Category Archives: Exercises in Loneliness

Exercises in Loneliness – VII

I’ve been reading A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. It is an interesting book. It is easy to see why it was written; why it was written in such form and way; the content is much explained and restricted by the time when Woolf had been writing it. Her passionate appeal to write the history of a woman was received not only with accolade, but has brought much fruit in the form of the so-called “feminist studies”.

So many years and academic studies later, it is also clear that, had Virginia Woolf known everything we know these days about female authors of the past centuries, her take on female literature would probably have been different. Marguerite de Navarre had written Heptameron, a collection of novellas, clearly inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron. When Marguerite died in 1549, three daughters of Edward, Duke of Somerset (the unfortunate Good Duke of Edward VI’s reign) wrote Hecatodistichon (Le Tombeau de Marguerite de Navarre), which was published in France in 1550 and was promptly translated and augmented by the poems of The Pleiade (Ronsard and Du Belle, in particular). The first English translation of Euripides, of his tragedy Iphigenie in Aulis, was produced by Lady Lumley, the daughter of Henry Fitzalan, the 12th Earl of Arundel. Elizabeth I, as we know, was not overt on an occasional verse. Even this very brief look at female writing in the 16th c. shows that, although no Shakespeare’s sister would be able to become an actress, women were not always beaten by their fathers, but instead had the abilities which were recognised.

This is not to say that Virginia Woolf was deceiving herself or the women who would be reading her book. But recently, as I was reading Counsels and Maxims by Arthur Schopenhauer, I came across a chapter on loneliness. Written in what one could call a typically masculine style, the chapter is a blazing apology of solitude. The progress of one’s mind, says Schopenhauer, causes the regress in their necessity to communicate. Solitude is the haven of an outstanding, self-sufficient mind. Ordinary people are only so keen on communication because they are afraid to face themselves. Those who crave loneliness are strong people. Etc, etc…

Naturally perhaps, Schopenhauer didn’t say a word about women in that chapter. Many a feminist would probably point a finger at his chapter and sneer. Or perhaps on the contrary, they would cheer for him, because for some strange reason Woolf is speaking of exactly the masculine kind of solitude in her book. “A woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write” – is she not asking for women to have what had previously belonged exclusively to men?

What is quite obvious is that in order to give women money and rooms of their own it would take to break many centuries of tradition. There is no doubt that this tradition was stark and stifling, and that it still exists these days, when young teenage girls, still children themselves, decide to have children instead of seeking education and career. But the existence of this tradition may also very well suggest that there are two different kinds of solitude, a feminine and a masculine. There are also two rooms pertinent to each of these solitudes, and it may very well be that a masculine room will be a study, and a feminine room will remain a common room.

It would be lovely to think that when a woman says that she wants a room of her own she means that she wants to raise above the restrictions the society places on her gender and responsibilities entailed to it. She wants to acquire that sort of fortitude that a room of one’s own instills in the person who sits there. She wants to face herself. Her mind is strong enough not only to stand this solitude, but also to collect the fruits of such condition. And the fruit of solitude is the calmness of body and spirit, when the thought floats freely and effortlessly. The kind of calmness that gave us the works of Shakespeare.

But solitude, if we agree with Schopenhauer – and there is no reason not to agree with him – is a measure of self-sufficiency. The more self-sufficient one is, the happier they are in the room of their own. This is where Schopenhauer stumbles into a problem, at which Nietzsche had pointed in Human, All Too Human. “Lack of historical sense is the family failure of all philosophers”, he writes. Philosophers at the time of Nietzsche (from his point of view, anyway) had the common failing of starting out from man as he is now”. It is hard to disagree with him, but this lack of historical sense, this failure in logic, is the direct consequence of extreme self-sufficiency.

I often feel – and this in part explains my opposition to the sometimes inevitable necessity to categorise people even by their gender, not to mention other things – that ascribing a category to oneself is retreating to the room of one’s own, to the realm of self-sufficiency, where one takes an immense pride in being different from all the others. For to be different is to be singled out; to be singled out is to be on one’s own; one can only be truly on their own in their space, which can appropriately be called a room. Of course, these days probably nobody any longer have that “family failure” of ahistorical thinking, thanks to all the academic studies. But now, probably, they have another failure of not having the knowledge of life in all its diversity, which is taking place in the common room.

Dumas had once said that he used history as a hook to hang his stories on it. A person who has a room of their own, be they a man or a woman, often has the hook, but no credible story up their sleeve. And so I think: we can earn money; we can have a study; but we, both men and women, are in far greater need for a common room – to see life, as it happens, and to better cherish the fruits of solitude.

