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Succeeding in Solitude

Luke Warde

In “Diversio”’, Book IX of his famous Pensées, the French polymath Blaise Pascal wrote that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room”. Many have recently pointed to Pascal’s aperçu and its apparent resonance with our current lockdown predicament: the quote has been widely shared on social media and was cited, to take but one example, by John Banville in The Irish Times in his reflections on how we might cope with the period of confinement and solitude ahead. The phrase, notably, was not intended as a sort of aphorism, but is in fact plucked from a longer passage in which Pascal expounds on our aversion to being alone. It is neither confinement nor solitude per se to which we are averse, he argues, but rather to the kinds of morbid thinking these conditions elicit in us; pitiful creatures that we are, says Pascal, we inevitably start ruminating on our mortal fate, one “so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely”.

While the coronavirus pandemic has no doubt provoked much existential angst ‑ first and foremost, of course, among those lonely, sick or bereaved ‑ many have also found themselves worrying about and longing for things altogether more mundane: pubs, restaurants, beaches, theatres, cinemas, galleries, gigs, sport. After all, we haven’t been packed off smartphone-less and against our wills to some meditation retreat in the wilderness: most of us have ample distractions, confined as we are with the very devices that once allowed us to advertise all the fun we were having at just such venues and events. What we all seem to be experiencing rather is a profound and collective sense of “missing out”, of losing or wasting time, of having time refused us.

In his 2012 book of the same title, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips explored this notion of “missing out”. For Phillips, the sense of potential and its betrayal is an implicit and abiding doubleness that haunts our inner lives. “Much of our so-called mental life,” he writes, “is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.” At its most extreme, this can make of life, Phillips suggests, “a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live.” Covid-19 and the ways it is forcing us to live have made painfully explicit this ambient feature of human experience: the fact that most of us, to a greater or lesser degree, inhabit a state of perpetual pining for what is not, never was, and might never be. For Phillips, unlike for Pascal, our morbid thoughts are not confined to fretting over our finitude, but also encompass the lives that never were, the loss of things never experienced. We are tormented as much by an imagined surfeit of life as we are by its inevitable privation.

The nature of these anxieties is both temporal and spatial: we long for, or to be, somewhere else; “life is elsewhere”, as the French poet Rimbaud had it. For most of his life, French writer Sylvain Tesson was the consummate peripatetic. Books like Petit traité sur l’immensité du monde (2005) and Éloge de l’énérgie vagabonde (2006) were paeans to what the German Romantics called the Wanderer: a figure who chose to abjure all attachments to people and place and for whom the nomadic life represented a spirit of freedom and discovery. The Wanderer was the precursor to the much romanticised Kerouacian beatnik vagabond, who later came to embody this close association between movement and a kind of radical existential freedom. To be “on the road”, literally or metaphorically, and irrespective of destination, was life itself and in its freest sense, as it had been for Rimbaud.

In Tesson’s 2004 book L’Axe du loup (Axis of Wolf), which catalogues his replication of Polish prisoner Sławomir Rawicz’s miraculous (and contested) journey, all on foot, from a Siberian gulag to Calcutta, he wrote: “I’m like a character out of Kerouac. My function, my nature, my very reason to be and what gives me peace, is movement.” His method or philosophy of locomotion, however, is hardly that of Kerouac, whose most famous novel is really about what the critic Louis Menand has called a “phenomenology of driving”. On the Road is itself fuelled by a spirit of ceaseless haste and rush, albeit to nowhere; speed is something its characters truly savour. Tesson, on the contrary, is a spartan, a self-professed “anti-modern”, even a Luddite: the journeys and adventures he has documented have usually been undertaken alone (or in very small groups) and in the absence of any mechanical aid. For Tesson, a requisite to freedom is also the strict self-reliance with which it is articulated or enacted, and so the car, the motorcycle, the airplane and the train are, where and when possible, eschewed. No hedonist, his notion of freedom is one that is devilishly hard-earned, more like that of the high-altitude mountaineer or Arctic explorer.

