During my first visit to the dentist in small-town North Carolina, the hygienist looked at my wedding ring and asked, “Have kids yet?” I can only imagine the response she would have received from Fenton Johnson, author of the thought-provoking At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life. He opposes just this kind of assumed adherence to conventionality in his advocacy of a solitary lifestyle. In considering his decision, Johnson turns to examples ranging from Thoreau to Rabindranath Tagore to Nina Simone in order to argue, “To be an artist is not finally, about product; it is about process, a way of being, and every solitary is of necessity an artist — an artist of her or his life, with little or no help from conventional rites and forms and mythologies.” This belief in a correlation between artistry and solitude may be a reach, and if so it is one Johnson is guilty of throughout this book, but it illustrates the attachment to his subject matter that makes for an engrossing reading experience.
Growing up in Kentucky, near the Trappist monastery made famous by Thomas Merton, Johnson began as the ninth of nine children, living among his family yet apart, with the “certain kind of wisdom [that] is given to the outsider, the court jester who looks on as others go about their business.” While he uses this to describe Henry James, Johnson is an heir to and seeker of this wisdom. No one detail from the text illustrates this as well as the accrual of insights into his life throughout. Johnson connects Eudora Welty’s “spinsterhood” and love of travel to his experience just as successfully as he does fashion photographer Bill Cunningham’s self-determined celibacy to his own decision to “forego openness to one for openness to all. Through all, I seek the One, the great Alone, a supernatural unity.”
Selecting one standout chapter among the whole is difficult, but Johnson’s attention to Tagore, the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, is worth discussing at length. Johnson highlights birth order as a bond connecting them; Tagore was the thirteenth living child of his Bengali family, “the youngest child of the previous generation’s oldest child.” Further, Johnson “attribute[s] Tagore’s reputation as an ‘old soul’ in part to this fact of genealogy, since, as the youngest of a vast clan, he would have grown up hearing, as I grew up hearing, family stories reaching far into the past.” Their connection grows stronger during the chapter’s most affecting section, Johnson’s trip to Kolkata, India, to see Tagore’s homeland for himself.
Johnson avoids essentializing or sensationalizing his experience by focusing on his specific, lived experience. His hosts question his unmarried status, he travels the streets and visits a Kali temple, and describes Kolkata as follows:
“’City of Joy,’ [that] went in the course of the twentieth century from being Asia’s wealthiest city to being the poorest. Here the forces and tragedies of capitalism and colonialism are laid bare: a throng of people, more humanity than the spacious, airy Western imagination can comprehend, whole villages on the broad sidewalks, cooking, sleeping, laughing, defecating, begging, nursing, and always and everywhere selling, selling, selling.”
At the Asia Society, Johnson encounters a bureaucratic morass of incredible proportions. He has his passport confiscated and is required to give a lecture to the society’s members. After being refused when he proposes to discuss his most recent book on the intersection of Buddhism and Christianity (“No American will be allowed to speak on Buddhism”), he chooses memoir writing, only to discover that the director has overruled him and insisted on Wordsworth as the topic.
Ultimately, though his visit is not a complete success, Johnson looks back on it and decides:
“Who would want a companion as a scrim between oneself and India, between life and death? None of this would have happened to the coupled me. The solitary traveler occupies a place of openness that becomes a place of radical empowerment, because learning begins in letting go, becoming vulnerable, feeling awkward and stupid, losing the self to find the self.”
Though his portrait of Tagore is incomplete in comparison to those of his Western subjects, the journey he relays in this chapter is worth the trip. As he explains later, “solitude set[s] the imagination free to roam.”
Johnson’s lone weakness is his explanation of the conclusions he has drawn from his study. While he insists that he has approached this topic “to study, learn from, and celebrate the lives of those who have been chosen by or who choose solitude,” in the end, he concludes where he began: in awe of these artists, certain in his desire to lead a solitary life, and firm in his conviction that this is the correct choice at this stage in late-capitalism. Johnson addresses this most directly in writing, “If my dream [of a society that celebrates solitude] strikes you as utopian, deluded, grandiose, I point to the great failure of politicians to provide a vision sufficiently grand to counter the call to unrestrained consumption trotted out before us at every hour of every day in every popular medium.” The leap from solitariness as necessary for creative endeavors to the belief that such an approach can cure the world’s ills is one that Johnson’s book does not prepare for. However, readers will come away from At the Center of All Beauty with a fuller knowledge of and greater appreciation for the artists at its core and the necessity of solitude in their pursuits. Even if he does not fully explore his belief that such solitude can save the world, this study is fascinating enough to make up for this oversight.
At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life
By Fenton Johnson
Published January 26, 2021