Not the End of Solitude

I recently read a great blog article about solitude by artist Deborah Barlow, written in response to an article by critic William Deresiewicz (entitled “The End of Solitude”), who claims that the young people of today (i.e. my generation) are both solitude- and intimacy-phobic due to the prevalence of social media. Read Barlow’s article (and get the link to Deresiewicz’s article) here.

I think Deresiewicz would consider me one of those anomalies he briefly mentioned, as I’m in my mid-20s and require a large amount of actual solitude each day to be both happy and productive. Unlike the young people Deresiewicz referred to, I write alone and hardly keep my phone near enough to type 100 texts a day. My husband (a photographer, graphic designer and musician) and I aren’t afraid of turning off the computers, cell phones and TV, and we value the time we spend camping and hiking in the woods. And, like Thoreau, we tend to stand alone. But I don’t think we’re more anomalous in our generation than artists and writers of the past.

A large component of an artist’s or writer’s personality has always been the need to be heard; it’s why we exhibit and sell our work. Most of us don’t create in order to keep it to ourselves; even Thoreau wrote to be published. It’s just that the need to be heard takes a removed form for the creative person — that is, we’re more comfortable expressing ourselves in writing or art than schmoozing at parties. Social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, provide that same opportunity: to connect indirectly, to communicate within solitude. I don’t think the general proliferation of voices via social networking sites makes us more vapidly social or less solitude-loving as artists and writers of this generation than in previous generations. And it’s always been the small-numbered strangers — spiritual ascetics, writers, artists — who have been the solitude-seekers. Even Deresiewicz admitted that solitude “has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few.” So yes, we are few who seek out solitude, who don’t hide from “Thoreau’s darkness,” but I doubt that’s a new development owing to the general population’s greater access to venues where our voices can be heard.

But what do you think? Has social networking created a phobia of silence and solitude?

6 Comments

  1. Suzanne Hegland
    Jul 27, 2011

    Hey Heidi! Great post – and so timely for me as I’m designing a first-year writing course where I’m asking the students to consider the “mediating” force of digital connections in social media in establishing their identity, the nature of their friendships, and their ability to concentrate.

    • Heidi Parton
      Jul 27, 2011

      That’s a great course, Suzanne! What a useful subject. Let me know how it goes. And thanks so much for reading and leaving such a great comment.

  2. Deborah Barlow
    Jul 27, 2011

    Wonderful post. I love the distinction you introduce of communicating “within” solitude. That makes sense to a technology-fascinated, often just lurking hermit type like me. Thank you for sharing your point of view. i was heartened to read this.

    • Heidi Parton
      Jul 27, 2011

      And thank you, Deborah, for your own post and comments. I love reading blogs that get me thinking about my relationship with the world through various mediums. I’m glad I could contribute to the debate.

  3. Skytale Writer
    Aug 7, 2011

    At the beach the other day I couldn’t help notice everyone on their cellphones, tapped in. One guy answered his phone, saying, “I’ll call you when I get back.” “Get back,” as if he was away, on a vacation so to speak.

    There is a sense that the beach is a little respite from the world, and yet, tap-tap-tap, people weren’t shutting out the world. But that’s one opinion. Maybe they felt that “being away,” they had more freedom to talk, to experience conversation in a “faroff” place.

    For me, I want to enjoy the place of now, so at the beach, it’s about being there, and not interacting elsewhere. Part of the reason I don’t use a cellphone is to not be connected at all times. I also like to be present, face-to-face, as often as possible for conversation.

    I do think that social media gives us an urgency, whether self-imposed or not, to feel like we are part of a greater whole, that is watching and attentive to us. In actuality, I think no one is watching. We’re more alone that we can conceive, and that social media allows us to dissolve some of those feelings.

    People matter. But it is deep, personal relations that make us whole, not loads of “friends,” that aren’t more than 140 characters a post. -Skytale

    • Heidi Parton
      Aug 8, 2011

      I’m with you, H. I think a lot of people are afraid of silence, of being alone, and technology allows us to at least feel that we’re escaping it. And I definitely agree that face-to-face conversations are so much richer; I hate talking on the phone.

      I don’t know that I’d say that no one is watching our blog posts, Twitter updates, etc., though, and that it doesn’t provide some form of connection. For me, someone reading a blog post or tweet I’ve written and responding to it gives me the same feeling that comes with someone reading a story or paper article I’ve written and responding to it — it’s a good feeling because it means that something I’ve thought has also crossed someone else’s mind, or has opened up some new perspective for them, but the literal solitude hasn’t changed for me. And I assume (correctly or otherwise) that it’s the same for at least a few others, which is why I’ve disagreed with Deresiewicz’s claims that future generations are being lost to social media. There will always be people hungry for constant companionship, but there will also always be (a minority of) people who are comfortable with solitude, I think.

      There’s definitely a significant difference between connecting in the here-and-now and simulating connection from a distance (like those people at the beach on their phones that you described), but I think that new technology and social media have only made an already present issue more apparent. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, after all, wasn’t really connected with the here-and-now, either. I’m sure that, had he had Twitter, he would have spent the whole party tweeting from his phone. 😛

      As always, thanks for leaving such a great, thoughtful comment. Obviously, this conversation would be much more satisfying over a cup of tea, but I’m glad at least that we can connect across the miles to have it.

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