Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

"Begin here."

Introducing Journal of a Solitude, another out-of-order book for my WEM Biographies Project.  I'm finding the remaining biographies heavy on U.S. content, and being a Canadian I wasn't at all familiar with May Sarton.  Born in Belgium, when German troops invaded the country, Sarton's family fled to England, then to Boston, Massachusetts.  As a writer, she wrote a number of novels, poems and memoirs, mostly a commentary on her life and experiences on aging, friendship, depression, lesbianism, doubt, failure, the simple pleasures of life, and other personal musings.

Published in 1973, Journal of a Solitude is a response to her novel Plant Dreaming Deep.  Sarton stated that in the latter novel, people felt that in her they had found an intimate friend, but with Journal, she attempted to shatter that image and produce a reality of herself that was stark and intense, yet honest.  Sarton's initial description holds a sincere, startling, simple candor:

"I am an ornery character, often hard to get along with.  The things I cannot stand, that make me flare up like a cat making a fat tail, are pretentiousness, smugness, the coarse grain that often show itself in turn of phrase.  I hate vulgarity, coarseness of soul.  I hate small talk with a passionate hatred.  Why?  I suppose because any meeting with another human being is collision for me now.  It is always expensive, and I will not waste my time.  It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours.  It is then that images float up and then that I plan my work.  But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show.  I will make every effort to find out the real person, but if I can't, then I am upset and cross.  Time wasted is poison."

".... I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many.  My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.  I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.  I write too many letters and too few poems.  It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears ...."

The Common, Nelson, New Hampshire, 1914
source Wikipedia

Sarton's journal covers one year and gives the reader a warm, intimate view into her life in rural Nelson, New Hampshire.  As she paints her life with words, her thoughts go deep, exposing the beauty around her but also the turmoil inside her:

"I think of these pages as a way of doing that.  For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision.  I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation.  But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.  I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose ---- to find out what I think, to know where I stand.  I am unable to become what I see.  I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, 'won't go,' or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person's face." 

In spite of her success as a writer, depression haunted Sarton; it was a companion that she could not seem to shake and she admits to thoughts of suicide:

"Cracking open the inner world again, writing even a couple of pages, threw me back into depression, not made easier by the weather, two gloomy days of darkness and rain.  I was attacked by a storm of tears, those tears that appear to be related to frustration, to buried anger, and come upon me without warning ........."

Yet, in spite of the adversity of her regular despondency, Sarton managed to decorate her life and the pages of her book with stories of the death of a friend, her bird, the battles with the neighbourhood racoons and her intense love of gardening.  The tales resonated with insight, as Sarton was always examining life.  Even the letter of a twelve-year-old girl, produced a philosophical rumination:

"In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having psuhed her to ask my opinion.  This child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think.  But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft.  Instant success is the order of the day; 'I want it now!'  I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines.  Machines do thing very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn't start at first try.  So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value."

While Sarton lived in solitude, she at times travelled for speaking engagements and in each place she received something to ponder, whether it was the struggle of women, the advent of materialism, or the sometimes suffocating pressure that life laid upon her in the form of human contact. The journal skips along from day to day, emotion to emotion, task to task, her reflections personal, yet one senses a soul reaching out for something just beyond its grasp.  I've read numerous works on religious contemplative living, and each has been rich with a vibrancy that is quite startling contrasted with the starkness of their existence.  Sarton's journal reverses this observation; her existence is filled with what she craves --- writing, gardening, solitude ---- yet, her inner soul lacks peace.

While Journal of a Solitude was a mildly enjoyable book for me, I can't say that I'm going to rush out and read another by Sarton.  Even though, there was intimacy in her words, I never really grew to know her, perhaps because she didn't seem to know herself.  The searching quality of the work brought a type of disquiet, and while I had empathy for her struggles, there was a melody of despair that hovered around her and echoed long after the book was done.  Life was an unconquerable bête noire for Sarton, ever present and often discouraging.  Which was all rather sad.

