Sayre, Robert. Solitude in Society: A Sociological Study in French Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
This article reviews Part 1 of 2. A review of Part 2 forthcoming.
Sayre's work offers a unique and needed methodology for approaching the topic of solitude in Western history. By presenting the depiction of solitude in literature from antiquity to modern times (part one) and concentrating on representative 20th-century French novelists of solitude (in part two), Sayre offers an analysis that can be applied to other countries, expressions, and conditions of modern Western society. Sayre uses a Marxian framework in which to distinguish solitude as a psychological, religious, or philosophical point of view from that solitude that is the product of socio-economic, cultural and political conditions.
There is no polemic here but a dogged pursuit of complex factors often overlooked in the discussion of what solitude is. The book is derived from Sayre's dissertation and is thus filled with careful references and the expected demonstration of a command of the sources. The Marxian framework is simply an application of the vocabulary and concepts of economics and sociology for the era he addresses. The reader will not notice any overt system or method, only a rigorous pursuit of the content and meaning of the work of significant writers.
The result is a fruitful context to what was happening in France over the centuries in regards to class structure, land and agriculture, titles of nobility, mercantile interests, labor, cities, rural areas, and the emergence and triumph of industrialism and industrial capitalism.
Sayre recognizes that too many studies of "solitude" have focused on alienation as a condition of marginalized people such as the aged, handicapped, criminal or deviant, or on alienation as a psychological factor that is essentially loneliness stemming from social isolation. Conversely, existentialist philosophers have focused on alienation as the condition of human fate without considering any material conditions that may give rise to this sentiment. These divergent views constitute the empiricist and metaphysical approaches respectively.
Sayre contrasts these to Marx's view that human beings are characteristically social in orientation. In Western antiquity and the Middle Ages, individuation did not militate against material conditions of the era but complemented them, specifically in relation to land and labor, which define society and the life context for the individual. Only with the rise of capitalism in the 16th century were social entities increasingly dismissed as illusory and the individual transformed into laborer, commodity, and citizen. Because capitalism only creates a material basis for human existence, while simultaneously denigrating past institutions that offered the opportunity for the individual to find meaning transcending the material, a crisis of solitude and self emerged as characteristically modern.
Chapter 1. Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Sayre begins by establishing the original concept of solitude:
In its earliest meaning, solitude designates a location: areas beyond the bounds of the societies of men. Forest, wastelands, deserted islands, open seas -- the eremia of Greek literature is dangerous and forlorn.
Hence Prometheus is exiled to a solitude, the razed city of Troy is reduced to a solitude, and the Greek citizen who is exiled from the polis enters a solitude. Such a solitude is like a death to Philocretes (in the Odyssey) or the kidnapped Media or outcast Electra. Sayre adds many other examples to illustrate the ancient Greek understanding of eremia.
Presupposed by the Greeks, as also the populaces of the Old and New Testaments, is the community that maintains and nurtures the individual, the autonomous self, and the pain and anguish of exile or separation from it. The sense of abandonment of the psalmist, Job, or Jesus, is estrangement from God but not from the social community. Here, wilderness or eremos is God's turf, making prophets like Moses, Isaiah, or John the Baptist. The desert is a "sacred retreat" that Jesus seeks to prepare his mission and to flee hostile crowds. And so it remained as long as the spiritual could be expressed in the communal.
With Christianity's effective embrace of the world by becoming a state religion, the spiritual charisma of earlier centuries collapses. A new solution to community is sought and identified in monasticism. Initially, this was an individual effort, that of the hermit, who fled the world and the world in the Church. The hermit abandons the "corrupt, artificial, and ugly life of cities, ruled by antagonisms of men grasping after weal, for a simple and direct communion with God," notes Sayre. Monasticism, while starting with the hermit, presents itself as socially and economically viable. It is the flight from society that also creates a true Society.