It thus might surprise that Tesson has featured extensively in French media these past few months offering counsel on how we might cope with the extremes of confinement. After all, he has devoted significant stretches of his life to following in the footsteps ‑ quite literally ‑ of those for whom imprisonment was an imposition to be escaped at all costs. Yet he has now largely abandoned the globe-trotting restlessness of his youth. In a recent interview with his publisher, Gallimard, Tesson mocked our culture and society’s idolatry at the altar of movement, flux and speed (“A new dogma is asserting itself: god is movement; travel is good; staying put is bad”), a credo with which he himself, as he now readily admits, was for long infatuated (“as regards global tourism, I include myself in this army of fools”.). This shift was precipitated neither by deep reflection nor some epiphany on his part, but by something more like physical and psychological necessity. In 2014, Tesson fell some ten metres while trying to scale the side of a friend’s home in the French alpine town of Chamonix (a place that Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, once called “the death-sport capital of the world”), an accident which left him with a life-threatening head injury, myriad fractures and in a coma, from which he was fortunate to have awoken. In addition, he is now subject to periodic epileptic fits, has permanent paralysis in his face, which means he resembles a “Prussian lieutenant from 1870”, as he once wryly put it, and is totally deaf in one ear. Reflecting on what happened in Chamonix in a later interview, he categorised his whole life prior to the fall as a “furious and suicidal carnival”, for which the accident was the kind of comeuppance he ought to accept.

The subject matter of two of Tesson’s most recent prize-winning books, Dans les forêts de Sibérie (The Consolations of the Forest, 2011) and La Panthère des neiges (The Snow Leopard, 2019) is very much the product of this climacteric and its aftermath: while both involve journeys to some of the world’s most intimidatingly remote and far-flung places (eastern Siberia and the Tibetan plateau, respectively), they catalogue his gradual realisation that immobility, or what he at one point calls “immobilism”, might be just as enriching as movement, providing him “what adventure no longer could”. In particular, Tesson was intent, after years of subjecting his body to the extremes of physical endurance, on procuring for himself what he has come to consider the ultimate, and arguably harder-earned, freedom: that of the mind. A cabin by Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake on earth, seemed to Tesson the ideal environment wherein to cultivate this state of Buddha-like equanimity, or what the ancient Stoics would have called ataraxia (variously translated as “imperturbability”, “tranquility” or “equanimity”). By the book’s end, Tesson is describing being enraptured by splendours he would have ordinarily overlooked. From his cabin-hermitage, his only fear is “suffocation by beauty”.

Consolations is in many respects a conventional ode to nature and solitude as summa bona; it shares much, for instance, with predecessors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s proto-Romantic Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782) and Henry David Thoreau’s manual for retreat, Walden (1854). Most obviously, Tesson, like Rousseau and Thoreau before him, betrays a deep suspicion of Progress and one of its primary yardsticks: the increasing urbanisation of the planet. He cites approvingly DH Lawrence’s jeremiads in Lady Chatterley’s Lover ‑ a novel in which he reads not eroticism, as is typically claimed, but “a requiem for a wounded natural world” ‑ how a modernising nineteenth century Britain had shamelessly “prostituted itself to industry” and was now presided over by a band of corrupt (and corrupting) “businessmen-technicians”. Even when luxuriating in his Siberian solitude, Tesson’s journal ‑ Consolations is an edited version of a diary he kept while self-confined on Baikal’s shore for six months ‑is everywhere marked by an acute awareness of prelapsarian fragility: marauding (and usually drunk) hunters are ciphers for the inexorable encroachment and colonisation of nature by “noise and ugliness”. The forest casts into relief our already-existing dystopia.

This isn’t to suggest, however, that Tesson merely reiterates Rousseau and Thoreau’s idyllic portraits of the solitary life in nature. Whereas for Thoreau peace seems to follow as if by necessity from one’s retreat from society “to be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone […]” ‑ Tesson finds his total seclusion initially terrifying: “I discovered the vertigo of the hermit, the fear of the temporal void.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, his project is one marked by effort, grit and struggle after which comes, eventually, a kind of serenity; like the mountaineer who must acclimatise to the rarefied, oxygen-starved air of the upper reaches, one has to learn or acquire the skills, Tesson realises, to be utterly alone and content. His choice of location, of course, will have played no small part in this regard: the Siberian winter is perhaps the quintessence of nature’s capacity for inhospitality to fragile creatures like ourselves.

