THIS is the season for crowds. People wander in masses, as if the world were turning into one giant parade. They troop onto beaches. They queue up at ballparks. They stroll the streets on long hot lunch hours. In the evening they sit on park benches or recline on the geometric designs of grass that surround them. The whole human race seems to have spilled outdoors until the outdoors becomes almost as crowded as the indoors in winter.
At this season when beach towel lies next to beach towel and people who close their eyes when eating run a serious risk of lapping their neighbor's ice cream cone, an Oxford lecturer in psychiatry named Anthony Storr has cleverly come out with a book titled ``Solitude.''
What better time for a chap to argue the Wordsworthian case for the joys of being alone with Nature - or just your lovable self?
What choicer moment to give the back of your disengaged hand to Freud for insisting that ``relationships'' are the beginning and end of life?
Enter, in very single file, the Great Solitaries: Newton, Kant, Beethoven, and company (excuse the expression).
By the time Professor Storr is through, the loner has not only been identified as the likely genius but idealized as a paragon of freedom - uncramped and uncompromised.
Why is it that even good books trying to redress the balance make you want to redress their balance, too?
Does not Bach, surrounded by 20 children and clamoring congregations, deserve space beside Beethoven?
Does not Socrates - coping with the strong-willed Xanthippe at home, encircled by questioning students at work, living a life of ceaseless dialogue - have something to say for involvement that would offset Kant's austere ``categorical imperative''?
As for the saints of solitude, didn't Thoreau sneak over to the Emersons for supper and play organizer for Concord berry-picking parties? Some gregarious hermit!
Withdrawal and return - the historian Arnold Toynbee saw this ebb and flow as the alternating rhythm of life. And the conventional wisdom, too, goes back and forth. ``No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.'' People never weary of quoting John Donne, but under the breath a small dissident voice whispers: ``Still, a vacation away from the mainland now and then can save your sanity.''
Of all the situations humans want both ways, being alone - and not being alone - must top the list. The word ambivalence was practically invented to describe loners feeling sociable and joiners needing their space.
As you watch the Republican convention in New Orleans in the privacy of your living room, how nice it will feel not to be there when the hordes with funny hats boogie down the aisles.
But later, perhaps, as you watch a movie rerun of ``Romeo and Juliet,'' munching your midnight popcorn alone, what a sense of absence will fill the room!
How can you even appreciate being alone unless you have somebody to leave - and return to?
This is one debate where either-or definitely does not apply. Inconsistency is the only constant. Indeed, folks like Storr can hardly wait to get the crowd together to talk about solitude.
The dust jacket of the book features a painting by Thomas Eakins of a man on a river in a single scull. But another man in a single scull floats quite nearby, and just a bit upstream three people can be seen in a vivid red boat - a virtual mob!
``Alone Together'' - the silly self-contradicting song title - may have had it right after all.
A Wednesday and Friday column