Roman literature did not reflect experience of the Greek concept of eremos. Latifundia, commerce, and industry had created a pronounced class system from earliest times, wherein wealthy landowners occupied and dominated both urban and rural life. The theme of country solitude contrasting with the cutthroat social life of the cities appears obliquely in Horace, Pliny, Virgil, and Seneca.
In medieval times, "a primal meaning of solitude" is represented by the great forests of Europe, which constitute the solitude of wild animals and robbers. Humans in forests are beyond society -- such as the hermit, who even shuns monasteries, especially as monasteries in the course of the medieval centuries fall into the same worldly trap as the early Christians in embracing the Roman Empire. Thus did solitude come to no longer be identified with monks, who were often nobles: "the monks' primitive ideal of a classless society free of cupidity was abandoned," writes Sayre.
The disgrace of the monasteries is reflected in the letters of Abelard. John of Salisbury fulminates against the courts of the grand princes in equal terms. The growth of cities and their merchants are criticized by Eustache Deschamps, contrasting city and mercantile life to the authentic life of the peasant, as does Pierre D'Ailly.
But given the medieval mindset and class system, there could be no solitude within society, a concept that will evolve in subsequent early modern times. The disastrous Hundred Years War (and the Plague) destroy conventional social and economic norms, bringing dislocation, poverty, and homelessness to many. The dislocated knight, priest, and scholar wandered the land. Here Sayre finds Villon, the French vagabond poet, a prototype of later 19th-century poets.
Chapter 2: L'ancien régime: Agreeable Wilderness, Pleasant Solitude.
Most historians cite the beginnings of modern capitalism in the 16th century. Enormous capital accumulation from foreign trade, speculation, and credit, had overturned the medieval fairs as commerce and land as economic value. The old nobility suffered currency fluctuation and devaluation, and increasingly sold out to the new profit-makers, who found themselves suddenly ennobled. A new bourgeois power class emerged, supplanting the old nobles often left poor and dependent as hommes campagnards. The new class allied itself to the increasingly autocratic monarchy. The decline of rural life and rise of court and city transforms social life.
French literature reflects the isolation and alienation of the old nobility. Italian poet Petrarch's Vita solitaria and the example of his retirement to his country estate to seek solitude was widely influential in France. The Spaniard Antonio de Guevara's 1539 Contempt for Court and Praise of the Village (Menosprecio de corte y alabanza de aldrea) was translated and appreciated. The French writer Maurice Sceve's Saulsaye: eglogue de la vie solitaire, published in 1547, reflected the themes of the two classics and revived the Roman Stoic and reflective writers such as Cicero and Seneca.
Essayist Michel de Montaigne is illustrative of a social and intellectual trend. Montaigne's father was ennobled in Bordeaux through land purchases which included the mayoralty of the city. Montaigne himself became a member of the city parliament -- a representative nobless de robe, or nobility based on purchase of office. Yet, he, too, gave up his active life to retire to his estate and compose the Essais. Among the essays of Montaigne's collection is the famous essay on solitude. As Sayre notes of Montaigne:
The wise man can withdraw into himself when he is in society, and thus enjoy a certain solitude within society. This solitude -- a temporary, voluntary, and tranquil withdrawal -- is by no means similar to the modern form, which is a permanent, anguished awareness of the opacity of human consciousness, an inescapable, unwanted psychic isolation. Montaigne's wise man, on the other hand, is not unable to communicate with men in society; he simply chooses to "shut off" this communication on occasion so as to enjoy the richness of his own inner world. Moreover, such solitude is in fact easier to enjoy in retreat. Even in retreat, however, the wise man must withdraw from the people and things upon which he might become dependent: family, servants, and property.
However, an important element of Montaigne's thought is his rejection of a life with others not only in society but for society. The true life, the life that is not alienated, is the inner life. Like the later romantics, Montaigne states that human fulfillment comes from within, not without. His is not alienation in the sense that Marx defines it.
