Michael Harris on facing our own thoughts, alone

I’ve been inside my own head a fair bit lately. I don’t have a problem with it, really—I’ve been learning to appreciate what that space has to offer. But that appreciation has increased significantly since picking up and reading Michael Harris’s Solitude last week. In it, Harris offers an accessible meditation on the different manifestations, facets, and benefits of solitude.

What is solitude? Harris doesn’t provide a single definition. It’s probably something to discover on your own, by spending time, well, on your own. Some of the key characteristics of solitude include giving space for your brain to wander, minimizing or eliminating the constant voices of others, and coming face-to-face with your own thoughts, with your own being.

One definition I’ll offer is that solitude is that space wherein you don’t have another person to react in real-time to your thoughts, where the only real-time reactions come from yourself. Reading a book, then, can be a solitary activity, even though you’re “in the presence” of its author. (Harris has a great chapter or two on the shifting nature of reading and writing throughout history, how they’ve been at times more and less solitary.)

How do you practice solitude? Harris doesn’t offer a single recipe. He provides a few examples, including a walk through the woods without a cellphone, reading on your own in a quiet place, or spending a chunk of time completely disconnected from human contact. Here, again, the answer is probably that you need to figure it out on your own, that your version of solitude can come only through practice:

Sadly, eureka-level daydreams are not handed out to just anyone who wanders though the woods. An annoying truth about daydreaming is that it takes practice to get good at it. (60)

You’ll notice a theme: Harris’s work encourages us to figure out for ourselves what solitude is, what it looks like for us. Solitude is by nature an individual concept.

(In that spirit, I noted a few of the connections I made, and reactions I had, while reading the book. It’s largely for my own reference, and heavily self-referential, but I’m posting it publicly in case you’re interested in how my head works.)

To close, I offer some favourite quotations, capturing ideas that particularly struck me.

The natural world is invested with its own awful, symbolic utterance. It invests our lives with meaning that we cannot find among the crowdings of the metropolis. … In the infinitude of nature a solace and truth is projected for us, reflecting and making sensible all the shifting traumas and quandaries that roughen our lives. (151)

As Harris describes, nature can put us in our place: yes, our troubles are valid, but they’re not the only thing out there; we’re part of a larger world, a world that goes on regardless.

On the perils of quantification:

The fallacy of “thinking computers” could be a dangerous one [for computers don’t think, they compute]. The more we believe that our computers and online platforms have beliefs of their own, the more likely we are to bend our own solitary taste and preferences to the seductive, mysterious offerings we receive through glowing screens. (100)

When we allow sites like Rotten Tomatoes to decide which movies, dinners, and songs we consume, we go along with the myth that our decisions are being made by neutral and unbiased guides. … It’s rational, it’s the crowd, and so it’s undeniably what is best. We find ourselves nudged toward the quantifiable. … But we forget: taste is never neutral. (102)

All this feels “personal” because you keep on seeing things that you want to consume … but at the same time you become trapped inside an algorithmically defined notion of your own taste. Put in a less wonky way: you won’t be exposed to things you don’t know, things you haven’t loved yet. (107)

The “age of the algorithm” is a phrase I sometimes turn to to describe where we’re currently at. Here, with wonderful phrases like “nudged toward the quantifiable”, Harris touches on many of the points making up such an age: opaque algorithms implying objectivity; over-quantifying and thus devaluing the nuance of qualitative information; the “abdication of responsibility to algorithms”.

How might we address this? Actively seek out experiences that are new (new albums, new books, etc.), and do so by bypassing opaque algorithms that imply neutrality. To follow the recommendations of a friend or someone you admire is to take recommendations from an algorithm of sorts, from a particular sense of taste. But the key difference is that here the algorithm’s creator is known, as is the outline of their sense of taste.

Finally, Harris concludes the book with a description of his thoughts on returning home after a solitary week:

“How was it?”

His innocent question is like a blow, though, because now I have to explain myself. After such a long stretch of self-containment, with my mind fashioning its own unchecked meaning, the duty of communication feels like a deep puzzle. I haven’t thought up a way to describe my solitude yet, to make it sensible to others. (229)

This captures well the trouble of oscillating between solitude and engagement. The “duty of communication” (I love that phrase) is a tricky one to bear. Rarely do our attempts to share our inner understandings capture the full depth and nuance of our thoughts. Inside us, our thoughts can remain nebulous and formless. In attempting to share our thoughts, though, we’re encouraged (if not forced) to solidify them.

On the one hand, this can feel dirty, to reduce the complexity of our thoughts to something that can be shared. But on the other hand, I think this is an important process to work through: we do benefit from solitude, but we’re also part of a social system; translating our inner understandings into thoughts that others can build on is essential to participating in that social system. Harris’s whole work plays at this interchange, one that I’ll be reflecting on—solitarily and socially—for some time to come.