Monday, August 20, 2012

stencil #037 - cesare pavese

Cesare Pavese in High Street(art) Northcote
3. The need for solitude 

Although I’m no longer (chronologically) an adolescent, I could easily succumb to hikikomori. I definitely have the traits associated with the syndrome. To be honest, the desire for solitude has accompanied me my whole life. Yet, I still put on a T-shirt each morning and leave the house (most days). I still accept responsibilities and (like Slobodan Galac) I still vote for love.

In his recent book of essays, Robert Dessaix tells us he treats his aversion to the crowd by withdrawing from it “from time to time.” He suggests it’s probably not a good idea to flee for too long – till midday is sufficient, after which one should re-join the world in order to “delight the senses, fall in love . . . and amble about.” He has a point. Withdrawing fully would put an end to my chances of getting back on a plane one day, the happiness and satisfaction I find in companionship and ambling to bookshops.

Yet the sense that solitude is inevitable doggedly persists.
“The need for solitude . . . sooner or later seizes everybody,” states the narrator of Cesare Pavese’s novel, The Devil in the Hills (1949; tr. D. D. Paige).
The torment of both desiring and fearing solitude is a central aspect of Cesare Pavese’s life and writing:
“The greatest misfortune is loneliness . . . That explains the persistence of marriage, fatherhood, friendship, since they might bring happiness! But why it should be better to be in communication with another than to be alone, is a mystery. Perhaps it is only an illusion, for one can be perfectly happy alone, most of the time. It is pleasant  now and then to have a boon companion to drink with…The mystery is why it is not enough to drink and fathom our own individuality alone . . .” The Business of Living: Diaries 1935-1950 (1961; tr. A. E. Murch; Jeanne Molli).
The restorative power of retreating from time to time was not an alternative for Pavese who was unable to reconcile his desire for connection with his fundamental inclination towards solitude:
“One cannot belie one’s own nature. You wanted to do something strong, to withdraw like a self-possessed stoic, and you have put yourself in the position of not having withdrawn, and not being able any longer to enjoy the natural company you had before.”
Pavese’s diaries and much of his writing hint at the only alternative he felt was available to him:  
“Loneliness is pain; copulation is pain; piling up possessions or herding with a crowd is pain; Death puts an end to it all.”
Many of Pavese’s heroes seek love but believe they’d be better off alone. Unable to connect with others, they remain in perpetual transit between the need for love and the desire for solitude:
“I felt irritated by Carlotta’s air of happiness as she prepared coffee for me. Carlotta drew from me a tenderness that I reproached myself for the moment I was alone again. I spent frenzied moments trying to purge my mind and free myself from even the faintest memory of her . . . It must be clear that we made love out of boredom, lust, for any reason except the only one she tried to delude herself existed” (Suicides, 1938; tr. A. E. Murch).
The narrator of Wedding Trip (1936; tr. A. E. Murch) feels similarly disconnected from his wife:
“I’m so happy! Are you happy, too?” and she rubbed her cheek against my shoulder.
I did not feel like that. I was walking with clenched jaws . . . I felt restless, remote from Cilia, alone in the world.”
Pavese’s heroes see their desire for solitude as a weakness, but one that is preferable to the danger of false communion:
“My real vice . . . was the pleasure I took in being alone . . .” says Clelia, the narrator of Pavese’s novel Among Women Only (1949; tr. D. D. Paige).
“I thought of Carlotta who had got along in life, and probably died in consequence.”
Clelia ascribes her own success in life to voluntary solitude and a refusal to get along which she traces back to childhood. During carnival season one year, her father’s impending death had threatened to prevent her attending:
“I cried with anger and I hated him, thinking of the holiday I was losing . . . But I was crying because the idea of father’s dying terrified me and prevented me from abandoning myself to the carnival . . . I thought that it was probably in that distant evening that I really learned for the first time that if I wanted to do anything, to get something out of life, I should tie myself to no one, depend upon no one, as I had been tied to that tiresome father. And I had succeeded . . . ”
The extent to which Clelia is prepared to go in order to follow her own desires - striking everyone (family included) off the list - can be viewed as cynical or astute. And depending on whether you see love as an attachment to another or as a mask for selfish needs, then Clelia’s independence can be regarded as lonely or heroic. In the light of the false, empty lives of the idle-rich in post-war Turin, there’s no doubtat least in Clelia’s mindsolitude has been her salvation.

The novel relates Clelia’s return home to Turin from Rome where she has become a successful couturier. On her return, she befriends Rosetta Mola, a rich, well-educated young woman from Turin’s fashionable society who has attempted to commit suicide. While probing the motives behind the attempted suicide, Clelia is disabused of her initial envy and admiration for Rosetta's milieu. What she observes about Rosetta and her circle is that behind all their wealth and their hectic social activities, they lead empty, disconnected and unfulfilled lives:
“When I was a girl I envied women like [Rosetta] and the others, I envied them and didn’t know what they were. I imagined them free, admired, on top of the world. Thinking over it now, I wouldn’t change places with any of ‘em. Their lives seemed to me stupid, and doubly stupid because they didn’t know it.”
Rosetta eventually succeeds in committing suicide which Clelia attributes to the consequence of going along and ignoring the call to solitude:
“Having money means you can pay for isolation. But then why do leisured people, with all their money, always look for company and a noisy party?
. . . At bottom it was true [Rosetta] had no motive for killing herself . . . [Rosetta] wanted to be alone, wanted to isolate herself from the ruckus and you can’t be alone or do anything alone in her world, unless you take yourself out of it completely.”
Such a drastic solution, Rosetta!?

Not just yet.

There’s still a lot left to read. 

And as my long absence from blogging has proven, it's not that difficult to reconcile long hours, days, weeks and sometimes even months, in retreat with only the company of books.

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