Friday, 18 July 2014


In last week's New Yorker Joshua Rothman offers us his idea of Virginia Woolf's idea of privacy. Woolf, he tells us, sees life as 'a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open.' Never open if, that is, we wish to preserve its radiance, mystery, fragile preciousness, generativity. So we do well, then, to not reflect too penetratingly on our own inner life, to shield that life from our own, and also from others', analysing eyes. It is savouring rather than analysing that gives us the richly lived life.

Here he is, writing about and quoting from Mrs Dalloway:
Even Peter, with time, comes to regard himself in this way: “The compensation of growing old,” he thinks, is that “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained—at last!—the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence,—the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.” By learning to leave your inner life alone, you learn to cultivate and appreciate it. 
Now this all compels me. Particularly pleasing about Rothman's angle is how he precisely doesn't invoke some spurious and adolescent scheme/content dualism - you know, of wondrously idiosyncratic and idiographic Dionysian experiential content that can supposedly only be dulled or cheated by those nomothetic intellectualising spontaneity-sapping Appollonian schematic nasties called 'concepts', and so must be left alone by them - to take us where he wants to go.

What troubles me though is how he also suggests that a precondition for this quiet inner savouring is, for Woolf at least, a kind of aloneness or solitude that is to be pitted  inexorably against interpersonal intimacy. Thus Rothman talks of the need to recognise and preserve 'a certain resolute innerness—a kernel of selfhood that we can’t share with others'. Intimate connection with others is seen as contaminating and stultifying of the inner life. Contaminating: 'Even as they put their lives on display, Woolf thought, artists thrive when they maintain a final redoubt of privacy—a wellspring that remains unpolluted by the world outside.' And this: 'in Clarissa’s inner life ... her heightened feelings are allowed to stay pure, untouched.' Stultifying: 'Richard gives her privacy, and, therefore, inner solitude; he lets her soul remain her own.' The result is that the need to be known and the need to be alone remain in uneasy tension, where the balance is always 'a matter of dissatisfaction, give-and-take, and sacrifice.'

A different perspective is offered us by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. In his 1958 essay 'The Capacity to be Alone' he too trumpets the great value in solitude. But for Winnicott the kind of solitude that matters is not some kind of existential unreachableness, not a state of isolation the benefits of which must be bought in exchange for the benefits of relatedness. The crux of the matter is what he describes as a paradox - that what matters most, developmentally, is the 'capacity to be alone in the presence of the m/other'. The scene that suggests itself is a child playing, contentedly, able to relax and so be lost in his own fantasy precisely because his mother, sitting unobtrusively in the background, is able to let him be, in it, there. As the analytic jargon has it, this unintrusive togetherness, this companionable letting be, this anxiolytic unchallenging acceptance of the other in their inmost being, is what gets 'internalised' in a healthy development, the child then later becoming 'able to forego the actual presence of a mother or mother-figure'.

What happens if the mother is unable to let the child be, or if the child projects into the mother in such a way that her gaze is now inexorably experienced as intrusive? Well, now the experience of connection becomes one that is disruptive of the child's own going-on-being. And if one internalises this kind of mother then even a benignly intended act of contemplating one's own experiences could come to denature them. This, I suggest, is where the idea originates that intimacy and being known come with an inevitable cost of damage to the vitality of the individual spirit. Pessimistic souls tend to equate relatedness with intrusiveness: Sartre did this relentlessly in his paranoid philosophy of intersubjectivity; R. D. Laing's work on self and other in schizophrenia is naturally read autobiographically as his own attempt to intellectually exorcise his hurtfully unaccepting mother's ghost from his living body.

Now, and of course, there are great values in solitude, great difficulties in finding and trusting acceptance in intimacy. We then crave aloneness. Paranoia of some form or other is not so rare an affliction, and it is not just for the schizophrenic, who of all of us may be the most overwhelmed by interpersonal contact that inevitably becomes fraught and ontologically destabilising, that withdrawal is a healthy option (Ellen Corin). I've found the writings of Teju Cole (Open City) and W. G. Sebald (Rings of Saturn) particularly compelling in this regard. With their consumate flâneurism the rhythm of the protagonist's walking about the city or town, the quiet of their observational stance, and the rocking self-soothing lullaby of their author's prose settle the soul like nothing else. But what Winnicott helps us see is that even this aloneness is not ultimately to be pitted against togetherness, for in truth this aloneness itself is conditional on having had enough experiences of unintrusive stabilising anxiolytic togetherness. For that matter, what Winnicott helps us arrive at in a psychological register, Wittgenstein helps us get to through philosophical argument. That, at least, is one way of reading his private language argument: that the normativity that is a precondition of any meaning, even the most subjective, is something antithetical to self-ratifying subjectivity. The possibility of sharing is the possibility of meaning something, and the attempt to substitute oneself for an introjected other leads to a form of depressive narcissism that is deathly in its loneliness.

Sharing and intimacy may often be destabilising, the drawbridge may often need to be raised. But, at the end of the day, solicitude is not so much blissful solitude's antagonist as its condition of possibility.