In my article “Being Alone with One’s Thoughts” 1 I discussed the issue of being alone versus being lonely. The need for constantly stimulation is very prevalent in Western society, but was not always found in other cultures around the world. For example, Russian society has always had a more reflexive mindset. This may be changing now that Western culture has made its way into Russia and that part of the world. Hopefully, it will continue to endure into the next generation.
In an interview, Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky [Андрей Арсеньевич Тарковский] (1932-1986) was asked what message he would like to leave for young people. Tarkovsky said that they should learn to love solitude and to be able to be alone with themselves. He believed that young people were carrying out noisy and aggressive actions in an effort not to be alone. He felt that all individuals must learn to be on his own as a child. This is not the same as being alone. He is referring to the idea of not becoming bored with oneself, which is sees as a very dangerous symptom, almost a disease.2
One thing which being alone can inspire, regardless of whether this isolation is voluntary or forced, is a sense of creativity. There are numerous examples of highly creative people who chose to be alone for extended periods of time and others who were forced into solitude as a result of imprisonment.
On Christmas Day 1849, Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) began the long journey from St. Petersburg to Siberia where he was to spend the next four years in a prison camp. Together with other members of the Petrashevsky circle, a group of intellectuals, he had been arrested in April 1849, and had already spent eight months as a prisoner in the Peter and Paul fortress. During this initial period, he was in solitary confinement, and, at first, was not allowed books or writing materials. In spite of this, he discovered that he had inner resources which enabled him to tolerate captivity far better than he had initially expected. His arrest may even have saved him from a breakdown, rather than precipitating it; for there is evidence that his participation in an underground revolutionary organization had been preying on his mind during the previous winter, and had brought him to the edge of a collapse.
When, at the beginning of July, the prisoners were allowed to receive books from the fortress library Dostoevsky fell upon them. He also wrote to his brother, Mikhail, telling him that he had thought out three stories and two novels. The famous incident of the mock execution in Semenovsky Square, when Dostoevsky faced a firing squad, only to be reprieved at the last minute, followed on December 22nd. In Siberia, Dostoevsky’s only literary activity keeping a surreptitious notebook in which he noted the phrases and expressions used by his fellow convicts. He managed to give the notebook to one of the medical assistants who returned it to him upon his release. Its contents were used in House of the Dead, the book which described his prison camp experience.
This experience was horrific, not only because of the appalling physical conditions in which the convicts were housed, and the perpetual threat of flogging under which they lived, but Dostoevsky found himself, as a ‘gentleman’, totally rejected by the brutish peasant prisoners whose cause he had espoused and for whose sake, as a potential revolutionary, he was suffering exile and imprisonment. During the time of his imprisonment, Dostoevsky underwent a conversion experience in which his total dissolution with the peasantry was replaced by an almost mystical belief in their essential goodness. This was based upon an involuntary memory which came back to him from his childhood of an incident in which one of his father’s serfs, Marey, had comforted him when he was terrified. Although Dostoevsky suffered deeply from never being alone while in the prison camp, his emotional isolation and lack of companionship had the effect of turning his attention inward, and allowing his mind to wander in the past.
All through his four years in camp he had employed the technique of involuntary association, which probably served somewhat the same purpose as psychoanalysis or drug therapy in releasing repressed dreams and thereby relieving his psychic blocks and morbid fixations. This technique also served the additional and reassuring function of keeping alive his artistic faculties under conditions where he was forbidden to put pen to paper.3
Dostoevsky’s experience of penal servitude permanently influenced his view of human nature and hence permeated his novels. More particularly, his experience of seeing convicts who for years had been ruthlessly crushed suddenly break out and assert their own personalities, often in violent and irrational fashion, made him feel that individual self-expression or self-realization was a basic human need, a need which did not accord with the subordination of individuality to the collective demands of the State.4
Other creative people who experienced forced solitude included Edith Bone, M.D. (1889-1975), Christopher Burney (1917-1980), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Unlike Burney and Bone, Beethoven’s forced solitude was the result of his deafness which began in 1796 and continued for many years. His famous “Ninth Symphony” was written after his hearing loss had become more pronounced. In fact, after he played this symphony for the first time he actually cried because he was not able to hear the applause.5
Creativity inspiration is something which needs to be both encouraged and supported. Being alone is certainly a source of inspiration for various creative genius. In the case of some of these people they actually had difficulty interacting with other adults and some never had any type of intimate relationship and very few close friends. This may not be the type of solitude that every person can engage in, but it was certainly successful of some people.
1) “Being Alone with One’s Thoughts” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2011/06/being-alone-with-ones-thoughts.html (accessed 5/7/12)
2) “Being Alone with One’s Thoughts”
3) Joseph Frank Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850 to 1859 Five Volumes, (Princeton: 1983), Vol. II, p. 122
4) Anthony Storr Solitude: A Return to the Self (NY: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 59
5) “Ludwig van Beethoven” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_van_Beethoven (accessed 5/7/12)