From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was possible I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world; and with this thought I was going to give thanks to God for bringing me to this place.
~Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
As I read Defoe’s tale as a child, I imagined being stranded on a remote island. This, I believed, would be an unrivaled adventure. It was exciting to think of overcoming the elements, of sheltering, of creating a lean-to that I would improve daily, and of devising ways to harness the land and sea in the search for nutrition and sustenance. The thought of loneliness never entered my mind.
I was too young to understand the native man Friday. I certainly didn’t flinch at Crusoe’s insistence on being called Master, for what did I know of the colonial world or of white versus the Other. But a part of me wanted Crusoe to survive alone. That would make him even more heroic. I thought that having another human being with whom he could socialize was, in a sense, cheating. At the same time, I wanted blazing fires on the beach at night that might attract a passing ship. So, in some sense, I knew that I also wanted to be rescued. But why? Was this some atavistic social impulse that was at odds with my fantasy of self-reliance?
* * *
Crusoe had isolation thrust upon him. But Defoe and his protagonist were ever aware of God and His powers, and so faith helped sustain Crusoe in isolation. Defoe would likely have found it hard to fathom the fate of an atheist stranded on an island. To whom would such an individual pray for support and guidance?
A threatening Catholic God presided over my own childhood, so I could relate to Defoe’s thoughts on sin and salvation. I became fascinated by Catholic forms of isolation, in particular nuns cloistered behind convent walls. Silent and mostly still, they knew all about prayer and devotion. As I grew older, I began to understand the mental anguish caused by their lives of solitude—hysteria, catatonia, devotional obsessions, self-harm, delusions, schizophrenic symptoms. I was mesmerized by European films that portrayed nuns in these extreme states of torment and ecstasy, and by tales of the stigmatics who were said to have bled from their hands and feet. This, it seemed to me, was the highest form of sainthood and spirituality to which a mortal being could aspire.
Does isolation cause madness and psychosis in social beings? Is that what the saints were actually experiencing? Unlike Robinson Crusoe, these nuns chose isolation. They did so as an act of surrender to something greater than themselves—an abstraction similar to certain hermetic artists who live for the creation of Art—itself a secular kind of god—with a capital A.
* * *
There is something both fascinating and terribly sad about the story of Ishi. He became known as “the last Yahi,” a subgroup of the Yana Indians of northern California, after he was found alone and afraid on August 29th, 1911, near Oroville, California. Unsure of what to do with him, the local sheriff jailed him until Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Talbot Waterman, two anthropologists at the University of California Berkeley took him in and looked after him in the museum of anthropology. There he was isolated and examined. In 1996, local reporter Gretchen Kell recorded that, “[Kroeber and Waterman] believed Ishi was the last Indian to have lived in the wild. Massacres, starvation, and disease had taken the lives of countless Indians in Northern California during the mid- to late-1800s. Many others had been forced into reservations.”
PBS produced a heartbreaking documentary about Ishi. He lived isolated from any of his own kind, studied by scholars. Kroeber and Waterman made endless primitive recordings of Ishi speaking in the only language he knew, though there was no one he could speak it with. They studied the kind of tools he could make. He was like Crusoe’s Friday in many respects. When they found him, his hair was shorn in a manner that signified mourning. Who can fathom the loneliness of his life thereafter?
* * *
In a review of Joanna Stratton’s book Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier for the New York Times in 1981, Ann Cornelisen wrote:
Desolation and loneliness hardly need any further definition than Mary Furguson Darrah’s story of Mrs. Hilton, who asked to go with her husband for wood: ”She hadn’t seen a tree for two years, and when they arrived at Little River she put her arms around a tree and hugged it until she was hysterical.” Esther Clark Hill tells us more when she remembers that ”…the unbroken prairies stretched for miles outside, and the wistful-faced sheep were always near at hand. Often mother used to go out and lie down among them, for company, when she was alone for the day.”
Made mad by perpetually open space and the silence interrupted only by the sound of the wind and the drone of insects, migrants from more populous regions of America could not bear the endlessness in which they found themselves. Prairie madness was the name given to a phenomenon experienced by some of these pioneers, mostly women.
