It seems fitting, at this time of social distancing and lockdowns, to try to make the most of our newfound isolation. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard writers lament their social obligations, wishing they could stay hidden away, seeing no one, so as to work on their poetry, their story, or their soon-to-be magnificent novel-in-progress (or, wait, was that just me?). Hans Fallada used incarceration as an opportunity to write, as did Genet, and Ahmet Altan somehow managed to compose the breathtakingly beautiful I Will Never See The World Again in his cramped, shared cell. As Montaigne himself says, “if he still has himself, a man of understanding has lost nothing”.
Alas, I don’t see any great masterpieces on my horizon. These are distressing times, and I, for one, seek distraction. So instead I read.
On Solitude is one of Montaigne’s many small masterpieces. It’s an essay, typically short and, as always, disarmingly conversational. It discusses, without any hint of didacticism, the merits of being alone. Montaigne insists throughout his essays that he’s writing only to further his own understanding of life; that he’s totally unqualified, and we can ignore him if we like (a stance that, to me, invariably proves the most convincing). His writing is egoless, while also proving endlessly insightful and erudite. He’s a fantastic companion, upbeat, intelligent, funny, even when he’s discussing the merits of beating his servants (his conclusion is to try not to do so when angry, although, he admits, sometimes it can’t be helped). He declares himself to have rarely suffered from sadness, although he does bring up erectile dysfunction often enough to make us wonder if that, rather than unliftable spirits, was his misfortune (forgive me).
As for On Solitude, applied to our current predicament, I’d roughly translate it thus: stop seeking approval from others. Don’t feel the need to communicate 24-7. Don’t fall into lazy habits. Get to know yourself. Or, more simply: get off Twitter. Get off Houseparty. Stop watching that shit series on Netflix. Go read Montaigne for a bit instead.