Solitude is a sensuous word, with each syllable so delightful and so eloquent. And yet, this word remains an enigma. Solitude, strictly defined, is generally taken to refer to seclusion, isolation or loneliness. But in terms of its feel, its pronunciation, it could not be any further. The word is mellifluous, melodic and even lyrical. The question then appears: whence comes its pejorative connotations? Solitude is not a painful loneliness. It is the loneliness of a silent stillness, a breezeless summer day, without a movement. Solitude is a sudden release, a pause, a momentary repose from the clutter and noise of a ceaseless present. It is a reprieve from the insatiable yearning, the relentless desire to grasp, to achieve, to earn, to possess, to do.
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One might fear this feeling, this solitude, uncomfortable with the sudden cessation of movement, an uncompromising silence, or one might desire it more than anything. In the case of the latter, solitude is so much more than just loneliness. It signifies a complacent withdrawal from the social realm, a realm always in excess of the sum of its parts. The social world, in addition to the population of the people that constitute it, is also a whole complicated network of expectations, interpretations, rules, customs, meanings and rhythms of movement that structure and shape the way we relate with each other. It is possible to withdraw from such a world, even in the midst of a crowded street. Among so many other people around, one cannot truly be alone, even if the feeling of loneliness is present. Rather, the frameworks and meanings that make significant the presence of other people fall away. One is not alone, but one feels lonely; this is solitude. It is a sort of silent stillness. An uncanny aloneness as the social realm melts away, others appear as if unimaginable miles lay separating them. The very thought of relation invokes a feeling of weariness, a sense of resignation. Other people appear distant, their voices hollow. Apart from the world of sociality, the presence of other people is devoid of implication.
Solitude is isolation, but since it does not necessarily imply loneliness, it is not used in a strictly negative sense. Instead of a frantic, nervous isolation, the aloneness of solitude is a calming reprieve. Solitude allows one the precious seconds necessary to catch one’s breath, so to speak. The connotations of a comforting lull are as integral to the feeling of solitude as are the connotations of an isolated aloneness.
In the event that one fears the feeling, the burden of an orientation toward the social inflects one’s disposition toward solitude. In this sense, one does not relish the silence; rather, one is capable only of yearning for what has been lost: connection, relation, intimacy, and so on. In this sense, solitude invokes feelings of nervousness and apprehension. Solitude makes clear how futile the ceaseless consumption that drives contemporary society really is: the endless to-do lists, the information gluttony, the cacophony of responsibilities and commitments, and goals, and expectations all appear for what they are. They are full of so much noise and business that obscure one’s relations with oneself. One needs time to think, to breathe, and to reflect. One needs solitude. Of course, reflection is not always comforting; it can be alienating as well. When one takes some time to think, one runs the risk of coming to terms with horrible truths, truths sometimes better left unknown. Such is the risk of solitude, a beautiful risk, a necessary risk. For if one refuses to cherish the time to think one runs the risk of losing oneself into alienation and emptiness.