Like my parents, I was born and have lived my life in Illinois, the Prairie State, where less than one percent of original grassland remains. Some has been or is being restored, but once vast expanses of grass spread below sky—an eerie world without echo that has since vanished. The wilderness of grassland needed to be domesticated, and those grasses have long ago been torn from the earth. Before corn, there were miles of root structures attached to the grasses and flowers of the tall grass prairie—an ocean of bluegrass, wave upon wave as far as one could see.
My ancestors made the land habitable. Much of what makes us human is the struggle to understand how we do, or do not, fit in with our environment. Those afflicted by prairie madness were unable to make this space home in their psyches. Each day they turned over the richest soil on Earth with moldboard plows, and, later, with John Deere’s tractors. These were the first fields of the nation’s future breadbasket. But the vastness and solitude were too much for the inner self to manage. In her short story anthology Indiana Winter Susan Neville writes:
Out here in the heart of the country we’ve rationalized every inch of earth—all the straight lines of highway and farm and township—but mystery and wildness still lie waiting deep inside every particle of the world, waiting to whirl or crack or ooze into our ordered lives, whether or not we’ve prepared for it.
Humans need systems: straight lines of highway and farm and township. We name the parts of the world around us. Because we name and list, we survive. Or is it vice versa? Order diminishes our sense of isolation. As a child I heard corn grow and now everything is noise.
* * *
Just as isolation can be chosen or imposed, so one can be alone or lonely, respectively. It is now thought that intense loneliness can cause changes in the brain. In an article in Psychology Today, Elena Blanco-Suarez relates the story of Robert King who spent 29 years in solitary confinement. He shared his experience with neuroscientists in 2018. Neurobiology, she writes, is uncovering the impact that isolation has on the individual. After his release, King “had to retrain his eyes to learn what a face was like.” His sense of direction was also no longer functioning properly and he had trouble following “a simple route in the city by himself. It is as if his brain had erased all those capabilities that were no longer necessary for survival in a cell no bigger than the back of a pick-up truck.”
One of the most remarkable effects of chronic social isolation, as in the extreme case of solitary confinement, is the decrease in the size of the hippocampus, the brain region related to learning, memory, and spatial awareness. The sustained stress of extreme isolation leads to a loss of hippocampal plasticity, a decrease in the formation of new neurons, and the eventual failure in hippocampal function. On the other hand, the amygdala increases its activity in response to isolation. This area mediates fear and anxiety, symptoms enhanced in prisoners in solitary confinement.
The sensory deprivation experienced by prisoners in windowless isolation, Blanco-Suarez adds, can also alter circadian rhythms and result in other health impairments.
Another inmate named Frank de Palma spent 22 years in solitary confinement and developed agoraphobia. In an interview with the Marshall Project about his experience, de Palma said he grew to depend upon his tiny cell and darkness itself to give him the only comfort he knew: “Eventually, just the thought of coming out of my cell for any reason would send me into a panic.” Not being in open spaces or around other people was now his “normal.” He felt as though his brain had been reprogrammed by isolation. Upon his release from prison, he needed almost a year at a psychiatric facility before he was able to even attempt reintegration into society. When they came to his cell to take him there, he says it took them more than seven hours to get him to come out. Eventually one of the officers said, “Just keep your eyes closed, and hold onto me.”
Life in the real world has been very difficult for him. His impulse is still to self-isolate. Sometimes, he says, “I will go into the bathroom to relax. When you go in there and turn the light off, it’s completely dark… I feel so calm and peaceful. Isn’t that sad? That I feel at home, in blackness?… Now I’m out here trying to re-pattern the grooves in my brain.”
* * *
“Emily Dickinson: Creative Genius or Lonely Recluse?” asks a presentation posted on Sutori. But perhaps she was both. The authors record that, in the late 1860s, Dickinson “fell into deep depression and began her seclusion. This is the period of time when she wrote most of her poems.” The life of the artist can be a solitary and lonely one, of course, and the Hermitary website adds that, “Poetry and her talent and creativity refined and confirmed to her, like ongoing feedback, her distinct view of solitude and the universe.” In her teens, the article continues, Dickinson assembled a book of pressed flowers, each labeled with their Latin names:
Perhaps this was a prelude to how, at the age of about thirty, Dickinson began the practice of transcribing her poems to sheets to be stitched together into manuscript books or fascicles, carefully hidden away throughout her lifetime, found in her desk after her death. But to Dickinson, reclusion was a choice against the vanity and oppression of the society she sought to eschew. Her priority as a creative person was to safeguard her art and muse “to own the Art/within the Soul.”
