Advances in Literary Study
2013. Vol.1, No.3, 25-30
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 25
Into the Desert: Solitude in Culture and Literature
Svend Erik Larsen
Department of Aesthetics and Communication, Comparative Literature, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
Received May 12th, 2013; revised June 18th, 2013; accepted July 5th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Svend Erik Larsen. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Most studies of solitude have focused on the modern individualized sense of solitude, located or origi-
nating in urbanized Western cultures where solitude is seen as a companion to urban modernity. In this
perspective the larger historical and cultural context goes almost unnoticed together with the fact that the
preoccupation with solitude, in various forms and functions, has been around for a longer time span than
Modernity and with a broader cross-cultural perspective. However, the basic cultural function of the vari-
ous understandings of solitude is the same across cultures: a negotiation of the boundaries of the human
life world, but in forms that are historically contextualized and differentiated. With texts from William
Shakespeare to J. M. Coetzee and with references to older mythology and its modern recycling this paper
tries to capture the broader historical development of solitude in European culture as an imagined position
on the boundary of the human life world.
Keywords: Solitude; Isolation; Desert; Monster; Boundary; Humanity; Projection; Construction
The Desert and the City
Søren Kierkegaard was once asked by the Danish king if he
needed solitude to write. In his diary he noted that he responded
affirmatively. When the king asked if Kierkegaard would then
seek the most remote part of the country, Kierkegaard answered:
No, he intended to go to Berlin—“There I am totally alone and
can work harder than ever” (Kierkegaard, 1968) Seeing the
king’s amazement he continued that even in the smallest hamlet
“and incognito, I would not be able to find a hideout of 400,000
people.” Here Kierkegaard, the ardent proponent of existen-
tialist individualism, echoes René Descartes, the philosopher of
solipsism. In Discours de la méthode (1637) he first thought
that complete solitude inside his lodging would serve his con-
templation best, “tout le jour enfermé seul dans un poêle”
(Descartes, 1991). But soon he came to realize that the only
way to develop his thought was to converse with others. So, he
came to the conclusion that the best site to do so, and still re-
main alone, was not a recluse, but a densely populated place
where, “sans manquer d’aucune des commodités qui sont dans
les villes les plus fréquentées, j’ai pu vivre aussi solitaire et
retiré que dans les déserts les plus écartés” (Descartes, 1991).
Here, the city would be less a space to be explored than a so-
cial paradox to be experienced: crowded modern urban life,
paradoxically and inevitably, generates solitude as in a desert.
Later, this observation has become common place in the social
critique of urban life and of urbanized Western Modernity in
general wherever it manifests itself. Just to take on example
from Sunil Gangopadhyay’s historical novel, Those Days
(1981), from the 19th century booming Kolkata: “On his jour-
ney Nabin became aware that the solitude was a state of mind,
independent of environment. Here on this bajra, though sur-
rounded by people, he was alone, truly alone for the first time
in his life.” (Gangopadhyay, 1997). Everywhere solitude is a
necessary companion to modern urbanity. Most studies of soli-
tude have focused on this modern individualized sense of soli-
tude, while the larger historical and cultural context goes almost
unnoticed together with the fact that the preoccupation with
solitude, in various forms and functions, has been with us for a
longer time span than Modernity and with a broader cross-
cultural perspective than individual modern sensitivity (Engel-
berg, 2001; Fergusson, 1992; Hannoun, 1993; Möhrmann, 1974;
Naudin, 1995).
However, the basic cultural function of the various under
standings of solitude is the same across cultures: a negotiation
of the boundaries of the human life world, but in forms that are
historically contextualized and differentiated. In this paper I
will try to capture the broader historical development of soli-
tude in European culture as an imagined position on the bound-
ary of the human life world.
Ontological Solitude
It is customary to think of solitude primarily in spatial terms.
