I’ve been under house arrest the last few weeks. First I stayed home to nurse my daughter, who suffered complications after wisdom teeth surgery, then hung around to monitor workmen painting our condo.
When I was younger, I admired recluses. The pathetic parts—agoraphobia, social retardation—never occurred to me. Instead, reclusiveness was a noble choice. Giving up social contact required special sacrifice and strength. Having that level of self-control seemed unimaginable. I knew I’d ultimately beg for company. I felt weak.
Isolation is less arduous now. With a computer, you might work from home. You need never go to a concert, a movie, a library, a game, or social gathering if you can satisfy for cybernetic substitutes. Not even groceries are an obstacle. You can order those online. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash described a future generation plugged into computers in rental storage units. We aren’t far from that. But I don’t hear anyone crowing “Progress!”
My family accuses me of being anti-social, and I suppose that’s true. Mostly I’m resting from interaction. Being a teacher, I talk and listen all day and, while that’s stimulating activity, it’s also exhausting and goes against my grain. I’m shy, other people are messy, and the potential for conflict is never far away. I’d much rather stay home and attempt something beautiful than waste energy on conversation. Am I hiding? One person’s hidey-hole is another’s self-protection.
Or rationalization. Some artists find reclusiveness romantic—you can’t make art without being self-involved, after all—and many see diffidence, regarding life from afar, as essential. Emily Dickinson might not be the same poet if her eccentricity bumped into ordinary life more regularly. For her God was a recluse. Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, and Don Delilo live in self-made worlds. Visual artists and even performers like actors and musicians sometimes treat everything outside creation as frippery.
I can’t deny the last few weeks have been productive. I’ve written my first full-length poems in months and done several paintings. Many deviate from previous work in exciting ways. And knowing they have no public place has been strangely liberating and inspiring—no worry about how they would be received, no one to please but myself.
Which isn’t difficult. Ease is the problem as well as the solution. How long can you separate yourself from life and still live? Isolated art risks forgetting life altogether. Challenge may make better impetus than protection. And what about wanting to be heard and seen—can any maker really want his or her work to languish?
This blog is approaching its 100th post, an accomplishment but also a perfect time to quit, and I’m thinking about it. If I can be satisfied with writing only to please myself, perhaps I should give it up. Yet, as Margaret Mead said, “Essays, entitled critical, are epistles addressed to the public, through which the mind of the recluse relieves itself of its impressions.” If something moves me to speak, maybe I should be here.
Maybe I have to leave the house.