Friday, 19 October 2012

Human Solitude

I just reread Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I read first 25 years ago, when I was a student. Great book, but not exactly uplifting when we take the events in the book, which tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family somwhere in South America, to be a description of the human condition. There seems to be little room for human choice, with every single character firmly in the grips of fate, repeating the same mistakes that their ancestors have made, engaging in the same follies, driven by instincts rooted in a common family character, as if the family were a Schopenhauerian idea, and its members only so many appearances of that idea, somehow lost in the material world, the world of becoming, as if they already were the ghosts as which many of them return after their death.

Not very surprisingly, given the title, the main theme or even main protagonist of the book is solitude, which is mentioned over and over again in various contexts and attributed to virtually all characters in the book. One of them, Fernanda, who marries into the family as a young woman and who initially is strong and independent, eventually finds herself worn down, not by life, but by the memory of her lost youth and everything that could have been and never was. And then Marquez or his narrator says a remarkable thing: "The need to feel sad was becoming a vice as the years eroded her. She became human in her solitude." How depressing is that! To suggest that what makes us human is not our reason, or our indeterminacy, or our moral sense, or the knowledge of our mortality, or any of the other traditional definitions of the human, but the existential condition of solitude. It suggests that we are always essentially alone, even when we're with others, even when we love and are being loved. That we were born alone and that we will die alone. And that we are deluding ourselves if we think that there is ever a time when we are not.

There is, of course, some truth in that. On the other hand, our human solitude is rooted in our apartness, our natural detachment from the world, which goes along with self-awareness, and it seems to me that the same detachment also allows us to love and befriend others, to feel compassion for and solidarity with them, to empathise. By virtue of our solitude we recognize each other for what we are. And perhaps it is that recognition that gives rise to what we call human dignity.

1 comment:

  1. I read your piece. Very interesting on solitude and seeing it as an existentialism, which I guess in one way it is.