On Solitude and Social Media

"Office in a Small City," Edward Hopper, 1953
Recently I began re-reading Anthony Storr’s book Solitude: A Return to the Self. Storr, who died in 2001, was a Clinical Lecturer at Oxford and is best known for his books The Art of Psychotherapy and The Essential Jung, which he edited and also penned the introduction.

Much of Solitude deals with the dichotomy of the creative life. Writers and artists are paradoxically cursed with a fierce personal ambition and the longing for a sedentary lifestyle of solitude; a life of the mind. Storr writes, “The creative person is constantly seeking to discover himself, to remodel his own identity, and to find meaning in the universe by means of what he creates. He finds this to be a valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has little to do with other people, but which has its own separate validity. His most significant moments are those in which he attains some new insight, or makes some new discovery; and these moments are chiefly, if not invariably, those in which he is alone.”

I’d be hard-pressed to generate a truer statement about the creative process. Indeed, Storr’s insights are downright spooky in regard to the struggle creative people face every day when sitting down to work. Storr’s treatise on solitude was published in 1988, and as I read it and reflect on its content, I can’t help but see it in the context of today’s culture of online social media. We are told (by ever-fattening corporations and marketers) that being “connected” to everyone, all the time, is good for us; that it’s downright good for humanity (read, as always: It’s good for big business and third party operatives).

I maintain a healthy skepticism about the value of social media. What I see as its immediate and relevant value to me as a writer is my ability to establish and maintain a direct connection to a potential audience for my work. I believe there are people in the world (hopefully lots of them) who would dig what I do, if I could only locate them. So, I need to go out and find them. I have arrived at web site upkeep, Facebook, and Twitter reluctantly, and solely as tools to reach that potential audience for my work. But the true value of that potential audience is the ability to monetize my imagination. Because if a writer can’t find a way to monetize his (or her) imagination, then he has no choice but to go get a job making money doing something else, which results in his writing less or, frequently, not at all. Any professional writer who would argue otherwise is being disingenuous. Even as I write this (free) blog post, the immortal words of Dr. Johnson echo in my head, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

Conversely, there is a bizarre rallying cry that permeates to the far reaches of cyberspace. It says: “Give it away for free and you shall get rich!” Let’s set aside that impossible economic paradigm for a moment so we can focus solely on the perceived individual benefits of a ubiquitous connectiveness.

Storr writes, “The current emphasis upon intimate interpersonal relationships as the touchstone of health and happiness is a comparatively recent phenomenon … Many ordinary interests and the majority of creative pursuits involving real originality continue without involving relationships. It seems to me that what goes on in the human being when he is by himself is as important as what happens in his interactions with people … Love and friendship are, of course, an important part of what makes life worthwhile. But they are not the only source of happiness. Moreover, human beings change and develop as life goes on … The burden of value with which we are present loading interpersonal relationships is too heavy for those fragile craft to carry. Our expectation that satisfying intimate relationships should, ideally, provide happiness and that, if they do not, there must be something wrong with those relationships, seems to be exaggerated.”

Remember, Storr is writing this before the pervasiveness of the Internet. I think the authentic human benefits derived from focused solitude beg the questions: What is the purpose of maintaining your current status on Facebook? Why do you care if you build a large (and, therefore, mostly unkown-to-you) audience of followers on Twitter? Do you really care about other people’s comments on your blog or social media page? Really?

As a writer, social media becomes a flat-out necessity because publishers and other distributors of my original content have slashed publicity and marketing budgets. I’m forced, through my own devotion of wit, time, energy, cleverness, and – most of all – cash, to build my own following of individuals who enjoy what I do, subscribe to the value it adds to their lives, and are willing to pay to see more. (Quick Internet factoid: Artists used to be paid, and sometimes paid well, for original content. That’s how they made a living.)

