An Unassailable Serenity: Edith Wharton on Depression and How to Be Contentedly at Home in Our Solitude
“I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity.”
By Maria Popova
The poet Elizabeth Bishop believed that everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life. “Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with himself,” the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky counseled the young, “because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”
But solitude is a state rather than an emotion, and this state contains within itself a vast spectrum of feelings. In one extreme is the vitalizing aloneness that Keats saw as the wellspring of creativity. In the other, the soul-deadening paralysis of loneliness.
Beloved writer Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862–August 11, 1937) captures the bone-deep isolation of the latter in an exquisite extended simile in her 1893 short story “The Fullness of Life”:
I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.
But such is the actual fullness of life: Only by becoming intimately acquainted with the entire spectrum of solitude can we learn to interpolate between the two extremes and to transmute one into the other.
Wharton herself knew this — years after writing the short story, she extolled the importance of befriending aloneness not in fiction but in facing the fact of her dear friend Mary Berenson’s suicidal depression. In a letter to Berenson found in Edith Wharton (public library), the excellent biography by Hermione Lee, Wharton considers solitude not as a maddening lonesomeness but as an anchor of sanity:
I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity — to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.
For more on how to attain that “unassailable serenity,” see this excellent contemporary meditation on how to be alone, then revisit poet Wendell Berry on how solitude amplifies one’s inner voice.
Published February 10, 2016