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Wendell Berry on Solitude and Why Pride and Despair Are the Two Great Enemies of Creative Work

“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.”

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary. Few writers have come to write about it — and to it — more directly than the novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry, who describes himself as “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts.” In his wonderful and wonderfully titled essay collection What Are People For? (public library), Berry addresses with great elegance our neophilic tendencies and why innovation for the sake of novelty sells short the true value of creative work.

Novelty-fetishism, Berry suggests, is an act of vanity that serves neither the creator nor those created for:

Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty — the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder.

Pursuing originality, the would-be creator works alone. In loneliness one assumes a responsibility for oneself that one cannot fulfill.

Novelty is a new kind of loneliness.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

Berry paints pride and despair as two sides of the same coin, both equally culpable in poisoning creative work and pushing us toward loneliness rather than toward the shared belonging that true art fosters:

There is the bad work of pride. There is also the bad work of despair — done poorly out of the failure of hope or vision.

Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much.

The shoddy work of despair, the pointless work of pride, equally betray Creation. They are wastes of life.

For despair there is no forgiveness, and for pride none. Who in loneliness can forgive?

Good work finds the way between pride and despair.

It graces with health. It heals with grace.

It preserves the given so that it remains a gift.

By it, we lose loneliness:

we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;

we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,

and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,

and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.

Illustration from Wild by Emily Hughes

Echoing Thoreau’s ode to the woods and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s assertion that cultivating a capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for creative work, Berry extols the ennobling effects of solitude, the kind gained only by surrendering to nature’s gentle gift for quieting the mind:

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

The return from such humanizing solitude, Berry cautions, can be disorienting:

From the order of nature we return to the order — and the disorder — of humanity.

From the larger circle we must go back to the smaller, the smaller within the larger and dependent on it.

One enters the larger circle by willingness to be a creature, the smaller by choosing to be a human.

And having returned from the woods, we remember with regret its restfulness. For all creatures there are in place, hence at rest.

In their most strenuous striving, sleeping and waking, dead and living, they are at rest.

In the circle of the human we are weary with striving, and are without rest.

Indeed, so deep is our pathology of human striving that even Thoreau, a century and a half ago, memorably despaired: “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” But the value of such recalibration of our connectedness in solitude, Berry suggests, is that it reminds us of the artist’s task, which is to connect us to one another. He returns to the subject of despair and pride, which serve to separate and thus betray the task of art:

The field must remember the forest, the town must remember the field, so that the wheel of life will turn, and the dying be met by the newborn.

[…]

Seeing the work that is to be done, who can help wanting to be the one to do it?

[…]

But it is pride that lies awake in the night with its desire and its grief.

To work at this work alone is to fail. There is no help for it. Loneliness is its failure.

It is despair that sees the work failing in one’s own failure.

This despair is the awkwardest pride of all.

But Berry’s most urgent point has to do with the immense value of “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and of keeping alive the unanswerable questions that make us human:

There is finally the pride of thinking oneself without teachers.

The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.

In ignorance is hope.

Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance the teachers will come to.

They are waiting, as they always have, beyond the edge of the light.

All of the essays in What Are People For? are imbued with precisely this kind of light-giving force. Complement it with Berry on what the poetic form teaches us about the secret of marriage, then revisit Sara Maitland on the art of solitude, one of the year’s best psychology and philosophy books.

BP

The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back.”

The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“Give me solitude,” Whitman demanded in his ode to the eternal tension between city and soul, “give me again O Nature your primal sanities!” In those primal sanities, we come to discover that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” as May Sarton wrote in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude — her hard-earned testimony to solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery, for it is in that intimate place that we see most clearly what our animating spirit is made of. Solitude, Kahlil Gibran knew, summons of us the courage to know ourselves. Elizabeth Bishop believed — a belief I can attest to with my own life — that everyone must experience at least one long period of solitude in life in order to know what we are made of and what we can make of our gifts. “There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear,” Rilke wrote in contemplating the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, “but… we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”

The visionary poets knew — as do the visionaries of scientist, as do all persons engaged in lives of creativity or contemplation, which are often one life — how this solitary self-discovery becomes the wellspring of all the meaning-making that makes life worth living, whether we call it art or love. From solitude’s promontory, we peer out into the expanse of existence and train our eyes to look with wide-eyed wonder at the improbable fact of it all. Solitude, so conceived, is not merely the state of being alone but the art of becoming fully ourselves — an art acquired, like every art, by apprenticeship and painstaking devotion to dwelling in the often lonesome inner light of our singular and sovereign being.

