An Unassailable Serenity: Edith Wharton on Being at Home in Our Aloneness
“I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity.”
By Maria Popova
The poet Elizabeth Bishop believed that everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life. “Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with himself,” the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky counseled the young, “because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”
But solitude is a state rather than an emotion, and this state contains within itself a vast spectrum of feelings. In one extreme is the vitalizing aloneness that Keats saw as the wellspring of creativity. In the other, the soul-deadening paralysis of loneliness.
Wharton herself knew this — years after writing the short story, she extolled the importance of befriending aloneness not in fiction but in facing the fact of her dear friend Mary Berenson’s suicidal depression. In a letter to Berenson found in Edith Wharton (public library), the excellent biography by Hermione Lee, Wharton considers solitude not as a maddening lonesomeness but as an anchor of sanity:
I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity — to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.
Published February 10, 2016