By the 17th century, the social and economic divide in France has grown quickly, contrasting the absolute monarch and court with rural simplicity. The classical French writers revisit ancient historical examples to identify a moral sensibility. In Fenelon's Telemarque, the king's advisor witnesses the treachery around the throne and quietly recluses to the isle of Samos to live as a hermit in a cave, but returns to live in solitude on his rural estate. The ethical dilemma of service versus withdrawal includes the intellectuals among the new bourgeoisie as well as those of the dying nobility. Their dilemma represents their revolt against the social and economic order. The revolt is not merely about wealth and power. Rural solitude represents a moral dimension versus the court and city's vice and competition. Sayre points out a psychological factor:
Over against this society based on antagonisms and competition, retreat is a search for lost community among men. ... Yet the theme of retreat to solitude is often informed with the ideology of the order it spurns; it is in many cases itself an expression of the new individualism. From Pliny and Seneca to Montaigne, the humanist tradition of country retreat conceives of rural solitude as a means to retreat into oneself. The new community is not exterior -- the estate itself -- but the interior "crowds" within oneself. The solitary is himself a community; he communes with his ideas and his readings. Likewise the hermit communes with God and men through private meditation -- his secondary retreat from monastery life.
Here is the paradox of solitude: while solitude represents a moral protest against society, the act of becoming solitary is itself an agent of social fragmentation. This paradox is observed by the 17th century writer La Bruyere, who describes the courtier as having no personal obligations yet having no self, either. The term La Bruyere uses is "isole" -- the courtier is isolated, a term not yet as modern as "alienated," but close. Such a courtier is the ideal candidate, as Sayre suggests, to "flee from the solitude of of conflicting interests in society to the solitude of community in rural retreat." Writes Sayre of this era: "The mixed, transitional nature of society has not yet created a consciousness of the isolation of the individual in society."
With the 18th century, the rationalist Enlightenment bourgeois intelligentsia, the philosophes, strike back at those who respect solitude. The Encyclopedie defines the true solitary as a social being, one who is active in society, a participant on whom nothing sticks. It scoffs at the traditional solitary's "weak-complexioned wisdom" and fear of contagion. This definition contrasts with historical solitude as religious. But under the definition of isoler, the Enclyclopedie posits the man who is free and independent but missing out on life's pleasures -- anti-social, misanthropic, and reprehensible. This example opposes Montaigne's but does not go further in fully anticipating modern alienation.
Early 18th-century French literature does not go further in identifying the individual, says Sayre, because capitalism did not advance as rapidly in this period as in England, where Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1720) boldly establishes a fictional paradigm of solitude. Defoe maintained that solitude in wilderness is reprehensible and that proper Christian life is within society, where a retreat within society is still plausible. But this solitude, while not contradicting Montaigne, begs of purpose because the fictional Crusoe goes so far as to wonder whether all people are at base selfish in wanting others to service their own interests. This sentiment would contradict the French Encyclopedists, though, still, it is only a passing phrase at this point.
With Rousseau in the 1750's, the classic critique of the immorality of court and city life is carried to a higher level of complexity. In Discours sur les science et les arts, Rousseau exposes the rules of society as "servile and deceptive conformity." In Discours sur l'origine de l'inegalite parmi les hommes, Rousseau argues that power and exploitation have elevated a set of social values taken for granted by the world. Competition is the mask for "profiting at the expense of others." Most tellingly, Rousseau maintains that "all these evils were the first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of growing inequality." Antagonism and false relations are made the virtues of capitalism, which is founded on the vague notion of "property."
In his novel La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), Rousseau uses fiction to extend these ideas. Protagonist Saint-Preux looks upon the city (not Paris only but any city) with dread:
Judge for yourself if I am right to call this crowd a desert, and to be frightened by a solitude in which I find only a vain semblance of feelings and of truth. ... So far I have seen many masks, but when will I see faces of men?
