Brain Pickings

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Our Capacity for “Fertile Solitude”

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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.

Why?

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.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

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.

Illustration from 'The Baby Tree' by Sophie Blackall. Click image for more.

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.

Phillips cites the legendary British pediatrician Donald Winnicott — the subject of a definitive biography by Phillips — who wrote in his influential 1984 treatise Deprivation and Delinquency:

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.

Illustration from Now To Be a Nonconformist, 1968. Click image for more.

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.

Illustration from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

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?

On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored is an excellent read in its entirety. Sample it further here and complement it with how to be alone.

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July 18, 1992: The First Photo Uploaded to the Web, of CERN’s All-Girl Science Rock Band

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Love and science set to song, from quarks to colliders.

In 1990, shortly before a CERN physicist subverted gender and science stereotypes by adapting Alice in Wonderland as an allegory in quantum mechanics, a different type of delightful subversion was afoot at the famed European Organization for Nuclear Research, now home to the Large Hadron Collider: Michele Muller, a former British model and actor working as a 3D graphic designer for a virtual reality project at CERN, was dating CERN computer scientist Silvano de Gennaro and found herself frustrated with her boyfriend’s seemingly unending shifts. Rather than fight over it, the two decided to have some fun with the relationship sticking point — Michele set her frustrations to song, asking Silvano to write some music that she would perform at the CERN Hardronic Festival. The song “Collider” was born — a humorous homage to the lonely nights and perpetual perils of a scientist’s lover that went a little something like, “I gave you a golden ring to show you my love / You went to stick it in a printed circuit / To fix a voltage leak in your collector / You plug my feelings into your detector.” The song was a hit, which led Muller to recruit a couple of her girlfriends and form Les Horribles Cernettes — a parody doo-wop band that dubbed itself “the one and only High Energy Rock Band” and sang love songs about colliders, quarks, liquid nitrogen, microwaves, and antimatter in ’60s-inspired outfits.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founding father of the World Wide Web, was working at CERN at the time and had taken a liking to Les Horribles Cernettes’ irreverent odes to science. According to De Genarro, Berners-Lee asked him for a few scanned photos of the band to put on “some sort of information system he had just invented, called the ‘World Wide Web.'”

On July 18, 1992, this photograph of the band — comprised, at that point, of Michele Muller, Colette Marx-Nielsen, Angela Higney, and Lynn Veronneau — became the very first image uploaded to the web.

Oh, and they were actually very, very good. After a dogged dig through various corners of CERN’s web archives, which seem charmingly unchanged since the ’90s, I excavated a few of Les Horribles Cernettes’ songs — please enjoy:

COLLIDER

You say you love me but you never beep me
You always promise but you never date me
I try to fax but it’s busy, always
I try the network but you crash the gateways
You never spend your nights with me
You don’t go out with other girls either
You only love your collider

I fill your screen with hearts and roses
I fill your mail file with lovely phrases
They all come back: “invalid user”
You never let me into your computer
You never spend your nights with me
You don’t go out with other girls either
You prefer your collider

I gave you a golden ring to show you my love
You went to stick it in a printed circuit
To fix a voltage leak in your collector
You plug my feelings into your detector
You never spend your nights with me
You don’t go out with other girls either
You prefer your collider
You only love your collider
Your collider

STRONG INTERACTION

You quark me up
You quark me down
You quark me top
You quark me bottom

You quark me up (yeah yeah, I feel your charm)
You quark me down (tau tau, I feel so strange)
You quark me top (go go on hypercharge)
You quark me bottom (shoot shoot on isospin)

You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
I feel your attraction
It’s a strong interaction

DADDY’S LAB

My daddy has a lab in the Confederation
He told me “come around for your summer vacation”
Now I know lots of guys go there to study matter
I’m gonna find that sweet one
And teach him more
Much more than daddy knows

I’m gonna have some fun (in daddy’s lab)
pushing all the buttons (in daddy’s lab)
I’m gonna be a star (in daddy’s lab)
breaking all the hearts (in daddy’s lab)
I’m gonna go to play at hunting zed-zeros
mess around with the quarks
scatter protons all over
and hide with you behind the racks

Don’t wanna visit Rome, don’t wanna die in Venice
Don’t care for Wimbledon, and all the stars of tennis
I only like those guys who live to study matter
I’m gonna find my sweet one
And teach him more
Much more than daddy knows

I’m gonna have some fun…

LIQUID NITROGEN

You poured liquid nitrogen down my spine
as you told me you didn’t love me anymore
and run off with the girl next door
You poured liquid nitrogen in my heart
and you told me it wouldn’t hurt, what a liar
You promised you’d always be true

You said you’d be mine 12 months a year, 24 hours a day
You said I’d be yours each week my dear, until the end of time
But then you found her and you left me here
To cry and to run of tears
And now here I wait 12 months a year
But I’m hoping one day you’ll come back and stay

You poured…

You said you’d be mine forever and ever, 5040 minutes a week
Except Christmas Day ’cause you go see your mother
(That’s) 2800 less divided by 2
You said I’d be yours 30,240,000 seconds a year
Including leap years, which means 86,400 extra every four

You poured…

You said you’d be mine 3600 seconds an hour every day
Which in milliseconds that’s 43,200 times 10 to the 3rd
You said I’d be yours 24 hours a day,
integrating until the end of time.
Now in nanoseconds that’s just the square root
of 2670 billion times 10 to 90 divided by two

ANTIWORLD

He was sitting there, floating in the air
Alone on a cloud, sparkling all around
He went “pop” when he saw me
With those magnetic eyes
My heart stopped when I saw him
I just couldn’t breathe any more