From this point of view, solitude is connected to an extraordi-
nary spatial position. Some will search for it through adventur-
ous travels to remote and unknown parts of the globe like many
classical heroes or their modern counterparts: pursuing Moby
Dick, confronting the heart of darkness or venturing off on
space odysseys. Others are condemned to go there—by the
gods, by law or by fate. The spatial reference may also reach
outside the realm of human experience, as in the case of pro-
tagonists who, though still alive, embark on a katabasis into the
The solitude of the human protagonists places them beyond
the ordinary space of their fellow humans, whereas the solitude
of the monsters and their kin places them outside the universal
categorization of things and thus outside immediate human re-
cognition. In an encounter between humans and non-human
phenomena, both are cut off from the natural architecture of the
world that embraces nature and culture as a whole. Solitude
means being outside this natural and recognizable order, in the
human life world or in nature at large. In other words: to be one
of a kind in an ontological solitude.
When protagonists leave their proper place within human-
kind for a solitary existence, the surrounding world also tran-
scends the categories that keep the cosmic order in place. The
interaction between these two entangled modes of solitude, the
human and the non-human, takes place in strange locations to
the effect that the boundaries of the human life world within the
natural order of things become visible (Sheenan & Sosna,
In King Lear (1606) (Shakespeare, 2001) shows how imagi-
nary language may capture this situation. Here, the classical
order of things and the great chain of being are out of joint.
Nothing belongs clearly any longer to a cultural or natural kind.
Here, at the boundary of humankind and the universal order of
things, solitude is all-pervasive. Hence, all singular events also
exemplify a universal catastrophe, and the non-human and the
unnatural merge indistinguishably with humankind and with
nature in a cataclysm of cosmic proportions.
Such an event occurs in the first act when Lear’s daughter
Goneril throws him out into the night. His shock and bewil-
derment is expressed in the imaginary language of solitude,
though without first of all foregrounding his own individual
feeling of solitude in that particular moment. Instead, it turns
his rejection into a sign of the absence of valid structure of
cultural or natural species.
Darkness and devils! […]
Degenerate bastard! I’ll not trouble thee:
Yet have I left a daughter. […]
Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,
More hideous, when thou show’st thee in a child,
Than the sea-monster. […]
Hear, Nature, hear! Dear Goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful
[…] If she must teem,
Create her a child of spleen, that it may live
And be thwart disnatur’d torment to her.
(I, iv, v. 249ff)
Being thrown out by one’s own daughter equals a collapse of
the ordered universe. In complete accordance with this situation,
the general perspective on the particular event is cast as infernal
cross-overs between, and beyond, the natural kinds. Now, they
can only be synthesized as a curse including everything that
goes against the natural order of things. It is as if “heaven’s
vault should crack” (V, iii, v. 258), a crack that reverberates
throughout the drama from the smallest detail to the overall
universal breakdown of an order that used to locate humans and
things in a shared universe. This is the language of ontological
solitude. Lear’s solitude is interpreted as an irrevocable univer-
sal condition, culminating later in the proto-desert landscape of
the heath.
Descartes and Kierkegaard have a different take on solitude.
As they suggest, the role of the city shows that spatial relations
continue to offer a set of useful terms with which to reflect on
boundary experiences related to solitude, on the one hand, and
to a shared social space on the other. However, what they also
point to, indirectly but importantly, is that solitude is not an
extraordinary spatial position to be sought through audacious
expeditions to the boundaries of and beyond human experience.
Instead, Descartes and Kierkegaard go right to and not beyond
the emerging new center of ordinary modern life, the crowded
city. Here, their intention is to stay within the limits of every-
day life, and by way of an individual and cultural self-reflection
they create an imaginary solitary space, an Archimedean point
of their own making, from where to consider the limits of hu-
manity. Like Paul Auster they invent their solitude, as it were
(Auster, 1982), as part of a process which took its beginning
with Petrarca in the late Middle Ages (Petrarca, 1955).
Here, solitude is not primarily identical with a particular re-
mote spatial location wherein a particular event of potentially
cosmic proportions may be staged. They take solitude to be a
basic condition for individual and cultural self-reflection as an
ongoing process, shaped as an imagined and constructed plat-
form for a creative human contemplation of la condition hu-
maine. It is available to everyone and, according to Kierkegaard,
also necessary for everyone. We move from a notion of solitude
as an extreme spatial position making the universe, and maybe
also our own place in it, visible from its margins to a notion
reflecting a cultural condition that allows us first to see our-
selves and then the entire human life world around us, but
hardly the entire cosmos.
