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Solitude Is Also A Place

5 September 2010 Leave a comment

For some time, now, I’ve been finding it difficult to say whether I’ve been going through a how-are-you-good patch or not. Not being in the middle of any of those 4-, 7-, 9-, 13- or 17-week sprints I’ve known before at work has been very good for my sleep cycle and reading, and also good for that feeling of being ‘up-to-date’, which is real in some senses (current affairs) and not in others, and perhaps not exactly consequential even when real.

I am reading my first paragraph and thinking, ‘What an unpromising first paragraph,’ what with all the strings of hyphens, numbers and long-drawn-out sentences; in this case, the writing does reflect my state of mind quite visually: not narrative, but logical; syntax, but no vision; not focused, but diffuse (all over the place); crowded.

Lately, I’ve been much more relaxed and less stressed out in general, but that really doesn’t define my life, though extreme stresses have served to change it and mark it. Writing and reading are things I have found that I seem to want to do even when I’m busy, because I do find a special kind of solace in writing and reading (here I am referring to an introspective, reflective kind of ‘reading’), but I haven’t engaged in very much of either activity recently. Part of it has to do with being connected to information streams (rivers?); I actually relished being able to immerse myself in it again after the experience of having no choice but to give them up, because of conscription, among other things. It is an odd feeling, and one representation of the experience I’ve seen comes to mind:

From Alan Moore's 'Watchmen'. Image from: http://dicecreator.wordpress.com/

In Watchmen, Ozymandias uses words like ‘imagery’, ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘undercurrent’ in his observations, and, according to his observations, invests accordingly, though I also note that his investments were the minor concern of his at that point in the novel; when his aides ask if he was worried that he might become ‘drunk from such a concentrated draught of information’, he replies, ‘It is the most sobering potion I know.’

Ozymandias’ hand-picked aides carefully prepared the bank of monitors for him, and the idea of preparing such an expensive array for the peculiar purpose of being immersed in information would have been novel a couple of decades ago. As I write this, though, I have seven tabs and four windows open; one of the things I observe in some of the tabs I have open is how information tagged as related or relevant has been made readily available to me, by means that are automated to a degree made possible by the advancement of technology. There is no immediate human direction involved in many of those instances. In other instances, technology seems to have made my social contacts a means of filtering information; this seems altogether more insidious, especially in the light of the third observation I have, which is that information is being made available to me as a service, but there are other customers, including advertisers. The total effect of these factors is an intense stream of information, and one that is becoming ever more intense at that, because of technological change driven by economics. This is sobering knowledge, indeed, at least at this point in time, as I write.

But the rest of the time, the experience is probably more intoxicating than bracing. Earlier, I observed to a friend that, through the Internet, information of interest is so readily available, it seems almost spoon-fed, and easy to choke on; alternately, it’s a web that’s easy to get lost in: on the Web, information leads to more information, related, relevant or otherwise. Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in the information stream on a regular basis, but I’ve been writing less because it’s hard to process it all.

Earlier, I came across comments from an interview (via this post I saw on Freshly Pressed) with Jonathan Franzen, an American author. I was motivated to read the post because a few weeks ago, Franzen was featured on the cover of Time as the ‘Great American Novelist’ of the current time, and  I resolved to keep that issue of Time because the cover didn’t feature technology, economics or war. Franzen comments on what he feels is a novelist’s responsibility in our age. His comments on writing, communication, isolation and solitude were what motivated me to write this post. I quote, from http://www.avclub.com/articles/jonathan-franzen,44716/:

I think novelists nowadays have a responsibility—whether or not my contemporaries are actually living up to it—to make books really, really compelling. To make you want to turn off your phone and walk away from your Internet connection and go spend some time in another place. That’s why it takes me so long to write these books. I’m trying to fashion something that will actually pull you away, so I’m certainly conscious of the tension between the solitary world of reading and writing, and the noisy crowded world of electronic communications.

I continue to believe it’s a phony palliative, most of the noise. […] All of that stuff, you have the sense, “Yeah, I’m really engaged in something. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.” And yet, I don’t think—maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts. I think there’s a kind of—I don’t want to say shallow, because then I start sounding like an elitist. It’s kind of like a person who keeps smoking more and more cigarettes. You keep giving yourself more and more jolts of stimulus, because deep inside, you’re incredibly lonely and isolated. The engine of technological consumerism is very good at exploiting the short-term need for that little jolt, and is very, very bad at addressing the real solitude and isolation, which I think is increasing. That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else.

The thought of having a mission as a writer has not crossed my mind, but what he describes is what I feel; I do have something else to say about solitude, though: it’s not just isolation.

In the frame before the one from Watchmen I included above, Ozymandias’ aide excuses himself, saying, ‘We know that you prefer to be alone down here,’ to which Ozymandias replies, ‘Yes, that’s right. All alone… Just me and the world.’ Even before the discussion about whether Ozymandias is a hero or not, we should examine what Moore shows us of Ozymandias. He seeks solitude at the point where the accomplishment of his life work is about to be decided, his life work being his plan for saving the world from nuclear Armageddon. ‘Just me and the world’ is the man and his mission, and the man seeking all the clarity and focus he can before everything is accomplished; he finds it in solitude.

When I do write, I have to find the space for it. Writing is a way to be alone with my thoughts and then come out from it with something, whether it’s clarity, a sense of humility, gratitude, renewed purpose, or being tired enough to get to sleep.