Robinson Crusoe was marooned for years on a tropical island. At first he succumbs to despair, but later he starts to make things easier for himself, at first rescuing goods from the shipwreck which is fortunately accessible at least for a while on a reef.
He has no one to talk to, until Friday, but he is kept busy just surviving. This business, wondering where the next meal was coming from, how to provide himself with shelter, all the minutiae of just living would have initially staved off all sense of loneliness.
Later on though, when his immediate needs were catered for, he must have reflected on the fact that he was totally alone on the island. (I read the book years ago, and I’m speculating – I can’t recall if he ever got into a philosophical mood or not). It would have been a driver to explore the island and finding no other people would have been a blow.
People in general need other people. In the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Ben Gunn is marooned on an island for years and become slightly unhinged by the loneliness. He spent a lot of the time on the island dreaming of one thing – cheese. However, he does not completely lose his senses and is able to take part in the events that follow.
Some people choose to isolate themselves from the rest of the human race, mainly, it seems for religious reasons. It is possible for such hermits to voluntarily return to the human race, something which is not possible for those who are marooned on an island, and this may make the separation more bearable.
The reason that hermits choose to isolate themselves from the human race is so that they can concentrate or religious or spiritual matters without being distracted by the minutiae of human life. Obviously they still need to eat and perform bodily functions, but those can be kept to a minimum and the hermits mind can be free to concentrate on one thing for much of their waking moments.
While human companionship can help to keep one sane, the constant interruptions to one’s train of thought can be distracting or irritating. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was writing the poem “Kubla Khan” when he was distracted by a person from Porlock and the poem was not completed as originally Coleridge envisaged.
Computer programmers often find that when they are concentrating on their task they will “enter the zone or the flow“. This is an almost trance-like state where the programmer is totally immersed in the task at hand, and the interruptions of normal life are not welcomed. A programmer in the zone may regard time spent on sleep, food and other necessities as unimportant, and this is why programmers sometimes subsist on coffee or energy drinks, and eat pizza and other fast foods that can be ordered in.
The immersive effects of the zone are not only felt in programming, I believe. Programming is in many ways an art, and I can imagine that the same is true of the other arts, such as painting and writing, as the example of Coleridge suggests, though he was using opium at the time he was writing Kubla Khan.
The feeling of being in the zone is, for the most part, intensely solo. While two or more programmers can work simultaneously of the same piece of code, this is much more difficult to achieve. I’ve seen programmers team up and program, but the feeling of being in the zone is much more fragile when more than one person is involved.
In contrast, debugging a malfunctioning piece of code can be easier for two or more, as the different insights broaden and direct the flow into areas that neither would have thought of by themselves but in general the immersion is not so deep.
Quite often an isolated person, say a shipwrecked person, or an elderly or sick person who is not mobile and therefore spends a lot of time alone, will have an animal as a companion. The little old lady has one or more cats. The shipwrecked or marooned person may have a dog. A companion animal eases the separation from the human race.
A lonely person may pick an unusual animal as a companion. Some sources suggest that Michael Jackson made a pet of a rat and that his father killed it, but this story is muddled with the story behind his hit song “Ben”.
An isolated person may talk to the animal in default of being able to talk to other human, and may unwisely attribute human traits to the animal. If the person is alone with the animal for too long he or she may come to believe that the animal responds either verbally or by actions.
Sometimes an isolated person may imagine a fictitious companion, either totally invented or based on a real person. He or she may act out what he believes that the imaginary person would act out. In the film “Psycho” Norman Bates assumes and acts out the identity of his dead mother, who he killed 10 years earlier. Bates was isolated by his mental illness, and not by being physically isolated.
There are various causes of isolation – it may be unintentional, as in a shipwreck, or it may be intentional as when a sailor is marooned for mutiny, or a person may be isolated as a result of sickness, either mental or physical, or it may be a side-effect of old age. A person may be isolated by deafness or blindness, or physical inability to move.
However, some people seek isolation in the form of “peace and quiet”. If a person is highly stressed in their day-to-day life, they may find themselves looking forward to immersing themselves in a book, or taking a bath, or in any of hundreds of ways of isolating themselves from the general hubbub of human society. Possibly with a reasonable supply of alcohol to hand, merely to aid the relaxation of course.