In Praise of Solitude

JUNE 28, 2020
AS I WRITE THESE words, a significant part of humanity finds itself in the curious state of “social isolation.” The term carries the paradoxical inanity of a college advertising tagline and is as close to the truth. Others live alone but tune into the pounding static of social media, news websites, television, and podcasts for a sense of connection to the world outside their windows. Batchelor has not lectured me, but has let me read his commonplace book, as if over his shoulder. We keep returning our gaze to the things we have left behind. “At home, in a busy household with many visitors,” remarks Montaigne, “I see plenty of people but rarely those with whom I love to talk.” Perhaps part of the practice of solitude lies not simply in being alone, but in forging connections with those with whom we do love to talk. “Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation,” writes Batchelor, “and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back.” Turn “social isolation” inside out, and it begins to ring true. We carry our chains with us; we are not entirely free. It lies in finding kindred spirits, those with whom conversation — in its richest sense — is possible. In a captivating chapter, he describes a visit to the Bedse Caves, a rock-cut monastic complex in Maharashtra, India, dating to the first century BCE. The Art of Solitude is infused with a lifetime of Buddhist thought and practice, but, as this biographical sketch suggests, also stands at odds to it. This is quiet colloquy, an invitation to think together in a small space. An ungenerous reader, perhaps one who had at some point struggled to find a coherent structure for her own writing, might suspect this is an easy way out. The question is how to be alone, and the answer, as Stephen Batchelor suggests in his new book, The Art of Solitude, ultimately has little to do with the place one inhabits or the other people in it. Inventing a new way to be is not the point here; rediscovering what is already known about how to live is. As new as this situation feels, the frustrations it provokes are ancient. Most of The Art of Solitude treads well-known ground. Batchelor seems like a restless soul; when he quotes Montaigne’s description of his mind galloping like a runaway horse, the affinity becomes clear. Batchelor’s observations on mindfulness and detachment from the passions might be found in any self-help book or podcast today. She is working on a book about imperfection. Batchelor is less interested in defining an ideal form of solitude than in meditating on the ways it can be practiced and exercised, lost and regained. Standing in a cool room carved into the hillside, he reflects on the limits of seeking spiritual improvement by escaping society: “Once the novelty wears off, you discover how seclusion magnifies the pressures and demands you feel.” Even with the body contained, the mind wanders along its maddening old paths. Along the way he received full ordination, disrobed, and married. We have to isolate our own self and return it to our possession. At the same time, the ancient walls remind Batchelor of a universal connection in the desire for ascetic experience: “Shaven-headed, ochre-robed mendicants sat cross-legged in these cells while Jesus spent forty days in the Judaean desert, fasting and being tempted by Satan.”
The cell restricts, but in doing so it allows a move outward, beyond the limitations of one’s own body and time. As befits a former monk, Batchelor keeps returning to cells. As I read these quotes from the Essays, I find myself in them, and in finding myself in them I forge a different kind of bond with the author who collected them, one that feels more authentic because less forced. Batchelor’s stance is not of faith but of inquiry, and he seeks his inspirations widely. Many of us now spend most of our waking hours in the presence of people we used to see for only a fraction of each day. The short meditations in this book skip from the paintings of Agnes Martin and Johannes Vermeer to the Pali Khuddaka Nikāya; from the essays of Michel de Montaigne to vivid recollections of Batchelor’s experiences using psychedelics in guided spiritual journeys. *[. H. Batchelor’s short chapters are fragments of a larger story, but they are also small rooms in which unexpected connections can happen. Recalling W. Here is Montaigne on the difficulty of laying aside the ambitions, desires, and fears learned in the court and the marketplace:
That is why it is not enough to remove oneself from people, not enough to go somewhere else. His travels took him to Tibetan Buddhist centers in Switzerland and Germany, to a Zen Buddhist monastery in South Korea, to Hong Kong and England and France. Auden’s praise of “metrical rules that forbid automatic responses,” Batchelor finds freedom in formally structured stanzas: “The verse form becomes an equivalent of the rock-cut cell: a confined space of solitude and contemplation that opens up the possibility of saying something that is not determined by familiar desires, fears, and aversions.” I have had this feeling when writing Elizabethan sonnets: the strictures of rhyme and meter pulled me in unexpected directions, my subconscious offered up unbidden words that suited my sense, if not my intention. ¤
Irina Dumitrescu is the author of The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge, 2018). Batchelor considers solitude not as a state of mind, but “as a practice, a way of life — as understood by the Buddha and Montaigne alike.” It is not isolation or alienation, though these are its shadow side. This is one of Batchelor’s insights, not so much stated as accumulated through his contraposition of Eastern and Western traditions, scenes ancient and contemporary, examples from the worlds of religion and art: in learning how to separate ourselves from the cacophony of the crowd — or the Twitter feed — we join a different, invisible community. We have to remove ourselves from the habits of the populace that are within us. We are neither with one another nor alone with ourselves, neither imprisoned nor truly free. The margins of my copy of the book are filled here with underlining and reader’s marks: yes! The issue, however, is not other people tout court. amazing. We are not truly isolated. The Art of Solitude offers no absorbing, linear narrative. In a better mood, she might reflect that a book written for people who cannot find repose or concentration is best delivered in manageable chunks, that fragmented forms are all our shattered attention spans can manage nowadays. Zoom and Skype and Instagram live beam faces and voices into our rooms, but we miss touch and scent of skin, the warmth of another’s body, the easy energy of a conversation in place. These are the individuals who have struggled as we do to listen to something beneath the noise. They would have been familiar on an ancient Stoa or in a monastic cell as well. The book thus resembles much of contemporary nonfiction — Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks come to mind, though the examples are many. His goal is to reduce his own authorial control and allow the reader to make meaning out of the disparate parts, perhaps even finding gems that had escaped the author’s notice. Still, while Montaigne bemoaned the monsters that came out of his head without order or form, Batchelor makes a virtue of his chaos. Inspired by his artistic practice of collage making, Batchelor arranges the book’s sections into a partly random mosaic of found objects: memories, reflections, favorite quotations. There is something more here, however. Rather, it is a way of caring for one’s soul, of sheltering it from noise and agitation, of directing it toward its authentic purpose. Silence feels as distant as it ever was. He is guided by a principle of non-contiguity: no two chapters on the same theme appear together. My favorite chapter in the book, “on solitude,” is a collection of 16 passages from Montaigne, unadorned with any commentary by Batchelor, though the translation seems to be his. The Scottish-born Batchelor moved to India at age 18 and was ordained a novice Buddhist monk two years later. Nor are we social, exactly, though we do try.