In contrast, the countryside is blissful in its social relations and harmonious landscape. Indeed, Rousseau now develops the attractiveness of natural wilderness as a new solitude beyond rural solitude. Protagonist Saint-Preux's discovery of wilderness "is an important radicalization of the retreat theme," notes Sayre. Whereas rural land contrasts with city, wilderness is uncultivated and represents the beginning of a "romantic" perception of solitude. Yet, not unlike Defoe, Rousseau dwells in ambivalence, personally preferring the culture of the city while strongly attracted to rural life, and inspired by the notion of wilderness. Rousseau reflects the 18th-century experience of irresolvable contradictions. Sayre concludes that the possibility of maintaining both poles of the dilemma is not possible until "the full-fledged crisis of solitude in society" in the 19th century and advanced industrial capitalism.
Chapter 3. Modern Times.
Germany, England, and France, are the key European countries reflecting modern ideas. Germany did not develop a strong bourgeoisie due to political fragmentation and the effects of the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. However, a strong Romantic movement existed in the first decades of the 19th century. England, too, developed a strong Romantic movement at this time, especially represented by Byron and Wordsworth. Rousseau foreshadows Romanticism in France.
The first major French literary work is Chateaubriand's Rene (1802), wherein the protagonist -- the sensitive, solitary soul -- is contrasted with the philistine masses. This solitude is typically Romantic in that the solitary's feelings and emotions contrast with the blindness of society. A reminiscent analogy to classical Greek eremia as exile is deliberately contrasted to the notion of exile within society itself. "Where in ancient literature solitude was a literal desert or wilderness, now society itself is described as a desert. The protagonist of Rene eventually travels to the wilderness of the Louisiana Territory to find solace.
Chateaubriand defined a mal du siecle in what Sayre calls the "troubled melancholy in a solitary soul caused by passions without any object." Senancour's novel Oberman (1804) parallels these sentiments. The young protagonist refuses to follow his father's business career, and like Rene seeks retreat, but goes one step further in pursuing Saint-Preux's wilderness. But here he misses human communion and cannot be reconciled to nature alone, in the end unable to appreciate either human society or nature.
The 1820s ushers in the first true Romantic works, beginning with Lamartine's Meditations (1820). Here the protagonist's retreat into nature is more positive than in Chateaubriand and Senancour. Unlike his two predecessors, Lamartine retains a sense of divinity in nature that provides solace. The function of poetry, according to Lamartine, should be to bring together those sensitive souls isolated from society. Poetry cannot be addressed to the indifferent masses. This sentiment reflects how much the solitaries as artists dislike bourgeois society, and reflects the gulf that has emerged. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, the poets, themselves middle-class, increasingly are alienated from their chief public.
Alfred de Vigny reflects this disenchantment further with a dislike for politics. In Cinq-Mars (1826) the Romantic hero struggles against the crown, and in Stello (1832) the poet listens to an older man's warnings about political involvement. The character Noir tells the poet: "Solitude is the only source of inspiration. Solitude is holy. All associations suffer from the vices of the convent." The poet must become not a monk seeking community but a hermit, a secular hermit given the times, and his hermitage will be the desert of the city.
Who is the sensitive like-minded whom the poet addresses? Vigny calls them "the Republic of Letters," those alone who are free, and can appreciate art for art's sake. This cycle is completed by the novel Chatterton (1836), where the protagonist cannot tolerate city life, finds rural life petty and oppressively unintelligent, and fears wilderness. He contracts debts he hopes to pay by writing but realizes that his writing is a sham that violates his soul. He falls into deeper debt and despair, ending in suicide. Vigny's solitude is quintessentially that of the artist, hoping in Les Destinees (1844) to share life with a beloved woman, for like Senancour, the poet finds Nature cold, hostile, and too fearful.
Les Destinees includes a poem about Jesus that shows the contrast between ancient and modern. Where ancients, even up to Pascal, saw Jesus in metaphysical solitude but divine, Vigny now presents Jesus as an entirely human poet.
