Last year’s Edinburgh Festival marked the beginning of our settling in to Auld Reekie. The passing of twelve months means that I’m beginning to sound more like a native at Festival time.

I wrote the above returning from an afternoon at Deborah Frances-White‘s Half A Can Of Worms.

A thing you can’t open…

[Sign up for more apoplexy here. It’s a chance to read some more personal thoughts and join the conversation. I’d love to hear from you.]

Half A Can Of Worms, which I reviewed here, is the story of how the comedian “stumbled across some information about her birth mother and went on a round the clock treasure hunt, drawn into her past like a magnet.”

A couple of days later, I attended a celebration for the 2014 IdeasTap Underbelly Award winners. These were Karla Crome’s Mush and Me, about  Rachael Clerke’s How to achieve redemption as a Scot through the medium of Braveheart, Buddug James Jones’s Hiraeth and Jacqui Honess-Martin’s We Have Fallen. I thought I perceived a theme running through these shows — a theme shared with Half A Can Of Worms and Richard Marsh’s Wingman (reviewed here). That theme was one of finding one’s identity.

Half A Can Of  Worms opens with a series of slides declaring

This is a true story
….Not comedy truth,
actual truth

And of course, the nature of the show’s story required that the writer examine who she is and from whence that identity stems. Within Wingman‘s play with ideas of truth and authenticity there is also a look at identity and to what extent one can shape one’s own personality and fate. Wingman is written by Richard Marsh. Richard March also plays the lead character in the play, “Richard Marsh”.

Jerome Marsh and Richard Marsh (or Richard Marsh?) in “Wingman”.

I’ve written previously about how privacy is potentially key to being able to present a public face to the world. In this episode of In Our Time on BBC Radio 4, I learned more about how this is connected to the philosophical concept of solitude. In this sense, solitude is not the same this as being alone. As described by Melissa Lane, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, it is a state of mind in which one can still the voices of society, allowing an opportunity for deep contemplation and self-examination whether alone or in a community.

As the show proceeds, John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, leads a discussion of the role of solitude in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Professor Haldane outlines the attraction of the desert for those seeking solitude. The desert is a place “where one is away from the temptations, the corruptions, the softness, the indulgence of comfort and comfortable society.”

Dessert as the path to enlightenment

That is to say, the desert acts as a place of purgation, or the entry to the threefold way. The threefold way begins with purgation, proceeds to illumination, and ends with unification. The function of the desert in the prophetic temptation, then, is getting rid of our desires and appetites. “It is a place where life is pared down to the bone. One is removed from the comforts of society and is self-sufficient or dependent in a very primitive way on what is available.”

Professor Lane notes St. John Cassian’s story of a hermit who finds that the desert is not the best place to achieve contemplation, because of the resulting preoccupation with meeting one’s material needs and tendency to marvel at one’s own spiritual achievements. Total isolation may inflate the ego, where remaining in society may counteract that tendency. Thus, solitude may be better achieved in community, where material needs are provided for, and the seeker is more humble.

As usual, I’m not claiming to be the Messiah. Oh no. In that sense, I’m much more like Elijah or John The Baptist, who also went into the desert for forty days and nights yet denied their appearance of the first coming.

Bloke with a beard. Coincidence?

But, the stroke ward does serve more than just traditional medical needs, in providing a place of solitude. As in the desert, life is pared down to the bone. One is dependent on what is made available in order to survive. At the same time, one is within a community in the truest sense. A team of nurses and orderlies provide for one’s material needs around the clock. And you’ve got to be humble when you’re wearing a Texas catheter and someone else has to wipe your arse.

Since it turned out that the function of my contemplation was to find the self, the particular effects of my stroke were — in that sense — beneficial. Unable to maintain short-term memories, I was stripped down to rampaging id. For Justbeginningthesufferinggirlfriendoftheblogbeth, this was a consolation. At this most basic level, stripped of vanity, I was — like many stroke survivors — pretty funny. And shorn of my medium-term history and reliant on others, even my long-estranged wife claimed to have been reintroduced to Nice Guy Ricky.

Not so nice, as it turned out

So, what then, did I discover in solitude? Apparently, I’m a storyteller. But what the story is, I prefer to leave to you.

(The thoughts in this week’s on the philosophy of solitude are much in debt to the episode of In Our Time linked above. If this post has interested you, I urge you to click through and have a listen. Thanks!)

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2 thoughts on “Solitude

    1. Thank you so much, Greg. I hope the ability to relate means you’re somewhere along Illumination Street and Unification Road. Not that I’m making any grand claims.

      I’ll never press-gang anyone into joining the conversation on the blog, but since you’re here…. One of the questions in this week’s Tiny Letter distribution is “Where/when do you do your best thinking?” I’d certainly be interested to know if you have any reflections to add.

      Finally, I’m still working through a pile of books which means I haven’t gotten to your sci-fi recommendations yet. It includes a copy of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

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