He stood up and he walked on the air
And sparkling away headed up to me
With a smile on his face he said “come on hon”
Then we jumped in hyperspace
And inversed my polarity

Said I’m an anti-man
Live in an anti-world
I’ve got an anti-dog
Would you be, would you be my anti-girl

He took me back to his anti-car
And drove me home, I mean anti-home
Then he kissed me so sweetly all night long
And he took me completely
To a different world

Then he kissed me so sweetly all night long
And he took me completely
To a different world

He was an anti-man
Lived in an anti-world
He had an anti-dog
Would I be, would I be his anti-girl

I said yes, yes, yes, oh really yes!
Yeah yeah yeah, I mean anti-yes!
Now I walk ever so smoothly
Floating in the air
And I look ever so sparkly
Sitting alone on my cloud

Because I’m an anti-girl
Live in an anti-world
I’ve got an anti-cat
And I love, and I love my anti-man

Oh yes I’m an anti-girl
Live in an anti-world
I’ve got an anti-cat
And I love, and I love my anti-man

’Cause I’m an anti-girl
Live in an anti-world
I love my anti-man
yes I’m an anti-girl
I love my anti-man

And if there were any doubt as to whether this love story was a winner from the get-go, it’s worth noting that Michele Muller is now Michele de Genarro.

Thanks, Paola

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How to Find Yourself

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“Little triumphs are the pennies of self-esteem.”

At the age of twenty-one, artist and writer James Harmon chanced upon a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and found himself mesmerized. Rilke’s elegant exploration of the deepest human concerns — love, fear, art, doubt, sex — prompted young Harmon to wonder what the best advice to young people might be a century after Rilke — something that stood as an antidote to the “toxic cloud of tepid-broth wisdom” found in books “with the shelf life of a banana” that the contemporary publishing world peddled, so he reached out to some of the most “outspoken provocateurs, funky philosophers, cunning cultural critics, social gadflies, cyberpunks, raconteurs, radical academics, literary outlaws, and obscure but wildly talented poets.” For the next decade, he dedicated himself to this labor-of-love project, released in 2002 as Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — a compendium of sensitive, no-bullshit, luminous, life-tested letters of advice, including Martha Nussbaum on learning not to despise your inner world, Judith Butler on doubting love, and more contributions from such cultural icons as Mark Helprin, Lynda Barry, Katharine Hepburn, Cindy Sherman, George Saunders, Bette Davis, and William S. Burroughs.

One of the most refreshing letters in the anthology comes from the American novelist, essayist, and journalist Florence King (b. 1936). Her message — about deconditioning our compulsion for instant success, cultivating the building blocks of self-esteem, and learning what it really means to be present with ourselves — runs boldly against the grain of our culturally-entrenched convention with a kind of Cheryl Strayed brutal, poetic honesty and applies just as poignantly to recent college graduates as it does to anyone, at any stage of life, looking to rediscover their inner center.

But adding to the timelessness of King’s advice is a peculiar kind of timeliness — anyone who has ever tussled with the stereotypical millennial in the workplace or the classroom would instantly see what wonders King’s counsel could do for the generation typified as entitled, impatient, devoid of humility, and allergic to hard work.

King writes:

When I was getting ready to graduate from college in 1957, I was fed up and ready to drop from exhaustion, but still my mind kept telling me, “Hurry, hurry, hurry.” I felt I had to do something, go on to the next step, whatever it was — career, graduate school, as long as it was important.

This is an American disease. Put yourself on cruise control and go into limbo for a year. I’m not talking about a neo-grand tour; don’t bop around Europe, you’ll just get in trouble. Nor am I talking about what your parents’ generation called “dropping out.” I mean forget about success for a while, get yourself an ordinary job, an ordinary place to live, and live without worrying about what Americans call, in uppercase, the Future.

Go somewhere different, but stay away from big cities. If you’re from a place you call “godforsaken,” go to a small city in another part of the country…

Get a dead-end job — they’re plentiful now because nobody wants them. Tell your employer the truth: that you’ll be around only a year or so, but promise to work hard. Keep your promise. Little triumphs are the pennies of self-esteem. If you do well in such a job and make yourself indispensable to somebody, you will realize Robert E. Lee’s farewell words to his men after the surrender at Appomattox: “You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a knowledge of duty faithfully performed.”

Live alone, even at a financial sacrifice. If you have a roommate, the whole college uproar will just start all over again. Get a one-room apartment, or simply a room in the home of a nice widow. Get to know her. She’s dying to tell somebody the story of her life, so listen.

Have a radio for emergency news, but no TV. Read, read, read. When you don’t have to worry about passing exams on them, subjects you studied in school suddenly become interesting. Read my “desert island book,” the one I’d want with me if I were shipwrecked: The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale, a novel published in 1942. Girls will love it, and boys will learn more about women from it than anything I know of.

Stay chaste during your limbo year. Sex ruins reflection and self-knowledge; you’re so busy analyzing the other person that you never get around to analyzing yourself.

What I am recommending is traditionally called “finding yourself.” The difference is, there is no bohemian excess here, none of the “experiencing everything” that comprises nostalgia de la boue. It’s productive, constructive goofing-off. The widow will remember you ever afterward as “the nice boy/girl who used to live here,” and your employer will shake his head wondering and say, “By God, I wish I could find more like that!”

Take My Advice is a magnificent read in its 79-letter entirety. Complement it with another equally enchanting riff on the Rilke classic, Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist.

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