Isolation vs. Solitude

La liseuse

With Drew Whitcup on vacation, Zeteo Associate Gayle Rodda Kurtz is reading Montaigne—

When did the celebrated notion of our individualism slip into a form of isolation? We are familiar with the sight of those around us in public spaces hunched over their electronic devices and addicted to mindless electronic games and time-wasting media activities. Thinking that we were in our own private worlds, we now know that we are caught up in complex systems of surveillance technologies. This toxic environment was not the kind of aloneness that Montaigne envisioned in the sixteenth century. Montaigne sought a solitude that would foster creative contemplation and the acceptance of oneself. Here are a few excerpts from his essay “De la solitude” (Of Solitude):

We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them. . . .

[L]et us break free from the violent clutches that engage us elsewhere and draw us away from ourselves. We must untie these bonds that are so powerful, and henceforth love this and that, but be wedded only to ourselves. That is to say, let the other things be ours, but not joined and glued to us so strongly that they cannot be detached without tearing off our skin and some part of our flesh as well. The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself. . . .

Remember the man who, when asked why he took so much pains in art which could come to the knowledge of so few people, replied: “Few are enough for me, one is enough for me, none at all is enough for me.” He spoke truly: you and one companion are an adequate theater for each other, or you for yourself.

Montaigne’s idea of solitude was to be comfortable with himself, within his own body, alone. This has become a terrifying idea for the modern subject with the drives of fear and desire suppressed or manipulated by commodity culture. What better escape from the self/I than the perfect commodity products, the iPhone, iPod, and iPad with their endless supply of games, farms to organize, and cities to build. Like gambling—gratification is protracted for one more play.

—   Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Associate



Painting is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s La Liseuse (The Reader), 1776. Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Extracts from Montaigne are from Donald M. Frame translation in The Complete Essays of Montaigne (Stanford University Press, 1957).

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