The Ruricolist is now available in print.


The appeal of solitude may be as simple as the dislike of repetition. To be gregarious implies infinite patience for retelling the same anecdote, confessing the same weakness, counting over the same favorites, relating the same background. Identity becomes a matter of performance and habit, not expressed in but being the routine of self-introduction. Just to avoid this explains why people may chose to be solitary; just the time won from having avoided it explains how people can find pleasure in something apparently so unnatural.

But is there a positive definition of solitude – is there something that solitude is? Certainly if one of us ventures a bracketed solitude, and another one of us commits to a prolonged solitude; if one of us is solitary by choice, and another one of us is driven to it – each of us gives a different thing the name of solitude.

And surely what solitude is has changed and is changing? Surely technology is banishing solitude as it banishes loneliness?

Distinguish two measures of solitude: quantity of social interactions, and quantity of people interacted with. Eliminate repetitions. By the first measure – how much time we spend with others – the most gregarious of our ancestors was more solitary than the most solitary of us. The lines of communication were so few, so thin, and so uncertain that to pursue them itself required solitude – to write a letter is a solitary act. But by the second measure – how many others we spend time with – we are freakishly solitary. So many people once had to be dealt with to do the things we do by mail, message, and machine – so many butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, so many drivers and porters, all to do what takes us no more than a few words with a cashier! (And the cashier is increasingly dispensable.) The two measures of solitude do not vary inversely – to be solitary in both senses is possible and could define loneliness – but to lessen solitude by one measure is to increase it by the other. In this sense we are all solitary.

This sounds like a curse; but in truth it is a homeostasis. Life adjusts to provide us a minimum of solitude as the body adjusts to provide us a minimum of warmth. Solitude is a thing, not a state; it answers an appetite, not a purpose. Something vital, something necessary, something catalytic, some nutriment or vitamin of the mind, something as vital and replenishing to human beings as light is to plants – this something is found, it falls, everywhere, except where other people obstruct it.

Yet the dullness and rigidity of repetition can be avoided, and the vigor and fecundity of solitude can be protected, without isolation. All it takes is to be all things to all men, which is the same skill as getting along with all sorts of people; an easy thing if you are willing to be lead and not to lead in talk, to let people think of you what they want to, and to give simple answers to simple questions when the truth would be obstructively complicated. In this way people can be read almost like books – like old books that fall open to certain pages.

This approach is too habitual with me. Why I write here is uncertain – my reasons change every week – but surely one reason is to take cross-sections of myself without any particularly restrictive sense of audience. The Ruricolist does not represent me in full; many of my interests go unrepresented here; but here I set the topics, pursue their complications, and claim the right to confuse. In writing about solitude I abandon it. But that is the kind of contradiction that essays live on.