THE ACTS OF THE SOLITARY THINKER By Prof. Rich Murphy
“Solitude for the mind to be as essential as food is for the body.”
The solitude I am currently experiencing is different from isolation I have experienced in the past. However, this is not a complaint; company is not needed just as it isn’t needed to sooth existential loneliness, the dread of being alone and accepting it. One simply deals with that dread or tries to sublimate it. In the past, my isolation was a necessary one of the writer alone getting the writing done among (somewhere out there) other writers and thinkers doing something similar. I may have been contributing something unique and hoped that I was, but I had little way of knowing. So I kept plowing ahead and found solace in others with whom I engaged professionally or with whom I socialized on occasion. The aloneness now is different and may be because I have plowed out into ground I have not plowed before, or I have ventured into an area that isn’t familiar at all to me. I am a kind of pioneer to it.
Perhaps I am at a time in my life when looking back I see events that should have angered me or crushed my spirit, and at the time, I shook them off while continuing to work. I have felt the impact of regret and frustration as everyone has at this stage in life. Perhaps now I feel the emptiness those left for me. My regrets are over job losses, especially the ways that I had experienced the losses of colleagues and workmates. One job I lost because a college that educated students for two-hundred years closed after I had taught there for 14 years. Another loss was one where a college promotion committee “unanimously,” and with “strong recommendation,” “enthusiastically” nominated me and put forth my promotion to full professor only to have the president of the college deny it and then lay me off (fired?) with a year’s salary. What I lost in both cases were communities of academics and fellow writers and thinkers. However, I was able to see these roadblocks or detours as a part of plowing forward and none of my business in the long run. My business then was and still is fulfilling whatever promise I had as a writer and thinker regardless of the smaller spirits attempting to slow or stop me. The stubborn drive may be vital to writers and creative people.
During the first experience of professional loss, a colleague who had also experienced divorce as I had, pulled me aside the day that college announced its imminent closure. We watched faculty and staff scattering to their cars after the announcement after which they were to try to enjoy a Thanksgiving holiday. He said, “There will be many divorces for folks and many will have to find work all around the country, but for you and me, it’s another blip on the radar screen.” Whenever I watched the last scene in “Casablanca” after this experience, I thought of his words. We have stayed in touch after he moved to another state and found success there.
The feeling of being alone, isolated, seems to be one experienced and needed by thinkers, writers, and artists especially when they are articulating something unique. I am not suggesting that I have something vitally important to add to the conversation of writers and thinkers. I may, and that would be fine with me. However, I now understand the Promethean anguish that a fewer number of writers feel unless they are in uncharted, far reaches of their thinking in their work. It doesn’t mean one is more profound than others. That may happen, but it means that the person may be thinking unique thoughts or thinking in unique ways.
Hannah Arendt called this kind of thinking, “thinking without banisters.” Thinking without banisters is thinking where if anyone was there before, he/she left no way to get there or return, where there is nothing to hold on to, nothing to refer to. Perhaps it is what Wittgenstein meant with his ladder analogy. It must have been what Heidegger meant by “the task of thinking” in his “Letter on ‘Humanism.’” My naming philosophers and their ideas is my using banisters. Thinking without them can’t be done in a crowd and engaging in conversations or with a face fixed to a Smartphone screen. One needs to be alone to think thoughts that others may not have. Heidegger of course was doing precisely that in his essay and suggesting that thinking was important now that metaphysics was no more. It is legend that Immanuel Kant, a bachelor and fellow German, was famous for his daily walks precisely at 3:30pm in Königsberg, so that he could think.
In fact, in a recent lecture novelist Will Self argues that isolation is necessary for serious composition. Needless to say that no one can guess what the thinker’s thoughts are when that thinking is genuine, unique and actively engaging. The person is on the margins of the symbolic order, especially if that person is a poet. Ideas take on new shapes, and further new ideas may arise. What makes up the common ground of the symbolic order includes platitude, cliché, trampled ideas and worn out living. James Joyce’s secretary, Samuel Beckett, could not imitate his mentor. He had to move away from his style, and Beckett did by moving in the opposite direction into uncharted territory, from effusion of language to minimalistic use of language. For certain, new ways of thinking about and writing are happening so that others may need time to find the logic in them or find the thread of the line of thought.
It is only through getting to know oneself and one’s creative endeavors by way of solitude that the psychological concept of “flow” or what Maslow called peak experiences has meaning. That solitude allows one to also shepherd being, guide becoming without it being eaten by money making or other anxieties and distractions. It seems to me that peak experience probably comes long after what Malcolm Gladwell calls the 10,000 hours of practice that allows one to master his/her craft or field. When “mastery” is achieved one finds oneself in the flow of his/her work that s/he has chosen for him/herself. While in that flow there are experiences that come now and again that break through flow to a new kind of flow. That break is the peak experience. This may be levels of achievement or inventing a new style of working and creating.
How I got to this place where a new solitude lives within me is by way of decades-long restlessness. The turf in which my poetry was embedded wasn’t satisfying me. I was unhappy with the subjects I chose to write about as well as the way that I was writing about them. I had read that if an artist doesn’t grow s/he parodies him/herself. It was my engagement with philosophy or “the task of thinking” that sprung me from the old turf, or at least gave me the illusion that I was springing from that turf. In my reading, I read Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Recognizing Wiggenstein’s influence on Rorty’s writing, I in turn was strongly influenced by “The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, . . .” Along with the following passages I felt as though I was given permission (and how embarrassing for me because I prided myself in not needing permission from anyone).
