Some time back, casting about for a reason that roughly a third of the American population has been swept up in a collective mental illness, I suggested that feelings of threat and insecurity that have become increasingly widespread in American life have led many people to seek safety within cults and mass movements, citing the “safety needs” of the second level of Abraham Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of needs. But single-cause explanations are always suspect. The third level of Maslow’s hierarchy is the need for love, and as lack of security breeds anxiety and paranoia, lack of love produces loneliness. A sharply insightful article in Salon.com by Michelle Goldberg concludes that “Loneliness Is Breaking America”:
There are many causes for the overlapping dysfunctions that make contemporary American life feel so dystopian, but loneliness is a big one. Even before Covid, Americans were becoming more isolated. And as Damon Linker pointed out recently in The Week, citing Hannah Arendt, lonely people are drawn to totalitarian ideologies. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships, Arendt concluded in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” describing those who gave themselves over to all-encompassing mass movements.
Goldberg cites a survey saying that 17% of Americans report they have no people in their core social network, and that these “socially disconnected” voters were more likely to see Trump positively. A good number of Trump superfans, who follow Trump “from rally to rally like authoritarian Deadheads,” are older, often retired, sometimes estranged from their families. Throwing themselves into the Trump movement gives them a community and a purpose in life.
We have been creating a disconnected society for a long time. Goldberg does not mention David Riesman’s famous sociological study of 1950, The Lonely Crowd, which formulated a distinction, controversial yet hugely influential, between inner-directed and other-directed personalities. Inner-directed people follow an internal value system or conscience and suffer guilt if they fail to live up to its demands. Other-directed people find their identity in the approval of a peer group; if they fail to procure that approval, they suffer shame rather than guilt. Riesman’s study looks forward to Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism a generation later (1979). Lasch’s thesis was that narcissists actually have a weak sense of self, vulnerable because it depends on a “who’s the fairest” reflection in the eyes of others.
Needless to say, social media magnify this narcissistic other-directedness, leading to the election of a former president addicted to Twitter and pep rallies, a man clearly suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. The paradox is that other-directed people are ruled by herd instinct, and are thus easily stampeded, precisely because they feel so solitary and therefore desperate to belong, to fit in. But then, is it really so hard to understand? It is after all just high school all over again, with its cliques, its mean girls—and also its Columbine outcasts who lash out in fury at being shamed. For there is the in-group—but there are also the outsiders who lurk at its margins. Like the Columbine killers, incels and trolls are driven by shame, by a feeling of rejection, a feeling of being exiled on the digital desert island of the Internet. In the case of the Trump phenomenon, the in-group itself feels this shame of rejection in relation to the larger society, and is reacting with fury and a desire to break things, even at its own expense. Economic injustices have undermined people’s sense of security, but social changes have also isolated far too many people, whose loneliness has soured into the acid of hate. The sheer unwarranted spitefulness of so many people’s behavior, the desire to “trigger the libs,” seems baffling at first glance, but is in fact the symptom of intolerable loneliness and feelings of rejection. The hatred is the symptom of a failure of love.
We have zoomed out, so to speak, from the particulars of our present crisis in order to achieve a wide-angle sociological perspective. What happens if we zoom out one step further into the fully expanded perspective of the imagination?
In the last newsletter, I offered a simple but possibly useful definition of the imagination, not in terms of its Platonic essence but simply a working definition in terms of its symptoms. The imagination manifests itself, in literature and life, as a sense of pattern: of connections, inter-relations, associations, identifications. At fullest intensity, this can become what in The Productions of Time I called a vision of order, an order that does not efface differences but includes them in what philosophy has called identity-in-difference. Thinking in these terms is what Samuel R. Delany called “multiplex.” As the word “thinking” implies, the vision of order is the intellectual aspect of the imaginative vision, its contemplative mode. Because the intellect and the visual sense are closely related, the vision of order is often expressed by visual emblems such as the mandala or Dante’s Heavenly Rose, more abstractly in philosophy and criticism by words like “structure.” But the vision of order has its bias—one already hinted at in my “zooming out” Big Picture metaphor. Contemplation, like vision, is detached and unchanging: we cannot see what is too close or too energetically changing or in motion.
