Was it Pascal who said “Almost all our misery has come from not being able to remain alone in our rooms”? Baudelaire thought it might have been, but was not sure. And let’s take a look at that “almost” which I’m very glad is there. I can think of lots of misery that had nothing to do with my not having been alone in my room. When I get a rejection email on a train for a piece of work I had high hopes for is one example. Or to go way back, when I returned home to find my white mouse dead when I was eleven or twelve. Or to take a mundane example, when a plane I’m booked on is twelve hours delayed, while I hang about the airport.
I have never had a huge problem with solitude, it is true. As a child I read voraciously, and would find some hidden corner to lurk with my book. The game of golf is one where one can enjoy being alone, especially very early on a beautiful morning. The time when I most felt alone was when the missionaries came to my school and we all had to endure a silent retreat for three days. At the end of that time I felt like one of those astronauts in films who have to stay on the moon for months.
Baudelaire claimed his friend the Devil loved bleak, solitary places where the spirit of murder and lust was more likely to ignite. He decided that this was not really a danger for most of us, though, only for those idle, fanciful folk prone to enigmas and dreaming. The type of person who should most avoid being alone is a chatterbox or maybe a television pundit. But what’s to stop these people being verbose in their own company? Did Crusoe, for example, stay quiet on his island before Friday came? According to Elizabeth Bishop in her great poem, “Crusoe in England,” he did not.
And in order to write that poem, Ms. Bishop needed to be alone. This did not stop her from cooking meals and inviting friends to help her eat the food and drink wine with her. After this, probably the next morning, she went back to the poem and her solitude.
I feel the French maybe exaggerate the benefits of being alone. That philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre for example, his play Huis-clos with its famous line “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” Yes, we all know how annoying other people often are, and how strong the urge to escape from them can be. But the two characters Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot show that even in an absurdist setting companionship has its importance. It’s said Beckett got his inspiration for this play from one or other of two versions of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Two Men Contemplating the Moon which he saw on a trip to Germany in 1936 or ’37. In both versions of the painting one of the men has his hand on the other man’s shoulder, a sign of companionship if ever there was one.
Baudelaire quotes the French philosopher and moralist Jean de la Bruyère (or Delabruyère, as the man signed himself), “What a great misfortune we cannot be alone,” as if to chastise anyone who wants to plunge into a crowd or go into a busy bar. What about the great French word fraternité, the third of the three words that were the rallying cry of the Revolution? I want to close this by giving another quote from de la Bruyère: “Out of difficulties grow miracles.” I prefer this one. Anyone in an awkward social situation should dwell on that.