Speed of the Sound of Solitude

The Guardian had an article the other week about the increase in people who live alone. It’s a sociological thinkpiece with contributions from intellectual celebrities. The author, Eric Klinenberg, says that ‘living alone is something that each person, or family, experiences as the most private of matters, when in fact it is an increasingly common condition.’

Economics barely features in this article. Rising rents and the glacial pace of construction means that, despite the handwringing about an atomised society, people are crammed together on a scale unheard of in the last thirty years. Professionals live in HMOs, working families live in overcrowded social housing. Britain has many problems and loneliness is a long way down the list. Solitude is becoming a luxury for the rich. If more people could live alone, they would.

Having said that, I share Rowan Pelling’s scepticism about the ‘power of introverts’ – another big feature across the broadsheets in the last two weeks. The American writer Susan Cain has released a widely admired book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which complains that the world values braggadocio and self-aggrandisement too highly, and forgets the qualities of deep thought and introspection that are harder to see and value. No one who has seen The Apprentice can doubt there is truth in that.

But Pelling points out that a silent or awkward manner can as easily denote a sullen personality and closed mind, and that ‘[t]hose of us who replenish our energy via parties, lively conversation and dancing are frequently dismissed as irredeemably shallow.’

Meanwhile, a taste for solitary reflection signifies profundity to the world at large – no matter that all you’ve contemplated as you wander the shore is your navel and the football scores. I was musing on this while in Venice last weekend for a friend’s birthday party. Prior to leaving, one pursed-mouthed acquaintance expressed astonishment that I was travelling to the cultural capital of the universe for a shindig. No one would have flinched, however, had I said I was making a lone pilgrimage to view Titians.

But why should the consolations of art always be deemed superior to the consolations of fine company? Robert Browning, who died in Venice in 1889, found plenty of succour in a lively social life. Henry James was confounded upon meeting Browning that such a hearty, garrulous and (dare it be said) slightly vulgar man could write such luminous poetry. He wrote a short story in which Browning is ill-disguised as literary lion Clare Vawdrey, who is quite literally two men: while one Vawdrey holds forth at the dinner table, the other sits alone upstairs, writing.

In truth, this is an easy duality to pull off. Christopher Hitchens combined the solitary scholar’s range and depth with the style and reputation of a hardcore hedonist. There’s no reason you can’t be both. My life has been full of intense solitude and long nights partying. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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