Is existence enough, as Auden asserted in his poem, ‘The Riddle’? How much and what kind of companionship does one need? Some of us think we need lots, but are somehow unable to get enough, or any that satisfies.
In a series of 303 internal dialogues and pensées, this work explores the state of being alone—its pain, its absences and presences. There are three voices: One; The Other; and I. One is the voice of instinct. It is fearful and only hears itself. The Other is the voice of the larger world in the form of quotations—from scientists, poets, fiction authors, artists, philosophers, psychologists, mystics, loners. The third voice, I, is the rational portion of the self, and the only voice that also listens.
There are three parts, each beginning with a poem which provides phrases to entitle the sub-sections. Part 1 introduces and explores the question of how to live with the pain of exclusion. Part 2 places the voice of The Other first, to emphasise that we exist in a context. This Part looks at the possibility of relationship for someone with a tendency to destroy it. In Part 3, the voice of I rises up to absorb both One and The Other in a spontaneous, uneasy synthesis.
The avatar of the three voices has certain personality traits that militate against a state of intimate bliss so the question is as much one of self-acceptance as that of solitude. When I started to write, it seemed important to delve into the experience in a dramatic, contextualised way. My preferred approach in poetry has always been organic, the value of the practice being ex opera operato, effective by the thing done, as in ritual. So the writing had to be lived in, and in some way symbolic. It’s no accident that each section has 101 aphorisms, totalling 303. All discussions of the nature of self involve a numerical context and the immanence of void.
There is more to be written, and the subject is topical because of this new worldwide virtual body to which we are all contributory cells, but the question of self-experience and self-containment is as old as society. Who was being represented on the cave walls: I, the lone One, or the Other?
from Part 1: If One is to Live
shed by the gregarious sea
A flock of birds traverses the silent sky. Today, it is the only
event that has made impact. For a moment One
knows what it is to be borne on the wind, unasking.
‘Only that day dawns to which we are awake.’
—Henry David Thoreau: Walden
Birds fly without thought. I, being human, must think.
Alone, I carry thought as a burden. If I were to
empty my mind, would I be bird, and is that bliss?
All sounds are swept into silence, from the rustling of
trees to the garrulous torrent of human media. As if One
were surrounded by a field that shocks them into small,
sub-aural flakes. There is chattering in here, One’s own,
but that has no sound either, just tireless insistence, like
the ineffable sea.
‘There is always something to see, something to hear. In
fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot ... Until I
die there will be sounds. And they will continue
following my death. One need not fear about the future
—John Cage: Silence
Everything vibrates, and vibration is sound. Be honest.
It’s not sound you lack but human speech, and that with
meaning, directed towards you.
The limpid silence is a land without carp, censure or
discernible danger. Neither crop nor creature inhabits;
there is no haven or prison. The terrain is pathless. One
looks to the sky, waiting for the pole star to rise, but it is
not that world.
‘A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the
self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates
itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in
the relation; the self is not the relation but is the
relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis
of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the
eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A
synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this
way, a human being is still not a self.’
—Søren Kierkegaard: The Sickness unto Death
We are fired up by relevance, created by context. A single
point in a dark universe might as well not exist. Even two
points are without context. Create a triangle and we
have pattern, the force that drives our minds. In the
brain, the map is the same as the territory. I must begin
Acutely aware of constituent parts. Stomach chews,
fingers tighten, anus twitches. Tongue snakes around
teeth, testing each imperfection. Obsessed with each
potentially noxious smell. Examining the hands, poking
the nose, listening to each ache and rumble as if they
were phone calls. It is an engaging world in here.
‘Retire into your own little territory. That’s not only
allowed, it’s necessary.’
—Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
Obsession with the body is common among loners. Fear
of contamination is primal, and the behaviour of those
who are alone is redolent of this. The body is a child
whom I must manage, and by whom I am
from Part 2: The Dangerous World
the dark load
‘My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.’
—William Blake: Infant Sorrow
The first birth-light burning still stresses the eyes. May
they never become accustomed to the light, so that it is
always a shock, reminder of borders and what is wild.
Conflict is a creative force. Birth in itself is conflict, one
organism expelling another. One’s light is stolen from the darkness.
Live the contradiction.
‘The incompatibility of civilization and individual
happiness is at once a banality and an over-statement.
Everyone knows that in order to enjoy the benefits of
living in civilized groups we must all sacrifice, to some
degree, the satisfaction of personal interests and
passions. Not only that: civilization – to utter another
commonplace – actually helps to create the conditions
—Leo Barsani: Introduction to Civilization and its Discontents
There was a time when there was just One. Moods,
vagueness and illuminations flowed unchecked,
sanctioned by the fact of their existence. That was the
neo-natal state, but freedom, it seems, was not to last.
Now there is a constant sense of being contained, even
One can’t be fully human without involvement in society.
Uninvolved, one walks the no-man’s land between
becoming and loss. Nothing with form is born to
freedom. All living things are subject to the rules of their
species. The rules of ours may read for your ‘freedom’:
‘insanity’, ‘ostracism’, ‘poverty’ or ‘ignorance’. Nature is
105. synthetic passions
‘We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite
every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest
pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to
the limit and to create as many new desires and
synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them
with the products of our factories and printing presses
and movie studios and all the rest.’
