The Sunday Magazine

The long history of solitude as both a blessing and a curse

James Morland, a postdoctoral researcher at Queen Mary’s University in London, explores how people thought about solitude in the 18th century, through the lens of three figures: the poet, the physician and the mourner.

‘If we all have an experience of solitude, it's something that connects us all'

Edward Hopper's 1927 painting, Automat. (Edward Hopper/Des Moines Art Center)

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we are experiencing all the pain and all the glory of being alone — sometimes both in the course of the same day.

Time alone can be a chance to go deeper into ourselves, to take stock of what truly matters to us and to dream up new projects. But being alone can also be a crushing, even dangerous experience.

James Morland is a postdoctoral researcher at Queen Mary’s University in London. (Submitted by James Morland)

"Solitude, at its root, is both a productive and a perilous place to be," James Morland told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright. 

Morland, a postdoctoral researcher at Queen Mary University of London, is part of Pathologies of Solitude, the first health-related history of modern, Western solitude. During the pandemic, he and his colleagues have been reflecting on the connections between how people experienced solitude in the past, and how we're experiencing it right now. 

Morland's work explores how people thought about solitude in the 18th century, through the lens of three figures: the poet, the physician and the mourner. 

"A lot of the poets that I look at see solitude as a space for a deeper connection with the divine. It's a space for inward reflection and connection," he said. "[For physicians], they're looking at how solitude is a space to potentially connect with your own body and see how it works."

One of the people he studies is Dr. John Armstrong, a Scottish doctor practising in London who also wrote poetry. In one of his poems, The Art of Preserving Health, he describes solitude as "the sad nurse of care."

Morland said solitude was often described as a nurse or as a nourishing force in poetry at the time. "It was seen as the nurse of joy, the nurse of contemplation, of wisdom and also of woe," he said. 

At the time, "care" had a dual meaning and could be both positive and negative. "I think what Armstrong is really linking there is that longer history of solitude being something that's nourishing, but it can also nourish something that's negative," he said. 

Though physicians during the 18th century sometimes celebrated solitude for its nourishing potential, they also shared our modern-day concerns about how loneliness could negatively affect the body and the mind. 

Armstrong also wrote that solitude can "give the pensive mind to sickly musings." 

"That's the kind of moment where there's a downward turn. Aside from this longer productive history of solitude as nourishing, it can equally be damaging and it can really force you into these sickly melancholic musings, if you end up feeling more separated and alone," said Morland. 

A painting of Dr. John Armstrong by Sir Joshua Reynolds, circa 1767. Dr. Armstrong was a Scottish doctor who practised in London and also wrote poetry. (Joshua Reynolds/Figge Art Museum)

"Armstrong really talks about cycles of thoughts going around themselves. You're trapped in an endless cycle of thoughts not coming into fruition and resolving themselves."

But while solitude has a long history of being linked to melancholy and suffering, it also has a long history of helping us connect with each other. When physical contact is not possible, we can take heart in remembering that people throughout history have used words to connect with others, Morland said. 

"What I research in terms of solitude is how, conversely, it leads to feelings of connectedness. That's where the paradox of solitude comes in. If we all have an experience of solitude, it's something that connects us all through that experience," he said.

The idea of solitude as a "sad nurse of care" has taken on an added resonance for him during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"We are all socially distancing ourselves from other people. But the root of that is caring for other people, which is a connection with them," he said.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.

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