The Simon and Garfunkel classic, I Am A Rock, is very romantic – and so yesterday.
No one’s a rock, no one’s an island in this age of social networking.
But this interconnectedness is not an unmixed blessing. We are losing our ability to be alone. It’s a great loss. From solitude sprang religious experience, the poetry of Romantics like Wordsworth, the power of introspection, the ability to observe life dispassionately and form independent judgment.
So says William Deresiewicz, a former associate professor of English at Yale. He writes in the Chronicle Review:
The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge — broadband tipping the Web from text to image, social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider — the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity.
So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone.
The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection.
What does friendship mean when you have 532 "friends"? My students told me they have little time for intimacy. And of course, they have no time at all for solitude.
And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection. Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity.
But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. "The saint and poet seek privacy," Emerson said, "to ends the most public and universal."
Solitude isn't easy, and isn't for everyone. "I believe," Thoreau said, "that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark."
The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn't very polite. Thoreau knew that the ability to stand back and observe life dispassionately is apt to make us a little unpleasant to our fellows, to say nothing of the offence implicit in avoiding their company. But then, he didn't worry overmuch about being genial. He didn't even like having to talk to people three times a day, at meals. We, however, have made of geniality — the weak smile, the polite interest, the fake invitation — a cardinal virtue. Friendship may be slipping from our grasp, but our friendliness is universal. Not for nothing does "gregarious" mean "part of the herd."
But Thoreau understood that securing one's self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbours off, but at least he was sure of himself. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.