In this book, there is an enlightening reference to Virginia Woolf, of whom Sarton was familiar, perhaps illustrating the unusual temperaments of authors such as herself:

"When I was young and knew Virginia Woolf slightly, I learned something that startled me --- that a person may be ultrasensitive and not warm.  She was intensely curious and plied one with questions, teasing, charming questions that made the young person glow at being even for a moment the object of her attention.  But I did feel at times as though I were 'a specimen American young poet' to be absorbed and filed away in the novelist's store of vicarious experience.  Then one had also the daring sense that anything could be said, the sense of freedom that was surely one of the keys to the Bloomsbury ethos, a shared secret amusement at human folly or pretensions.  She was immensely kind to have seen me for at least one tea, as she did for some years whenever I was in England, but in all that time I never felt warmth, and this was startling."

Why are so many artists tortured souls?  Is it because of the solitude they need to hone their skills, and the lack of human contact diminishes their souls?  With their art, are they sharing of themselves, giving of themselves and therefore becoming less?  The act of creation should be life-giving to both the giver and receiver, yet in many cases, why does one seem to benefit and the other is hindered?  Or have I asked the unanswerable question?  Sarton didn't know the answer and I believe this question was one of many that haunted her through her long yet productive life.


  1. interesting, especially revealing was her pov re VW. the latter was driven by a need to write a perfect novel; it was one of the drives that ultimately destroyed her. MS seems to have had a similar need, but not quite as directed, hence her, what is it, waffling depression... in my own experience, drive, ambition, striving, the search for something of overwhelming importance, can lead to unhappiness, need i say misery of her sort. a good friend once said to me: "beware the man who thinks he's doing something...". Sarton and Woolf's psychoses were self-damaging, but also connected in some way with their remarkable talents. how rare it is to have the latter without any negative consequences...

    1. Great comments, Mudpuddle. Looking objectively one can see the talent and the ..... I won't even say ambition, because the drive of the artist is created from something much more personal and intrinsic, and therefore is even more intense than someone who is fixated on materialism ...... however, something very essential seems to be missing. There is probably some very delicate balance and I wonder if their art, that need inside them, blinds them to it. I don't know .....

  2. Many people feel that sorrow brings out art and true sorrow produces highest form of sensibility leading to some cathartic expression in one or other form of art. That is also the reason why a tragedy is given more importance over comedy in writings. Having said that, I am not sure I will ever be a writer if this is the criterion...my sorrows overwhelm me and its a struggle to get out of them and move on. I feel more inspired by the joys and goodness of life and I think I am at my best when I am in those enriching spheres of joyous moments! That of course explains why no publisher is ready to publish my work!;)

    1. I concur. Even though sinking into life's troughs could be easier and perhaps inspire more creativity, I couldn't let myself do that. Life is too interesting as a whole, and while it can certainly be a struggle, I prefer to try to focus on what is joyful and, as you say, inspiring.

  3. "I hate small talk with a passionate hatred...
    ...I will make every effort to find out the real person, but if I can't, then I am upset and cross."

    "My need to be alone..."

    " For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation."

    "I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, 'won't go,' or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person's face."

    Wow. From all the quotes you pulled I can easily see that Sarton was a highly sensitive, empathic, introvert. (INFP??)

    As an introvert myself, the first two quotes rang true for me: I also hate small talk (although I know how to do it well), and I have a strong need to be alone. I'm an INFJ bordering INSJ so I understand the part about the collisions: sensing too much and feeling too much (although, I think because I'm borderline F/S I'm able to "shut it off" at will).

    I'm relating this to myself because as I read what you've written I felt as though I would find her autobiography very intriguing and relatable (except for the depression).

    Why are so many artists tortured souls? Is it because of the solitude they need to hone their skills, and the lack of human contact diminishes their souls?
    These are such good questions. Even introverts need human contact; of a different sort, but human contact nonetheless. I can't help myself wonder about the causality between their tortured souls and their art: perhaps it's not that artists have tortured souls, but that having a tortured soul creates a tension that must be expressed in the form of art. Or perhaps it is the solitude required to hone their skills, taken to an unhealthy extreme, that then leads to a tortured soul.... Who knows??

