63 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on 21 August 2007
Anthony Storr, the British psychiatrist and writer who died of a heart attack in 2001, published twelve books in his lifetime. 'Solitude' was groundbreaking upon its publication in 1989, his key argument being that solitary pursuits "play a greater part in the economy of human happiness than modern psycho-analysts and their followers allow". Traditionally, psychoanalysis has tended to view those who generally do not generally engage in or avoid close personal relationships as psychologically immature, as having a character deficit to be remedied. Today legions of self-help books and women's magazines bolster this tenet by extolling interpersonal relationships as life's holy grail (especially, but not exclusively, for women). Storr counters that interpersonal relationships are not the only way of finding emotional fulfilment and that solitude can be creative, fulfilling and foster emotional maturity. Drawing upon both voluntary and enforced states of solitude, he claims that it is crucial in "attaining peace of mind and maintaining mental health".
An especial need to be alone in adult life can be traced back (in many, if not all, cases) to "some degree of insecure attachment in early childhood". Solitude can then take on a compensatory and healing function: "a retreat from unhappiness, a compensation for loss, and a basis for later achievement". Indeed on the basis of the lives of famous writers (Trollope, James, Kafka), philosophers (Kant, Wittgenstein) and composers (Wagner, Beethoven, Bach), he argues that what began as compensation for deprivation can become a rewarding way of life. These artists and thinkers could "best express [their] true self in some form of creative work rather than in interaction with others".
Storr characterises those who especially like to retreat into solitude as often having a depressive tendency and - regarding those who managed to create art out of time spent alone - having often suffered the loss of a parent in their childhood years (e.g. Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Louis MacNeice, John Donne and S.T. Coleridge). "[T]he greater the disharmony within, the sharper the spur to seek harmony, or, if one has the gifts, to create harmony", he states. Storr is at his strongest when conveying his incisive insights in clear and cogent prose, which often culminate in nuggets of wisdom (at one point he casually writes "In the end, one has to make sense of one's own life, however influential guidance from mentors may have been"). The reader might have to overlook occasionally portentous language (e.g. "I could not forbear to quote it"!), but this nevertheless remains a brilliant and original read.
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 26 January 2004
If you are looking at and considering this book to help you make sense of the situations of solitude that you find yourself in, please read it. It has helped me to be objective about my childhood and the effect it has had on me, to see how childhood bereavement has affected later behaviour and to look at my current situation (one of partial solitude due to a painful condition) more creatively. Whereas I used to blame myself for previous behaviours/mistakes, Dr Storr's book has helped me to see that maybe some of it was inevitable. Dr Storr calls on a lifetime of learning in this book, but it is easy to read.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 23 August 2012
Anyone who enjoys spending a lot of time alone might do well to read this book. Far too often, people like us are considered weirdos - the ones who don't dance at weddings and would rather enjoy a good book than go to a party. Storr, clearly keen on his own time himself, outlines the psychological value of spending time alone, showing that the busy life is scarcely conducive to real thought or intellectual achievement. I also have his book Music and the Mind, and really rather wish I'd met him - he comes across as a very interesting and compassionate individual.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This book was first published in 1988 when renowned psychiatrist Anthony Storr was already sixty-eight. Its contents reflect almost a lifetime's worth of insight into the human condition. It contains an introduction and twelve chapters, the contents of which I précis below to give an outline of Storr's arguments, but the potential reader of this marvellous book would do well to read it in full; not only to see how Storr's arguments progress and the sources he relies upon, but also because the literary style of its arguments is so well-expressed.
In the introduction Storr writes that, "Many of the world's greatest thinkers have not reared families or formed close personal ties." But many have. And, "It is difficult to point to examples of men and women of genius whose interpersonal relationships have been stormy, and whose personalities have been grossly disturbed by mental illness, alcoholism, or drug abuse." But they do exist. Storr implicitly acknowledges this. He partly blames Freud for the view "that heterosexual fulfilment is the sine qua non of mental health" and "the modern insistence that true happiness can only be found in intimate attachments."
