The Center of the Web: Women and Solitude, edited by Delese Wear. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.
This collection of twenty essays by women primarily in academic careers consists of contributions requested by the editor. As with many such compilations, the results can be uneven, though in this case, editor Wear argues, the effect is intentional, attempting to capture the varieties of solitude expressed by women. Because the contributors are educated and what Wear acknowledges are "women of privilege," they don't present the experiences of women as recorded by, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich or Studs Terkel. with their grittier social dimension. But such examples would not be able to articulate the nuances surrounding solitude that Wear presents. The opportunity to investigate what solitude means to women involves a variety of approaches: intellectual, psychological, cultural, and autobiographical. This book represents part of these.
The Center of the Web has three parts. Part 1, "Solitude and Identity," looks at solitude as respite and occasion for reflection. Part 2, "Solitude and Culture," considers solitude, society, and women's specific concerns. Part 3, "Solitude and Work, includes more subjective essays on how solitude affects daily life and career, presented by women who are teachers.
Rather than summarize the twenty essays individually, what
follows selects representative essays on themes, ideas, and views by
specific contributors. All of the essays are in part 1 with the
exception of the last essay described, which is in Part 2.
Delese Wear observes that the luxurious solitude of some women writers such as in Annie Dillard's account of writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, does not reflect the reality of most women writers, who in contrast must "stalk those moments of solitude often wedged in dailiness." Plumbing the self not as others see one but as one really is presents a challenge in the midst of diurnal routines. Part of this required introspection for women is to perceive the influences of upbringing.
Lynne McFall notes that "solitude and suffering are not guarantees of moral wisdom [but] they are rightly associated with it. To suffer is to begin to think for oneself." She mentions Simone Weil and Ludwig Wittgenstein as philosophers acutely aware of suffering, and therefore, two models for thinking and reflecting.
Mara Sapon-Shevin explores solitude as psychological haven: aloneness as unchosenness, alienation, disempowerment, hiding, and vulnerability. These are common experiences for girls and adolescents but carry over into adult womens' reactions to subtle social behavioral expectations about women in general. The author recognizes that "spending time by myself must be a decision, not simply the default option of my life." Further, she must trust that time alone will not result in loss of control or power over her daily relations.
To be alone successfully requires a sense of one's own power and worth, a confidence "that I can take care of myself, that I don't need other people around to keep me safe." Due to childhood and life circumstances, however, Sapon-Shevin realizes the terrible burden inflicted especially on women and their self-image, and tells us: "I grieve what I have lost in my life -- perfect trust, perfect safety, untarnished confidence and power -- and I struggle to reclaim myself."
Jo Anne Pagano's essay, "Who Am I When I'm Alone with Myself?" is an excursion through intellectual history of the idea of separation and detachment, from Genesis, Freud, Lacan, Virginia Wollf, Doris Lessing, and Zora Neale Hurston among others. Pagano argues pointedly that the entire history of philosophy and psychoanalysis is presented from a male perspective. "The history of identity is the history of self-divisions. According to Lacan, we experience Otherness in birth and childhood. What was once part of the subject is now an object split off from the Self," explains Pagano.
Acts of symbolization and representation are said to substitutes for the lost object, the object without which the subject is never complete. ... The subject lives always in a state of desire expressed through the impulse to unification and universalization. Plato's insistence on the virtue of the One may be read as an instantation of this impulse.
The trouble is that, Pagano avers, this entire "quest for wholeness" is a masculine experience. The female has never lost or feared the loss of the original object, and is thus both object in herself and as subject not herself, a double consciousness. The modern feminists sought to assail structures and institutions, to cajole them into admission of and coexistence with women. But the postmodern feminist sees the very terms of the assault -- struggle, competitiveness, and success -- as premised on a masculine view. The efforts of women are hence co-opted, the effort to bring wholeness to women and to comprehend the utility and nature of solitude experienced by women.
Women do not experience differentiation and identification as mutually exclusive. "It is clear to me," writes Pagano,
that gaining one's self and gaining the world entails loss. We do not have to choose between presymbolic merging and running off to the wilderness to live on locusts. The condition of self-division is not self-evidently a tragic state of affairs.
The author quotes another critic's view that daily we move between "intentional and reflexive thought," between mimesis and transformation, the cost of engaging culture and and human relationships. Pagano argues for a new democracy of the mind to overcome the mental monism of Western philosophy, which denies that we are the sum of our connections and our separations.
To Ruth Rushing, solitude is the loss of the ability to converse with others, in her case the result of years living in an area where her research did not intersect with people. Solitude is a feeling, not a condition, a self-immersion in a crowd because physical isolation would be conscious. She writes that German sociologist Georg Simmel believed that isolated individuals are fundamentally social actors. Being a stranger provides a deeper sense of isolation than being physically alone. Societal conventions restrict interaction with strangers, contributing to the sense of solitude in a crowd. Moreover, argues Simmel, urban dwellers develop defenses against sensory overload that entail indifference, even repulsion, towards others, a sense of detachment or reserve that amounts to personal freedom.
But, as Rushing notes, Simmel's thesis fails to distinguish the experience of men and women. While men may experience solitude in a crowd, women experience the encounter with harassment, the required cooperation of others, diminuating factors such as the need for safety, and -- especially in seeking solitude --household responsibilities.
