Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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March 23, 2007
off-line/in print: urban solitude vs. rural

Descartes, according to Maurois, wrote about why he liked living in Amsterdam, as follows:

It's all up to me whether or not I choose to live here unknown to anybody; every day I walk through great crowds of people almost as undisturbed as you are in walking your private paths; the men I encounter give me the same impression as might trees in your woods or bushes in your fields.

Even the din of all these merchants is no more distracting to me that the noise of a brook.

Kuno Fischer sources the above passage to a May 15, 1631 letter from Descartes to his friend, Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, in Descartes to Bacon: History of Modern Philosophy (at 211-12). Fischer translates the first part of the above passage like this (I especially appreciate the last clause):

But in this great city I am the only man who is not engaged in business; and every one else is so entirely occupied with his own interests, that I could spend my entire life here without being noticed by any one.

This reminds me of what Bowie has explained about why he moved to Berlin in the 70s: Because it was a great place to be left alone while you go crazy:

Jim (Iggy Pop) and I - we were both having the same problems - knew it was the kind of place where you walk around and really are left alone and not stopped by people.

They're very blasé, there. Cynical, irony-based people and it's a great place if you really want to try and do some soul-searching and find out what it is that you really want.

I believe the Latin saying is "magna civitas, magna solitudo". Though Francis Bacon, when he reflected on the saying in his essay on friendship, wrote about the "great solitude" of cities as if it were a bad thing.

Descartes seemed to know better. His letter defends the solitude you get in the city as not only equal to, but in many ways superior to, the kind you can get in the countryside.

Contrast Walt Whitman. In Specimen Days, he wrote about his "natural gymnasia," where he spent many hours alone during his convalescence in the still-wilds of Camden:

A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond. . . .

Then for addition and variety I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets or plays -- or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes and refrains I heard of the blacks down south, or patriotic songs I learn’d in the army.

I make the echoes ring, I tell you!

Whitman reveals a key difference between solitude in the rural wilderness and solitude in an urban setting. In the countryside, you can, without a care, engage in behavior that, if done on a city street, would probably get you funny looks, yelled at, arrested, locked up or institutionalized. Especially nowadays.

But other human beings are unlike the "trees in your woods and bushes," amongst which Descartes felt less solitude. Other people can look back at you. How is it possible, then, that Descartes felt more alone on a city street?

Descartes was no doubt aware that other Amsterdamians could see him. Even though the philosopher may have felt invisible to others when he flâneured his way through the crowds of Amsterdam, you can bet that he probably took care to present a proper social face on the streets.

This may be the essence of the urban social situation in the street: constant care for how you appear to others. However, the attentiveness to every moment of public surface appearance essentially coexists with a more foregrounded, immediate awareness and self-image that we are someone who regards others with total indifference. We're alone but not alone.

For Descartes especially, maintenance of the right face in the street at all times seemed to have been important. He was a guy, after all, who (along with Salvador Dali) had the motto "Larvatus prodeo": "I advance masked." He compared himself to a stage actor (though not a "cracked" one, as did Bowie).

[Some interesting thoughts on Descartes' efforts to cultivate and master his public face, on modernity and on theological concerns, appear in a paper that Michael A. Gillespie submitted to the Eric Voegelin Society in 2002, here.]

Whitman, alone by the pond or on the riverbank, had no such concerns.

Or did he? One wonders about the extent to which part of the enjoyment WW got when he did outrageous things alone came from the additional fun he envisioned he would have when he wrote to or told others about what he'd done alone. Again, alone but not alone, but sliced up along different axes than those important to Descartes.

[Whitman was not unlike Descartes, insofar as WW was no stranger to urban life, especially as a young man. Whitman too put a lot of energy into the cultivation of the mask that he presented to the outside world (cf. his "I am the actor, the actress" in "The Sleepers"), as demonstrated by the many careful revisions he oversaw during his lifetime to the various editions of Leaves of Grass.]

I theorize that a lot of blog/journal posts of that type
(i.e., a type typified by some of the pieces in Specimen Days, or Whitman's poems, that read as if written by an Isolato (Melville's term), but a strangely exhibitionist one)
exist out there in the world, that began with someone doing something alone, while they thought of how they would -- or perhaps even because they wanted to be able to -- blog about it, and tell others.

[Possibly trite connections with phenomena we all already know and wonder about:

the internet as the new agora;

on-line profiles, journals and blogs as new spaces in which to experiment with our identities, self-images, public faces and masks;

[update 3/26/07: See also Frank Wilson, here, via McLemee, who brings in Erving Goffman -- yes -- though Zephoria, as usual, of course got there 2.5 years ago, even if she did not come up with the EG Drinking Game]

the ways that changing technology changes how we
think about being alone;
want/don't want to be alone;
manipulate, control and worry about our boundaries with others; and
alter the ways that we are even able to be alone (or not) anymore, when we want to be today.]
Finally, did I pick up Maurois' book again, and find that great Descartes quote, because he has an incredible essay in there about Paul Valéry? And did I go looking for the essay because Valéry's own essay, "Poetry and Abstract Thought," which is amazing, is reprinted in its entirety in the new American Poetry Review? Obviously.

PV's essay is really about cognition almost as much as it's about literature, I think. More on this later, perhaps.