Since I have found myself “stuck” in my current writing, I have been slowly assembling materials for what I envision to be my next big project, an analysis of the affects accumulating around loneliness in Middle English writing. Part of this project began when I co-organized with Spencer Strub a session for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at the 2016 meeting in Kalamazoo. It will continue next summer at the meeting of the New Chaucer Society in Toronto, by which time I hope that my thoughts will amount to more than these scattered fragments.
In part, the loneliness project – as I affectionately call it – is a natural outgrowth of my work on happiness and friendship. First, since happiness and friendship* have been linked in an intellectual tradition on the good/virtuous life dating back to Plato and Aristotle, I began to wonder about the possibilities for happiness, virtue, enjoyment, or justice in solitude? This critique is in many ways available already in the works of poststructuralist thinkers – especially Derrida’s Politics of Friendship – but Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, and Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness have recently injected new urgency into considering how particular structures of feeling are imbricated in our political, social, and intimate relationships and how those relationships provide affective/emotional feedback loops. In other words, what began for me as a literary project neighboring intellectual history morphed into a more capacious investigation about how affective lives – rather than always being a product of our communities or those that we build around ourselves – function to keep some close and others at a distance.** More practically, though, reading across the longue durée of friendship brings one face-to-face most frequently with lonely forms: the dialogue always told about a deceased friend, the letter sent to the loved one who is never near enough or for long enough, the elegy, the tombstone, the encomium, the memoriam.***
The bigger inspiration, though, has come from a pair of recent novels: The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. These works have provided the real catalyst to my recent thinking about loneliness not simply as a condition to which particular affects adhere but as an affect in and of itself. Loneliness affects its subject in real, powerful ways. As Laing points out in the opening pages to her book,
“Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject too to pathologisation, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose, that it is, as Robert Weiss puts it in his seminal work on the subject, ‘a chronic disease without redeeming features.’ Statements like this have a more than casual link with the belief that our whole purpose is as coupled creatures, or that happiness can or should be a permanent possession. But not everyone shares that fate” (4).
She comes back to this point throughout the text, later musing over the physical effects often thought to produce loneliness in order to demonstrate the reinforcing nature of the relationship between loneliness and some of the consequences of social isolation. Laing writes,
“At first it was thought that this increased morbidity occurred because of the practical consequences of being isolated: the lack of care, the potentially diminished ability to feed and nurture oneself. In fact, it seems almost certain now that it is the subjective experience of loneliness that produces the physical consequences, not the simple fact of being alone. It is the feeling itself that is stressful; the feeling that sets the whole grim cascade into motion” (29).
While Lonely City catalogues sites and works of loneliness, The Beautiful Bureaucrat takes an existential dive into its narrator’s fictional isolation. Phillips’s novel has been compared to the works of Camus, Kafke, Melville, and Orwell, but the most consistent comparisons I made while reading were with the works of Philip K. Dick (especially the Adjustment Bureau) and Margaret Atwood. With respect to the latter, Phillips’s narrator (Protagonist is probably too-strong of a word to use!) balances the tension of the everywoman that Atwood’s characters also often masterfully capture: while the narrator, Josephine Newbury, has enough texture to mark her as a unique character and to heighten the angst she makes the reader feel throughout the novel, she can also feel a bit generic, borderline allegorical. Phillips never loses sight of the particular qualities that mark Josephine as a captivating presence, but her reluctance to sharpen the edges around Josephine’s character demonstrates her real mastery as Josephine comes into vision only just enough to blur back into the unnamed job with the unnamed supervisor (the Person with Bad Breath) in the unnamed city. And it is the few connections that she makes (a waitress with a knack for remembering names, a co-worker whose parents could not decide between Trish or Tiffany so named her Trishiffany, and a husband who disappears without explanation for extended periods of time) that make the world of the novel feel at once so large and so lonely.
The power in both works – and why I cannot help but think of them together now- is how Phillips and Laing each make their worlds feel so full and simultaneously so lonely. I think of Laing’s description of her fishbowl apartment, the droning sound of Josephine’s unseen co-workers in Phillips’s novel, and the vast ironies where each work shows how people can be connected to others through work, location, or even relations but still left isolated, lonely. In doing so, they express one of the central paradoxes of any loneliness project: the incongruity between loneliness and solitude. In fact, Laing’s work pays especially close attention to how a particular kind of loneliness impresses itself most forcefully when the lonely one is surrounded by others.
