Solitude: How to Expose Yourself to the Twilight Zone for Real

This past weekend I was thinking about the importance of solitude to the life of the mind, and it occurred to me that it is useful to think of solitude as a place of exposure. Solitude, in other words, is where we go to contact the realm of ideas and the imagination (as in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone ). By constantly putting ourselves in solitude, we increase the likelihood that our minds will surprise us by landing upon a curious observation, an inspiration, a thought. If our minds, afterall, are computational devices (“computers made of meat”), then they need places to process and spit out to consciousness the figures that they have summed. So, while I was taking a walk this weekend (think of Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker  or Thoreau’s Walking ) I jotted down a list of where we go for solitude—places to think, meditate, calculate, dream—and how important these spaces are for our intellectual and emotional lives. And the first thought to jump into my mind was the familiar quote of a famous scientist (I don’t recall which one) who quipped that his ideas tended to arrive via three routes:

The bed, the bath, or the bus.

And I also thought of Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Story of an Hour” (1894), in which Mrs. Mallard, having just learned that she had lost her husband in a train accident (or so she was told), fled from the news to an upstairs bedroom and locked herself in. There she settled into a big comfy chair and stared silently out of an open window. Expecting grief to visit her, her solitude nevertheless delivered a surprise:

There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air [from her open window].

And what was it exactly?:

She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will—as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.

When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’

This is a rather naughty revelation to have on learning of a spouse’s death, but Chopin’s story of Mrs. Mallard’s encounter with solitude illustrates the danger and the promise of it: you’ll get visitations at your door (or window), but you can’t guarantee who (or what) will come in.

So these were the first four things on my list of places that we go for solitude:

  • the bed
  • the bath
  • the bus
  • the open window

And here’s some more that I got from my walk:

  • the spa
  • the garden
  • the study
  • the library
  • the park
  • the walk
  • the run
  • the swim
  • the hike
  • the nature preserve
  • the tree (think Newton)
  • the inner room
  • the skateboard, surfboard, or skis
  • the zafu (the cushion Buddhists meditate on)
  • the yoga mat
  • the fountain
  • the stream
  • the river
  • the lake
  • the chair
  • the toilet
  • the waterfall
  • the book
  • the parked car
  • the nap
  • the plane
  • the bike
  • the garage
  • the attic or basement
  • the tree house
  • the porch
  • the trampoline
  • the rug before a fireplace
  • the patio
  • the hobby (model building, car tinkering, gardening, cooking etc.)
  • the cafe
  • the bar
  • the restaurant
  • the retreat
  • the museum
  • the altar
  • the sanctuary
  • the mountain
  • the plain
  • the desert
  • the beach
  • the forest
  • the gym
  • the treadmill
  • the kitchen
  • the night sky
  • the classical music concert
  • the painting
  • the photograph
  • travel

And sometimes accompanying solitude are props:

  • a candle
  • a special table with the picture of a guru
  • incense
  • a flower
  • a symbol
  • an idol
  • bubble bath
  • a plant
  • a dildo or vibrator
  • music
  • a hallucinogen
  • a joint
  • a glass of wine
  • coffee or tea
  • an instrument

At other times, we may be alone in one of these spaces accompanied by the voice or sounds of electronic others. These electronic others function as the second voice in our private inner dialogue: the voices that we are listening to and reflecting on (or arguing with). We might be:

  • listening to a book or lecture on an iPod
  • thinking about the words of a song
  • watching a challenging film and reflecting on it
  • reading an internet blog or opinion piece

One of the eccentric ways that I engage in solitude (and which I learned from my father) is to walk with a book. I have done this probably from at least the age of 9 or 10. I would take walks with my dad and he would give me the book that he was reading and I would read it aloud to him and talk about passages from it. My love of reading and adult discussion really flourished there. And as I got older and took walks independently, I continued to walk and read—and think. I plan to teach my daughters, when they are a bit older, the same practice.

In any case, after people have solitude, they might then record the memories of them (for themselves or others) via one of these methods:

  • journaling
  • poetry or creative writing
  • artistic expression
  • telephonic message
  • academic or scientific journal article
  • book
  • YouTube video
  • podcast
  • blog
  • magazine article
  • dialogue with a friend
  • Internet thread discussion
  • public lecture

Solitude is thus a crucial component to epistemology. It belongs in this list of ways we come to know things:

  • experiment/evidence
  • logic/reason (critical thinking)
  • evaluating testimony
  • evaluating rhetoric
  • dialogue
  • solitude

By giving us a place to get ideas, metacognize, calculate, and imagine, solitude helps us process our dialogues with others—and figure out what we will say in the next round of discussion. And going into solitude also increases our chances that we will digest the data of our lives well, and maybe even have revelations that percolate up and through our subconscious into our consciousness. Solitude is the door to the realm of insight and imagination.

I’m thinking now of Isaac Newton and Friedrich Nietzsche. Here’s James Trefil, from his book Reading the Mind of God: In Search of the Principle of Universality  (Scribners 1989), on Newton’s theory of gravitation:

According to Isaac Newton, it happened like this: He was walking in an orchard one day when he saw an apple fall to the ground. At the same time, he noticed the moon in the sky. He wondered whether the force that made the apple fall might not extend all the way out to the moon’s orbit—after all, it was known to extend at least as far as the tops of the mountains. In one of those blinding flashes of insight . . . Newton realized that if the force did extend that far, it could conceivably account for the fact that the moon remains in its orbit around the earth. The notion that the fall of the apple and the orbit of the moon are connected represents one of the greatest insights ever achieved by the human mind, and its consequences reach far indeed.

And Newton got his idea in solitude.