Emotional Solitude
The two terms, “isolation” and “solitude”, can help to clarify
this apparent reduction of the spatial dimension and its horizons
and describe the nature of emotional solitude. Both are words
of Latin descent and came later to be part of the lexicography of
modern Indo-European languages, some of which, such as Eng-
lish, Spanish, Portuguese or French, became global languages.
The core of “isolation” is Lat. insula, which first of all means
island, that is to say a natural element of a spatial nature. But it
also denotes a floor of a building, a block of houses, a neigh-
borhood of a city that can be singled out as perceptibly de-
tached from its surroundings, that is to say a cultural element of
material and social nature belonging to the built environment.
The further semantic development of the term extends its mean-
ing to also include a human being completely dissociated from
the collective structure to which he or she belongs. Whereas the
first two meanings are mainly descriptive with a clear spatial
denotation, the latter reduces the spatial reference and prompts
instead psychological, ideological, ethical and existential signi-
The meaning of ‘social isolation’ addresses the relation be-
tween individuals or individual groups and their society in
ethical, emotional and broader social and cultural terms. John
Donne is famous for his lines: “No man is an island, entirely of
itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”
(Donne, 1998). In the general meaning of isolation, the isolated
element is still related to what it is isolated from—island from
mainland, block from street, individual seclusion from social
collectivity. In short, isolation is a term that articulates a rela-
tion. An isolated human being still belongs to humankind.
Solitude is different and so is the solitary being. This term is
also based on a spatial reference. It means a deserted place, the
desert in particular as a specific geographical denomination. It
has always been seen as a undifferentiated and infinite space,
supposedly with no trace of the boundaries between the natural
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
elements, the closest one could come an absolute void (χάος or
rather απειρον or Lat. vacuum). A negative epiphany, as it were:
“Dans le désert, voyez-vous, il y a tout, il y a rien … c’est Dieu
sans l’homme”, Balzac’s narrator aptly remarks in Une passion
dans le désert (Balzac, 1977), which for Kant was a terrifying
sublime experience (Kant, 1905).
Hence, every human being there would be in a state of soli-
tude, not surrounded by anything that could be related to the
known order of nature. Subsequently, “solitude” is a deserted
position more than a particular place became the dominant
meaning in various languages. Like ultima thule, the desert
indicated the limes of Roman civilization, which is to say, civi-
lization as such. Those who lived there were beyond civiliza-
tion, barbarians or monsters, evoking all kinds of imaginings
about their deficient humanity (Breitenfellner & Kohn-Levy,
1998; Hall, 1989; Hassig, 1995; Kappler, 1980; Larsen, 2004;
Sheehan & Sosna, 1991; Wittkower, 1977). Further, beyond the
deserts, strange and monstrous beings were imagined to exist,
as Pliny abundantly recounts in his Historia naturalis (1st cen-
tury BCE) (Pliny, 1961), which acquired a long afterlife in
European imagining of the foreign, even the Old Norse saga
world regarding peoples living even farther to the North. If
isolation primarily points to a relational position within a larger
natural or social space, solitude shows the boundary of that
space and a vision of what might lie beyond.
Thus, in contrast to isolation, solitude does not refer to urban
or other social spaces in particular, although the island and the
desert are still active parts of our imaginary language when it
comes to isolation and solitude on the edge of the world as in
modern travel writing, e.g. in Geoffrey Moorhouse: “We trav-
ersed more dunes, and again I felt the deepest fear nudging me.
[…] It was as though one were very close to the edge of the
earth. […] gain it, and one would drop off into eternal space.”
(Moorhouse, 1974). Thus, in a broader sense solitude indicates
the state of being absolutely detached, not just isolated from
something specific or specifiable, but from everything in terms
of space, meaning, value and identity. Likewise, the cult of
hermits (meaning “those living in the desert”, έρημία) and the
contemplative ideal of life in monasteries and convents in vari-
ous religions take solitude to equal closeness to the divinities
on the boundary of human existence.
This oscillation between solitude and isolation is depicted in
the case of Robinson Crusoe (Defoe, 1965; Engelberg, 2001).
