Common Knowledge 12.3 (2006) 379-387
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Unsocial Thought, Uncommon Lives
Jeffrey M. Perl
Introduction: "A Diriment Anchorism"
"Those who refuse membership in society have always been condemned in the eyes of every human group. . . . Homer said: An individual who is apolis is a civil war."1 In this passage, Pascal Quignard is listing insults paid to those who stand off from communal life. Given the formative items from Greek and Hebrew classics on his list, it is hard not to infer, as Quignard does infer, that those who are asocial, apolis, have been condemned since time immemorial. Hence it is hard not to suppose that, behind social withdrawal, there is, and can be, no sound rationale. Still, the line quoted from Homer does not mean what Quignard says it means, though there is high authority for his misreading (Aristotle).2 Homer's line, spoken by Nestor (who may well not be speaking for the poet), has nothing to do with voluntary reclusion. What Nestor says is that one who foments civil [End Page 379] strife should be punished by expulsion from the polis. Only a social animal would experience that isolation as punishment. Nestor's miscreant can be no recluse, and his statement no proof text for the axiom "man is a social animal." To find an axiom affirmed quotably throughout history furthers the myth of its self-evidence. But counter-axioms tend, though it takes some effort, to be recoverable and are not infrequently both venerable and still valid.
One might expect the rest of us to find reticents and recluses ignorable. For one thing, they are asking to be ignored. Yet the presence of the reticent and the absence of the recluse both excite abuse. Mental frailty is the kindest charge, historically, made against solitaries. Their withdrawal is taken as an indictment of the way we live. For would they lead lives so unlike ours, so detached from ours, if they did not consider common lives—lives spent in common—to be petty, frantic, fickle, negligent, or distracted? Meanwhile, we consider ourselves to be just plain busy: active, well-liked, consequently in demand; though we are not unmindful of the price that company exacts. As social circles widen—as we "network"—the time and strength that each of us has for any one activity, any one person, diminishes. "Prioritize" is what we do in response. This process may involve abandoning the most exacting pursuits and friends, or the least socially valuable among them, but cannot result in anything like the focus that an asocial person can attain. Though that degree of focus is sometimes called "monomania" and judged as a sign of imbalance, "polymania" would seem to be in our time the more prevalent condition and the one more unfavorable to achieving mental balance. To be "spread thin" is characteristic of modern lives and contributes to the decay of relationships: this observation is a commonplace among the thinly spread.3 But since we all know "what it's like," we do not judge each other's scheduling. Our contempt is aimed instead at those whose time is organized to preclude their ever knowing "what it's like." The unsociable possess luxuries of choice that the sociable cannot acquire. The resentment of those luxuries can be expressed as scorn. Hence the strange intensity that Quignard notes in the public ridicule of sequestered lives.
Marina van Zuylen's Monomania, to take a recent example of such rhetoric, finds focused and withdrawn souls guilty of "fanaticism and intolerance."4 [End Page 380] The life they live she figures as a "sterile laboratory," and its function is, she says, "to do away with incoherence and chaos" (2). Though the lives, historical and fictional, that van Zuylen reviews tend to be harmless, her descriptions of them seem nearly retributive. These are characters, she writes, "who have defected from society, retreating to a quasi-autistic realm" or into "a variation on Asperger's syndrome" (5, 70). Their psychologies are "neurotic...