Rushing notes that solitude is an important component of intimate relationships in that it helps the individuals who comprise the relationship to come together as more complete individuals, enriching the relationship, though the tilt to accommodate men's time and space historically excludes women. The anonymity and freedom of solitude in the crowd does not , for women, transfer to the family and household. Concludes Rushing:
Solitude in the midst of a crowd is considered to be unacceptable, antisocial, dysfunctional. [Solitude] is not really a rejection of the crowd as much as it is an affirmation of the self -- a space within which we can connect with our thoughts and beliefs.
Tuija Pulkkenen's reflections on philosophy begin with the distinction between civil society and family, the latter understood as non-separation of personal and interpersonal relations. The history of feminism is the process of addressing these distinct interests in philosophizing. The first historical stage is that of Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir arguing that women can philosophize -- given solitude. The intent is to purify a core, though it necessarily tries to squeeze the female into male frames, denying or reversing female roles (without changing male ones).
The second feminist wave is modern in confirming an essentialism to the female role, partly as strategic politics. But like phase one, it, too, ends up confirming the existing social code, not forwarding a new personhood. Pulkkenen writes:
Men are connected to reason, theory, abstraction, dominance, and violence, women to empathy, care, love, connection, aesthetics, and experience. The code prescribes: men and philosophy, women and family.
Pulkkenen proposes a social continuum, an operative border of differences between men and women, not a final limit. Ongoing processes of identity production require attention to structures that designate the content of experience. This is feminist philosophizing for the contemporary era. Thus, while the first two stages of feminism have not finished, the third stage, postmodern, "suggests the dialectics of solitude and connectedness," the latter derived from experience, the context of our physical and social location. But even this solitude must use the signs and language of existing philosophy, which is the cultural product of a club or tribe or exclusion group of experiences connected to and connecting the historically male participants. Writes Pulkkenen:
If connectedness is one of the borderlines of solitude, then loneliness is another. Solitude is a positive state that is produced by the borders of "family." Connectedness is essential to solitude estimation. The difference between the two is a dynamic locus of philosophy.
Women philosophers do not experience the esteem of male philosophers viewed as solitary heroes. They are viewed as objects of loneliness. If women attempt to retreat to the myth of solitary philosopher, they often are pushed to the sensitive boundary that threatens family as Outsider, the counterpart of their professional border. Although women ought not to be fixed to one personality or descriptor, each description entails a solitude.
Postmodernism threatens the moral justification of modernist politics: "the comforting structures of a progressive movement are at the same time structures of power." The process for finding connectedness is ongoing. Pulkikenen states:
Revitalizing the solitude connected with philosophy and the connectedness of women makes the relationship between women and philosophy more likely. Being a philosopher can be combined with being a woman of flesh and blood, with love and care, and with solitude.
Kal Aston proposes that if solitude is time and space without compulsion to take anyone seriously, is it a betrayal of obligations? Yet ultimately everyone "lives alone." The creative challenge is "to claim that solitude neither as a refuge from the conflicts of sociability nor as a necessary evil in a world of individuals." The method is an aesthetic one that gages experiences within and outside of solitude. "The solitude of a life on the margins provides the space in which I can be a home to myself, without seeing that home as solitary confinement," Aston writes.
Susan Laird touches upon the lives of women living alone: Virginia Woolf, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Annie Dillard, Joanna Fields, Anna Julia Cooper, Emma Goldman, May Sarton, Alice Koller -- all attempting self-understanding and productive lives. The tension between these projects lies at the intersection of productive and reproductive.
By social convention, men are "productive" -- they create professions, disciplines, institutional norms; women are "reproductive" in that women support men in their autonomous pursuits. Educated women living alone have the opportunity to break through the intersection of production and reproduction, to themselves become "productive." But Sarton's narrative (Journal of a Solitude, 1973) shows what Laird calls "living alone miserably." Sarton is depressed and despondent over a relationship gone cold (she is 60) and her misery affects her poetry and fiction writing. Thus Sarton's solitude undermines her stability, intensifies the struggle for balance. Laird notes that "the task of solitude that Sarton represents through her own account of living alone miserably is to develop through practice those self-sustaining reproductive processes that can nurture a desirable quality in one's chosen productive life."
"In sharp contrast to Sarton," continues Laird, "Alice Koller has upon reflection embraced 'chastity' as 'psychologically sound.'" Koller sets limits to order and best utilizes what Koller calls "stations of solitude," extending these to historically productive and reproductive energies. One distinction is self-defined versus other-defined productivity. Koller characterizes her activities by their end purpose, owning that 80 percent of her life (in contrast to the well-off Sarton) is spent in surviving. But she appreciates small enhancements to daily life, thus living "miserably and well," in Laird's words.
Laird herself has learned to live alone "tolerably," solitary but not isolated, with a small circle of like-minded women as a social backup. But solitude as task is a prerequisite to solitude as achievement. Responsibility for self is the task, the project or investment leading to the goal of successful solitude. For women, the task is enhanced by friendships, which unlike marriage or institutional obligations, can be pursued entirely for the emotional support and by the informed self-education friendships provide on the way to the achievement of solitude.
The essays considered above make deep inroads into the subject of how women can achieve productive solitude. While the necessary societal bridge of dismantling enormous structures informed exclusively by masculine personality is a cultural task, these writers focus on the experiential components that can be fruitful here and now for women seeking solitude.