accustom thee

To tell thy thirst, that we may drink. (Par, 17, v. 6–12)

In bodily imagery she encourages him to express his singularity beyond the representational function and first and foremost to show his highly individual and solitary passion. In a surprising appeal to perform the paradox of his solitary experience in order to manifest his own incomparable identity as a poet, Beatrice ← 52 | 53 → invites him to downplay the representation of the cosmos. In this way, The Divine Comedy uses solitude to point forward to the amalgamation of individualism and solitude in later periods, such as the eighteenth century.

3.2 The Outcast

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire, 1778) things are turned around. Chosen and unique Dante is part of the universe he represents, the entire cosmos, while Rousseau is expelled from a society he does not want to represent. The good citizens of Môtiers have ousted him and the court has condemned him. He explicitly refuses to assume a public, let alone a representational role and, yet, he cannot avoid to be positioned in relation to the community he wants to leave. In contrast to Dante’s vertical metaphysical journey Rousseau is engaged in a horizontal everyday solitary promenade.

The leisure walk came into fashion in the eighteenth century among the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals, an echo of the old peripatetic practice of the academy in Athens and the monasteries (König; Wallace). It is a way of reflection on human life and nature under unconstraint conversation, while the body follows its own natural rhythm. Later the national landscape or the sidewalks set the scene for the flâneurs. So, to label oneself a ‘solitary walker’ in the title amounts to the same as staging one’s solitude as a social phenomenon, although the opening lines try to convince us otherwise: “Here I am, then, alone on the earth, having neither brother, neighbor, friend or society but myself” (145).

The ten chapters of Rousseau’s unfinished book pursue two lines of thought. One is the reflection on solitude, the horror of expulsion, and the comfort in the approach of a vegetative state of life similar to the plants he studies in line with Francesco Petrarca’s The Life of Solitude (De vita solitaria, c. 1350). Rousseau wants to ignore all bodily concerns and to converse with his own soul, not with the outer world. The other line of thought leads him to the boundary of this assimilation with vegetative nature, marked by body and language. This liminal experience re-inscribes him in the society that rejects him, and vice versa, and forces him to submit to its uncontrollable influence on his solitary life. The more the first narrative line emphasizes the solitary sovereignty in his immersion with nature, the more violent the confrontation with the limits of this state of subjectivity appears.

This clash with material and social reality occurs suddenly. One day, when he drifts along as usual in silent inner contemplation, a large Grand Danois runs crazy in front of a coach. Rousseau is too late to jump aside, falls to the ground, is run over by the huge dog, and almost as well by the coach. He is struck unconscious and does not feel or remember anything, only what other people tell ← 53 | 54 → him gives him access to this truly vegetative state of body and mind. After being nursed by kind people, he wakes up covered in bruises. The whole incident is “too singular in its description to be passed over” (161). However, what he relates is not the accident as such, but the surprising and ecstatic re-appropriation of his bodily senses, his acute sense of being present in the world. The body has, behind his back as it were, through his meditative solitude reinstalled him in the physical and social world of humans.

Together with this return to a sense of situated embodiment, also the joy of and need for language come back in order to qualify his solitude as specifically his. Yet, to maintain his solitary pleasures the immediate flow of thoughts and words from the beginning (152, 156) will no longer suffice. It becomes a “project” (177) to describe “the habitual state of [his] soul, in the strangest position any mortal can possibly be found” (156) in, although this is only meant for himself, as he says repeatedly in the second promenade, which is mainly preoccupied with the incident. But when language is introduced, one can never just write for oneself, and in the third promenade, he is more hesitant. The clear intention of solitary writing is now reduced to wishful thinking in passages with expressions of doubt and rhetorical questions. Yet, already the episode with the dog has exposed the problem. The story, he claims, is completely credible (163), but being both unconscious for a while and ignorant of details, Rousseau can only establish his self-address by way of paraphrases of what others have related to him and also to a larger public. Hence, it is beyond his control to decide what is credible or not. He is unable to control all kinds of gossip about the event that now circulate in Paris, even assumptions about his death which are forcing him to show up to prove the contrary.

The oscillation between two incompatible positions is experienced with the same amount of joy and woe: embodiment and spiritual solitude, silence and the proliferation of language. If Dante’s symbolic journey uses solitude to represent the paradoxical encounter with boundaries of the human life world within the cosmos he is part of, Rousseau’s ambulating solitude represents the paradoxical encounter with the boundaries of the social life world he cannot escape, presented in an inward-looking contemplation, which is to flourish later during Romanticism.