    1. interesting comment. my wife and i are both INFJ's and i am familiar with the description above. the internet is a blessing for us, as it provides an opportunity to communicate in thoughtful ways without experiencing the negatives of personal contact.

    2. I don't know very much about the Briggs Myers personality test (I almost said Higgs Boson, so that tells you how much I know about either field ;-) ), so the acronyms are a little muddy for me. I could probably guess what I am, but that would only mean that I needed to work a little harder in the areas that I'm not good at. For example, from an education perspective, I know that I learn much easier by reading than listening; so I try to hone my listening skills. With tests like these I always think it's more valuable to know what you're not than what you are.

      I can't imagine the sensing and feeling too much aspect (shows that I need to work on my empathy, huh?). That would be so overwhelming. However, an Orthodox priest told me about a monk who experienced this; his burden for people was just sooo intense that he was often inundated by emotions on contact. He needed to be isolated and pray for them and that was who he was. I can respect that.

      I enjoyed the read but I felt almost grieved at the end. The writing talent, her love for gardening, her deep thoughts (I love to mull over simple things in a deeper way as well) were so wonderful to experience, but the resonating depression and despair was hard to take. I felt as if she'd never become the person she was meant to be and it was all very tragic. I wouldn't mind reading her Plant Dreaming Deep because the two books connect and it sounds like it's more positive, but as she said, it wasn't her so I don't know how valuable a read it would be.

    3. Mudpuddle, your comment makes me sad. I know a few people like you and your wife through internet contact and with you INFJ people there is such wonderful deep and rich contact, you express yourselves so well, and you often offer unusual and valuable insight. So to think you only (or often only) do that through a reasonably sterile venue is rather sad for me. I would think that you'd be able to touch people even more deeply on a personal level. But don't get me wrong ...... I get frustrated and done with people too and sometimes just want to get away from them, but I love them also, and value the personal interaction.

  4. tx, cleo. but on the positive side, isolation gives the opportunity to think and explore different venues without being constantly rattled with the need to survive the social experience...

    1. I know that life can be rather deafening at times, as it is for me right now. I could do with a little isolation. But I do hope that you get to share your insights with people now and then.

  5. I have come to the conclusion that I am by nature too cheerful to be an artiste. I'm not given to melancholy (except a little bit about 2 days a month), I've never been depressed, and even when I'm a bit blue, I get over it in a day or less. No tortured greatness for me, I guess.

    BTW, I'm starting to feel like I'm bugging you about this, but have you gotten my emails? Can you send me your mailing address? I'd like to get the rest of the poetry giveaway prizes sent off tomorrow if I can.

    1. I'm fine without being tortured or great too. Too much disquiet. The disturbing thing is that they often seem in conflict with themselves.

      Oh, please, bug away! I really need bugging lately because I'm so busy things drop out of my head. Thanks for the reminder. The e-mail has been sent!

  6. I just finished this, and while I probably won't run out to read more Sarton either, I totally drank this journal up; I think I was vicariously living through her solitude. I loved her insight on women, marriage, art, and nature, too.

    1. I agree that there were moments of brilliance in her writing, and moments of contentment in her life. As much as I loved the thought of her presentation of solitude, I felt that her life and experience illustrated how much we need people. She was such a conflicted person and her unrest and discontent resonated throughout the book. She had what she wanted, yet she could never find peace. It was poignant, yet also pathetic; she appeared to me to be a lost person in a natural world that by her standards should have satisfied her .... and it didn't. You have to have a higher purpose than yourself to live for. So while there was a sentimental longing for the natural aspect of her life, the spiritual part was lacking in a way that was a detriment.

      Rating biographies is difficult. You can't really disagree with or dislike how someone lived their life. It just is. But I gave this one three stars because it was in diary form --- easy to read but in a format that is limiting and usually the narrative will be simpler and therefore there is a more narrow scope; and I also found her narrative a little uneven. Again, moments of brilliance but moments of "meh" as well. But overall, I did enjoy it.

      I'll look forward to your review.