He is “all alone on an uninhabited island”. Robinson is more
than alone, he is all alone. He is not just isolated, that is to say
placed on an island, he is on an uninhabited island. As people
in this borderland or beyond it does not count as humans, so
Friday does not at the beginning of their encounter qualify as a
human inhabitant. However, to Robinson’s amazement, he is
both docile and malleable, a cannibal more receptive to hu-
manization than Shakespeare’s swearing and cunning Caliban,
although only fit for a subservient human position—a noble
savage, in line with ideas originating in the Renaissance. Hence,
Robinson’s solitude is more than just spatial and social. At the
outset, he is just one of a kind.
This position not only belongs to a boundary space like an
uninhabited island, but also any being living there challenges
the boundary between known natural or cultural species: Rob-
inson is both a man from urbanized and imperial England and is
at the same time bound to a primitive pre-civilized life; being a
cannibal Friday is close to the savage animal world but is at the
same time an amicable human being. The status of being one of
a kind points imaginatively to the stable order of things, while
at the same time transcending this order. The basic endeavor is
to overcome solitude through an allegedly humanizing process
that makes Friday a fellow human being with whom Robinson
now shares, not solitude but isolation within the recognizable
borders of humankind, a shared fate which can then be over-
come in the novel’s final social vision.
The same humanizing response to solitude can be seen when
we approach the boundary of humankind from the outside.
Frankenstein’s monster sees the uninhabited and uninhabitable
“desert mountains and dreary glaciers” (Shelley, 2000) as his
proper place when he, in emotional turmoil, realizes he solitude
on human conditions:
Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul
glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, mis-
erably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I
gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing?
They spurn and hate me. The desert mountains and dreary
glaciers are my refuge. (Shelley, 2000)
He is one of a kind, both in relation to humankind and to the
natural order at large. This is so in spite of his capacity to feel
and to talk and thus to contemplate his fate and his split identity
as non-human in a proto-human disguise. He abhors his own
body that inspires horror in others when he makes a serious
attempt to approach the idyllic cottage of the De Lacey family.
But earlier on, by observing closely the life of the cottagers
from his solitary outpost in the nearby forest, he teaches him-
self to talk and to read just as Friday learned from Robinson.
However, his linguistic fluency does not compensate for his
solitude; it is only amplified. His eloquence is the touch of ac-
quired and not inborn humanity, but nevertheless it allows him
to feel compassion towards humans and to be as self-reflexive
as any human, Descartes and Kierkegaard included. But this
capacity only makes his irreducible lack of humanity clear to
him and enrages him. He is still helplessly one of a kind, but
now a humanizing emotional solitude is more important than
his ontological status. In a long and eloquently pleading solilo-
quy addressed to Frankenstein in the icy desert landscape he
pleads for a companion of his own kind:
When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me.
Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which
all men fled, and whom all men disowned? [...] I ex-
claimed in agony: ‘Cursed creator! Why did you form a
monster so hideous that even you turned from me in dis-
gust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after
his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours,
more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had
his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage
him; but I am solitary and abhorred. [...] No Eve soothed
my sorrows, nor shared my thoughts. [...] I am alone, and
miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as de-
formed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to
me. My companion must be of the same species, and have
the same defects. This being you must create. (Shelley,
However, Frankenstein refuses to produce another monster in
order to humanize the first one. So, being one of a kind, a mon-
ster, he acts like a monster in a frenzy of murder and destruct-
tion. The only difference from the old monsters is that he is a
human creation, but cannot be humanized.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 27
The opposition between Frankenstein and his monster blurs
the pre-established boundary between the human and the non-
human, the natural and the constructed world, leaving both in a
self-created solitude where they have to reflect on their identity
as borderline individuals questioning the dissolving identity of
humankind. As solitary beings, both embody the very boundary
of humanity as it cuts through their own individual existence:
Frankenstein has created a humanoid, but loses his own human-
ity be refusing the monster’s very human wishes; the monster
takes on human form and behavior, but remains nevertheless a
monster. Who is the more human is impossible to decide.