After 1830, Romanticism and realism pursue parallel themes of solitude. They specifically present the unsuccessful outcome of characters struggling in society and how they are trapped in its web. Realists such as Balzac clearly show the nature of industrial society ruled by money. After the 1840s, the Social Romantics and their creed of "art for art's sake" becomes a reality in the Parnassian movement. No longer is there a social function to impede the march of industrialism. The poet Leconte de Lisle expresses the disillusionment with social activism and the total isolation of the artist. Baudelaire, too, echoes this theme. The poet retreats from society into his room, there to pursue his imagination, sometimes fueled with alcohol or drugs, sometimes with dreams, memories, art, and literature. The failure of society devolves to the failure of interpersonal communication and language, resulting in a profound solitude. Sully Prudhomme's collection of poems is even titled Les Solitudes (1869).
Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857) has dispensed with the Romantic hero to reveal the intense alienation affect his characters. The countryside is no longer a retreat. Sayre's notes:
One aspect of Madame Bovary ... is a demystification of the once-glorious Romantic solitude. Yet far more original is the portrayal of a society that is radically fragmented: solitude is no longer the privilege of the sensitive few, but the misery of the whole.
The characters in the novel are trapped in their artificial social roles. Consciousness of this entrapment creates the characters' solitude, a solitude unmitigated by money or relationships. Flaubert's L'Education sentimentale (1869) extends the stultifying web from the provincial town of Madame Bovary to society at large.
By the 1890s and into the 20th century, the artists' search for an elite solitude finds expression in the Symbolist movement and among the Decadents. Writes Sayre: "At the end of the century, retreat from the contagion of society is, following Baudelaire, entirely artificial and imaginary; the reaction against Rousseau's solitudes of Nature reaches its point of culmination." Thus Huysman's hero in A Rebours (1884) finds a hermit life in his enclosed urban house, but unlike a hermit, his pastime is decadent aestheticism. Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Axel (1890) and the poetry of Mallarme present similar characters.
Thus the intellectual elite exists in a more and more inhuman isolation. Its retreat from modern, bourgeois society takes the most extreme forms: the retreat within the city of decadent, life-refusing aestheticism (in the aesthete's hermetically closed room), or of a bohemia farther outside the limits of bourgeois society than ever before, as well as the real departure for exotic, primitive lands, more than ever removed from Western civilization. These are the solutions of Mallarme and Verlaine, on the one hand, and of Rimbaud, who gives up poetry for adventure in Africa, on the other. They will continue to be major forms of retreat for the artistic elite into the early twentieth century.
By the end of the 19th century, France experienced the transition from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism. This absorbed more and more middle class financial wealth into oligarchies while creating an increasing rentier class. This economic shift created the wealthy individual distinct from the poorer mass of individuals living solitary and undifferentiated lives as petty bourgeois. The result is a new expression of solitude reflecting the new social reality but also reflecting the crises in religion and philosophy. The contemporary writers coin the phrase "mental" or "moral" solitude, solitude morale, as in the works of Maupassant, Valery, and Barbusse, where the separation of classes leaves the artist confirmed in a irreconcilable metaphysical solitude.
This solitude morale is now common to all, not just restricted to the intelligentsia and artists. Estaunie's Solitudes (1922) shows ordinary people afflicted with pessimism and solitude. An elitism about solitude is past. Romain Rolland, Jules Romains, and Emile Zola present the dilemma of solitude as a collective problem or affliction. (Proust keeps the individual approach.) At the cusp of the 20th century, Sayre concludes:
Solitude has been transformed from a place outside society to a universal state of mind within society, and an aristocratic, feudal vision of the world has given way to a wholly bourgeois vision. This new vision, which is at the same time anti-bourgeois since it reveals an explosive contradiction in bourgeois society, will penetrate the literature of the twentieth century in all of its aspects: not only in its function and ideology, but in its themes, structure, and techniques.