Solitude by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Its mastery, delicate and difficult, is what the Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor explores in The Art of Solitude (public library). Celebrating solitude — not the escapist privilege of it but the practice of it against the real world’s pressures — as “a site of autonomy, wonder, contemplation, imagination, inspiration, and care,” he writes:

True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.

Nearly forty years after he first began bridging Western phenomenology and existentialism with Buddhist precepts in his 1983 book Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, Batchelor draws on a lifetime of solitude-mastery — directly, through his own contemplative practice and multiple silent retreats, and indirectly, through his immersion in the lives and works of centuries of solitude-virtuosi ranging from Montaigne to Nietzsche to Ingmar Bergman — to formulate the essence of the inquiry, at once elemental and embodied, at the heart of the art of solitude:

Don’t expect anything to happen. Just wait. This waiting is a deep acceptance of the moment as such. Nietzsche called it amor fati — unquestioning love of whatever has fated you to be here. You reach a point where you’re just sitting there, asking, “What is this?” — but with no interest in an answer. The longing for an answer compromises the potency of the question. Can you be satisfied to rest in this puzzlement, this perplexity, in a deeply focused and embodied way? Just waiting without any expectations?

Ask “What is this?,” then open yourself completely to what you “hear” in the silence that follows. Be open to this question in the same way as you would listen to a piece of music. Pay total attention to the polyphony of the birds and wind outside, the occasional plane that flies overhead, the patter of rain on a window. Listen carefully, and notice how listening is not just an opening of the mind but an opening of the heart, a vital concern or care for the world, the source of what we call compassion or love.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Echoing Rachel Carson’s trust in the loneliness of creative work — a byproduct of the solitude necessary for creative work, natural and needed, often terrifying and always clarifying — Batchelor adds:

To be alone at your desk or in your studio is not enough. You have to free yourself from the phantoms and inner critics who pursue you wherever you go. “When you start working,” said the composer John Cage, “everybody is in your studio — the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas — all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”

[…]

Having shut the door, you find yourself alone before a canvas, a sheet of paper, a lump of clay, a computer screen. Other tools and materials lie around, close at hand, waiting to be used. You resume your silent conversation with the work. This is a two-way process: you create the work and then you respond to it. The work can inspire, surprise, and shock you… The solitary act of making art involves intense, wordless dialogue.

Art by Margaret Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Drawing a link between the Buddhist notion of nirvana and Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — that spacious willingness to negate the pull of attachments, reactivities, and fixities, to live with mystery and embrace uncertainty — Batchelor observes that contemplative practice trains the ability to see each moment as a chance to start anew, to savor life as ongoing, unfixed, ever-changing and ever capable of being changed. He considers the essential building blocks and ultimate rewards of contemplative practice:

To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility about the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of personal anguish to the endless suffering of the world. This sensibility encompasses a range of skills: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care. Each of these can be cultivated and refined in solitude but has little value if it cannot survive the fraught encounter with others. Never be complacent about contemplative practice; it is always a work in progress. The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

In consonance with poet and philosopher Wendell Berry’s life-tested belief that “true solitude is found in the wild places,” where one is without human obligation,” where “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Batchelor adds:

By withdrawing from the world into solitude, you separate yourself from others. By isolating yourself, you can see more clearly what distinguishes you from other people. Standing out in this way serves to affirm your existence (ex-[out] + sistere [stand]). Liberated from social pressures and constraints, solitude can help you understand better what kind of person you are and what your life is for. In this way you become independent of others. You find your own path, your own voice.

[…]

Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back. Sustained aloneness brings you to a tipping point where the pendulum of life returns you to others.

Complement The Art of Solitude with Hermann Hesse on solitude, hardship, and destiny, then savor Batchelor’s spacious On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.

BP

Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

“In much of your talking, thinking is half murdered. For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.”

Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

Something strange and wondrous begins to happen when one spends stretches of time in solitude, in the company of trees, far from the bustle of the human world with its echo chamber of judgments and opinions — a kind of rerooting in one’s deepest self-knowledge, a relearning of how to simply be oneself, one’s most authentic self. Wendell Berry knew this when he observed that “true solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation” — the places where “one’s inner voices become audible.”