Whilst conceding the importance of love and friendship in making life worthwhile, "they are not the only source of happiness." This is arguable, of course, but even Aristotle at the end of his `Ethics' concluded that the perfect life required leisure for contemplation as well as friendship.
With passing references ranging from six-month-old babies to office-workers, and on to transference in psychoanalysis, Storr demonstrates in chapter one the natural desire and need for protective, trusting, and valued relationships, but that "intimate attachments are A hub around which a person's life revolves, not necessarily THE hub." Chapter two examines our capacity to be alone, Storr arguing that a child's natural earning ability to cope with solitude is just as important as its ability to cope with interpersonal relationships. Solitude contributes to a person's sense of identity.
The uses we put solitude to - in bereavement, meditation, reflection, coping with change, addressing identity - are covered in the third chapter, and he then touches on the feeling of being `at one with the universe'. Then there is the subject of enforced solitude, reviewed in chapter four: prison, torture, also blindness and deafness.
Storr argues in the fifth that solitude enables us to get in touch with our deepest feelings: "to come to terms with loss; to sort out ... ideas; to change attitudes ...; [to] encourage the growth of the creative imagination." Imagination is key here, a universal human attribute that we rarely give thought to simply because of its universality. Storr remarks that it is a fundamental aspect of humanity: "Imagination has given man flexibility; but in doing so, has robbed him of contentment."
In the book's centre, Storr sees history as the growth of individuality out of formally-close communities, but concludes that the individual life can still be happy without close relationships. Different needs for solitude can be matched with different personality traits.
By chapter eight, he is using examples of a number of famous English novelists to show how isolated childhoods provided fertile imaginations. The experience of bereavement in early childhood of the lives of some great English poets may have intensified their bouts of depression but stimulated a way out through creative work. (The seeking of creative unity is linked here to his book on `Music and the Mind'.)
After novelists and poets, it is the turn of scientists and philosophers - Kant, Wittgenstein, Newton - to be under the spotlight in chapter ten. Storr writes, "We all need to find some order in the world, to make some sense out of our existence. Those who are particularly concerned with such a search [which would probably include all readers of this book] bear witness to the fact that interpersonal relationships are not the only way of finding emotional fulfilment."
Old age is "a time when communication with others tends to be replaced by works depending more upon solitary meditation." This is otherwise defined as `Late Style', and here Storr looks at the composers Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms, and Richard Strauss (of whom he unjustly, in my opinion, accuses of having Nazi sympathies), as well as novelist Henry James.
In the final chapter Storr addresses the contention that, if our task in life is to reproduce, why do we live so long? He returns to those feelings of rapture, of ecstasy, whatever you want to call it - the being-at-oneness-with-the-universe that William James called "mystical states" - and enjoins this with Jung and the individuation that tends to come with mid-life crises. These latter are often resolved with "healing by means of an inner change of attitude" - a solitary process.
As already mentioned, Aristotle concluded that the good life comprised friendship and contemplation. Storr concludes, "The desire and pursuit of the whole [the striving for unity in life] must comprehend both aspects of human nature", the interpersonal and the solitary.
For sure this book is often concerned with stating the obvious. But it is also a book so insightful that, at its end, I just wanted to go back to the beginning and read it all again.
37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on 17 June 2003
As society increasingly places emphasis on the values of relationships, and often judges people on what seems to be their inability to have one, the importance of a book that encourages people to be at peace with their solitude cannot be underestimated. Storr draws from the experiences of people like Gibbon, Kafka, and Wittgenstein to show that there is nothing wrong with living your life alone, but he is at his most illuminating when outlining how normal people can, through experiences in their childhood, acquire the self-reliance necessary to be emotionally independent and self-sufficient. The chapter on how a young child learns to be "alone in the presence of the mother" will doubtless strike a chord with many readers, and probably help them understand some of their own experiences.
