When I was young, I went to Woodstock one day to visit the artist Clarence Schmidt. Clarence lived alone in a treehouse. The property he owned had rusted automobiles, wooden stakes with dolls’ heads stuck on them, and aluminum foil wrapped around much of the place.
I knocked at the small door of the treehouse. Clarence opened up. There were a lot of Table Talk pie wrappers. He was lying flat. He showed us a magazine spread of his paintings. He was proud of them and the fact that they were recognized. We talked for a while, and then I asked him why he had wrapped so much aluminum around his belongings. He looked at me slyly and said, “To keep out the death rays.” I think he meant that the aluminum was a border to stop the insane content of the outside society from killing him. Among those I was with was a young woman who had remarkably smooth skin. Clarence, whose skin was rough and tattered, asked her if he could rub her cheek. She let him. After a while, he said he needed to be alone again.
I was very taken with Clarence. I thought he was alone but not lonely. For an artist, the solitary life away from the bustling intrusions of society allowed for uninterrupted and private thought. Wordsworth called it “that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.” Artists in this role are metaphors for humans deeply in need of silence not for its own sake but as a prompt for constructing a castle of private thought.
I once heard Andy Warhol interviewed as he walked out of a play. The interviewer asked him what he thought of the play. Warhol responded, “I thought it was boring. But I like being bored.” It struck me that his life was so busy that an unengaging play gave him an unusual moment to be with himself. Boredom became a rare but valued friend.
A lot of people mistakenly believe Thoreau was a hermit at Walden Pond and deliberately went there to live separately. Thoreau’s friends had helped him. The cabin was built on Emerson’s land. Bronson Alcott, an educational reformer and Louisa May Alcott’s father, loaned Thoreau the axe to fell trees for the cabin’s construction. And these and many other friends came to visit him. He liked having them there. He also liked walking home to have lunch with his mother. Thoreau’s isolation was undertaken to have an opportunity to study nature, what he considered to be the source of eternal truths. Solitude, when he had it, let him focus on the natural world.
Emily Dickinson’s solitude came from what was probably a nervous disorder, an inability to leave their home. During her last years she left it only once to go next door to her brother’s house because her much-adored nephew was dying. She had to rush back quickly. This solitude, imposed by her psychological make-up, certainly gave her time to write, but no emotional satisfaction. She was unable to publish more than a few of her poems in her life and those were mostly published in a local paper. Her solitude was a sad one. Many are fascinated by her posthumous fame, but in her case the solitude was only accidentally helpful. Mostly, it was devastating.
All these people provide lessons for us about how to live, and how not to live if we can help it. For those making “a separate peace” with the society, the solitary life offers valuable opportunities. For those so used to a world that is “too much with us,” however, it is more difficult to slow down.
From a social point of view, many baby boomers have retired or will soon retire. They will encounter a sort of aloneness they have never experienced. They will need models of a productive solitary life.