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On Solitude

"No man is an island"? A biographical sketch.

It's safe to say that most people prefer being in company to being alone; our entire civilisation is founded on this principle, and for good reasons. Loneliness is universally pitied, decried as an undesirable state and stigmatised as if it were contagious; and the conscious choice of solitude over company naturally rouses suspicion. It's somewhat more tolerated in men, partially romanticised in the lone wolf stereotype; but there's no similarly flattering template for women. If you look half decent and have your life in order, yet remain solitary, people tend to assume that something hidden must be wrong with you. (Hardly anybody ever assumes that there is something wrong with the world; but more on that later.)

But some people are inherently predestined to solitude, either by nature or by nurture, and sometimes by both; and some simply have nowhere to go.

I've always been sensitive to sound, and thus fond of the restorative comforts of silence. My grandfather, born in 1918, and my mother, born in 1950, were still habitually living the slow-paced, mid-century existence of the Viennese bourgeoisie by the time the garish 1990's rolled around. The peace in our apartment was rarely disturbed by anything other than the rustle of book pages being turned, the scent of tobacco from my grandfather's pipe, or his occasional playing of the violin. It was a formal but loving household, and the perfect environment for a naturally sensitive child who needed structure, peace and warmth. My childhood thus was a happy one; it just ended up being very short.

By 1996, both my grandfather and mother had passed away. I was removed from Vienna and sent to foster parents abroad who couldn't have been more contrary to my previous surroundings. They burnt through my family's fortune within two or three years, and I largely avoided their cognac-fuelled antics by locking myself into the seclusion of my attic room, silently witnessing my happier days disappear one painting, one musical instrument, one piece of furniture at a time. For the next eleven years, I was handed around homes, none of them suitable for a child, and by merit of a checkered academic career (I skipped three school years and repeated one), I eventually ended up at a private boarding school on a musical scholarship, which at least took me out of the immediate line of fire. Unsurprisingly, I was soon singled out as the pariah among my far more affluent peers, a position which I didn't mind; compared to what I had seen, this was literal child's play. Besides, being a social outcast held several invaluable benefits: You were free to form and openly hold any opinion you thought logical and just; and you were able to live your life the way you saw fit, unconcerned by the generally foolish, often even detrimental notions and actions of others. People also had the tendency to dramatise and catastrophise everything, and looking at my own miserable life, I simply couldn't afford to.

Instead, I composed and read; and when I was fifteen, I read Sartre. L'existence précède l'essence, he had argued, and L’homme est condamné à être libre.

An immense weight was lifted from my shoulders. According to Sartre, a botched upbringing meant nothing, had no bearing on your future; apart from its immediate sorrows, it was inconsequential. Other people, their perceptions and actions didn't define you, couldn't define you. You were always what you chose to be. You couldn't always evade calamity; but you were free to decide how you would regard it, whether you would perceive it as something that destroyed you or as something you tenaciously overcame.

This recognition of agency was my salvation.

It also happened to be an outrageously unpopular opinion. During philosophy lessons, my insistence on these maxims incited flaming rage from my classmates. And even the world outside was filled with adults tortured by regret, which they almost exclusively blamed on other people: their parents hadn't treated them right, their husband didn't appreciate them enough, their wife was crazy, their boss unreasonable... Exchanging complaints appeared to be a vital social glue, and blame-shifting a necessary prerequisite of fitting into almost any society, a society made up of individuals whose gregariousness was rooted not in communication, let alone philanthropic benevolence, but in intrigue and the greatest possible amassment of petty individual gain. It was a universe in which everyone seemed to interact with one another only to obtain something for themselves, and where nobody was willing to take responsibility for their own role in the drama.

I wanted nothing to do with that.

At 17 I finished school and escaped to London in order to study composition. At night, I made a living waiting tables, working as a hotel receptionist and playing the piano in bars, ever divorced from the world around me as if through a glass screen. In the morning I studied; in the afternoons, I slept. London was damp, cold and depressing, and I ended up without a roof over my head on more than one occasion. An extroverted study colleague took me in and out and about, but I remained a stranger wherever I went and knew I couldn't impose on her charity forever; and before the first year was out, I found myself roaming through Europe, always alone save for music and books, returning to London only for exams. Apart from my university's insistence on teaching historical techniques of composition (in my opinion the only point of the subject, yet completely abandoned by conservatoires on the continent), I didn't like studying; I had little patience for the intrigues and social politics of university life, everyone's senseless grasping for recognition and fame often regardless of actual merit, and most professors' thinly-veiled intent of turning their students into musical and social clones of themselves, moving their favourites around like pieces on a chess board. I just wanted to learn the craft and apply it, but short of the library, wisdom was more commonly found outside the unversity walls than inside them. —

