April 5, 2020 | Brian Chappell

On Solitude

Like everyone else, we had our plans. Plans for a year of publishing more dynamic and provocative texts, based on our interests and certain landmark occasions (such as the election, which has become for many an afterthought along with so much else). Plans to engage with our subscribers about the questions that fascinate them, with hopes of bringing people together to elevate their experiences of life. 

The world changed. We at Mouse came together to think about how to respond. What words, concepts, and texts can we offer right now? We arrived at “Solitude.” We thought this term could present a fruitful contrast to similar words such as isolation, distancing, loneliness, separation, etc. One question that I am asking myself is whether we are dealing with a temporary but necessary adjustment in order to return to normal as quickly as possible, or whether we are dealing with an upheaval, a moment when we will rethink how we do things, how we design our society, how we care for each other, and whose needs we ignore. That question applies to us as individuals as well. How can we change our lives and patterns? If we want to go back to “normal,” what was it about “normal” that we want back? Were there things about our “normal” lives that we are now relieved to do without? 

Can we approach a period of forced solitude the way a caterpillar approaches a cocoon? 

In typical Mouse fashion, the texts we have chosen for this impromptu series approach the question of solitude from multiple angles and contexts. 

We can begin with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (c.a. 1353), which in its own right is a groundbreaking work in European literary history. It is an apt choice for this particular series because it addresses the situation from which it arises: the Black Plague of 1348. The selection from the text that we have chosen both comments on the plague and presents the narrative conceit of the whole book: the retreat from the city, and a binge on stories. Through this story we are invited to reflect on how stories carry us through crisis and indeed prepare us for death (or not). 

The other two selections also focus on contemplative and reflective activity that takes place in solitude. Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” expounds on the physical and psychological health that arises from taking a walk, benefits which contemporary research continues to confirm. The text raises questions about other simple practices that can sustain us. Finally, there is Epictetus’ Enchiridion, a foundational text in the philosophy known as Stoicism. In our world today we have misconceptions about what it means to be “stoic.” Engaging this text together can help us get closer to Epictetus’ profound vision for a healthy spiritual life rooted in accepting what is real.

Finally, we present these books and their supplementary materials under the knowledge of how quickly things change. For example, certain blog posts (such as the post on the Decameron) were finished in the early days of quarantine, while others were finished months later. Rather than attempt to revise the older work to fit new realities, I have left them as-is, as a kind of micro-record of the evolution underway. Another example, as I write these words, I was tempted to say something about how Thoreau posits walking as a deeply personal act that is unmediated by culture and therefore can’t be co-opted or taken away. But at the same time, many people in our country can not leave their house for a walk without facing the possibility that they will be killed by the police. This fact is so easy to forget, but now we have entered, alongside the quarantine, what for many feels like a final reckoning.