A Short History Of Solitude

Episodes

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01Retreat2020083120200902 (R4)Thomas Dixon explores the surprising history of being alone.

In this episode, he discovers some of the most extreme examples of voluntary solitude - anchorites, people who chose to be enclosed as a kind of living sacrifice to God; the hermits who sought isolation in the desert; and an artist who lived as Schrodinger's Cat for 10 days and nights in a light- and sound-proof box.

And yet, even these exceptional feats of isolation were unexpectedly social.

For much of history, the idea of being entirely alone was a fascinating but frightening one. The Renaissance poet Petrarch wrote one of the first defences of solitude but imagined a countryside retreat far from the corrupting life of the city, made comfortable with clever companions and servants. In the 17th century, domestic architecture meant privacy was impossible, and being alone and unobserved was seen as something dangerous and terrifying - a torment not threatened in hell itself.

Contributors include the artists Ansuman Biswas and Nwando Ebizie; Hetta Howes who researches medieval devotional texts; and the historians Barbara Taylor, Miri Rubin and Erica Longfellow.

Music for the series was specially composed and performed by Beth Porter.

The episode also features Samuel West's reading of John Donne's Meditation XVII from his Pandemic Poems project, Nwando Ebizie's Extreme Unction and part of two new pieces commissioned by Sound and Music as part of the Interpreting Isolation project: Wallpaper by Jonathan Higgins and As the World Ain't Square by Douglas MacGregor and George Finlay Ramsey.

Barbara Taylor runs the research project Pathologies of Solitude at Queen Mary University of London and is academic advisor to the series.

Produced by Natalie Steed
A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

The historian of emotions, Thomas Dixon, explores the surprising history of being alone.

In this episode, he discovers some of the most extreme examples of voluntary solitude - anchorites, people who chose to be enclosed as a kind of living sacrifice to God; the hermits who sought isolation in the desert; and an artist who lived as Schrodinger's Cat for 10 days and nights in a light-and sound-proof box.

For much of history, the idea of being entirely alone was a fascinating but frightening one. The Renaissance poet and scholar, Petrarch, wrote one of the first defences of solitude, but imagined a countryside retreat far from the corrupting life of the city, made comfortable with clever companions and servants. In the 17th century, domestic architecture meant privacy was impossible, and being alone and unobserved was seen as something dangerous and terrifying - a torment not threatened in hell itself.

Contributors include the artists Ansuman Biswas and Nwando Ebize whose project about the enclosure ceremony of Hildegard of Bingen is featured in the soundscape; Hetta Howes who researches medieval devotional texts; and the historians Barbara Taylor, Miri Rubin and Erica Longfellow.

With specially composed and performed music by Beth Porter.

Barbara Taylor runs the research project Pathologies of Solitude at Queen Mary University and is academic advisor to the series.
Produced by Natalie Steed
A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

Thomas Dixon explores the surprising history of being alone.

In this episode, he discovers some of the most extreme examples of voluntary solitude - anchorites, people who chose to be enclosed as a kind of living sacrifice to God; the hermits who sought isolation in the desert; and an artist who lived as Schrodinger's Cat for 10 days and nights in a light- and sound-proof box.

And yet, even these exceptional feats of isolation were unexpectedly social.

For much of history, the idea of being entirely alone was a fascinating but frightening one. The Renaissance poet Petrarch wrote one of the first defences of solitude but imagined a countryside retreat far from the corrupting life of the city, made comfortable with clever companions and servants. In the 17th century, domestic architecture meant privacy was impossible, and being alone and unobserved was seen as something dangerous and terrifying - a torment not threatened in hell itself.

Contributors include the artists Ansuman Biswas and Nwando Ebizie; Hetta Howes who researches medieval devotional texts; and the historians Barbara Taylor, Miri Rubin and Erica Longfellow.

Music for the series was specially composed and performed by Beth Porter.

The episode also features Samuel West's reading of John Donne's Meditation XVII from his Pandemic Poems project, Nwando Ebizie's Extreme Unction and part of two new pieces commissioned by Sound and Music as part of the Interpreting Isolation project: Wallpaper by Jonathan Higgins and As the World Ain't Square by Douglas MacGregor and George Finlay Ramsey.

Barbara Taylor runs the research project Pathologies of Solitude at Queen Mary University of London and is academic advisor to the series.

Produced by Natalie Steed
A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

The historian of emotions, Thomas Dixon, explores the surprising history of being alone.

02Stepping Out2020090720200909 (R4)The historian Thomas Dixon explores the surprising history of being alone.

In the past, if people wanted to find any kind of solitude they often had to step outside. For the Romantic poets, solitude in nature was a way of connecting with the self and the imagination. Homes and workplaces could be crowded and the growth of cities meant that, for many, the walk to work itself provided a welcome interlude.

Hobbies offered the chance to find peace - anglers found solace thigh deep in lonely rivers and a growing number of private readers of books could retreat from a busy domestic setting and explore fantasies of isolation like Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein.

Contributors include farmers Richard Betton and Desmond Collinson, Teesdale local historians Lorne Tallentire and Derek Mills, the writer Melissa Harrison whose lockdown podcast The Stubborn Light of Things let listeners accompany her on solitary walks, Corin Throsby who is writing a book about Mary Shelley, and historians David Vincent and Barbara Taylor.

With specially composed and performed music by Beth Porter.

Barbara Taylor runs the research project Pathologies of Solitude and is academic advisor to the series.
Produced by Natalie Steed
A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

The historian of emotions, Thomas Dixon, explores the surprising history of being alone.

03 LASTLocked Down2020091420200916 (R4)In this final episode, the historian of emotions Thomas Dixon explores solitary confinement, loneliness, and what happens when naturally sociable humans are forced into isolation.

In the US, around 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement on any one day. Some of them have been there for decades. It's a startling figure for a shocking practice that many, including Charles Dickens who encountered it on a visit to the United States in 1842, have described as torture.

The keeping of prisoners in extreme isolation, began in the late 18th Century as a way to encourage repentance, hence the word "penitentiary". It was devised by reforming Quakers, who believed that all humans were capable of redemption, whatever their crimes, and were keen to see the end of cruel punishments like flogging. It was used in English prisons too including at Reading Gaol where Oscar Wilde was held in isolation for more than a year.

We are often told that we are in the middle of an epidemic or even pandemic of loneliness, but what does that mean? With the help of the historians Fay Alberti Brown and David Vincent, and the epidemiologist Daisy Fancourt, we excavate the idea and history of loneliness. Daisy has been conducting a large scale research project during the Covid-19 lockdown and explains how different groups have reacted to social distancing and self-isolation.

Other contributors include the philosopher Lisa Guenther, and historian Barbara Taylor.

With specially composed and performed music by Beth Porter.

Barbara Taylor runs the research project Pathologies of Solitude and is academic advisor to the series.

Produced by Natalie Steed
A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

Thomas Dixon explores the surprising history of being alone.

The historian of emotions, Thomas Dixon, explores the surprising history of being alone.