Exercises in Loneliness – IV

I’m sitting at Cornerhouse in Manchester, on the first floor. There aren’t many people there yet, and I am fortunate to find myself by the window in the farthest corner. People are eating, or drinking, and chatting, and at the next table to mine sit two Spanish girls, in similar clothes, with laptops.

It’s almost seven o’clock. Going to work in the morning happens pretty quickly, or so it seems, perhaps because I’m in a hurry. But in the evening homecoming takes ages. In truth, it takes probably just a little bit longer than in the morning – about 20 minutes longer – but somehow I’m conscious of this difference.

And so, I’m sitting here, writing this, and the tea in a delicate glass cup is still fairly hot, but will get colder by the time I finish writing.

What is it that I wanted to say? I came here with the intent to carry on with my musings on self-identification and categorisation. I spent the most fulfilling half an hour on the train spilling the words out on the lined pages of a reporter’s notebook, where I’m now continuing with this. Henry Miller – and with him many a writer – would call this “dictation”. It’s this wonderful state of things when you feel as a tool in someone’s hands who, somewhere afar, is whispering these words into the tip of the tool, and they pass at the speed of light to land in your head to be heard and discovered.

I don’t enjoy being lonely. I don’t want to be lonely. But rather often than not I want to be alone to capture moments like this. When this moment is gone, I will probably feel empty, not being certain about anything, whether future, past, or present. But how should I feel otherwise, if on the train I have suddenly and plainly realised that I don’t belong to anything but this huge multitude of human bodies that we call mankind, and that I was happy to realise this?

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to friend or to bond, or that I don’t ever belong to any group. It simply means that I want to friend and to bond by essence, and not by category. And our only essence is deeply, painfully, undeniably human. It’s not our religion, or political views, or nationality, or sexuality, or social class. It is all that remains after these “identities” are stripped away – a human figure, forever insecure, forever seeking for acceptance, which is why it wants to identify itself somehow, sometimes for the mere sake of it.

My tea is now warm, and it’s quarter past seven. At the crossroads of Oxford Rd and Whitworth St there aren’t many cars, and even less people. The Spanish girls are joined by other Spanish girls, and Cornerhouse now sounds like a multilingual beehive. They already took away a chair from my table, and, God knows, I may be compelled to move to another place. But while I’m here – isn’t it peculiar that I’m writing this at Cornerhouse, of all places?! Am I truly at some kind of corner? And what is there around it?

I don’t know, and I won’t know. Only when you observe one’s life from a distance it may look like a effortless soaring or a roller-coaster. While you’re in the process of living it, you’re always on the road, and you can never know where it takes you. Is it good? Probably not, if you end up at the dead end. But it’s the most fascinating journey if you arrive to San Salvador instead of India.

The Spanish girls have gone, as did a lot of other people. I know that once I finish this I’ll go to an internet café in St Ann’s Sq and type this text in Los Cuadernos. I’ve just thought that all I wrote has originated in the moment, and that later tonight or tomorrow or later in life I might change my mind. But how, and will I?

The truth is that even when we – when I – speak in favour of loneliness, there are different meanings to this. Which makes me question the nature of a union (of any kind). Can there be such thing as complete acceptance of the other? Or does acceptance imply insincerity for the sake of a union?

I know – and so do you – that everything complete, ideal, perfect only exists in theory. To ask ‘is complete acceptance possible?’ is to paraphrase the question from Jacques Derrida: ‘is absolute forgiveness possible?’ To accept is to forgive another person for not being what you want or expect them to be; to forgive is to accept that the other person will never become what you’d like them to be; to forgive and to accept is to forget – not to cast into oblivion, but to draw the line between the other’s essence and the cloak of their “identity” and your expectations that conceals the essence.

Forgiveness, acceptance, forgetting can only be absolute and mutual. It isn’t enough for someone to look past the others’ “identities” – others have to recognise that identities, like paradigms and art movements, are fleeting. They come and go in order to shed the light on that part of the essence that has yet remained undiscovered. In the words of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, ‘everything flows and nothing stands still‘ (panta rei), and if there is any true lesson of history, it is the lesson in change. Life is that very perpetuum mobile (perpetual motion), and so is everyone as a particle of it, if only we recognise that our human essence is the only constant thing for as long as the mankind lives. It is possible to change views, religion, or gender; it is possible to be inhumanly cruel; but it is not possible to regress to become a monkey. It is probably possible to never start thinking, but once you’ve started, it is impossible to stop. And as we’re being told, this capability of coherent and creative thinking is exactly what makes a human being.

I enjoy being human. Even my mistakes and those severe moments of self-doubt – would I be happier without them? Is it not those moments that produce the hours that I spend at Cornerhouse, as if in a café in Montparnasse? Is it not in these hours that I understand why, of all novels and stories, Maugham’s Theatre is the one to which I most closely relate, though far from identifying myself with the protagonist?