—Thomas Merton: The Seven Storey Mountain
As a lone child, One felt nothing such as they call
happiness or unhappiness. There were phenomena like
grass, attractive objects, strong-smelling animals,
midsummer blue—and a face that lived in them.
The search for the essential self in a society of constructed selves has echoes of
Sartre’s distinction between the being which is en soi (in itself) and that which
is pour soi (for itself). The en soi is unselfconscious, the pour soi reflexive.
Very few people have never wished for the reflexive faculty to be stilled, just
for a moment.
106. complex green
‘I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion
in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a
humble-bee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or
a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an
April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a
—Henry David Thoreau: Walden
The silence, the simple green has never been enough,
though it has followed One everywhere as if spun from
the body. When people say, ‘Look, the light, isn’t it
lovely? Look, isn’t it a beautiful evening?’ One wants to
break something. A life of ambient stillness does not
seem to still the inners.
Whether we wear the ring or not, we are wedded to
green. Who hears us out in space? What do our clangings
and argument mean out there? What space is to us, we
are to green. If we were to explore the components of the
evening, enter the apparent stillness and study its
particles, we would find that there is argument
‘But while we are confined to books, though the most
select and classic, and read only particular written
languages, which are themselves but dialects and
provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language
which all things and events speak without metaphor,
which alone is copious and standard.’
—Henry David Thoreau: Walden
Why are there so many languages to be spoken, even in
one country, in one series of encounters, in one day?
Drowning under all these assumed grammars. One
wants to emit spontaneous sounds, hear the self’s pitch
clear and true through the maelstrom.
Those sounds you want to produce are from ancient
parts of you and I can’t verbalise them. The best I can do are
cries of surprise, combat, victory and orgasm. Then
there are other signals, impossible to translate, whose
tracks twist away into a dim forest.
from Part 3: Perspective
203. picture A girl in a green terrain. There is
no perspective. The grass and
hedges might as well be a carpet
shaken by the sky, and she
something small enough to
imagine it is making tracks. There
is no sense of another presence,
and as yet no intimation of
204. retreat Danger. Large people are noisy.
The girl retreats into the night-
time sense and daytime reality of
grass. No words explain.
205. play The girl is exuberant. She has
energy and wants to play. Because
she has no companions, she takes
her information from the ground
and makes herself a greenish world.
206. graceless She wants someone to arrive on
her carpet and laugh. But those
who walk in are colourless, speak tonelessly,
and have nothing like
the grace of meadows.
207. exhibits Her mind is a museum of puzzled
moments: this face with the
casual look of disapproval; that
careless sentence. The rooms themselves
208. grove Trees bow to her like royal
attendants. The ground is
cushioned with flowers that are
blue and purple, red in the centre.
Bushes grow without tending;
butterflies arrive with the
209. puzzle Others walk in and the ambience
is disturbed. They ask why she sits
alone, why she squanders her
thoughts on the impossible, why
the aristocratic demeanour and
medieval manners. Why doesn’t
she know how to use and be used?
Why doesn’t she want to fit?
210. conversation The others finger the leaves of the
trees and don’t feel them. Then
they finger and feel so intensely
they are lost to her. They talk
about their hearts. They ask about
211. association They want to start a club. They
will let her in. But she
understands that she must
decimate her grove. There’s that
purple bush she lays her head
under day after day—she mustn’t
do that, it is odd.
212. regular They will reduce her to one who
talks with a regulated tone, who
sings in a choir, sweet among
many. She will lose her singular
seat among beings that ask
nothing, tell nothing.
213. chaos All information confuses her. The
saying of things is always right
and then always wrong. Doing is
214. sniff and spit She is only, on the face of it, a shy
country girl, as yet unaccepted
into society. She is unschooled in
the power methods of the race.
She sniffs, she sticks her little
finger in her ear, she spits on the footpath. She doesn’t
say, ‘Pardon me.’
215. uncivilised She is easiest among the less
civilised—travellers and the
rough-skinned in chip shops and
pubs. With them there is no
question of acceptance, no
constant weighing of worth.
216. annexed Others are always intrusive, as if
she owes them more than herself.
She dissolves in their presence,
forgets she is an autonomous
instrument with a capacity for
217. frozen Where is the centre of the
principle of growth, the fixed
entity that is existence? She is
held to this question like a frozen
218. come Above all, she wants to be truthful.
Next, she wants to be intimate.
She stares at her basket of fruit.
She cannot take it to the
219. vacant Being alone is not the same as
being in herself. She evicts herself
from her moments, the better to
survive them. She stands in her
220. you No matter how close they stand,
she finds herself at a great
distance. The back of her head
pulls her into a long lean. Is that
why she can’t look at their faces
and say ‘you’?
221. janus She tries, but the affairs of the
world don’t hold her interest. She
loses the thread of sounds,
listening to the silence before her