Decades ago I read a book entitled, “The Outsiders” by Colin Wilson, an unlettered but very erudite gentleman who spent his life “thinking outside of the box.” At the conclusion of this post I provide a link to an essay from Brain Pickings about William Blake and Ludwig von Beethoven who spent their life in what Maria Popova described as “Outsiderdom.” These two men made significant contributions to human history but their life story was complicated, to say the least, and existential loneliness abounded for the whole of their life. Beethoven was isolated by blindness but also by social awkwardness, so he battled the anguish of alienation as he developed his musical genius. But Blake was more of a rebel, balking at convention and then finally “turning his back to the citadel of convention.”
Standing apart from the herd is excruciatingly painful. Some people, such as Blake and Mozart, lived with it from their youth and adjusted adequately though with great pain. Some do not experience it in their life at all, others during times of crisis or tragedy, and others after some neurological “shock.” This loss is extremely traumatic as one is suddenly bereft of all the trappings of his identity and suddenly starkly “alone,” like King Lear on the heath, where he stood naked and, “pelted by this pitiless storm.”
But loss, and the sting of existential solitude can be redemptive. Jacques Lacan has noted that “nothing of any value comes into being without the experience of loss.” Emily Dickinson suggested that is hope found in this void, writing, “Renunciation is a piercing virtue, the letting go of a presence for an expectation.” Dickinson knew that most men and women are comforted with a cloak or “presence” of culturally provided accoutrements. She was stating that in this profound loss she had found hope
Culture is predicated upon avoiding all existential anguish. Loneliness is one of the most painful experiences and we have been given the comfort of contrivance to avoid it. I call this contrivance our God-given “fig leaf” as it hides our nakedness. And these “contrivances” are useful but not when one spends his whole life immersed in them, pulling them tightly around him to keep from being exposed. This thought always comes to my mind in this Christmas season as I watch American culture gorge itself on “stuff”, naively assuming that this “stuff” will suffice. If you think it works, just look at Donald Trump.
Carl Jung has been a guiding force in the past three years of my life as I’ve participated in a reading group of his work and often come across his wisdom about the importance of loneliness in the quest for individuation, aka “authenticity.” Here are a few samples of his wisdom on the subject.
The highest and most decisive experience of all . . . is to be alone with . . . [one’s] own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation. ~Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, CW 12, par. 32.
As a doctor it is my task to help the patient to cope with life. I cannot presume to pass judgment on his final decisions, because I know from experience that all coercion-be it suggestion, insinuation, or any other method of persuasion-ultimately proves to be nothing but an obstacle to the highest and most decisive experience of all, which is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation. ~Carl Jung; Psychology and Alchemy; CW 12: Page 32.
As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know. Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible. ~Carl Jung; Memories Dreams and Reflections; Page 356.
(Link to Brain Pickings—https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/08/aldred-kazin-william-blake-beethoven/)