Nissim Ezekiel’s poem, Enterprise, has a distinctly tone with the ultimate realisation, “Home is where we have to earn our grace.” The poet encourages the attitude to stay at home without engaging in ambitious enterprises. Home isolation is a situation which momentarily evokes commiseration, but few people realise that it can occasionally be advantageous not only for the person concerned but also for society, for it can provide the ideal circumstances for creative work.
Afflicted by the present pandemic, the home today has turned out to be the new workspace. Solitary confinement may be considered one of the most extreme punishments in our society. But it is an opportunity to spend time working, writing and contemplating . One is reminded of Picasso who once said: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”
During the period of selfisolation and social distancing, it is a blessing in disguise for a person if he uses the time creatively. Having only oneself as a companion provides an unparalleled opportunity for introspection. French philosopher Michael de Montaigne kept himself in isolation from the rest of society for several years.
He spoke about the depth of camaraderie which he could experience within himself: “Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves. We have a soul that can be turned upon itself. It has the means to attack and the means to defend, the means to receive and the means to give.” The Tao Te Ching, also known as Lao Tzu or Lagi, is a Chinese classical text traditionally credited to the 6th century BC sage Lagi. It is itself a product of intense isolation.
As it famously states, “Those who do not speak. Those who do not know.” In a sense, they might suggest that isolation can be a window to a rare and profound inner experience. As we grapple with the new reality of working from home and social distancing, it is time to utilse this opportunity to read more, to further activate our brain, and even to pursue our own passion and interests. For a writer, isolation is really a good workspace. It is a mental solitude where he interacts with characters, listens and engages with the story itself. Most of the creative writing is the product of solitude ~ when the writer distances himself from the populace.
As Flaubert said: “Writing is a lonely life but the only life with living.” Henry David Thoreau once said: “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude”. In The Solitude of Writers, Link Stepps observes that writers need to accustom themselves to productive solitude, which is different from loneliness. In her reckoning, we have become accustomed to avoiding solitude and surrounding ourselves with distractions.
The American science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov said: “As creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working on it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.” Ernest Hemingway is quoted to have said that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life”. In fact, writing is a solitary work because it needs quietude and concentration. Hemingway, Thoreau, and Orwell reaffirmed their genius while left in solitude.
Thoreau sequestered in a cabin on Walden Pond; Orwell in a hut on an isolated Hebridean island to finish his 1984. Mark Twain had a cabin at the end of his lane and no one was allowed to enter the place. When a person feels isolated in loneliness, he can be overtaken by huge bursts of creativity. He finds himself reaching for images, compressing emotions into language, constructing sentences that lead one to another with elegance.
Artist Agnes Martin said in an interview: “The best things in life happen to you when you are alone”. Solitude is a stage where we can become forgetful and where surprising leaps of imagination and creativity take place. While allowing us to forget ourselves as much as our distractions, solitude may allow us to develop a distinctive voice as writers. As Nietzsche wrote: “This is why I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern”.
Douglas Hubble in his piece on Charles Darwin has suggested that the obscure illness from which the latter suffered segregated him from the trivialities of social intercourse. It was his illness which provided him with the solitude and leisure needed to develop and support his revolutionary concept of evolution. Other instances of creative seclusion out of illness include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. The person who experiences isolation is able to find an emotional outlet and satisfaction in creative activity.
This is in one activity which has the proximity of infinity, of the Divine. In European painting, there was an expression of isolated self in the works of the masters of German Romanticism, like Caspar David Friedrich. We can perceive vast, empty landscapes stretching to the farthest horizons, and humans peering out into the distance in an attitude of yearning ~ the yearning for the infinite, the limitless. Solitude forces us out of distractions and thus allows us to develop distinctive voices as writers.
Eugene Delacroix suggested that writers should seek solitude. Elizabeth Bishop was a proponent of solitude for honing the creative voice. Keats claimed: “My solitude is sublime. The roaring of the wind is my wife and the stars through the window are my children”. Isolation makes us confront ourselves so that we return to the world as a different person. It is never an act of running away, but of grounding ourselves.
We tap into something living rather than become individualistic creators. Our inner voice is then made audible and we feel the attraction of our intimate sources. It is important for creating the space and time that one needs to explore, shape and document one’s emotions, thoughts and experiences through writing.
(The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata. He is now associated with Rabindra Bharati University)