BOOK REVIEWS: HOUSE OF SOLITUDE

The Psychology of Solitude: 3 BOOKS

CacioppoLoneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. New York: Norton, 2008.

Psychologist Cacioppo and science writer Patrick pack over 300 pages with the results of tests, surveys, experiments, research findings, and anecdotes to demonstrate social neroscience insights into loneliness. Loneliness is defined as "chronic feelings of isolation," with measurable physiological and neurological effects. Correctly, the emphasis is on feelings. Hence, while the questions on the UCLA Loneliness Scale cited early in the book elicit objective aspects of loneliness -- number of friends, shyness -- feelings are the most important factor. "Do you feel isolated, alone, without companionship," etc. Although the authors do not pursue the topic, solitude -- specifically voluntary solitude -- may overlap with loneliness, but the two are not at all identical.

The prescriptions in this book address loneliness not as mental illness but as inevitable human reaction to social isolation, and especially to negative events like bereavement, grief, and stress. Genetics, too, plays an important 50 percent factor in a personality. But at least the authors do not consider loneliness as requiring medical intervention.

Much of what the book describes is simply the vicissitudes of life in modern industrial society. Because the structures of modern life cannot be changed by any individual, coping mechanisms for social conviviality are the only remedy. Similarly, much of what the book identifies as physiological effects are largely accretions of evolutionary instincts (fear, anger, sex drive, survival) not typically addressed by average individuals except through social taboos and coping mechanisms.

Because average readers identify loneliness with solitude, such readers need to understand that the distinct and conscious pursuit of voluntary solitude in a philosophical or spiritual frame of mind stands in sharp contrast to the plight of the lonely portrayed here.
(reviewed 2011)

BuchholzThe Call of Solitude: Alonetime in a World of Attachment, by Ester Schaler Buchholz. Boston, Beacon Press, 1995.

This book of 350+ pages by a psychotherapist concentrates on the psychology of self and the issues of what would probably be called self-esteem elsewhere. The focus is the necessity of recognizing the importance of the individual in distinguishing that self from society, the group, the other. The state of mind or product is what the author calls alonetime.

Anecdotes cram the book's pages, giving us a full panoply of examples and scenarios, never too technical but always from a psychologist's point of view, including the author's own cases. There is no philosophical, cultural, or spiritual angle to solitude here. At times, the stories overwhelm the insights, the most fruitful of which would lead us to a recognition of what the foundation of solitude is, so that the individual can be justified in seeking alonetime.
(reviewed 2002)

Though it cannot be seen as a fault, the book presumes to reduce the subject to psychology. Granted that the justification is presented as psychological because not everyone is an intellectual, so the book offers this useful bridge. But to find the deeper context of solitude, readers will need to pursue the generous bibliography of this book plus a few perennial classics.
(reviewed 2002)

HalpernMigrations to Solitude, by Sue Halpern. New York, Vintage, 1993.

The cover of this book offers the subtitle "The Quest for Privacy in a Crowded World," which highlights a distinction the author intends between solitude and privacy. Here solitude is largely a distressful emotional and physical state while privacy is the safeguarded persona free to pursue what Buchholz (see above) calls alonetime.

The people highlighted in Halpern's book have been pushed into forced solitude because of their marginal social or psychological status: urban poor, drug addicts, terminally ill, domestically abused, people suffering a personal tragedy. They have lost their privacy not in the narrow legal sense but in the emotional and psychological sense.

Only one chapter features an elderly couple living as hermits in upper New York State. Also, the author elects a day of alonetime near a favorite lake and tells us about it. However, the portraits of isolation and anguish, though described with control and humaneness, are hardly paeans to the virtues of solitude. Readers seeking a positive portrait of solitude will find this book bleak and ironic.
(reviewed 2002)