Finally, each work also demonstrates an awareness of how loneliness need not always be regarded as negative. Loneliness, solitude, isolation also have positive affordances: seclusion can be necessary for certain kinds of work, pleasures, and enjoyment. Helena Fitzgerald has recently argued this final point most powerfully. In “The Fierce Triumph of Loneliness” she argues for loneliness as a privilege, one that is typically handed to men but forced from women early and then repeatedly. Fitzgerald contrasts her enjoyment of living alone with the different forms of enjoyment she finds in living with her partner. She writes,
“The idea that we progress in a clear trajectory from single unit to couple form, and achieve a sort of emotional success by doing so, seems wrong to me. Love is about what we give up when choosing to knit our life against someone else’s—to make a home in the shared bed, and enjoy the small talk between bodies within the inhabited space. A paired life is not an aspirational state, but a compromised one. Loneliness is not the terror we escape; it is instead the reward we give up when we believe something else to be worth the sacrifice.”
Fitzgerald’s defense of loneliness attends to its privileged status: the freedom of will it can grant, the rejection of particular social scripts it represents, the courage it takes to embrace after certain declared benchmarks. Still, there is a sense that Fitzgerald is more interested in forms of solitude or “being alone” rather than loneliness. The metonymic slippage between form and feeling comes through in a few passages. When she writes, “Love, in its closed circuit, can be as antisocial as staying home alone and not talking out loud for days”, I want to agree unequivocally, but I also must object that “being alone together” is not the same as “being alone” is not the same as “being lonely” is not the same as “loneliness” as an affect. Fitzgerald is not unaware to these overlapping categories, but at a few points, she lets the distinctions blur. For example, she recalls the refuge of loneliness as a child writing, “I was an only child and a lonely kid, which meant I spent a lot of time alone reading books.” Or later, when she recalls traveling for work, she writes, “As much as anything else, what I loved about travel was the solitude. Loneliness felt aspirational, like a large hotel bed—blank and luxurious and endlessly comforting.” In each of these moments, the experience of a particular form of solitude necessarily leads to loneliness – a loneliness, importantly, that the author prizes but one that does not register as an affect, emotion, or feeling so much as it does an experience of being alone, a social form.^
Fitzgerald, Phillips, and Laing represent some of the best recent attempts to reclaim and revitalize loneliness (and its attendant forms). Their respective works also demonstrate how an approach to loneliness and solitude must account for the distinctions, overlaps, and metonymic fuzziness in both our experiences of loneliness and the language available for describing them. These three authors also highlight what scholars in cultural studies and the history of the emotions have been demonstrating in other ways: that while emotions, affects, and feelings may have long histories, they are also particular, contingent, and diversely experienced. Empathy may lie somewhere near the intersections of exploring the general emotion and attending to the particular feeling of another.^^ To be more clichéd, even if we have all felt lonely at one time or another and have a shared understanding of what loneliness is and how to articulate it, no one has ever felt your loneliness. We feel with the lonely subjects in the works of Laing, Phillips, and Fitzgerald.^^^ And if reading these pieces does not necessarily produce a feeling of loneliness, it certainly produces a deeper understanding of it and perhaps an appreciation for the time alone to read, reflect, and write about it.
*There is always the caveat that friendship (philia for Plato and Aristotle, amicitia for Cicero) can be more or less expansive of a term depending on the author and the context of the writing. For Aristotle, for example, the philia of the Nicomachean Ethics seems fairly capacious – much more so than Cicero’s notion of amicitia or, famously, Michel de Montaigne’s explicit exclusion of women in his essay “On Friendship.”
**This catalyst in my thought could also simply have been a product of reading fewer white men and trying to follow Ahmed’s citational practice as near as possible. Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life
***Recognizing the irony of writing this note immediately after the preceding one…Derrida’s best known writing on friendship is his Politics of Friendship; his best writing on friendship can be found in the many remembrances he spoke/wrote for friends who had passed.
^A social form granted and evaluated along intersectional lines of privilege, solitude/loneliness is afforded to (white/wealthy/educated) men far more frequently, willingly, and approvingly, as Fitzgerald cogently argues.
^^I will want to explore later the relationship between loneliness and empathy. What does it mean for someone to “feel with” or “share in” someone’s loneliness? Would this be an affective oxymoron? But more practically, what does knowing that one is not alone in their feelings of loneliness do to the experience of loneliness?
^^^I doubt I will go pursue this line much more, but if I do, I need to do more work on bibliography for the transmission of affect in reading – besides Teresa Brennan.