In this encounter, solitude signals a disturbing instability in
the fixed order of things, where the human and the non-human
meet and blend, and makes visible the vicarious boundary be-
tween the fixed categories we project onto the natural and the
cultural world in order to place ourselves in it as humans. What
is human and what is not, has to be redefined again and again, a
project that Descartes and Kierkegaard embarked on in the ur-
ban context which itself embodies this challenge. The inces-
sant re-establishment of this difference is therefore necessary in
order for solitude to be fashioned as an emotional self-asser-
In this modern context, the ontological state of solitude, of
being absolutely alone in the order of nature, inseparably
merges with the humanizing individual emotional state of soli-
tude. The modern solitary individual is not abandoned by the
gods but rather by his or her fellow human beings, when they
are present. The fact and the feeling of absolute aloneness are
from this point inseparable, and it is precisely their entangle-
ment that generates the self-reflection of both the monster and
his maker. “Solitude—the feeling and knowledge that one is
alone”, Octavio Paz succinctly states in The Labyrinth of Soli-
tude (Paz, 1985) or, as the title of Pierre Naudin’s monography
has it, “l”expérience et le sentiment de la solitude’ (Naudin,
1995). Solitude is a situation, then, which cannot be interpreted
through a simple reference to a place or to a given, larger onto-
logical context, let alone a stable universal order, providing it
with a collective significance, but only through self-reflexive
embedded in an emotional state of singularity that articulates
the boundary of humanity. In this move from ontological to
emotional solitude the metaphysics of solitude vanishes and it
is entirely integrated in the human life world.
A Dialogue with the Past
There are two strategies available for this personal, self-re-
flexive negotiation of the boundary of humanity to be carried
out through a sense of solitude. First, projection as a cultural
device exploited to push what appears to us as an unbearable
foreignness, marking a limit of what is taken to be human, out
of our self-chosen cultural and individual comfort zone. We
project onto the world a meaning which is not really there. The
second strategy is construction as a cultural device by which
our own presumably self-chosen solitary separation from the
foreign is inscribed in an ongoing collective discursive narra-
tive within our culture, providing the projected meaning with a
cohesive structure by which we locate ourselves in a cultural
space as defined by the projection.
Both the projections and the constructions recycle fragments
of texts and images of the rich classical and often cross-cultural
stock of material on solitude. After classical mythologies and
religious understandings of nature have been replaced by mo-
dern scientific conceptions, the extra-human solitary position
continues to fascinate and disturb our cultural imagination, and
the old narratives and other genres are widely revitalized in new
contexts across cultures, in texts, images and other cultural
products disseminated in the global media culture.
The story I choose to discuss modern projections and con-
structions echoing a long history of images of solitude is John
Michael Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980),
referring to Pedros Cavafy’s poem from 1898. On the outskirts
of an unspecified empire, vaguely like South Africa during
apartheid, a middle-aged civil servant, the Magistrate, guards
the border against the Barbarians, close to the desert where he
lives in a peaceful symbiosis with them, their landscape and
their rhythm of life and also does some archaeological excava-
tions. He is the narrator. The brutal representatives of a central
power, more thugs than soldiers, are led by Colonel Joll, ruth-
less and too full of himself. They arrive to prevent an alleged
insurrection by the Barbarians, a danger no one else has ever
heard about. Some barbarians are tracked down and tortured to
reveal or rather to create a clearcut distinction between good
and bad, known and foreign, in order to legitimate the per-
secution and the ultimate reestablishment of a sociopoliti-
cal barrier between white humanity and barbarian savage-
And solitude? Nobody pays much attention to solitude in any
sense of the term. But what they do is precisely to re-activate a
host of age-old images of place, body and language by reiterat-
ing practices and discursive strategies. Since antiquity such
configurations have been so closely related to the reflection on
and creation of solitude that the characters, irresistibly and each
in their own way, lock themselves and everybody else around
them into an enclosure of solitude with no exit. There is no
language to reflect on what has happened and what it means,
and no emotional experience to help cope with it, only a spon-
taneous horror or a passive contemplative resignation. This is a
trajectory to solitude.
