“Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are.” —Henry David Thoreau, “Solitude,” Walden
This is relevant now more than ever. I’ve asked this before, but in an increasingly connected world, are we ever really alone? If people are constantly connected to others via voice, text messages, and social media, are they ever even alone with their thoughts? Do they even have their own thoughts anymore, or only collaborative ones? Is there any mental space for contemplation, or only for reaction? Continue reading →
“With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. …I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator…” —Henry David Thoreau, “Solitude,” WaldenContinue reading →
Earth seen from just past Saturn, taken by the Cassini spacecraft. NASA/JPL/SSI/CICLOPS/Wikimedia Commons
“Men frequently say to me, ‘I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.’ I am tempted to reply to such — This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?” —Henry David Thoreau, “Solitude,” Walden
(More about the above photo and planetary scientist Carolyn Porco.)
Thoreau’s Cove, Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts. ca. 1908. Wikimedia Commons
I think “Solitude” is an especially timely chapter from because our technological interconnectedness is eroding what little time we have to be alone. Because with a phone and social media, you never really have to be alone, just you and your thoughts.
Thoreau needed more alone time than most people. Even when he wasn’t living in the woods (which was most of his life), he liked to take long walks daily if he could.
But imagine what it would be like to have your own one-room house in the woods, no phone or electronic media of any kind. You can walk to town every day and socialize, but when you are home… you are generally all by yourself in a quiet house amid the sounds of nature. Here’s what Henry said about it: Continue reading →
In his contrarian way, Thoreau in this chapter of Walden is redefining solitude not as something lonely or sad, but as a source of renewal.
Popular songs often have a different spin on solitude. Duke Ellington wrote the most famous song by that title, and Billie Holiday gave it its definitive vocal rendition in 1941.
Fully aware that this is not the kind of solitude Henry had in mind, I’m embedding this song in the spirit of Henry’s comments a few days ago about the pleasure of listening to the mournful owl, and as evidence that there’s more than one way to enjoy “Solitude.”