3.3 Choice

The next example concerns a more modern figure, solitary by deliberate choice, not forced out of the community like Rousseau. Per Sidenius, the protagonist in Danish Nobel laureate Henrik Pontoppidan’s novel Lucky Per (Lykke-Per, 1899–1904) heads for Switzerland as part of his education at the Technical University. At the same time he needs to come to terms with his doubts about the relationship ← 54 | 55 → with his rich fiancée and his future career as an engineer. Against advice from the locals, he sets out one day, “[alone], without a guide” (219)2 into the solitude of the Alps. What Per experiences is neither an organized cosmos he can represent like Dante or a vegetative nature he can dream about like Rousseau, but the foreignness of the sublime landscape of ice and stone, beyond human proportions (Ferguson).

And yet, he is silently comparing himself to the age-old tradition of hermits: “the old prophets, in moments of doubt and weakness of will, sought out the isolation of the wilderness” (220; Naudin). Like Paz’s narcissistic youngster, Auster’s A., and Crane’s Henry, Per in his absolute solitude also immerses himself into the broad tradition of transforming a solitary person into a shared symbol. The ascent to the summit is his own choice, but the culturally charged symbolic meaning of his gesture automatically follows suit. Up there, he does not speak a word, but the higher he gets the emptier, more silent, and non-human the landscape becomes. Precisely when he is pushed to the limits of human language, it imposes itself on him as an interior dialogue, mirroring his existential doubts. Questions to himself in his own words blend in with the discourse of the Old Testament. Linguistically, his solitude on the margins of a human life world is a tightrope walk between his absolutely solitary inner world and the large cultural stock of terms for precisely this situation with a general perspective:

Per remembered how one of the pastors who spoke over his father’s coffin had called the stillness in nature “God’s voice” … No, the truth was that face to face with the empty and soundless universe the mind was seized by the “horror vacui” which the ancients saw behind everything … Time seemed to shrink so amazingly at the sight of these stiff clumps of rocks resting in eternal indifference, so naked and untouched, just as they were a few millions years when “issuing,” as they say, “from the Creator’s hand.” The Creator? You mean the burning cloud and the dissolving solar system? And behind that? Emptiness! Emptiness! Ice cold – the stillness of death. (220–221)

The dialogue with himself is turned into a dialogue with collective meanings of solitude from cultural history of which he cannot opt out, even in the desolated mountains.

His body also touches its limits. He loses his breath and, similar to Crane’s Henry, his perception becomes unclear preventing him from finding the right terms to capture what he sees. Instead, he both recourses to mythological meanings and relies on his modern calculative language of science, measuring the age of the stony terrain to four million years (220). The self-chosen solitude generates two experiences that touch the margins of body and language. On the one hand, an increasing feeling of emptiness beyond humanity related to death and other expressions of a sense of void. Yet, on the other hand an equally increasing proximity to religion and mythology inadvertently manifests itself, not as faith, ← 55 | 56 → but as a reintegration into a larger collective cultural universe beyond his individual choice and control. When he descends again into the daily life of his Swiss village, he carries this collective vision with him as a paradoxical component of his self-chosen solitude in tune with the culture of European individualism (Bauman; Watt; Taylor). Per is obviously contemporary with Ibsen’s Stockmann, which might very well be attributable to the fact that Pontoppidan was an avid reader of both Ibsen and Søren Kierkegaard.

3.4 Circumstance

One place where this paradox of individualism is alive is the metropolis, which, since the eighteenth century, is a topos in modern literature. Already René Descartes, the father of solipsism (Dunn), took note of the city in his Discourse on Method (Discours de la méthode, 1637): “amidst this great mass of busy people who are more concerned with their own affairs than curious about other people’s, I have been able to lead a life as solitary and withdrawn as if I were in the most remote desert” (14). The paradoxical solitude of the modern city is obvious: here, one is alone because there are many people and because other people vanish into an anonymous mass. This situation is a recurring theme in modern literature as the paradox of solitude in the twentieth and twenty-first century. In contrast to the previous three types, the particularity of this solitude is its circumstantial contingency, a general condition for human life which can be experienced accidentally by everybody, anywhere, at any time in trivial situations of everyday life.

The protagonist of Henry Roth’s novel Call It Sleep (1934), young David Schearl, finds himself in one such situation. The Schearls are Jewish immigrants, arriving in New York City in 1907 from Galicia, present day Ukraine. Eventually, they end up in the urban hustle of the ethnically diverse Lower East Side. David is profoundly scared by the city, but he also, somewhat hesitantly, seeks out the company of other kids from the streets which are reverberating with a variety of languages. Broken English is the lingua franca of everybody. In David’s home Yiddish and Polish are the first languages, although David does not understand Polish. For David the safest place on earth is next to his gentle and patient mother Genya, away from his grumpy father Albert. She filters for him what he has to know about their past of which he has no memories of his own. Here he belongs, while outside he is on his own in a profound but unarticulated state of solitude which eventually also takes over his domestic life.