In the beginning Joll, together with his men, simply projects
the collective fear of the unknown onto the natives and con-
structs the identity of the humans on his own side of the border
in contrast to the savages from the desert that stretches beyond
the horizon in indeterminable infinitude. This construction is a
radicalized version of the colonial myth of ‘the white man’s
burden’: to defend and expand civilization by suppressing or
educating the barbarian peoples. As the title of Coetzee’s novel
indicates, this myth resonates with classical images of monsters
and barbarians as the embodiment of the non-human as located
in a particular marginal space where it can be identified and
wiped out.
Joll’s cultural logic as described by Rüdiger Safranski in his
Das Böse oder Das Drama der Freiheit (1997) provides the
urban paradox diagnosed by Kierkegaard and Descartes with a
generalized and scaring significance in the modern world. It is
not just a paradox generating solitude to contemplate the human
condition. With an imagined insurrection as the reason for the
presence of the soldiers and surrounded by the undifferentiated
desert, there are no unquestioned structure of defining differ-
ences to identify people and objects, not even a paradoxical one.
Hence, the border has to be reestablished with repeated and
increasing insistence that eventually turns into acts of terror.
With an implicit reference to Descartes’s cogito and to the fun-
damental role of difference in Kierkegaard’s thinking, Safranski
compares this situation to a burning fire:
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Dass ich bin, mag einem in Denken gewiss werden. Aber
was ich bin, erfahre ich nur im Unterschied zu den an-
deren. Aber auch mit der Erkenntnis des Unterschieds
allein kann man noch nicht zufrieden sein. Das intensive
Selbstgefühl erwächst aus dem Bewusstsein, dass man
sich unterschiedet, indem man sich hervortut. Es kommt
auf den Rang an. […] Diesem Verlangen nach Differenz
entspringt die grosse Gefährdung des Gesellschaftsver-
trages. Der Wettkampf um die Unterschiede kann immer
wieder neu entbrennen. (Safranski, 2008).
How does this competition for superiority materialize in the
novel? It unfolds in a self-defeating strategy that prompts a
solitude reminiscent of a Hobbesian dystopic view of human
nature which is disastrous for everyone (cf. also Stirner, 1972).
On the one hand, the projections and constructions build on the
images derived from the context of the ontological solitude.
The aim is to identify white people with the ancient heroes
placed in a solitary position that makes the border of humanity
as visible and stable as if carved in stone. On the other hand,
the conditions to realize this aim are entirely modern: there is
no clear border, only an imagined fear of the foreign that threat-
ens to deprive the whites of their unique humanness. So, the
aim and the conditions do not match and the projections and
constructions fall apart. Throughout the novel they lose their
validity and all the whites become isolated atoms in a void
without belonging anywhere, neither white heroes nor people at
home in a shared life with the natives. Panic-stricken, they enter
a state of unbearable emotional solitude similar to that of Fran-
kenstein and his monster. The images of the classical ontologi-
cal solitude have exhausted their power, and the self-sought
contemplative solitude of the early moderns and their followers
has no value.
In a fraudulent rejection of the humanity of others—other
people, other cultures—this competition for a positive self-
definition, as Safranski puts it, produces mutual solitude on
both sides. In a spiraling process of escalating terror the sol-
diers ultimately produce their own self-alienation, and the na-
tives withdraw to the desert, some in despair. Solitude becomes
the ultimate sign of defeat, not a road to humanity. This general
breakdown of the social order constitutes a modern parallel to
the cosmic upheaval in King Lear with effects of the same
magnitude. The order of the universe does not break down, only
the false projections and constructions that attempt to reinstall it.
But the emerging solitude is equally profound.
This melt-down comes out of two parallel sets of events, one
happens between the whites and the natives, the other among
the whites alone. At a certain point, Joll sets out into the desert
with a group of soldiers to hunt down the barbarians. But out
there, Joll and his men are the foreigners and the natives are at
home, the humankind of the desert: a boundless void for the
whites, a readable map for the natives, who lure the troops out
where they are helplessly lost. After three months a horse re-
turns to the frontier settlement, carrying a dead soldier mounted
on it like a monster, neither man nor beast. He is followed by
Joll totally out of his mind, as scared as if he had seen the heart
of darkness, solitary out there and also now when he is back in
the town with the Magistrate. He is terrified in his self-inflicted
emotional solitude like Frankenstein’s monster who also, in a
mixture of rage and tears, realizes that he cannot by himself
transcend his solitude. Joll has been left alone in the desert by
his men, scattered in all directions, nobody knows where:
‘Gone. Scattered all over the place. I don’t know where
they are. We had to find our own way. It was impossible
to keep together.’ […] ‘Let me go!’ he sobs. He is no
stronger than a child. […] ‘We starved in the desert. Why
did no one tell us it would be like that? We were not
beaten—they let us out into the desert and then they vani-
shed’ (Coetzee, 1982).
