“All men’s miseries,” Pascal says, “derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
Now as it happens, I have spent quite a lot of time alone during my life, usually by choice. I like being alone, always have.
But being alone and sitting alone in a quiet room are not the same thing. I certainly spend enough time on my posterior in front of a computer, and before that in front of a typewriter, and before that with pen and paper.
But I have always punctuated that by getting up from time to time and walking around or lying down.
As a matter of fact, I have never been sure about that business of sitting in a chair. It’s easy to see how our miseries could derive from that alone.
Chairs can be wonderful, but my preferred item of furniture has to be the bed. I can spend the day all alone propped up in bed — or on a sofa. If you’re reading, you can pause, lean back a bit, and think over what you’ve read. You can put the book down and make a note.
Or you can stop reading altogether and start sketching in your head something you may want to write about. If words and ideas and images really coalesce, then you get up and write them down — after sitting down by yourself in a quiet room.
My feeling comfortable alone seems to be a fundamental characteristic of mine. When I was a child I never minded having to play by myself, and in my teens I spent many a day hiking by myself through Pennypack Park (which was a lot wilder then than now).
So what was Pascal getting at? Just antsiness?
I don’t think so. It’s one thing to be by yourself doing something, quite another to be by yourself, period. I think the image one needs to conjure to envision what Pascal was getting at is being by yourself in a room empty of all but one chair in the middle, white-washed walls, tile floor, a room like the one Dante was said to sit in while composing verse, where he would stare at one of the walls, listening for the music of the words as sound and sense interpenetrated one another.
Of course, there are other, less edifying ways to picture it. It could be an interrogation room and one is sitting there preparing one’s defense.
Probably the best image is that of a monk in his cell, “sitting quietly, doing nothing,” to borrow a phrase from Basho.
But being alone can never be enough … by itself. It has to alternate with action, movement. You have to get up and do something — sweep the floor, or draw water, listen to the catbird sing, notice the splash of the frog jumping into the pond.
Such is the alternating current of being. And so, from time to time — when we are, as it were, suspended between the idea and the act — we may just find ourselves catching a glimpse of what it is behind it all.