One day David, now aged five, is in the kitchen as usual, sitting on the floor near Genya and her sister Bertha. His presence is forgotten by the two sisters who talk about painful memories from Galicia. These memories also involve David, ← 56 | 57 → although he only vaguely intuits what the conversation is all about, in a lack of comprehension exacerbated by the women’s mix of Polish with Yiddish. David is the eyes and ears of the narrator, but as the narrator also offers fragments of the conversation in direct speech, which David does not quite apprehend, the adult reader has no difficulty in grasping what the women are talking about. The topic is Genya’s love affair with David’s biological father, a Christian organist, a goy, which released an unspeakable shame in the Jewish community. This, the reader understands, was the reason for Genya’s marriage to Albert and their emigration.

David only understands that something about him and his beloved mother is hidden, and this secret now alienates him even from her, his sanctuary, simply because he happens to be in a place where he should not have been at that moment, without having the courage to make his presence known. All alone, he has to make a combined linguistic and conceptual translation beyond his abilities, his language breaks up and his solitary bewilderment takes over: “With the same suddenness as before, meaning scaled the horizon to another idiom, leaving David stranded on a sounding but empty shore … It seemed to him, lying there almost paralyzed with the strain, that his mind would fly apart if he brought no order into this confusion” (197). Accidentally, David’s usual safe place in the kitchen is transformed into an alienating embodied solitude. He can only watch the estranged bodily reaction of his beloved mother while talking but he cannot move or talk for fear of being discovered. The general solitude of the city is now extended to his small collective safe haven, amplified by his united bodily and linguistic inability.

4. Human Solitude as Performance

Even withdrawn to a hut or to the high Alps, both Henry and Per, while speaking to themselves, shape their speech acts as an address to someone, just like Paz’s young man addresses himself through the mirror, and Auster’s A. in his enclosure enters a larger field of memory and history. Dante and Rousseau are no exceptions to this performative imperative, and also young David enters a common world by performing his solitude in a relentless self-questioning which generates no answers. In his world all are solitary, like scattered television viewers watching the same show in the billions, but each “alone together” in their own cubicle (Todorov). None of them can avoid performing the paradox of solitude in body and language as a social and cultural experience of the boundary of a shared human existence (Larsen, Desert).

To avoid the paradox, there are two options: leave human society altogether or return back from the fringes of society to its center. Young Chris McCandless makes the first choice, Romulus Ledbetter the second. In 1992, McCandless vanished in Alaska in a search for absolute solitude, in a vain escape from a world ← 57 | 58 → with ubiquitous human footprints. Had it not been for Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild (1999), which was turned into a movie of the same title by Sean Penn in 2007, only few people would have learned about the young man’s disappearance. He seems to have been an intelligent and sociable fellow but at a certain point he sought absolute solitude, which eventually led to his death. Nevertheless, and in order to carry out his plans, he needed first to write a few notes to friends and relatives, to buy a car, fuel, and food, scribble a diary, and also at the end send an SOS from the great snowy void. In his gesture of ultimate solitude, he could not avoid performing it for others, leaving social traces behind.

Romulus Ledbetter is the weird protagonist of George Dawes Green’s novel The Caveman’s Valentine (1994), which was also adapted to film by Kasi Lemmons in 2001. Ledbetter is a mentally disturbed loner, who has left a family and a career as a pianist behind. Physically he lives in a cave in Inwood Park in New York, mentally in a world of angels, demons, and strange beings, obsessed by the idea that an imaginary financier haunts him and the entire society. One day he finds a dead body of another homeless frozen stiff on the threshold of his cave. Spurred by a surviving sense of moral obligation, but mixed with his obsessive ideas of spurious scheming everywhere, he gets involved in a search of the murderer through the ordinary social world. Paradoxically, with the crime as trigger, the investigation is Romulus’s passage back to a kind of normality he will not be able to escape again. In front of the entrance to his cave, and blocking his access to it, a crowd has gathered, including journalists and cameramen. He has involuntarily, but by his own doing, become public property. The media are ready to perform his solitude for the general public.

In a society penetrated by global interconnectedness, the cultivation of individualism and particularism proliferates and presents us with the increasingly astute paradox of solitude. There is permanent oscillation between complete withdrawal and the return to society, without the possibility of making a clear choice between them. McCandless and Ledbetter both represent the hope that a choice is available, but ultimately this is exposed as a pipe dream. In modern culture, each of us is alone with this shared predicament. Contemporary literature across the world is a global reflection on and of that condition.


1. All quotations are checked with versions in the original languages and quoted from the English translations listed in the bibliography, in some cases with a few modifications.

2. ‘Alone’ is added here from the Danish text to underline the radical nature of Per’s solitude. ← 58 | 59 →

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