The other half of writing is building the means by which to monetize my work, often from the ground up. The positive is that evolving technologies give me opportunities to reach a wider audience, more directly, than was ever before possible. The clear negative, of course, is that learning and keeping on pace with these ever-shifting technologies, locating and soliciting these elusive Internet “taste-makers,” aggregators, and disseminators of interesting and, hopefully, worthy original content (such as my own), and slowly building a core audience, is a royal pain in the ass. It’s also a monumental time-suck that runs counter to the primary objective of the artist, which is to create his art.

So, involvement in social media for creative people -- particularly those who understand that the Internet should be used primarily as a tool to monetize our imaginations to like-minded people interested in becoming customers of our content – evolves through our necessity to “build a platform.” To muster from scratch a consistently growing audience of willing eyes that the artist can speak to directly. This is often referred to as a “conversation” with our “fans” who “like” us. In the sense that it’s a conversation at all, I’m reminded of an exchange I had recently with the playwright Deborah Brevoort where I said, quite honestly, “I don’t mind that it’s considered a conversation, so long as it’s understood that that conversation is one-way.”

I’m not kidding. What value is added to a published piece through this bizarre vestigial digital tail known as the “comments section?” I believe the very concept promotes a false sense that all art, all content, is trapped in a constant organic flux, suspended in perpetual process, and that nothing is ever, really finished. Which is bullshit. I also believe that this spreading absence of a sense of completion is poisonous to our once brash, “can-do” American economy and society. Of course things can be, should be, and are finished. After all, it is each of us who will ultimately be finished, in our own time. Why not practice that cold fact on a micro-scale throughout our lifetimes so that we may at last learn to accept it as the only beings aware of our own mortality? It just may build into an overwhelming sense of accomplishment when we deliver our bag of dust and bones to the Reaper. You don’t like my published piece? Fair enough; go write and publish your own. I’m not giving you the opportunity to dangle off the end of mine with your random, ungrammatical musings. Instead, how about you exercise solitude and reflect on what you have just read? Absorb it. Give it time to disseminate throughout your gray matter. Perhaps, even, let it change you. And if for only that small possibility alone, I will provide no comment section for the reader to achieve an orgasmic relief of instant gratification by firing off a reflexive “post.”

Requiring a block of solitude every day for each person on the planet would, I think, be a galactic leap in human development. Real time alone with one’s private thoughts -- with no opportunity for outside commentary. Imagine the original opinions formed! Genuine quietude to drown out the incessant squawking of punditry, “reality” entertainments, and, most disturbing of all, the astonishing uselessness of our elected representatives. Politicians in particular are nothing but pure noise. And our diversions numb us.

Storr writes, “One of the most interesting features of any creative person’s work is how it changes over time. No highly creative person is ever satisfied with what he has done. Often indeed, after completing a project, he experiences a period of depression from which he is only relieved by embarking on the next piece of work. It seems to me that the capacity to create provides an irreplaceable opportunity for personal development in isolation. Most of us develop and mature primarily through interaction with others. Our passage through life is defined by our roles relative to others; as child, adolescent, spouse, parent, and grandparent. The artist or philosopher is able to mature primarily on his own. His passage through life is defined by the changing nature and increasing maturity of his work, rather than by his relations with others.”

I think the individual who is comfortable being alone spooks the hell out of people. In a culture strangely desperate to connect people with each other to such an obsessive degree that every technological advancement is geared toward strengthening a binary web of interconnectedness, each person must ask himself or herself one, simple question. It’s the question that seems to have been entirely discarded since the advent of technological “progress” over the last century, and yet it remains our most fundamental human question of all. The question, of course, is “Why?”

I think the anxiety artists experience in the vacuum solitary silence creates – and, for that matter, the silence created after a work has been released into the often bitter world of criticism – is a healthy sensation that should be protected and nourished. Existential psychologist Rollo May said, “I think anxiety, for people who have found their own heart and their own souls, for them it is stimulus toward creativity, toward courage. It’s what makes us human beings.”