Some scholars have argued that Dickinson experienced a form of mysticism comparable to Transcendentalism. Artists who focus intensely on nature share the experience of communion with the universe through their work:
But the most impressive aspect of Dickinson’s life and struggles is seldom emphasized: the philosophical, almost mystical insights that she boldly terms ecstasies. They are so sharply drawn, so contextually genuine, that one can venture to believe that Emily Dickinson’s solitude bore a wonderful and sublime spirituality. She was possessed of a desire to seek out infinity and immortality, and they presented themselves to her.
Her reclusiveness was the result of an intensely lived private world that she felt no one could share or comprehend. She went as far as to give things to the locals by lowering a basket from a second-story window, talking to visitors through doors and even “attending” her father’s funeral from the privacy of her bedroom. All of these actions allowed her to remain in the privacy of her own home for the last 20 years of her life. That she never published or intended to publish her poems, the Hermitary article speculates, was a strong statement of “art for art’s sake”—of creativity for personal transcendence versus fame and the need for external forces to validate her identity and values.
I am not sure this last claim is accurate. I don’t think Dickinson was devoted to Art with a capital A like many other artists. She had a strictly religious upbringing and an extremely overprotective father—a relationship that produced its own set of neuroses—and she almost certainly suffered from a mental illness of some kind. So it is unlikely that a desire to create great art was what motivated her self-isolation.
* * *
“Remaining at home,” observes Dean Burnett in an article for the BBC Science Focus Magazine, “is proving to be an extremely problematic and anxiety-producing experience for millions of people.” Burnett points out that this is partly because our brains have evolved for socialization. There are various theories but Burnett reports that many parts of the brain “seem to exist largely to facilitate social bonding and communication.” He mentions that psychologists have labelled solitary confinement as a form of torture. Social isolation can be so stressful that it “disrupts brain development (in younger members of social species) and leads to mental health problems later in life.”
He also reminds us that we lose an important sense of autonomy when we are told to stay at home; it is as if we lose control of our own lives. “And that’s stressful, at the subconscious level. Add that to the fact that you’re being denied socialization, which is also stressful…” He mentions the phenomenon known as “reactance” which occurs when humans are told they can’t have or do something, and respond by wanting it more. Burnett concludes that at least social media and other forms of remote communication are helping to mitigate some of the very real problems created by social isolation.
Cruise ships carrying the bodies of passengers who have died from COVID-19 are now looking for a port in which to dock. The Wall Street Journal published an article on March 31st entitled: “NYU Langone Tells ER Doctors to ‘Think More Critically’ About Who Gets Ventilators.” The standfirst elaborated that, “New York health center says it will support emergency-room staff who ‘withhold futile intubations.'” I am glad I am not the one asked to make such decisions.
It seems the world is collapsing as we watch it go by hunched over our laptops behind four walls. As a retired person and a writer, I am used to working from home. Even so, on many ordinary days in the past, I would walk to a nearby coffee shop to work. Until the order to remain at home, I didn’t realize how important physically being around other people was. Especially as one who lives alone, I still need contact with others. It has reminded me that I am a social animal, even though I have always had a strong loner streak.
Fear of becoming ill or of dying motivates people to shelter in place. I am “Zooming” and participating in Google “hangouts” like millions of Americans, grateful for these opportunities to connect with others. But I am discovering that there is no substitute for being out in the world with other members of my community, and I have been surprised by the level of stir-craziness and anxiety I have experienced.
My sleep patterns have been disrupted: Sometimes I don’t get enough sleep and other times I want to nap as much as possible. Like everyone else, I am navigating how much media coverage to watch so that I can remain informed without causing myself further unnecessary anxiety. I no longer go to grocery stores and use drive-thru whenever possible. I continue the practices that helped me spiritually and physically such as meditation twice daily and long walks alone. Isolated, I am part of a social species adapting to a strange new environment.
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