From teenage rebellion to self-reliance, how we learn to be alone.
“All of humanity’s problems,” the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in 1654, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Three centuries later, the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky shared his single most urgent piece of advice to the young: learn to enjoy your own company. And yet today, in the golden age of solo living, Pascal’s words ring all the more urgently true and Tarkovsky’s counsel seems all the more unattainable. The age of Social Everything makes the art of solitude appear increasingly difficult to attain, even terrifying.
The great British psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips examines the psychological mechanisms and pathologies underpinning our aversion to solitude in an essay titled “On Risk and Solitude,” found in his wonderfully stimulating collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library) — the same slim, potent 1993 volume that gave us Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life.
Phillips begins at the beginning: True to his profession, he traces our capacity for solitude — for “productive solitude” — to the formative experiences of childhood:
An affinity for solitude is comparable only to one’s affinity for certain other people. And yet one’s first experience of solitude, like one’s first experience of the other, is fraught with danger… The absence of the visible and the absence of the object; and the risk, as in dreams, that innermost thoughts will come to light. For this reason, perhaps, it is the phobia relating to solitude that for some people persists throughout life.
It is the infant waiting too long for his mother that is traveling toward death because, unattended, he is in the solitary confinement of his body. Solitude is a journey, a potentially fatal journey, for an infant in the absence of sufficient maternal care. But it is worth remembering that the infant in the dark, the infant by himself, is not only waiting for the mother. Sleep, for example, is not exclusively a state of anticipation. It is, of course, difficult to conceive in psychoanalytic terms of an absence that is not, in some way, anticipatory.
Through desire the child discovers his solitude, and through solitude his desire. He depends upon a reliable but ultimately elusive object that can appease but never finally satisfy him.
In line with the notion of “limbic revision,” Phillips stresses the formative power of our early bonds and the importance of a psychoemotionally sound, stable, and nurturing upbringing:
The clamorously dependent infant with a sufficiently attentive mother ends up, so the normative story goes, as an adult with a capacity for solitude, for whom withdrawal is an escape not merely, or solely, from persecution, but toward a replenishing privacy. But dependence, we assume, does not simply disappear; somewhere, we think, there is an object, or the shadow of an object. So, in states of solitude what does the adult depend upon? To what does he risk entrusting himself?
The infant depends on the mother and her care to prevent him from being out of his depth; in adolescence, as we know, this protection is both wished for and defied. Risks are taken as part of the mastery of noncompliance. One way the adolescent differentiates himself, discovers his capacity for solitude — for self-reliance that is not merely a triumph over this need for the object — is by taking and making risks. He needs, unconsciously, to endanger his body, to experiment with the representations of it, and he does this out of the most primitive form of solitude, isolation.
The adolescent is essentially an isolate. It is from a position of isolation that he or she launches out into what may result in relationships… The adolescent is repeating an essential phase of infancy, for the infant too is an isolate, at least until he or she has been able to establish the capacity for relating to objects that are outside magical control. The infant becomes able to recognize and to welcome the existence of objects that are not part of the infant, but this is an achievement. The adolescent repeats this struggle.
Phillips argues that one primary domain of the teenager’s foray into risk and quest for personal agency in solitude — as any parent of a tattoo-hungry, makeup-militant, sex-crazed teenager can attest — is the body. He writes:
To the adolescent [the body] is like the analyst in the transference, the most familiar stranger. In puberty the adolescent develops what can be accurately referred to as a transference to his own body; what crystallize in adolescence, what return partly as enactment through risk, are doubts about the mother and the holding environment of infancy. These doubts are transferred on to the body, turned against it, as it begins to represent a new kind of internal environment, a more solitary one. That is to say, the adolescent begins to realize that the original mother is his body.
But risk, Phillips is careful to point out, serves a deeper purpose in the architecture of our character than mere transcendence of the body — it allows us to cultivate the very value system that defines who we are, wherein the contours of what is worth risking shape what is worth having:
Adolescence … recapitulates something of infancy but in dramatically modified form. From adolescence onward the link between risk and solitude becomes a vivid and traumatic issue. But the pressing question of risk is clearly bound up with something that certain psychoanalysts after Freud have seen as central to early development: a capacity for concern. We create risk when we endanger something we value, whenever we test the relationship between thrills and virtues. So to understand, or make conscious, what constitutes a risk for us — our own personal repertoire of risks — is an important clue about what it is that we do value.
Phillips returns to Winnicott’s theories of development and explores the relationship between risk, solitude, and creativity — or what Winnicott called “creative living” and defined as a process requiring the search for an environment or haven “that would survive the person’s most passionate destructiveness.” Phillips captures that interplay beautifully:
The risk in destructiveness is that it may not be withstood; the risk of establishing one’s solitude is the risk of one’s potential freedom.
Phillips concludes by considering what defines the best kind of solitude. Describing a state that pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would later come to call flow — something the composer Tchaikovsky described vividly in an 1878 letter — Phillips writes:
A fertile solitude is a benign forgetting of the body that takes care of itself… A productive solitude, the solitude in which what could never have been anticipated appears, is linked with a quality of attention.
Quoting Nietzsche’s famous words on solitude, Phillips returns to Winnicott’s work and the role of our earliest experiences in shaping our capacity for such “fertile solitude”:
Although the wish for solitude can be a denial of dependence, a capacity for solitude may be its fullest acknowledgement.
The precursor of the capacity for solitude is the child in the reliable, unimpinging presence of the mother who would cover the risks. If the mother is there, he can lose himself in a game; and optimally, in Winnicott’s work, mother is always there presiding over our solitude… For Freud, solitude could be described only as an absence, for Winnicott only as a presence. It is a significant measure of difference.
And still the question remains: to what do we risk entrusting ourselves in solitude? Although God is no longer our perpetual witness, we have our own available ghosts, our constitutive psychoanalytic fictions — the unconscious, the good internal object, the developmental process, the body and its destiny, language. Perhaps in solitude we are, as we say, simply “on our own.” Is it not, after all, the case that the patient comes to analysis to reconstitute his solitude through the other, the solitude that only he can know?