Like Julia Lambert at the Berkeley, so I at Cornerhouse think that all we, people, are trying to do is to find a role to stick to, and it’s only art, by touching the deepest layers of one’s being, can lift the curtain off this stage, to show that the only true, inimitable, constant thing about us is our human individuality, unique by definition. It is to this individuality one really belongs, and any change that occurs serves the purpose of staying true to this essence, to the feelings and thoughts that lay hidden beneath the stage persona.

You know, it’s strange how people differ. Mrs Siddons was a rare one for chops; I’m not a bit like her in that; I’m a rare one for steaks‘.

Indeed, I am a rare one for salmon.

Notes:

I left Cornerhouse around 8.30pm. I did go to St Ann’s Sq, and I did log in, but the keyboard proved to be the worst I’ve ever used: the space bar didn’t work unless I stumbled upon it, and if I didn’t, then words were joined together. I went home, which is where I have now finished typing the text at 11.10pm.

Exercises in Loneliness – III

Generally, I love sleepless nights. I love the time when I can read or write, without being disturbed. There is only one exception – I prefer when I am actually enjoying either writing or reading. At the moment, I’m about to embark on a very lengthy text on the topic of martyrdom in Sikhism. And although I already know and understand how the text should be written, I find it daunting to write because – God knows! – I’d prefer to write about something else. More inspiring. More creative.

To stay up in the night has never been difficult for me. I don’t even know how I came to develop such ability. When I was a student, however, my mates at the Uni used to ask me (quite seriously!), what to do in order to stay awake. The question would normally rise during the exam session. I could never give any sound advice, and from what I know, they never actually stayed up.

Writing daunting texts is also nothing new. Back in 2000, I was in my third year and had been writing an essay on Soviet literature between 1925 and 1935. Or, I’d better say, I’d been trying to write such essay. I knew the topic very well, but, strangely, the knowledge had put me off writing the text. The final day of submission was 15 May. 14 May was my mother’s birthday, and we had guests. They left at about 9pm, and I went to the computer. Ten hours later I had written 30 pages – exactly what was required. I took it to the tutor. A week later she told me that she absolutely loved my work and couldn’t find words to express her regret that we hadn’t discuss my essay in our seminar. Well… Perhaps, I’ll rework it for an article one day. :))

The text I need to write now is exactly a half of those 30 pages. The topic – martyrdom – borders on history, philosophy and religion, and I’m looking at the whole of the 17th c. Of course, Asia is not Europe, but the 17th c. is not something totally inconceivable. I think it’s because of him. He is Pascal Quignard. Ever since I read ‘Terrace a Rome’ I wanted to find and read as many of his works, as possible. I couldn’t start reading, but I actually found the Russian translation of ‘Tous les Matins du Monde’ (All the World’s Mornings/Все утра мира) and a couple of extracts from his essay ‘Le Sexe et L’Effroi’ (Sex and Terror/ Секс и страх). And it’s because I’d rather read these works that I find it difficult to write about those Sikh martyrs.

In my life as a reader I went through a series of very intense ‘love affairs’ with different authors. Those whose works I most hungrily devoured were Gorky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, de Sade, Henry Miller, Maugham, Sueskind, Marquez, Llosa, and Vonnegut. Oh, yes, also Wilde, Prevert, and most Russian poets. I’ve got to stop here, otherwise martyrdom will be completely forgotten.

Anyway, I know what I’m going to add to my birthday/Christmas/New Year list. It’s the works of Pascal Quignard. In English, French or Russian, it doesn’t matter.

And an extract from one of his interviews. You can read the article in full here.

Wandering Shadows or the insecurity of thinking
I certainly was not planning to embark on anything so long, I wanted to write books that did not exceed the capacity of my head, if I can put it that way, that I could skim through panoptically. But something like a wave began to get bigger and bigger and to engulf me, as though it was saying to me “Don’t be so cautious with your own life.”
Les Ombres Errantes is the book that has the greatest biographical content. It is important to me that a thought is totally involved in the life you are leading. In this book, I make clear my determination to create a hermitage within the modern world where I praise insecurity of thinking, while the societies in which we live advocate the opposite. The same thing happened at the end of the Roman Empire: in order to counter the return of religious monotheism and imperial pacification, many hermitages were created. The values that are now coming back are all the ones I detest. The return of faith terrifies me and I am filled with despair to see my own friends becoming believers and doctrinarians. We are living in 1571. This St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre atmosphere had to be described. The Wars of Religion are beginning again. Woman is being deified. Death adored. Democracy more violent and inegalitarian than in Pericles’ day. Technology, the object of all worship, and the all-pervasive cult of youth is worse than primitive – it is untamed, psychotic.
Interview conducted by Catherine Argand