Solitude in Literary Fiction

The Hermit, by Eugene Ionesco

The only novel by Eugene Ionesco (1909-94) has been largely overshadowed by his plays which largely established (along with Bertold Brecht) the theater of the absurd. Additionally, the novel is inevitably compared to Camus' The Stranger and Sartre's Nausea. Further, The Hermit is late in the sequence of existential literature, almost overlapping with stream of consciousness and magic realism genres rather than the with the brooding atmosphere that settles over the lives of the anti-heroes of the novels mentioned and earlier ones such as Kafka's.

For all that, The Hermit may be more realistic. Its unnamed protagonist is a petit-bourgeois, a "nowhere man," adrift in modern urban society as a spectator not in control of his spirit. The original French title is L'solitaire not L'eremite, and he is indeed a solitary. Unlike the existentialism of earlier novels, here is the modern alienation at the root of late-20th century (and beyond) technological society. Our hero never studied, was never a rebel, just a bored office worker (who quits work after getting an inheritance) afflicted by thoughts and daydreams.

I don't have any desires, or rather only a few, or rather I don't have them anymore. If I have any, they were not worth being exploited and encouraged. Perhaps I actually do have desires. But they are dormant. I'm not inclined to wake them up. What are my desires? That people leave me alone; that other people's desires leave me alone and don't involve me in their repercussions. What I desire most of all is not to have any desires.

 But, he tells us:

I philosophize too much. That's my weakness. If I had been less of a philosopher I would have had a happier life. When one is not a great philosopher, one should not philosophize. And even when they are great they are pessimistic, or their conclusions are impossible to fathom.

Despite his self-characterization, the unnamed urban solitary watches everything vigilantly. Crowds and passers-by from a restaurant window are his amusement, but he admits a sadness, dejection, weariness, even disgust with life and the world. He cannot translate this feeling into intellectual terms because it is psychological: "I'm all alone here, at the foot of the wall. All alone, like a fool." He suffers classic depression:

And then all of a sudden, unexpectedly as it always is when it leaps upon me, suddenly the idea that I'm going to die. I shouldn't be afraid of death, since I don't know what death is, and besides, haven't I said that I ought to give in and not fight it? To no avail. I jump out of bed, frightened out of my wits.

He cannot stand crowds, but he cannot stand being alone. Nor can he construct relationships with others. He starts drinking to ease his panic attacks and despair, oppressed by the brunt of fear and anxiety unless he can numb himself.

Suddenly a revolution breaks out. Is it 1789? 1848? 1968? -- sometime in the future?  Gunfire is heard in the city, red flashes in the night, the noise of crowds and barricades. Nearer and nearer to his apartment building it comes, until the whole district is in an uproar and our hero is one day nearly wounded. He rushes indoors, stocks his apartment with food and drink, puts mattresses against the windows of his fourth-floor apartment, while the revolution outside (is it outside?) sweeps on. But within the safety of his cell grows an intimacy with solitude.

Time went by. Months went by. Years maybe. ... It was rare that I had any outside contact. And then came a time when I saw no one at all.

This sudden solitude brings him tranquility.

Within the confines of the great universal prison, I had made for myself a little niche in which I could live. It was tiny, I had no doubt about that point. But at least it was made to measure, to my measure. A little niche in a prison that kept me from seeing the prison. ... On the one hand, a speck. On the other, a conglomerate of galaxies.

Then come strange mystical experiences of luminous skies, stars in daylight, and brilliant light, that seem to bring purpose and meaning. For the first time he experiences happiness.

I was billions of centuries for cosmic systems. I was billions and billions of miles for people I didn't even know, for billions of people who consorted within me, who became indignant and revolted, who fought one another, loved one another, who loathed one another. Yes, all that was in me.

The revolution ends. He reenters the world. The ruins have been rebuilt. Everyone he sees he no longer recognizes, but it does not matter. Life returns to routine. Memories linger like a residue. He admits that

If only I had known how to put each moment to good use, life would have been beautiful. I had let the stream of life flow past; I had wasted it, not taken advantage of it. ... I hadn't tried very hard, because I felt that it was impossible to know what I wanted to know.

But what he had wanted to know was not something he could ever have contrived. A tree burgeons forth before his window, from it a great flower rises right up to where he can reach it. Birds chirp happily. The walls fall away to reveal an endless vista of gardens, forests, a cool breeze and strong sunlight.

Years passed, or seconds. All disappears but the light that had entered into me remained.

Perhaps, after all the speculation about craziness, this is what people suspect is the private vision of the true hermit, this light that enters into one and remains and justifies everything. Ionesco has sketched a possibility for not just solitaries but anyone at all.