Solitude is not a luxury for the creative person, it’s a goddamn requirement! Harlan Ellison once said, "I am an artist and should be exempt from shit." Indeed, many of the names that come to mind as towering intellects, individuals who produced essential works toward advancing the human adventure, did so in solitude, or what could at least be considered an abnormal disposition – a wariness – toward social contact beyond the minimum. But if they had not so treasured and protected their solitude, would they have even approached the production of such seminal works?

Storr again: “Kant, Wittgenstein and Newton were all men of genius who, however different they may have been in other ways, share a vast capacity for original, abstract thought with a lack of close involvement with other human beings. Indeed, it could be reasonably argued that, if they had had wives and families, their achievements would have been impossible. For the higher reaches of abstraction demand long periods of solitude and intense concentration which are hard to find if a man is subject to the emotional demands of a spouse and children.” (Storr writes throughout in the masculine, but of course the identical is true for women.) Storr's observations are in line with a quote I once ran across from Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote, "He knew the dead end loneliness of a person who makes his own life."

In this extended, but important, passage, Storr continues: “Psyco-analysts will point to the obvious fact that these three men were technically ‘abnormal’, and I concede that all three exhibited more than the usual share of what is usually deemed ‘psychopathology’. Nevertheless, all three survived and made important contributions to human knowledge and understanding which, I consider, they could not have made if they had not been predominantly solitary. Would they have been happier if they had been able, or more inclined, to seek personal fulfillment in love rather than in their work? It is impossible to say. What should be emphasized is that mankind would be infinitely the poorer if such men of genius were unable to flourish, and we must therefore consider that their traits of personality, as well as their high intelligence, are biologically adaptive. The psychopathology of such men is no more than an exaggeration of traits which can be found in all of us. We all need to find some order in the world, to make some sense out of our existence. Those who are particularly concerned with such a search bear witness to the fact that interpersonal relationships are not the only way of finding emotional fulfillment.”

Forget wives and families, can you imagine if Kant, Wittgenstein and Newton were also required to constantly update their Facebook, Twitter, and provide perpetual fresh content for their blogs to build their online platforms?

I suppose one could certainly argue that genius finds its audience and it is mediocrity, rather, that must market itself to the masses. And that’s a fair criticism. But I submit that there are individuals now with the mental capacities and potential contributions of a Kant, Wittgenstein, Newton, Steinbeck, Austen, etc. that are pissing away hours of invaluable solitude building their social media platforms while they should be deeply engaged in their vocation. What’s the greater benefit to society: A work of literary or scientific genius, created in deeply focused solitude, or amassing a hundred thousands followers on Twitter?

A New Yorker article on the eminent philosopher Derek Parfit in the Sept. 5, 2011 issue titled “How To Be Good” points out how Parfit circulated his manuscript for his opus “On What Matters” to over 150 philosophers for their notes and feedback and that the manuscript has been available online for years. This can be construed as open-sourcing of the highest magnitude. But I disagree. Parfit solicited commentary in the form of academic peer-review from fellow scholars and intellectuals in order to carefully consider all refutations and questions concerning his philosophical reasoning. He was not seeking slap-dash commentary from random Internet surfers. There’s a difference, you know.

I believe the true value of an acknowledgement and appreciation of solitude is that one must never assume, simply over the passage of time, that the unique contribution each individual harbors inside, and can potentially offer humanity, will inevitably be revealed. The revelation of your innate contribution is far from an inevitability. It must be mined and extracted, with great effort, like iron ore. And in order to do that, one must consciously and intentionally turn inward in isolation. The ambient noise of life must be silenced so that the voice within can be heard clearly.

I’m rarely one for religious quotables, but I freely credit Jesus when he speaks the truth. In the Gospel of Thomas (in my opinion the most personal and zen-like of the gospels and, of course, conspicuously absent from the King James Bible), Jesus is quoted as saying, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

What a shame it would be to never discover what that innate, inner voice has to say while otherwise deeply engaged in social distractions. Only in solitude can one bring forth what is within them – to save themselves and, perhaps in the process, to save others. Isn’t that the true value of human connectedness?