Craving Solitude In a Crowded World

WARNING: It's only Super Tuesday. From now until the first Tuesday in November, the evening news will repeat again and again the same scene of candidates working the crowds. In one state after another, the White House seekers will be photographed shaking hands, kissing babies, throwing desperate arms about local politicians - pressing flesh.

Every four years it becomes a ritual to deplore the inhumanity of the presidential campaign as a prolonged physical ordeal. But for anyone who prizes a measure of solitude in daily life, the real horror may lie in the cruel necessity that for all these months to come the candidates will be surrounded by crowds, monitored by cameras and microphones - seldom allowed the simple gift of privacy, of being alone.

The candidate is in the opposite predicament of Robinson Crusoe, suggesting that the two worst nightmares are never to be alone - and always to be alone.

Anyone who has sat at a conference table longer than an hour or been locked into a tour group all day long knows a little about the curse of the candidate. The irresistible urge rises to walk a beach absolutely alone - like Robinson Crusoe.

On the other hand, well short of a desert island, there are limits to the craving for solitude. Thoreau went into the woods to be alone and made a credo of it. But he came out periodically to share a sociable evening and a nice hot New England dinner with the Emersons.

Most people want it both ways, and the poetry anthologies split pretty evenly between the "get-away-from-it-all" verses and those cautioning that no man is an island. As cities and suburbs proliferate, the world is too much with us, as Wordsworth noted, and the main problem seems to be closer to a candidate's than to Robinson Crusoe's. The legendary cry of Greta Garbo echoes through the crowd: "I want to be alone."

Since it's a long way to the Antarctic - and even there you may run into a packaged tour - ingenious techniques have to be employed to simulate solitude in the midst of the mob scenes of everyday life.

Readers, the greatest of solitaries, retreat to three-sided cubicles set up within public libraries. Subway riders create their little retreats by wearing a Walkman and staring into space. Suburban commuters take rush-hour refuge in their own cars, safely cocooned from carpool conversations and someone else's choice of radio stations. Even children in day-care centers must break out of the circle of group activities now and then to experience the pleasure of aloneness in a quiet corner.

Writing out of a crowded prison in her powerful and eloquent new book, "Marking Time," Jean Harris declares with a measure of triumph, "I do annihilate in the privacy of my own mind much of the ugliness and loneliness, and in its place are moments and hours of peace, new ideas, and new concerns." And in an essay in the spring issue of Parabola magazine, Mrs. Harris, who has been imprisoned for 11 years for the death of the Scarsdale diet doctor, Herman Tarnower, adds, "Solitude is my friend. I can think when I'm alone.... The only isolation I have known in my lifetime I felt in the presence of others."

Other prisoners who happened to be politicians - Mandela, Gandhi, Nehru - have strengthened both their character and their vision despite harsh and solitary confinement. The historian Arnold Toynbee thought it was part of the development of any leader to experience a period of solitary withdrawal into one wilderness or another before returning, a wiser person, to lead the community.

The late 20th century will never go down in history books as the Age of Solitude. But even the most gregarious crowd-seekers are beginning to sense a natural craving for time alone. This human need acknowledges the new admiration for cats, who alternate between brushing against everybody in sight and disappearing like hermits into invisible caves - until of course the next mealtime.

Human beings may have to work out their own balance here, but they might well use this most social and most solitary of creatures as a model. It's not for nothing that Felix, the generic name for cat, also doubles as the Latin word for happy.

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