A Town Called Solitude

Berlin_Ghost_TownMy previous posts in this series have focussed on physical space, albeit dealing with certain more abstract qualities which spring from it. This post, however, will focus on a space which is not tied to specific physical surroundings, but which is portable: a kind of virtual space – a town called Solitude.

It can easily be argued that solitude is not a place, but a state of being. Yet, it has many of the features of place which have appeared previously on this blog. The intention here is to explore solitude as virtual locale, something which is both deliberately sought and which arises unbidden.

Virtual is an interesting word. It means that which is not physical, that which is simulated in an abstract sense. It also means a product of the mind, existing in imagination. Finally, it means something almost: perhaps the ghost of a thing, not existing in actual form. Any state of being, then, including solitude, can be said to be intensely, and inherently, virtual. And there are, of course, examples of virtual space, virtual in the sense of almost, of non-physical, simulated. I do not mean the internet. I mean the page, the space of writing, the spaces of literature. In Lines, Tim Ingold notes how, historically, the written word was seen as a kind of map, the audience ‘wayfarers’ through its plots and signposts.* This kind of thought continues to exist – from Perec’s Species of Spaces,** to the ‘Spatial Turn‘ which has been taken in the contemporary humanities. There is also a strong tradition of the imaginative aspect of space – the investment that the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard made in the role of the imagination and emotion in the production of space is perhaps the origin and exemplar of this tradition.***

Yet, how might Solitude specifically be understood as place?

Geographically and Ecologically

States of being, like places, have hills and ravines, have different climates. Sometimes, solitude is lonely, sad and dark. Sometimes, solitude is peaceful and blissful. A valley, or a mountain. The environments of solitude are diverse and subtlety varied. I cannot describe them all, here or anywhere.

Whilst solitude is not dependent on the precise and specialised qualities of particular physical situations and sites, it is not independent of them. The climate of the town called Solitude relies upon the events around it: the hurricanes of people blowing around outside, or the temporary quiet of the desert. Solitude can materialise when we are not physically alone, and in that case is very much is an imaginary place.

Socially

The type and understanding of solitude then, is also socially constructed. This month, an article by Sarah Maitland appeared in the paper which exemplifies the sociality of solitude, and the opinions that people have upon it: and how they are not always positive.

Strange, that, because, despite being extremely social animals, we are in a very logical and real sense, always alone. And some forms of solitude arise precisely from this saudade, this hiraeth: I can be sad because I cannot know all of another, and because another can never know all of me. I can see and understand something of you, but I can only know you through my own coloured and biased eyes. We are all always detached.

Meaning

Place is made through meaning, as I have discussed previously. The meaningful nature of solitude is created internally and externally – the latter, we have seen above. The internal creation of solitude, however, can be both a physical and imaginative process: the taking away of self to a quiet place – whether that be an actual site, or a book, a song, a film. To surround oneself with quiet or with fiction is to make a space outside the real world and whilst, in the case of literature or a film, it might provide some avatar of the social, it is a device which cossets us from the everyday. So, we provoke and revel in different kinds of solitude – the active kind, the passive kind, the lonely kind, the alone kind, the worldly and unworldly kind.

Interstitial Solitude

There is a detachment which comes with solitude – detachment from other people, from the outside world, and even from the very physical ground on which we are ensconced. In that sense, Solitude is interstitial, an edgeland: a frontier town between corporeality and imagination. There is a privacy to it – it is somewhere between sleep, and active interaction. In a way, it is a heterotopia – a place where we can represent, contest and invert the things we think, the things we’ve seen, and the things we imagine we know.

That is the town called Solitude. But does it’s placefulness suggest that place is a state of being, or that states of being are places? Both are true. Because places are social and imagined, they are inherently ways of being. States of being, however, are thoroughly emplaced, attached to the reality of the internal and external world. The virtuality of place does not negate its reality.

I focus on solitude not because I am alone, or lonely, or sad. No, it is because solitude is almost the logical outcome of some, and the converse of other, posts in this blog series. Because, at times, I love to be alone in the town called Solitude. And because, sometimes, I love to be alone in the town called Solitude next to someone else.

*Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History, (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), p.16

**George Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), p.11

***Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994, 1964