Ralph Harper: The Seventh Solitude: Man's Isolation in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.
Harper's book appeared in the heyday of existential explorations of philosophy and literature. The work is a thematic sketch, attentive to many nuances. He takes his title from Nietzsche's own exclamation to sympathizers (if not to himself): "You have no perpetual guardian and friend for your seven solitudes."
Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche are the 19th-century giants of existentialism (Harper never uses the term, though), meditating upon the situation of their times. "Solitude is not new," declares the author. "To be homeless and in exile is as old and sad as the hills; to be metaphysically homeless and to care is new."
Harper presents seven chapters, and each builds a portrait of modern alienation, with a concluding appendix. The chapters are here summarized:
1. The Night of Absolutes.
Harper notes that Kafka's search for God is the opposite of Nietzsche's. Moreover, Nietzsche expresses cheer and optimism in celebrating the death of God in Western civilization and the terrible freedom now facing humanity. The loss of purpose, unity, and value, as well as the mechanisms for philosophical reflection -- let alone, for the task of transvaluation by society and culture -- are eliminated with Nietzsche, who says "yes to the whole cosmic economy which justifies the terrible, the evil, and the questionable." The end of absolutes introduces nihilism, which does not address solitude but transforms it into alienation.
Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche were outsiders, what Stendhal called etranger to the thought and sentiment of their times. Not as were the aesthete romantics but deeply as a tomb or abyss, to use their vocabulary. Critics of modernity, they were caught between mediocrity ("community cannot save us," wrote Kierkegaard) and (an increasingly absent or hidden) God. They consciously safeguarded their self-isolation, positioning themselves as observers and poets. Renouncing equality for self-will, gregariousness for solitude, hypocrisy for sincerity, they are nevertheless unable to communicate adequately their vision of new values, and thus remain strangers.
3. Hidden Inwardness.
Harper contrasts the social sense of isolation in Stendhal and Nietzsche to the metaphysical aloneness of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. The literary heroes of Stendhal want to overcome their aloneness and find a place in society, while in Kierkegaard (who used the term "inwardness" for self-isolation) and Dostoevsky's characters ask deeper questions about happiness and suffering. Harper offers a useful summary:
Kierkegaard said that whoever suffers for the doctrine also dies to the world and is, as a result, raised above his fellows in lonely honor. Dostoevsky was equally sure that whoever suffers from paralysis of will is also separated from other men; he will die. ... How different from Nietzsche who always recoiled -- or was he overacting -- from the everyday suffering of others, because he thought people should not be encouraged to be sorry for themselves, but rather to make the most of their inborn will to power. ... He was a snob about suffering. He would have us believe that "egoism belongs to the essence of a noble soul," and that through egoism he himself was avoiding "the European disease -- the sickness of the will."
Dostoevsky sees suffering as the potential bridge to other selves, making the self fully present to itself, fully accepting of itself, with silence the prerequisite to this process. As an individual, Kierkegaard understood this process as part of faith, while Dostoevsky's character cannot commit themselves to faith, and therefore, to breaking the inwardness.
4. Excursion into Chaos.
This chapter concentrates on Dostoevsky. The early Notes from Underground presents the "double," the man who commits both good and evil, both loves and hates his independence, who resents both his alienation and those who are indifferent to him. In Crime and Punishment, Svidrigailov reduces the dimensions of human plight, chokes off his inklings. Raskolnikov wavers between torment and self-suppression, with religious sentiment driving him to acknowledge others in compassion. In The Possessed, the doubles Stavroguin and Kirillov end their lives, unable to accept any formulation for breaking through self-isolation, presented by Dostoevsky in a religious light.
Harper concludes the chapter pointing out the similarity of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky on the concept of dread as a societal phenomenon: dread of the good. He notes:
Whether compulsive and demoniacal, or deliberate and capricious, whether bourgeois' or double's, dread of the good has become since Kierkegaard's time an experience which millions are caught up in. New anxieties have appeared, new situations confront man.
5. The Destruction of God.
Dostoevsky and Nietzsche are the focus of this chapter. Harper notes that Nietzsche acknowledged Dostoevsky: "I have a queer kind of gratitude to him, although he goes against my deepest instincts," wrote Nietzsche. Dostoevsky's characters see the absence of God not only as a metaphysical issue but a social and political one. Kirillov and Ivan alone discuss the death of God -- neither are "doubles" but speak sincerely, and extend their logic to the universe of society.
Nietzsche, in contrast, argues Harper, "skipped the states of inwardness and doubleness; he knew consciousness only. He had no sense of justice, law, order, or love." He denominated history in terms of self-will, and contrived his mission as knocking away the props of comfort in order to hurt others. The death of God was a horror to the masses unshared by Nietzsche but fully understood by Dostoevsky.
Harper concludes with Nietzsche's famous story of the madman, and Nietzsche's own prophecy of a period of darkness followed by great light, a sentiment echoed by Ivan Karamazov. The passion of Nietzsche's arguments suggest revenge, and a great coldness resolved only by his indifference.
6. The Great Noon.
But Nietzsche was not through. He substituting will to power for God, eternal recurrence for afterlife, and Dionysus for cultural regeneration. Harper sees Nietzsche's horrible recurrence theory in light of Kierkegaard's comment about those who fear eternity. Dostoevsky sees the theme in terms of the person who "runs the danger of not being able to break out of his self-isolation." Kierkegaard died accepting suffering, humility, counting himself as one of the many, not special. Dostoevsky predicted nothing good in humanity's future. His character Shigalov is Nietzschean, nihilistic; there can be no other end unless, like father Zossima, one can reconcile the whole of one's life, dreams, and sufferings, to the heart, to love.
7. Journey from Paradise.
Harper reviews the world since the nineteenth century, none of it good: war, revolution, totalitarianism, exploitation, mass culture, corruption, torture. Moderns have no longer any faith in either conventional religion nor conventional atheism, specifically as philosophies of life able to bring order and meaning into daily life. Concludes Harper:
We have a double responsibility: to explore the consequences of a radical nihilism, and to try to recover the nostalgia for unity, justice, and earth. On the whole, more artistic and philosophical effort has been spent on the first, and too little on the second.
Appendix. Remembering Eternity.
The appendix is a reprinted essay on memory and aloneness in Augustine and Proust. Plato saw knowledge as remembered; Augustine saw this in terms of entering the mind of God. For the agnostic Proust, human existence is aloneness because no one can comprehend anyone else. The present will only exist as past, suggesting a radical subjectivity. The redolence of memory evokes our attempts to identify with something real, though its temporality underscores our aloneness.
Ralph Harper (1915-1996) was an Episcopal priest and independent scholar. The Seventh Solitude is meticulously written and passionately driven. The book lacks footnotes to the many fine quotations but acknowledges the editions used.