There is a common misconception that living on your own automatically condemns you to a life of misery. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, few things are worse than being trapped in bad company; it is that and that alone that ruins lives. Nobody ever died of solitude, but many of loneliness; and the depths of despair are exclusively caused by fraught relations with other people. What's more, alone-ness does not mean isolation and imprisonment in the confines of atomised individuality. People falsely assume that you have to join a social group to experience the feeling of being part of something greater than yourself; but just because social activities are the common way to experience this doesn't mean that there aren't others. Most musicians reading this will recognise the profound sense of connection to something great and eternal in moments of deep enjoyment of music, even (or especially) as a passive listener; anyone with a sense of beauty will recognise a similar sentiment in the appreciation of art, and those more cerebrally inclined will find it in pursuits from literature to the elegance of a perfect mathematical solution. When religious people speak of their encounters with God, I believe they hint at something very similar, though subscribers to the Abrahamic religions seldom seem to be able to sustain this connectedness for long.

Zen Buddhism and Stoicism seem more tenacious. Both advocate self-reliance, appreciation of beauty and goodness however fleeting, and adhering to a personal morality regardless of outer (meaningless) circumstances. It made sense to me. After I finished my studies, I went to Berlin, lived like a monk in an unheated one-bedroom apartment crammed with thrifted books and revelled in simple, unwavering pleasures: the crunch of autumn leaves under my shoe, the study of musical scores, listening to CDs borrowed from the local library, the smell of snow,the sight of a fox appearing under my window at night, the enveloping warmth of my deserted, dimly-lit practice room (a few re-purposed chambers in a defunct cinema building). While I often longed for a companion, there was no trace of existential malaise. It was a quiet, unexciting happiness. But it was happiness still.

Eventually I returned to Vienna, which then still retained the comforting familiarity of my childhood, peered here and there for a breadcrumb of love, and slowly managed to carve out a living with music. Even now, cushioned by middle-class economic conditions and the handful of routine commitments that come with it, solitude still clings to me like a shadow. Vienna's Bohème is split around 80-20 into two camps: those of the political Left and those of the political Right. Both of them demand faithful (and immaculate) adherence to an ever-changing, collectivist order of current beliefs, many of which contradict themselves, and I can't bring myself to subscribe to any of the two completely with the reckless abandon of logic, feeling and good judgment I think that would require. Where to, then? There simply is nowhere to go.

While I do have a handful of friends nowadays (all of them equipped with a similar sense of agency and rage de vivre despite their disillusionment with the world), I still don't like the vast majority of people. The importance many put on little daily play-acts and dramas are beyond my grasp; I don't understand their life-usurping drive to look good in the eyes of others, and I don't think I ever will. (This is one of the reasons why I have little desire to play concerts.) So it seems that this is forever my fate – to be in this world, but not of this world, a spectator and observer, but generally not a participant. I am not tortured or troubled by this; it is what it is. Other people marry, celebrate commercial holidays, climb the corporate ladder, have children, pay off their cars and their 30-year mortgages. None of these things are meant for me; my world is built on the inside. On the outside, I only compose, regardless of season, read, find my sense of connection in music. I cook dinners for myself and eat them in silence with a cloth napkin on my lap, drink wine, go for solitary walks and pause for the sight of an unusually coloured sky or a handsome face or a pleasant scent in the air. Occasionally, I sit on a bench and smoke a single cigarette, savouring the sharp pang of tar in my lungs and the wisps of blue smoke wafting about. Every now and again, a trusted friend joins my sphere like a visitor arriving on an island, happy to be on holiday. And about once every few years, a lover suddenly appears, shaking up the otherwise imperturbable construct of my existence. That's the only thing I find bloody annoying: Love is the one habit I just cannot quit.

There is a poignantly beautiful 1960's French film by Jean-Pierre Melville, titled Le Samouraï: A picture of grey metropolitan skies, perpetual rain, and an anti-hero who moves around in a world to which he doesn't belong, tempted by a blink-and-you-miss-it flicker of sensuality which sticks with him and gradually unravels the sullen content of his structured existence. A large part of the film is spent in silence, dotted only by the plaintive call of the protagonist's only companion, a lone bullfinch. Disregarding the fact that there is a definite moralistic undertone to Melville's depiction (the protagonist is a criminal, and possibly slightly mad): It is one of the most existentially consoling things (not only films) I have ever seen, and I was taken aback to read reviews indignantly badmouthing the grisly atmosphere, the futility of existence, the desolation of a pointless life. All these reviewers mistook the ordinary discomforts of rainy weather, spartan living quarters and the mundane impracticality of solitude for the essence of the matter; none of them saw the self-reliant life lived unwaveringly faithful to an innate moral code, its equilibrium rendered fragile only by the addition of other people, and the unassuming speck of nobility inherent in this kind of existence, an existence which inevitably, hopefully, is bound to end up self-less, not self-centered.

To each his own kind of majesty, Gracián wrote.

Perhaps this is mine.

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