Tesson, moreover, is aware that solitude can easily morph into its darker and far less romanticiced relatives: isolation and loneliness. As Michel de Montaigne implored in his Essays, here in fact anticipating Pascal: “retreat into yourself, but first of all make yourself ready to receive yourself there […] There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.” This idea was reformulated quite beautifully by the French philosopher Catherine Malabou, herself drawing on Rousseau, in a recent blog post for Critical Inquiry in response to coronavirus and the challenge of quarantine. For Malabou, quarantine and its attendant solitude presents a subtle paradox, which Montaigne and indeed Tesson also imply in their accounts. “Quarantine,” she writes, “is only tolerable if you quarantine from it”; one “needs to isolate from collective isolation, to create an island within isolation”. For Tesson, his cabin fulfils this crucial (“maternal” is his word’) purpose: “it is the haven that always awaits”. At the same time, he later realises that his quick acclimatisation to life alone is hardly the unalloyed good it might at first appear. What does the relative rapidity, for instance, with which he came to relish his own isolation say about that nature of his attachments to all he thought dearest to him? As he confides: “I miss nothing from my old life […] but this idea is not comforting: do we shed habits acquired over thirty-eight years so easily?” Is this the ultimate freedom ‑ the kind of nirvana ‑ he was after all along?

Tesson’s most recent book, which was awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot for 2019, takes him to Tibet, the home of a tradition for which this idea of radical dispossession is the organising metaphysical principle. An implicit sequel to Consolations, La Panthère des neiges reaffirms Tesson’s commitment to resile from his previous life of compulsive movement, charting his immersion in one of strict immobility of which the cross-legged Buddhist monk is the archetypal image. The idea for the book began after Tesson was invited by famed and award-winning French nature photographer Vincent Munier to travel to the Tibetan Plateau in search of that most elusive of animals, the snow leopard. Munier is an expert in the “refined art” of what in French is known elegantly as l’affût: roughly the “stalk” or the “lookout”, and which consists, Tesson writes, “of camouflaging oneself in nature awaiting an animal whose arrival is never guaranteed.” Like the monk in meditation, to be successfully à l’affût is to abide completely silent and still: “breathing is the sole vulgarity permitted”.

As Tesson notes in the book’s preface, La Panthère des neiges sees him fully embrace what was to him once anathema: “until then […] I had obeyed three principles: the unexpected never comes to you, you must hunt it down; movement begets inspiration; and boredom runs slower than the man in a hurry”. From Munier in particular he learns the ennobling powers of the former’s almost heroic patience: his ability to countenance uncertainty, the point of whose resolution can never be truly known. At both the beginning and end of the book, Tesson refers to this capacity as the “supreme virtue”: the one that allows us “to revere what has been given us”. To be (a)waiting is in Tesson’s world not something to be mocked as merely emblematic of our absurd, tragicomic fate, as in the works of Samuel Beckett or the existentialists. Rather it is an opportunity for patience, the foundation from which all creativity stems, the right kind of attention permitting: “patience always provides its reward […] something arrives, and if it doesn’t, it’s that we didn’t know how to look.” Luckily for Tesson, the majestic animal does in fact appear, unlike for Peter Matthiessen, whose 1978 book shares the same title, and who yet came to apprehend the creature’s non-appearance as itself evoking a kind of poetic sublimity.

It is now easy to see why Tesson’s counsel has been so sought after lately. La Panthère des neiges, part travelogue, part memoir, sees him completely relinquish his former modus vivendi: the insatiable desire to be elsewhere. For that matter, he discerns in Munier’s enviable patience “the antidote to the epilepsy of our epoque”. To be patient is to be content with where we are and with whatever is before us; it is to be, in some respects, invulnerable or immune to the affliction of “missing out” of which Adam Phillips wrote. Tesson ventures as far as reimagining Pascal’s aphorism: “man’s unhappiness began when he first left his cave.” Stalking the various animals native to the plateau, he revels in the instinctive attachment they exhibit to their milieu, no matter its hostility; they are beings “bereft of the wish to be elsewhere. Animal: this idée fixe.” For Tesson, this kind of acquiescence is right now absolutely necessary: we must at all costs avoid any “struggle against time”, for a “war against the passing seconds” will simply “crush us”, as he recently told France Inter.

Tesson’s immensely popular books might seem to occupy a level of abstraction that would inoculate him from controversy; he himself has noted the kind of culturally and politically heterogeneous readership he attracts: “a colonel of the Légion étrangère, a young vegan, an ardent Catholic, a punk etc”. Yet as a recent profile of the writer in the French magazine L’Express revealed, Tesson is hardly shy about his own political persuasions, declaring that he is openly “of the right”. In some superficial sense, this is hardly surprising: he has in recent years declared sympathy for Russian president Vladimir Putin, lambasted the gilets jaunes protesters, asserted that “moderate Islam is an oxymoron” and given an interview to Eléments, a publication edited by Alain de Benoist, theoretician-in-chief of the French Nouvelle Droite (new right) and proponent of a form of ethno-nationalism that influenced what became the alt-right movement in the United States.

