Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Beyond All This, The Wish To Be Alone"

Ah, the allure of solitude.  But it is likely that, after a stretch of being alone, we will long for company.  Even Montaigne found that, for reasons other than mere loneliness, retirement to a life of solitude was not all that it was cracked up to be:

"Lately when I retired to my home, determined so far as possible to bother about nothing except spending the little life I have left in rest and seclusion, it seemed to me I could do my mind no greater favor than to let it entertain itself in full idleness and stay and settle in itself, which I hoped it might do more easily now, having become weightier and riper with time.

But I find -- Ever idle hours breed wandering thoughts (Lucan) -- that, on the contrary, like a runaway horse, it gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself."

Michel de Montaigne, "Of Idleness," Essays (translated by Donald Frame) (1588).

Yet, a romantic notion about the pleasures of solitude persists, and I would be disingenuous if I claimed not to share that notion.  Hence, I confess that something like this appeals to me (even though I have never been a fan of D. H. Lawrence):

                         Delight of Being Alone

I know no greater delight than the sheer delight of being alone
It makes me realise the delicious pleasure of the moon
that she has in travelling by herself:  throughout time,
or the splendid growing of an ash-tree
alone, on a hill-side in the north, humming in the wind.

D. H. Lawrence, Last Poems (1932).

                     J. A. G. Acke "In the Stockholm Archipelago" (1910)

But, when it comes to the putative joys of being alone, Lawrence cannot (needless to say) hold a candle to Philip Larkin.  And thus, as is so often the case for me (which, I acknowledge, is surely a sign of some sort of malign pathology), I shall give the last word to Mr. Larkin (who, as always, is brutally honest, appalling, and, alas, correct -- after a fashion).


Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff --
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death --
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (1955).

When, decades ago, I first read "Wants," I was taken with "the wish to be alone" business.  Now, however, I think that the finest part of the poem is this:  "The costly aversion of the eyes from death."

                      Charles Ginner, "Dahlias and Cornflowers" (1929)


Fred said...

Brief introductory statement from _Essays in Idleness_, by Kenko, a 14th century Japanese Buddhist priest who retired from the court and wrote a number of essays while in retirement.

"What a strange demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head."

Like Montaigne, he spent time writing short essays that cover a wide variety of topics and issues in 14th century Japan. He is quite conservative, so the reader gets a good idea of the customs, traditions, and mores of the time--a fascinating work, plus complaints about the way the old ways are disappearing. I've already done several short posts from this work on my blog.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: thank you very much for visiting again, and for the reference to Kenko's Essays in Idleness. The passage that you quote fits well with Montaigne's comments. I haven't read Essays in Idleness, but your introduction makes me want to do so. I have checked, and I see that Donald Keene, who, as you know, has done many fine translations of Japanese literature, has translated Essays. I will have to track a copy down.

As always, thank you.

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Stephen ,

Sodo says it nicely in his Haiku

The Recluse

In my ten-foot bamboo hut this spring,
There is nothing; there is everything.


Stephen Pentz said...

Julie: thank you for the lovely poem. I don't recall reading anything by Sodo before -- I'll have to find out more about him. Thanks again.