If you suddenly find yourself with a lot of time alone, in quarantine or practicing social distancing, the experience might be unsettling. What to do with all that solitude? British literary critic George Watson wrote in 1993, many people in the modern era have celebrated time alone as potentially joyous. Is there a lesson in this?
Watson argues that this “hedonistic solitude” is very different from the sort of aloneness practiced by monks and hermits. From the ancient Stoics to seventeenth-century novelists, some people have advised time alone as a route to recuperation and self-improvement—a painful, or at least not at all fun, process. Shakespeare and other poets of his time associated solitude with melancholy.
In contrast, Watson argues, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century brought “a new mood in the European consciousness.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Reveries of the Solitary Walker,” first published in 1782, celebrated the emotional states to be reached alone. William Wordsworth and other Romantic poets also found succor in the solitary pleasures of time spent in nature.
Describing his childhood in his autobiography, written in the 1880s, John Ruskin wrote that “The garden was no waste place to me, because I did not suppose myself an object of interest either to the ants or the butterflies.”
Ruskin described this feeling in contrast to the annoyance of knowing that his mother and father would worry if he was late to tea. “A continuous and loving attention to children was exceptional before Ruskin’s century,” Watson notes, “and it might easily lead not just to a desire to be alone but, as in his case, to be out of mind as well.”
For whatever reason, Watson writes, the joy of solitude was something new, and European Romantics were well aware of that: “the lonely country walk was a conscious, innovative habit among Wordsworthians.”
Even in the city, writers came to celebrate solitude. Watson quotes Katherine Mansfield, who, living alone in Paris in 1915, described “the amount of minute and delicate joy I get out of watching people and things when I am alone… Other people won’t stop and look at the things I want to look at.”
Of course, even without the threat of a virus, solitude today is not what it once was. “The early Christians had manuscript books, at most, and few enough of them,” Watson writes. Today, television and the internet confer what he calls “practical advantages in living alone and being free, day or night, to choose your own program or none.”
If modern solitude is, among other things, a luxury appreciated by the rich, social distancing in the time of COVID-19 is a duty and a privilege for people who don’t perform care work or depend on in-person jobs to pay the rent. For those of us who can, and should, remain relatively isolated, perhaps it’s a good time to read some Wordsworth and take some long walks.