The Art of Solitude

I like being alone. Perhaps it’s a taste I’ve acquired through a lifetime of feeling estranged from the world around me: I’m a little shy, significantly aloof and often bored with what the people around me are doing. I’ve often thought that the rhythm I move to doesn’t quite match everyone else’s tempo. I’m not sure whether it’s by cause or effect that my interests lie elsewhere than with the present, immediate world: with art, literature, writing — pursuits that both are concerned with apprehending the past and that necessitate a certain degree of solitude. And no time alone ever seems like enough.

If there was ever a period that presented isolation in excess, it would have been the coronavirus pandemic, especially early on when The City entered a stringent shelter-in-place mandate and everyone was holed up in their homes with no social contact other than a roommate, partner or pet, if they were lucky. I had a wife, a dog and a cat. Within six months, my two closest friends had moved away. A year in, my wife and I got divorced and she took the dog with her. I was heartbroken and alone, more than I might have been had my relationship come apart before the pandemic. But I wasn’t lonely.

As I have always done in response to feelings of alienation, I redoubled my engagement with another sort of solitude, one that has always brought me immeasurable comfort: art. Loneliness is dreadful. But it can also function as its own antidote. When I engage fully in the necessarily solitary act of looking at art, I am always a little less lonely.

In a letter dated May 14, 1904, and addressed to a young student of poetry, the Austrian writer Reiner Maria Rilke penned this: “We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.” He goes on to say, “It is also good to love: because love is difficult,” defining it as “the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”

It’s a simple enough dialectic: What is difficult is worth doing, and what is worth doing is difficult. It sounds good on paper, but the difficulty, as such, comes in putting this proverb into practice. No one planned, or chose, to participate in the coronavirus pandemic. Rilke himself was sickly throughout most of his life, and one wonders if he would have sought solitude had it not come to claim him. Perhaps by choice, perhaps by necessity, he found a way to make his solitude benefit him.

The comfort I’ve often felt in my solitude comes from the second part of Rilke’s proposition, the part about love. How is it that the difficult work of solitude can prepare us for the work of love, of allowing ourselves to be folded into another, a process that, at its core, is about disavowing solitude? In one way I have discovered, it is because the solitary act of art-looking is a practice of giving and receiving empathy.

Art, when it succeeds, is a relationship between, above all else, strangers, an experience that insists upon connection in spite of any magnitude of distance or difference. Koak’s paintings do this for me. Julio César Morales’s neon sculptures do this for me. Leila Weefur’s videos do this for me. Mimi Plumb’s photographs do this for me. André Aciman, Paul Auster Teju Cole, Virginia Woolf and so many other writers have done this for me. Rilke himself does this for me! These are all people who, without knowing them personally, I have loved and who, miraculously, and perhaps more importantly, have loved me.

The solitary spaces of art-looking, or reading or film-watching, which, it turns out, are not solitary in the slightest, also serve to thwart the present, to disarm it, by placing greater emphasis on the past, the future and elsewhere. The place where we encounter art is a place apart from the rest of the world not because it is often a space physically removed, like a gallery, library or theater, but because art happens nowhere else than inside us, one mind speaking to another across time and space, through the artwork. Every artwork is like an individual Golden Record, proof that there is anybody out there and that they are, in fact, right here. And during a period of acute isolation, that can be all the comfort we need.

Place your free digital obituary

We provide a free service for you to honor your loved ones. Click below to get started.

Max Blue writes about the visual arts and modern culture for the San Francisco Examiner and other publications.