Here’s another example: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. According to Alistair Kee’s book on Nietzsche—Nietzsche Against the Crucified  (SCM Press 1999):

He tells us [in Ecce Homo ] that during a stay in Italy, near Genoa, while out walking he conceived of Zarathustra. Or rather, he tells us no such thing. ‘It was on these two walks that the whole of the first Zarathustra came to me, above all Zarathustra himself, as a type: more accurately, he stole up on me . . . .’

In other words, Nietzsche, in the midst of his sauntering and day dreaming, encountered an inner stranger from his own personal Twilight Zone episode. Zarathustra “stole up on”—surprised—Nietzsche. Kee then quotes Nietzsche at length from Ecce Homo:

If one had the slightest residue of superstition left in one, one would hardly be able to set aside the idea that one is merely incarnation, merely mouthpiece, merely medium of overwhelming forces. The concept of revelation, in the sense that something suddenly, with unspeakable certainty, and subtlety, becomes visible, audible, simply describes the fact. One hears, one does not seek; one takes, one does not ask who gives; a thought flashes up like lightning, with necessity, unfalteringly formed—I have never had any choice. An ecstasy whose tremendous tension sometimes discharges itself in a flood of tears, while one’s steps now involuntarily rush along, now involuntarily lag; a complete being outside oneself with the distinct consciousness of a multitude of subtle shudders and trickling down to one’s toes. . . . Everything is in the highest degree involuntary but takes place as in a tempest of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity.

Nietzsche’s vivid encounter with inspiration via solitude also recalls for me Percy Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” the first stanza of which is very “Twilight Zoney”:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power

      Floats though unseen among us,—visiting

      This various world with an inconstant wing

As summer winds that creep from flower to flower,—

Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,

          It visits with inconstant glance

          Each human heart and countenance;

Like hues and harmonies of evening,—

          Like clouds in starlight widely spread,—

          Like memory of music fled,—

          Like aught that for its grace may be

Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

And later in the poem, Shelley speaks of solitude as the place, since boyhood, that he had sought out concourse with ghosts, only to find them silent. But intellectual beauty—that opaque and uncertain divinity of inspiration—sometimes visits Shelley for real and out of the blue:

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped

    Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,

    And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing

Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.

I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;

          I was not heard—I saw them not—

          When musing deeply on the lot

Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing

          All vital things that wake to bring

          News of birds and blossoming,—

          Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;

I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!

And, of course, to increase your chances of being graced by the divinity of inspiration, you must expose yourself to solitude.

I was sufficiently enamored of my weekend reflections on solitude that I decided I should forthwith begin Socratic walks with my children now, and not wait until they are old enough to read books with me. My daughters are four and six. And so, on Saturday afternoon, I took each of them for an individual walk (first the four-year old, then the six). On the walk, I functioned as their dialoguing partner (in what would otherwise be their inner dialogue if they were walking alone). As we walked, I asked them gentle and casual questions punctuated by silence, and let them tell me what they were thinking about, noticing, associating, or theorizing about. I let their minds go wherever they wanted, and I left things completely spontaneous (no steering their minds to an agenda). As we walked I asked about things we were encountering:

  • Where do you suppose the water in the curb came from? (Perhaps a car being washed up the street.)
  • What do the dropped berries from that tree make you think of? (My six year-old: The tree has barfed!)

You never know what your mind will direct its attention to, or discover, when you enter the Twilight Zone solitude.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Solitude: How to Expose Yourself to the Twilight Zone for Real

  1. Anonymous says:

    Prof,
    I found this post thoroughly intriguing. I find that solitude is one of the most important things by far in the pursuit of a healthy, open, and perceptive mine. I look for to more personal posts like this one. Cheers.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Woops, I though I was signed in. This is Cody. ^^

  3. santitafarella says:

    Hi Cody,

    That was a long post, and I feared that nobody would read it. Thanks for letting me know that you did. As far as solitude being important to the perceptive mind, I agree. One thing that has made for human misery through history is the inability of people to find leisure to think. Life, especially in previous centuries, made for little time that could be devoted to thought. Virginia Wolfe famously complained that women were especially disadvantaged in this regard, and pleaded for “A Room of One’s Own.” If we have opportunities for solitude, we should be glad for them. For much of history, people did not have access to very much of it, being occupied with survival. And when they did have access to it, they were discouraged from being exposed to too much of it (“an idle mind is the devil’s workshop”). Exercising solitude, thinking, and imagination, in my view, are political acts. A lot of interests in our culture are vested in the hope that people will not think too closely or step out of the crowd (corporate advertising and megachurches being examples).

    —Santi

    • I’m actually an avid reader of your blog, although I don’t post too many replies. I find many of your posts stimulating my own blogging, although I’ve been too busy to post lately.

      On that last sentence about many aspects of our culture relying on people following one another, it seems that you’ve hit the nail on the head. Even in our culture, where individualism is paraded as being one of the most important principles, true individualism is generally seen as a negative thing to the majority, think political radicals or proponents of equal sexual rights. I find that whole subject extremely interesting.

      • santitafarella says:

        Read:

        I agree with you. Emily Dickinson was quite the lover of solitude, and she wrote that if you upset people’s sensibilities too much “you’re straightway dangerous / and handled with a chain.”

        Going into solitude is a form of power (because you start to think, and when people start to think, systems based on irrationality lose their power to mystify).

        —Santi

  4. Pingback: Sandra Foster, a Female Thoreau: A Little House of Her Own « Prometheus Unbound

  5. Pingback: Entering the Twilight Zone via Solitude and Day Dreaming, and Maybe Meeting the Devil (or Rod Serling) « Prometheus Unbound

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