The Lonely Ones

Sontag1-383x537Emily Cooke in The New Inquiry:

By all accounts, Susan Sontag found being alone intolerable. In Sigrid Nunez’s 2011 memoir, Sempre Susan, Sontag didn’t even want to drink her morning coffee or read the newspaper without someone else around. When she was alone and unoccupied by books, she tells Nunez, her “mind went blank” like “static on the screen when a channel stops broadcasting.” Without others to respond to her ideas, or a book to provoke them, the ideas vanished. Sontag herself substantiates Nunez’s impression in the second volume of her journals, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. The tension visible here between the demands (and solace) of relationships and the appeal (and terror) of solitude may be a basic human circumstance. But women, in modern history, feel the tension with special acuteness, we who are assumed to be talented at interaction and rudderless when alone. It is striking that even Sontag, the most authoritative and singular of public figures — the most masculine of women intellectuals — also found the conflict vexing. The first volume of the journals charted her heady, headlong ascent into sexual and intellectual self-knowledge. This second volume, even as it spans the period of her most important work, shows her running up against her own limits. For Sontag, one of the most troubling of these was her difficulty being alone.

Solitude is a problem for writers generally, who spend so much time alone rehearsing a form of ideal communication. And men —as a practical matter — are often worse at being alone than women. But for male writers, however often an appearance of self-sufficiency can be stripped away to reveal a hidden structure of support, there is a writerly tradition of solitude that has existed at least since Romanticism: Rousseau’s “my habits are those of solitude and not of men,” or Shelley’s “Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude.” A man who chooses to be alone assumes the glamour of his forebears. A woman’s aloneness makes us suspicious: Even today it carries connotations of reluctance and abandonment, on the one hand, and selfishness and disobedience, on the other. Kate Bolick, writer of a much-discussed piece in The Atlantic about the “rise of single women,” became something of a spectacle for suggesting that she was happy, at 39, being unmarried and on her own. Albeit strangely titillated, many readers rallied to believe her. The rest called her deluded.