[R]evolutionary achievements in the arts, in the sciences, and in moral and political thought typically occur when somebody realizes that two or more of our vocabularies are interfering with each other, and proceeds to invent a new vocabulary to replace both. (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity 1989: 12)
We shall see the conscious need of the strong poet to demonstrate that he is not a copy or replica as merely a special form of an unconscious need everyone has: the need to come to terms with the blind impress which chance has given him, to make a self for himself by redescribing the impress in terms which are, if only marginally, his own. (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity 1989: 22)
The idea of the strong poet not being a replica or creating imitations but redescribing the impress for himself/herself by way of observing two vocabularies interfering with each other changed my way of looking at the poetry I was writing. While I could see Wittgenstein in the advice, I also saw an opportunity to perhaps help articulate or influence the poetic language of the future. I assumed my role in the venture was, if not arrogant, then presumptuous but that was okay. That may be how it appears as an observer. However, it is to be alone not simply in the writing but in the subjects and the style that is the result of the process. While it makes no promises, thinking without banisters has the ability to produce new lines of thought, new directions for whole cultures, or at least produces new language for old thinking. It can also be eccentric and not understood at all. Some say Nietzsche may have suffered this fate during the last years of his life. Legends, questionable romantic ones mostly, are rife of poets going insane.
Though solitude can lead to breakdowns, especially if one isn’t striving for self-actualization or living within it, Anthony Storr in his book Solitude: A Return to the Self suggests that “it is the struggle to give form and order to an external creative work that we also often without knowing it are imposing form and order on our mind. Maturation and integration can take place within the isolation” to a great extent. He goes on to suggest also that one may achieve “self-realization by self reference that is by interacting with their work rather than by interacting with other people.” So solitude can be a friend to the creative person on his/her path.
The attempt to define one’s self and one’s creative thinking is one where one breaks ties with one’s past methods and style and the influences of colleagues and former influences. And it is a gamble with no promises. But as I like to remind myself, “we started as amoeba or something smaller and got here by way of monkeys and will burn in the hell of the sun’s explosive burn out. You don’t have all that much to lose anyway.” I can mumble that all I want, but the experience of approaching solipsism wears on the consciousness regardless. By the end of the day, I am hungry for conversation with a live person.
My title is taken from something W. B. Yeats is supposed to have written, so there is plenty of history behind thinking and writing alone. Perhaps the writer feels it more now that so little reading is being done other than the reading of text messages on a Smartphone. It may be that the greater engagement via virtual socialization within society exaggerates the writer’s situation. I would imagine that the necessary isolation needed for writing and thinking will be very difficult for young people used to their eyes glued to a screen and fingers scrolling this way and that. To sit down and write when embedded in that heightened “social” experience of social media daily and knowing that very few will read your work has got to be difficult and painful for a young writer or artist. I suspect many will quit or not embark.
When one reads an anthology of dead poets, one reads unique poems by unique poets, not followers but poets striking out on their own without banisters which can win followers and at some point each of those followers either parodies him-or-herself or strikes out on his/her own. Growth leads to that divide in the road. Each poet makes the decision which way to go. I remember reading that Gary Snyder said something about poets reflect the culture of the age in which they write. There is truth to that, but if one finds that reflecting culture isn’t enough and that the dice being thrown belong to someone else (and all is a throw of dice), then the poet packs his rucksack and heads for the psyche’s undiscovered equivalent of Snyder’s hideaway, Kitkitdizze.
About The Author
Rich Murphy’s poetry collections have won two national book awards: Gival Press Poetry Prize 2008 for Voyeur and in 2013 the Press Americana Poetry Prize for Americana. Asylum Seeker is the third in a trilogy out now (2018). The first collection in the trilogy was Americana. Body Politic, the second, was published by Prolific Press in January 2017. Murphy’s first book The Apple in the Monkey Tree was published in 2007 by Codhill Press. Chapbooks include Great Grandfather (Pudding House Press), Family Secret (Finishing Line Press), Hunting and Pecking (Ahadada Books), Phoems for Mobile Vices (BlazeVox) and Paideia (Aldrich Press).
Recent poetry may be found in Two Thirds North; The Transnational – A Literary Magazine; Otoliths; Coldnoon: International Journal of Travel Writing & Travelling Cultures; Bhubaneswar Review; Lalitamba; BlazeVox; Futures Trading; Revue Post; Former People; Fjord Review; E.ratio; Literati Quarterly; West Texas Literary Review; Review Americana; Pembroke; Pennsylvania Review; Euphony; James Dickey Review; Red Savina Review; Big Bridge; Blast Furnace; Blue Fifth Review; Harbinger Asylum; Sein und Werden; and Stark: Worldwide Wisehouse.
Recent prose scholarship on poetry and poetics has been published in Zeteo Journal; Imaginary Syllabus, Anthology chapters, Palm Press; Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning; The International Journal of the Humanities; International Journal of Critical Pedagogy; Reconfigurations: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics; The Journal of Ecocriticism; and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing.
Derek Walcott remarked on my poetry, “Mr. Murphy is a very careful craftsman in his work, a patient and testing intelligence, one of those writers who knows precisely what he wants his style to achieve. His poetry is quiet but packed, carefully wrought, not surrealistically wild, and its range not limited but deliberately narrow… It takes aim. He has earned his individuality by concentration, by a sense of sacrifice.”