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
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.