Diary: Amina Cain on Solitude
Augustus Egg, The Travelling Companions (1862), Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Image from the cover of A Horse at Night: On Writing, by Amina Cain
When I was a teenager in Ohio, I dreamed regularly of leaving, and my daydreams were almost entirely made up of me walking around a city by myself, never with another person, or I was in an apartment alone at night making myself a meal. For a time I wanted to live in Manhattan, and in my mind I saw it like the camera sees it in Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, that film made up of beautifully held long shots of New York City. In certain scenes, you hear only the sounds of the city, and then the voice-over comes in, like a wave that flows warmly over everything, insistent, and mesmerizing in that insistence, and then is gone. The text of this voice-over is made up of letters Akerman’s mother sent her from Belgium, and the voice is Akerman’s, so that you are hearing her voice, and these letters that are addressed to her, but you never see her. Rather you see through her eyes. The letters seem as if they are for you, and in this way you are alone in that city too. For me, News from Home embodies solitude.
I don’t know why I imagined those scenes of myself alone so often. Though it’s true I like solitude, I also like spending time with people, and I’ve only lived alone twice, both times for less than a year. I suppose it was because I was imagining my own relationship to something, to escape, to self-determination. It would be me who left my small Ohio city, the only person ever to have made this exact journey. I wanted desperately to choose what my life would look like, not what had been chosen for me. I saw the world then as a warm and open place, full of possibility, and I wanted to experience as much of it as I could.
When another person is accompanying you, they fill the space between you and certain kinds of experience. It is important that that not always happen. A person should be like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball, absorbing everything around them. We can’t see in quite this way with someone else by our side.
The first time I left the US, to go to China for three months, I felt like that eyeball, walking around Beijing at dusk, jet-lagged, the neon signs flashing in the street. How exhilarating to finally be in another country. It had taken me quite a while to do it. Later, walking along the Bund in Shanghai, looking at the water and the buildings that ran alongside it, I felt close to some energy I hadn’t encountered before: a combination of the newness, for me, of China, and my own self, in it. I became new in China too. I’m sure I would have felt good if someone had been with me, but also different.
Female solitude is weighted with a particular power in literature. In the absence of her daughters, Elena Ferrante’s Leda feels light, she works how and when she wants, she changes her eating habits and begins to listen to music again. She is being returned to something vital, allowed to live and think at the proper speed, at a slower, looser pace, with fewer distractions, and this transforms her mentally and physically. She becomes stronger, younger almost.
So too in Sylvia Townsend-Warner’s Lolly Willowes, where Laura, the spinster aunt also known as Lolly, wants more than anything to leave her brother’s house in order to be alone. Before she breaks free and moves to Great Mop, she often imagines herself in a place like it, her daydreams so lucid they resemble hallucinations. Once she has arrived and settled in her new home, she experiences, like Leda, an intense relief. Wandering into a meadow of blooming cowslips, she kneels to smell their fragrance. For a moment she is weighed down by her past unhappiness, and then it is lifted: “It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been.” I keep thinking and writing about both Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and Lolly Willowes, and in that way the novels have become part of my inner life, which is also always a part of one’s solitude.
To be in favor of solitude is not to be against community or friendship or love. It’s not that being alone is better, just that without the experience of it we block ourselves from discovering something enormously beneficial, perhaps even vital, to selfhood. Who are you when you are not a friend, a partner, a lover, a sibling, a parent, a child? When no one is with you, what do you do, and do you do it differently than if someone was there? It’s hard to see someone fully when another person is always attached to them. More importantly, it’s hard for us to see our own selves if we’re not ever alone.
To write, to do any kind of work well, I believe we must at least have a solitude of mind, a solitude of seeing. Of course there are those who collaborate, but even then there must be moments of retreat. We retreat to read. We retreat to think. And so often that thinking can be blotted out by someone else’s presence. Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch does her deepest and finest thinking when she is alone, not when she is with Casaubon. In Sofia Samatar’s “Olimpia’s Ghost,” Gisela is alone too when she writes her brilliant and expressive letters, and she is alone when she dreams. There is life that surrounds each one of us that no one else should enter, lest they drive it off.
Amina Cain is the author of two books of stories—Creature and I Go To Some Hollow —and the novel Indelicacy. This post is drawn from her recent book, A Horse at Night: On Writing, a fall 2022 installment of the Dorothy Publishing Project.
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