But that inner voice, I have found, exists in counterpoise to the outer voice — the more we are tasked with speaking, with orienting lip and ear to the world without, the more difficult it becomes to hear the hum of the world within and feel its magmatic churns of self-knowledge. “Who knows doesn’t talk. Who talks doesn’t know,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in in her superb poetic, philosophical, feminist more-than-translation of the Tao te Ching.

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

Two and a half millennia after Lao Tzu, and a century before Le Guin and Berry, Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) — another philosopher-poet of the highest order and most timeless hold — addressed the relationship between silence, solitude, and self-knowledge in a portion of his 1923 classic The Prophet (public library).

When Gibran’s prophet-protagonist is asked to address the matter of talking, he responds:

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

One of Andrea Dezsö’s haunting illustrations for the original, uncensored edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Echoing Hermann Hesse’s insistence on the courage necessary for solitude, Gibran’s prophet adds:

There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.

Complement this fragment of the The Prophet — an abidingly rewarding read in its totality — with sound ecologist Gordon Hempton on the art of listening in a noisy world and Paul Goodman on the nine kinds of silence, then revisit Gibran on the building blocks of true friendship, the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and what may be the finest advice ever offered on parenting and on the balance of intimacy and independence in a healthy relationship.

BP

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day: A Lovely Illustrated Ode to the Nourishment of Nature and the Art of Solitude in the Age of Screens

A modern Alice-in-Wonderland tale of self-discovery against the odds of culture.

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day: A Lovely Illustrated Ode to the Nourishment of Nature and the Art of Solitude in the Age of Screens

Generations of great thinkers have extolled the creative purpose of boredom. Long before psychologists came to understand why “fertile solitude” is the seedbed of a full life, Bertrand Russell pointed to what he called “fruitful monotony” as central to the conquest of happiness. “There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” wrote the poet May Sarton in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude. But today the fertile sanctuary of solitude is a place more endangered than any other locus of the spirit, attesting more acutely than ever to Blaise Pascal’s seventeenth-century assertion that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Now comes a warm and wondrous invitation to remastering the art of fertile solitude in On a Magical Do-Nothing Day (public library) by Italian artist and author Béatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis.

The lyrical, tenderly illustrated story is told in the voice of an androgynous young protagonist who grudgingly accompanies Mom to a writing cabin in the lush, rainy woods — a place oozing boredom only alleviated by a videogame.

Eventually, concerned that this will be “another day of doing nothing,” Mom commands a break from the screen. She confiscates the game and hides it, “as usual,” only to have her discontented child find it, “as usual,” and rush outside in a bright orange raincoat, game tightly clutched as some kind of protective amulet against “this boring, wet place.”

But then, while trying to enact a scene from the game while skipping stones in the pond at the bottom of the path, the reluctant adventurer drops the console into the water and off it plummets to the bottom.

Devastation sets in — now there is nothing to do, nothingness utterly terrifying in thrusting the young protagonist into such sudden solitude with nature.

I was a small tree trapped outside in a hurricane.

The moment of despair is intercepted by a procession of four enormous snails, which offer unexpected delight with their jelly antennae and lead the way to a constellation of mushrooms — a scene that only amplifies the lovely Alice-in-Wonderland undertone of the story.

Small knees drop to the ground and small hands dig into the mud to discover “a thousand seeds and pellets, kernels, grains, roots, and berries” — an underground chest of tactile treasures, pulsating with aliveness that no screen could ever simulate. As though intuiting this awakening of awe, nature turns up the spectacle in a dramatic downpour, sunbeams piercing through the rainclouds to reveal a world seemingly reborn.

With terror now transfigured into newfound mirth, the raincoated explorer surrenders to this strange new wonderland, climbing a tree, drinking raindrops from branches “like an animal would,” marveling at bugs, talking to a bird, wondering:

Why hadn’t I done these things before today?

Upon the triumphant return, soaked to the bone and transformed to the marrow, the young adventurer takes mom’s hand and follows her into the kitchen, where they sit together looking at each other over cups of hot chocolate and savoring the quiet splendor of presence.

That is it. That’s all we did.

On this magical do-nothing day.

Complement the splendid On a Magical Do-Nothing Day with the vintage gem How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself. For a grownup counterpart, revisit Olivia Laing’s masterly The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone and Wendell Berry on the solitary rewards of the wilderness.

BP

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