Now that we have terms like social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia and drugs like Paxil, retiring to one’s bedchamber feels less Emily Dickinson, more hikikomori. It’s all too easy to believe the age of the artistic recluse is over, given that most artists now cultivate a cyclical relationship with the spotlight, intermittently stepping into and receding from it. It’s almost impossible for the artist not to engage with the public today, and so the standards of privacy have lowered. These days, using a painting of yourself as an album cover (Lorde) or limiting press interviews (Frank Ocean) seems to count as mystery.
But what has increased in the age of distraction is our concern for the necessary conditions in which art could flourish. No longer can the world be kept at bay with the closing of a door; Woolf’s room of her own is now wired for internet. To look at my shelves of favorite novels written in feverish solitude and think that they might never have come to pass is also to know there must be many more today that are simply not being written. And so the greater truths found in solitude — in nature, like the Romantics’ “thoughts of more deep seclusion,” or in a country in which you don’t speak the language, in which no one knows your name — have never felt more rare and hard-won. The hermit sits alone no longer; he has a Facebook page to update.
IT’S SURELY NO COINCIDENCE that the more we live our lives in public, the more we yearn to flee it. In a troubled, fractious world, in which political debates and social change occur in hashtags, Thoreau’s form of civil disobedience, to withdraw instead of to Tweet, has a profound appeal, regardless of whether or not he was, to steal Salinger’s word, a phony. But even we technological Bartlebys who would prefer not to post the contents of our closets/bookshelves/hearts on social media have to concede the internet’s potential for connectivity, inspiration and serendipitous expression. Publicly responding to the news of the day is now as important a prerequisite for a serious artistic persona as restraint was for Pynchon’s generation. For every Jonathan Franzen, with his sealed Ethernet port and noise-canceling headphones, there’s an Elif Batuman, who uses social media as a natural extension of her creative self. For each of us who believes that a selfie might, in fact, damage the delicate membranes of our souls, there’s another who believes it might be an asset for a shy artist, amplifying a presence that might otherwise remain unknown. While it’s disconcerting to imagine a parallel literary history with Proust Instagramming madeleines, just think what a sensation Dickinson, the woman who seemed to think in 140-word epigrams, would have been on Twitter. (To say nothing of Miss Havisham on Tinder.)
What has endured in the act of creation is the idea of getting lost in order to be found in art. This negotiation can also go terribly wrong: Nell Stevens’s darkly funny memoir, “Bleaker House,” recounts the six weeks she spent in one of the most remote parts of the Falkland Islands with the hopes of writing a novel, only to find herself watching “Eat Pray Love” over and over again and making lists of things she would Google if she could. Isolation has a way of becoming its own subject. But then I think of Howard Axelrod’s “The Point of Vanishing,” the extraordinary book he wrote about the two years he spent alone in a wooded Vermont cabin after losing the vision in one eye. “Some people say solitude is their biggest fantasy; some say it’s their biggest fear,” he told me recently. “But when I ask why, they all give the same reason: hearing themselves think.”
The desire to uncover our one true voice, the dread of hearing what it has to say: This seems to me the tension of modern life, the thing that has us searching for a cell signal on yoga retreat. Being in a place where nothing has an agenda for your attention, as Axelrod found, means looking and listening in an unguarded way. “Natural curiosities and affinities emerge,” as he puts it, “becoming the filters for experience.” How we breathe in the world, then, defaults to a function of an unbidden part of identity, rather than a function of what others want us to be — or, perhaps even more crucially, how we want others to think we are.
Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose pseudonymity became part of her mystique, once wrote to me in an email interview, “If my book were publicly mine from the beginning, I would be careful not to damage my image, I would censor myself.” Writing was a “battle against lying. Only with the confidence of anonymity can I decide occasionally to publish. In the end, if I’m forced to choose, I prefer to lose the role of writer rather than spoil my passion for writing — that’s the way it’s always been.” When she was allegedly unmasked by an Italian investigative journalist, her fans were outraged at the violation. It was invasive, they argued, which it was, but it seemed to me that not only were they defending Ferrante from the indignity of having her financial and real-estate records unveiled, they were also defending their own right not to know, to be free to imagine that she was, in fact, Elena Greco, the narrator of her Neapolitan Novels, the woman they knew with the intimacy and deep interiority only possible in literature.
And so contemporary artists find ways to battle for truth on their own terms. I think of young women like Emma Cline, who push back against having their photos on the dust jackets of their books, or David Hammons, who declines to participate in the accepted machinations of the art world, or Bob Dylan, who took nearly two weeks to even publicly acknowledge that he won the Nobel Prize in literature last year. But maybe the best display of resistance against the role of artist-as-performer was the quietly myth-demolishing article by this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote for The Guardian about the four-week period of seclusion in 1987 he and his wife called the “crash,” a desperate attempt to “reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.” The result was “The Remains of the Day,” a monumental yesteryear portrait of renunciation, and a life passed by, tragically unlived. Now, of course, all is reversed: It’s renouncing the world that requires nerve and imagination, and the roar of silence that dares us to listen.