42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on 6 August 2004
Dr Storr's book about solitude is very edifying. It is interesting to learn how many people of genius were lonely-goers: their creative talent, their mental instability and their incapacity for making satisfying personal relationships are closely linked. Such famous people as Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietsche, Kierkegaard, Kafka or Wittgenstein were all lonely people without necessarily being unhappy. These people were great thinkers and it is remarkable to see that thinking is essentially a solitary activity. The capacity to be alone is necessary for the brain to function at its best and it is also an aspect of emotional maturity. Learning, thinking, creating and maintaining contact with one's inner world are all facilitated by solitude. Great religious figures also have recognised that solitude promotes insight. Buddha, Jesus, St Matthew, St Luke and Mahomet all spent part of their existence in some sort of retreat. They all understood that solitude allows to escape from the pressure of ordinary life and is a way of spiritual renewal. It may well be that monastic seclusion and the absence of close personal ties in such institutions not only facilitate the individual's relation with God, but also fosters scholarship.
Solitude is a sign of inner security rather than the expression of a withdrawn state. It also appears probable that those who prefer to be alone are more at ease with inanimate objects or with abstract concepts than they are with other people. This need to be alone is derived from or is enhanced by some degree of insecure attachment in early childhood. This was the case of people like Rudyard Kipling, H. H. Munro, P. G. Wodehouse or George Simenon. For them, the process of creation was a way of protecting themselves against being overwhelmed by depression. Their interests take over some of the functions more usually performed by intimate relationships. Because the higher reaches of abstraction require long periods of solitude and intense concentration which are hard to achieve if one has to meet the emotional demands of friends or a wife and children. And it is a consolation to learn that people living in a secluded manner do not suffer at all because interpersonal relationships are not the only way of finding emotional fulfilment.
Dr Storr also devotes a fascinating chapter to enforced solitude and the harrowing effects that solitary confinement can have on the human mind. He quotes Francis Bacon: "The worst solitude is to be destitute fo sincere friendship".
Dr Storr's study of solitude is a marvellous book, very readable even for the layman in psychology and very instructive too.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2010
Overall I enjoyed this book. However, I do feel that he could have included more about people who aren't exceptionally brilliant - there was alot about writers and artists of exceptional talent who chose solitude. Little mention was made of many people of "average" ability who choose to be alone. There was a chapter on Beethoven and Henry James that I thought rather dull and irrelevant to the subject unless you have a special interest in Beethoven and James. He mentioned little or nothing about religious recluses and why they would chose solitude. Very often the predispositions for a recluse that Storr explores are missing in their lives and it is something they actively pursue to great benefit for themselves and others.
There is a long tradition in the Christian church with the Desert Fathers and Father Bede Griffiths and of course in eastern religions engaging in extended retreats is quite normal.
He doesn't really explore why wanting to be alone should be such an oddity when many people crave solitude but due to circumstances are unable to find it and why that should be seen as so strange in our society.
However, it was interesting and thought provoking and I would recommend it.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 4 March 2004
When I read the synopsis I thought it didn't capture the book at all - until I realised there should be a comma after creativity!!
This book is an excellent look at some of the creative geniuses of our time, and how solitude enabled them to create and can be healthy. Too many sources say enjoying being alone is odd so this book is both a comfort and amunition against critcs!!
It goes much, much deeper than that, and at times reads more like a text book, but if you are happy alone &/or are curious about understanding artistic people then this book is essential reading. (and the religious aspects are small)
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 5 September 2009
This book is not new. But the topic of solitude is probably more apt for discussion now than when it was written. Given our 24/7 living and the constant stimuli we all face then time out on our own gets little attention. These days most of us are in contact with others either electronically, socially or more intimately on a day to day basis. There is an emphasis on doing rather than being. Basically, Anthony Storr challenges the notion that relatedness is the best measure of human maturity and happiness. He explores solitude whether enforced or chosen and finds value in it. It's an accessible read and a comfort for those who enjoy being on their own in a world which seem to be insisting on togetherness!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 29 March 2007
Storr's study of solitude was ground breaking at the time, and can still be held up as a fascinating perspective on the human condition.
In a time when parents structure every moment of their children's lives, ferrying them from one after-school activity to another, this is an important reminder that, after rubbing your feet up and down the wall and calling "I'm bored" for long enough, your children will eventually find something engaging and creative to do, and that that is a skill in itself.
Simply written and easy to read, this still is a sophisticated and well-researched book. Highly recommended