The boundary of humankind does not separate the whites
from the natives, but becomes visible as a split within the indi-
vidual human experiencing his desperate solitude.
The second dismantling of unsubstantiated projections and
constructions happens in the barracks while Joll is away. The
soldiers remaining in town have nothing to do but to maintain a
distance to the natives and demonstrate their own superiority.
The sadistic deputy commander, Mandel, brings cruelty to a
new level of ferociousness with the soldiers as rampant ma-
rauders. But, as Safranski states, in a world of mutual indiffer-
ence human identity can only be established by the creation of a
non-human showing that the monstrous belongs to others. This
becomes clear when the Magistrate is repeatedly tortured by the
soldiers, mostly to entertain themselves to avoid being more
terrified than they already are, face to face with an unknown
social and geographical territory around them. He is a friend of
the Barbarians, they say; he is the barbarian within and must be
removed by being turned into a non-human. At the end he is
dressed up as a woman before they haul him up, backwards
with his arms tied across his back, and make him swing, a fly-
ing human, a true species-crossing monster, crying out in pain.
The soldiers laugh: “He calls his barbarian friends. It is barbar-
ian language we hear” (Coetzee, 1982).
Taken down, the Magistrate is left to himself, still a monster:
here he sees himself like a dog licking his food, unable to move
arms and legs. His solitude is as profound as Joll’s on his return,
both of them with a weakened body and a reduced language.
Joll is the victim of his own projections of fear of the foreign on
the natives, the Magistrate the victim of the soldiers’ need to con-
stantly assert themselves by constructing the monstrous as being
outside themselves. When Joll comes back alone, the remaining
soldiers disappear as scattered individuals and, as in the begin-
ning, the Magistrate is left with the natives, but now as a soli-
tary being left with his remorseful ruminations. Any tacit, mu-
tual understanding between him and the natives has disappeared.
He slowly realizes that he has just been another manifestation of
the imperial power, soft power in contrast to Joll’s tough power,
but in the end two sides of the same coin (Coetzee, 1982).
Constructions and projections of the monstrous and the bar-
barian have come back with a vengeance, producing a deep
solitude shared by torturers and victims alike. “The crime that
is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves,” the Magistrate spe-
culates, realizing that in his complacent negligence he has been
as oppressive as Joll (Coetzee, 1982). If Frankenstein pro-
duced the proto-human monster outside himself, here it is
unleashed inside the characters. The boundlessness of the desert
rubs off on everyone with no projections or constructions to
rely on, but as a story for us to contemplate.
Negotiating Humanity
Solitude, historical and contemporary, still represents a the-
me for a reflection on this cultural mechanism of identity for-
mation in a permanent negotiation between need for the other
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 29
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
and opposition to the other. Solitude is a construction embed-
ded in and determined by the narratives of a collective social
universe that turns solitude into a readable sign we can interpret.
I know no better medium than literature for that purpose. It
reworks our language by inventing forms of expression that
highlight the process, showing the complexity of multiple per-
spectives, the dynamics of cultural boundaries and the dia-
logues across the history of creative thinking and imaginative
Literature does not create monsters, but it may give them a
name. It does not warn us of the wrath of the gods through the
solitary characters at the boundary of humankind, but reminds
us of our responsibility for keeping the borders open and dy-
namic, not a rigid opposition between us and them, turning
people on both sides of the dividing line into monstrous bar-
barians. Literature cannot prevent monsters occurring. But via a
reflection on solitude it can make us aware of how they lurk in
the underworld of our identity formation and reach the surface
the moment we stop renegotiating the boundaries of humankind,
but take them for granted.
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