What of his books and their politics though? Here things are rather less clear. To those unfamiliar with the recent intellectual history of conservatism on the European continent, his reverence for the natural world and his insistence on its preservation might seem irreconcilable with what the popular imagination in the Anglosphere, at least, considers to be conservative or right-wing. For instance, you won’t find in Tesson’s work odes to the virtues of “free enterprise”, “innovation”, “growth”, “efficiency” or “global capital”; in fact these are more likely the subject of dyspeptic broadsides. This isn’t to suggest, however, that his books and the quasi-environmentalism they espouse make them somehow incompatible with a reactionary worldview. Mark Lilla, profiling recent currents in European conservatism in the New York Review of Books in 2018, noted how its latest iterations, especially in France, “well, conserve”. Its advocates have “have left the city and write about their experience running organic farms, while denouncing agribusiness, genetically modified crops, and suburbanization along the way”. In its most sinister and fringe guises, this can hark back to an early twentieth-century rhetoric of “blood and soil”.

Broadly, Tesson the anti-urban reactionary falls into this category of eco-conservativism, although not very neatly: his pessimism perhaps shares as much with the anti-humanist left as it does with the contemporary right. The politics that emerges from his best-known books, which extol the individual but abhor the cult of consumerism, encourage self-denial yet celebrate rugged self-reliance, is in fact a more nebulous species of reaction – one of sensibility or temperament, not ideology. Tesson resembles most closely what the French literary scholar Antoine Compagnon calls the antimodernes: indefatigable critics of the present, the most notable recent avatars of which are the novelist Michel Houellebecq and the polemicist and essayist Philippe Muray. Like these, Tesson approaches politics askance and disabused, seeing it not as a space of possibility, as the cliché goes, but as a sphere whose pretensions and relative futility are to be ironised from a distance. He comes to associate patience and equanimity, those vaunted qualities he now deems indispensable, with this “anti-modern” disposition; the very first paragraph of La Panthère des neiges ends with the phrase: “this acceptance of uncertainty seemed to me very noble – anti-modern, in a way”.

Tesson’s anti-modernity is articulated by a conservative quietism that pervades his most recent work: things simply are as they are; little can or will change. At one point he quotes a famous passage from The Twilight of the Idols in which Nietzsche dismisses the alleged “improvers of mankind” and their hopeless, moralising endeavours. It is in Consolations, though, that Tesson, again echoing Nietzsche, is most explicit about our apparent incorrigibility. Morality, as far as he is concerned, ends with the Hippocratic injunction to “do no harm”:

In a cabin, life takes on a counter-revolutionary tone. Never destroy, the hermit tells himself, in reactionary mode, but conserve and carry on. The recluse seeks peace, renewal, and believes in the eternal return. Why break with anything, since everything will pass – and come around again? Does the cabin have a political meaning? Living here adds nothing to the community of men; the hermitage experience adds nothing to the collective study of how to get people to live together. Ideologies, like dogs, remain just outside the hermit’s door. Off in the woods – neither Marx nor Jesus, neither order nor anarchy, neither equality nor injustice. How could the hermit, preoccupied solely with the immediate, possibly care about foreseeing the future?

Here we are back with Pascal, or Tesson’s Buddhist-inflected version of him; if only we could stay put, as he has learned to, and renounce the “religion of flux”, things would be better for all.

Given our current dispensation and Tesson’s avowed conservatism, the praise he heaps on sovereignty and rootedness might now seem the products of a darker, more ominous palette. Yet his writings and recent pronouncements are marked by an ambivalence that seems of a piece with a current moment whose implications are not yet clear: will the pandemic reveal the futility and thus absurdity of borders? Or will it simply shore up, depressingly, the confidence of those for whom they are some necessary guarantee of security? Is our politics set to finally re-prioritise collective justice over individual liberty? Tesson is beset by these contradictions: he laments the tragedy of the refugee crisis, yet celebrates staying put; he prefers “liberty over equality” but doesn’t believe in humanity; he preaches self-denial while having for years sought to embody self-reliance.

We can only wait and see.

1/7/2020

Luke Warde recently completed a doctorate in French at the University of Cambridge. Translations are the author’s.

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