On Loneliness

Compartment C Car by Edward Hopper (1938)

Compartment C Car by Edward Hopper (1938)

Edward Hopper quickly tired of people pegging his paintings as depictions of isolation. “The loneliness thing is overdone,” he once told his friend Brian O’Doherty. “It formulates something you don’t want formulated.”

And he was right. The “loneliness thing” is constantly rehashed in art, across all mediums. Works of art frequently dissect the experience of loneliness, suggest solutions for the suffering that comes with loneliness, or simply exist to ameliorate loneliness. Hopper may have rejected what he interpreted as thematic pigeonholing, but, to be fair, artists have always had a lot to say about being lonely.

I suppose I do too, because I’m lonely and I’m writing this now. I write about loneliness often. I write to feel less lonely even more often. Lately, I’ve been reading books that have variations of loneliness in the title, like The Lonely City or How to Be Alone. I underline the sentences that move me. Sentences like “My life felt empty and unreal and I was embarrassed by its thinness” (from the former), and (from the latter) “I walk through the world like an adult human version of the baby bird in Are You My Mother? subconsciously waiting for someone to see that I’m very take-care-of-able, can I live with you now?” I still feel a stir of surprise every time I see one of my best-kept secrets splayed out in writing.

There are different kinds of loneliness, each with its own rancid flavor: familial, platonic, romantic. And then there’s simple touch-starvation. Loneliness, as Olivia Laing writes in The Lonely City, “can be transient, lapping in and out,” morphing and shifting fluidly between its many forms.

Writing is a particularly lonely pastime, isolating and consoling at once. Writers often skew towards the lonelier end of the social spectrum, most of us trained as astute observers of daily life rather than sociable participants. There’s nothing new I could posit about loneliness that hasn’t already been articulated, or articulated better, by another writer. I felt a pang of recognition with Laing’s own recollection of isolation, proof that my loneliness is not at all special: “If I could have put what I was feeling into words,” Laing writes, “the words would have been an infant’s wail: I don’t want to be alone. I want someone to want me. I’m lonely. I’m scared. I need to be loved, to be touched, to be held.

Last month, during a real doozy of a loneliness spell, I checked out four of Anaïs Nin’s unexpurgated diaries from my university library. They were dusty and heavy in my arms. I didn’t love a lot of what I read in the diaries; mostly, I felt resentful that Nin lived such an unfettered, amorous life and didn’t bother to tell me how to do the same. She never revealed her secrets. But she did impart a few gems of wisdom—not for me, of course, but for her friends or herself—that clung to me rather persistently. “Create a world, your world. Alone. Stand alone. And then love will come to you,” she advises a friend in 1931. Ten years later, she recommends the same for herself, mantra-like: “Create, Anaïs. He will come.”

This advice explicitly pertains to romantic loneliness—it’s about that abstract “He” who can, in theory, mark a life indelibly simply by entering it. I believe this “He” exists, although I don’t believe his form is singular; “He” will most likely span multiple men, multiple liaisons, each leaving a unique mark. But I consider my heterosexuality to be one of my more embarrassing character flaws, so I’d rather not go into this any further.

This advice—to first create your own space, then let others enter into it—can also be applied to other forms of loneliness. Building a room of one’s own on one’s own provides the foundation upon which other relationships can be built. If I can be alone and be content in that aloneness, then anything more will simply be a treat, an added bonus. And the more comfortable I am in my own skin, the more I can step outside of myself, and the more love—of all kinds—I may attract. Of course that “world” that I ought to be creating can also be an insulated, escapist one, a mode of isolation. Much of my internal world is already built upon consumption, filling empty space with narrative input: films and shows and books and songs that are “physical evidence that other people [have] inhabited my state,” as Laing writes.

“being alone never felt right,” Charles Bukowski writes in his novel Women. “sometimes it felt good, but it never felt right.” It felt good. It feels good because by being alone, we are free from the gaze of the Other, as Sartre puts it in Being and Nothingness. We don’t have to see ourselves as objects, subjected to the looks and values of another; our world is ours, not “the other person’s world, a world that no longer comes from the self, but from the other,” writes Sartre. We have all the control. But it never felt right. The phrase “social creature” is one of my least favorite in the English language, but it holds an undeniable kernel of truth: we need to talk and touch and fuck and connect in order to function. We’re Harlow’s monkeys. Despite the oppressive gaze of the Other, we need to see and be seen. So we work at it, this whole connection thing, and we do all we can to keep it from becoming a chore.

I’m most comforted by thinking of loneliness as a default state, rather than a problem to be solved, an infection to be excised. Kurt Vonnegut called loneliness a “terrible disease.” He recommended young people create “stable communities” in order to “cure” it. I sort of hate that. Tom Wolfe had a different view of loneliness, one that I prefer and upon which he expounds in his essay “God’s Lonely Man”: “The whole conviction of my life,” he writes, “now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” From this I gather that I am not alone in feeling alone; that I am the rule rather than the exception; that there is nothing “peculiar” about loneliness. I’m not special for being lonely. And God does that feel good.

In its impermanence, loneliness is really a lot like happiness. That’s a comfort and a bummer. The inimitable Fran Lebowitz, on happiness: “We live in a world where people think happiness is a condition, but it’s not; it’s a sensation. It’s momentary. So do I have little moments of happiness? Yes. Is that my general condition? No. Is that anyone’s general condition? I can’t believe that’s the case.” And Lane Moore, in How to Be Alone: “Being alone is not a life sentence. I know it feels like it at the time, but I promise you, you will not be alone for the rest of your life. And if you are—okay, let’s see what happiness can be found there.”

Sophia Stewart