Solitude

Just the other night was a Harvest Moon. I was trying to get home after a long day of classes and meetings, and people kept stopping randomly in the middle of the sidewalk. I nearly crashed into a few of them, which only added to my frustration and rush to get home. When I finally realized that they were not just stopping to infuriate me, I followed their lead and tilted my face towards the sky. It was a breathtaking sight and completely worth being slammed into from behind.

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In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature,” written in 1836, the author makes a few grand sweeping comments, namely about nature/knowledge of nature. However, the part that most piqued my interest is the first paragraph in Chapter I. This paragraph begins with “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.” Emerson’s idea of being in solitude and alone differs significantly from the one prevailing today.

For most people now-a-days, words like “solitude” and “alone” operate on the assumption that there are no other people in the vicinity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines solitude as “the state or situation of being alone” and defines alone as “having no one else present.” Emerson’s definitions operate on a different level. Not only must one be away from people, but also he must be away from his room to be in solitude. It seems like then, he is implying that to be in “solitude,” one must be outside.

By this definition even today’s most antisocial computer-obsessed people are never in solitude because they spend their alone time with their technology in their rooms. Though there are no other people physically around them, by Emerson’s definition, the fact that they have not left their rooms means that they are not in real solitude.

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Emerson follows that statement up with another one that sounds just as riddle-like as the first: “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.” This gives readers a little insight into the life of Emerson, an avid reader and writer. Though he does not read and write while other people are around, he does read and write in the confines of his room. This habit makes sense because inside there are desks and chairs and other useful writing/reading tools that the outside does not offer.

Very quickly, Emerson departs from this mental image of his reading and writing habits to talk about the actual act of going outside, when he writes: “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.” What a simple request. It sounds almost like William Wordsworth’s advice in “The Tables Turned.” This poem has two voices, that of Matthew and that of William, that have an argument about two Enlightenment ideas. Matthew shuts himself up and reads books, while William urges his friend: “Up! up! my friend, and quit your books” (3). Like Emerson, this William character (perhaps, the voice of Wordsworth) pushes his friend to go outside and “Let nature be [his] teacher” (16). He calls for an active meditation in nature, a heart “That watches and receives” (32).

Emerson seems to also call for an active meditation in nature. He himself reflects for many lines upon stars. He says how seeing them might make one believe “the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.” It seems that by going outside, people can contemplate great things about themselves and the about the world around them and even the universe. For added clarification, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “sublime” as “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.” This statement of Emerson’s echoes Coleridge’s belief that man should look past familiarity, the probable, to retain a sense of awe and wonder (as our lecture on Friday said). This idea that nature is the Book of God seems evident in Emerson’s comment that the sight of stars appearing one night after a thousand years would impress everyone and “preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!”

However, I digress from my main point. In order to experience nature in an actively meditative way and to be awed and inspired, one must go outside and be alone. Does this mean that one cannot do this if he is with another person? Does violation of the first part of Emerson’s definition of “solitude” destroy the entire experience? Or can one still experience the sublimity of the stars and the universe outside when other people are in the vicinity?

Perhaps, readers can find a possible answer in a text based off Emerson’s “Nature.” In Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” the author delves into Emerson’s statement about the stars appearing after a thousand years. Although in the story there is definitely a revival in religious vigor and a moment of realized sublimity, there is also a great feeling of aloneness. There are many people present, but the darkness cloisters each of them into a personal space. Surrounded by darkness, “the blood-curdling blackness” (20), the characters in the story are terrified to the point of madness.

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Emerson could have chosen myriad natural phenomena to make his point, so why did he choose stars? Was it because when one goes outside at night, he feels more alone than when he goes outside during the day? Was it because one is surrounded by darkness and that darkness acts like blinders on a horse, forcing him to spend time with himself and the stars and nothing else? Was it because the stars are so far away that as Asimov puts it, they “[shine] down in a soul-searing splendor that [is] more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that [shivers] across the cold, horribly bleak world” (20)? Was it because this splendor and indifference could remind people of their own insignificance? Or was it something to do with the stars sending people a warning from somewhere or someone far away, as the last line of this first paragraph of Emerson’s reads, “But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile”?

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4 Responses to Solitude

  1. Why the stars? Later in Nature, Emerson quotes the following from The Tempest:
    The charm dissolves apace,
    And, as the morning steals upon the night,
    Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
    Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
    Their clearer reason.
    This is woolly-headed conjecture—take it as nothing more—but if night is agent to “the ignorant fumes that mantle . . . clearer reason,” and if darkness is antithetical to understanding, then the star is that which perforates the darkness. It’s that which shines through—breaks through—the foul and muddied shores of unreason and fancy.
    “Light and darkness,” Emerson writes, again in Nature, “are our familiar expression for knowledge and ignorance.” The star—the proverbial light in the dark—is then a glint of knowledge in a sea of ignorance. What better to find in the night?
    And it doesn’t hurt that they’re beautiful.

  2. kristy0715 says:

    I agree with the mystery in why Emerson specifically chose nighttime and stars. There many different aspects of nature that he does not mention, such as sunlight, trees, flowers, wind, and grass- so why exactly just stars and the night? Emerson seems very struck by the opinion that any sort of company and man-made object, including an empty room, can hinder knowledge. Why is it that a person out alone in nature can learn so much more than a person in his room? What about the environment teaches us? Similarly, Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” brings out the disparity between being stuck inside a crowded classroom listening to a science lecture, and the quietness of the evening sky’s star. Like Emerson, Whitman has a negative tone regarding science and being caged in a room full of scholars.

    “When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
    When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
    When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lectureroom,
    How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
    Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

    It’s interesting how the first five lines have such a negative connotation when it comes to science and there are so many examples of words exemplifying that technical category: proofs, figures, columns, charts, diagrams, add, divide, measure. Whitman even takes if further by suggesting not only his boredom but physical discomfort of sickness by hearing the applause after the lecture. Immediately after retiring into the calmness of night, Whitman changes his tone into a much more relaxed state of being. He even describes the situation completely different, with words such as “mystical” and “perfect.” Like Emerson, Whitman also believes in the sanctity of nature and not only the comfort it provides. But he goes a little bit farther in almost describing nature as a necessity of life for him, because being somewhere else such as in a confined science lecture will make him physically ill.

  3. writinginmy says:

    I don’t think it is so much that you have to be alone or outside to be in solitude, or that you can only watch the stars in solitude if no one else is there. I mean, in truth, things and people are always somewhat there. But I think his focus on the stars (at NIGHT) and an environment of “loneliness” depends on the fact that when one views the stars, one also acknowledges the vastness of the sky behind it, and the multiplicity of the stars themselves. This forces a feeling of belittlement and isolation, that you are just a grain of rice within a bigger bowl of things and the things that remain inconceivable in the darkness stay that way, beyond your reach. This is difficult to achieve when they are, say, friends chattering around you or when you are inside your room around your distracting material objects. For the distracted mind, it would help to go outside and separate yourself.

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