As I also said in Productions, the vision of order has what Blake calls a Contrary: a vision of love. Imagination in the vision of love is energy, an energy of desire that sweeps through all things, uniting them, marrying them through what Northrop Frye, borrowing from Heidegger, has called “ecstatic metaphor,” the word ecstasy meaning to drive beyond normal boundaries. In Classical thought, it was sometimes designated Eros, including erotic desire but expanding far beyond it. The Roman poet Lucretius wrote a philosophical poem called De Rerum Natura, usually translated On the Nature of Things, in which, for the bulk of the poem, he expounds the atomistic materialism of Epicurus. But in the poem’s opening he invokes Venus as his Muse, not merely in her usual role as goddess of human sexual love but as a dynamic vitality that animates what would otherwise be dead “things”:
They follow, gladly taken in the drive,
The urge of love to come. So, on you move
Over the seas and mountains, over streams
Whose ways are fierce, over the greening leas,
Over the leafy tenements of birds,
So moving that in all the ardor burns
For generation and their kind’s increase,
Since you alone control the way things are.
Something of the energy that Lucretius is celebrating seems to have overtaken him in this invocation: if the rest of the poem were on that level, we might still be reading it.
It was Dante’s radical move to Christianize the vision of love by uniting Eros with Christian spiritual love, or Agape. The Heavenly Rose, which is the pattern taken by the souls in the highest heaven, is a vision of order (it takes two cantos to catalogue who is located where, justifying that everything is in its proper place in a total order), but the rose itself indicates that it is a vision of “The love that moves the sun and other stars”—the famous last line of the epic. There is an eternal pattern, but there is also the love that makes the world go round. This vision of love has room for Dante’s Eros love for Beatrice within a wider context. Very important in the poem’s second and third canticles, the Purgatorio and Paradiso, is the theme of reunion, always to me one of its most moving motifs. Time after time Dante is reunited with those he has lost, from his musician friend Casella on the shores of the mountain of Purgatory to his great-great grandfather in heaven. The twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich also defines reunion as the essential nature of love. As Tillich was a Lutheran, I am not sure he was influenced by Dante: more likely both were influenced by Neoplatonism, with its vision of life on earth as an estrangement. Humanity is driven by a yearning to return to the origin, to reunite with the spiritual source from which it emanated, a pattern readily assimilated to the Biblical pattern of exile and return, where in the end God will be “all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28). The great mystics, both Christian and Islamic, underwent experiences of reunion whose imagery, however sublimated, was sexual, a quasi-orgasmic melting of the human self with God “as a drop of water into the ocean,” as in Bernini’s famous sculpture “St. Theresa in Ecstasy,” a word that could mean orgasm, as in John Donne’s poem “The Extasie.”
But our focus for today is not on that vision of plenitude but on its opposite, the vision of estrangement and solitude whose ultimate mood is loneliness. We yearn for that reunion, but, however close to others we may sometimes feel, and whatever we may believe, or believe we believe, about higher unities, our underlying emotional conviction is that we live alone, we die alone. In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot writes
I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
This underlying conviction surfaces in a relationship breakup or divorce, leaving the feeling that we are serving a life sentence, in solitary confinement.
At its most intense, it is an experience of damnation. In Dante’s hell the damned are progressively more isolated until in the bottom circle they are encased in ice. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the inner condition of Satan is one of solipsistic self-torment. The Romantic movement sired an entire line of self-damned Solitaries. Well known examples are the dark, brooding Byronic hero and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, but the extensive lineage is studied in The Spirit of Solitude: Conventions and Continuities in Late Romance, by the remarkable Canadian poet Jay Macpherson. In his long poem The Excursion, Wordsworth presents an admonitory figure called the Solitary, an influence on later poems like Shelley’s Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. Of Wordsworth’s Solitary, critic Harold Bloom says,
Wordsworth gives us a man who has lost family, revolutionary hope, and the capacity for affective joy, but who suffers the endless torment of not being able to lose his imaginative power, which now lacks all objects save himself. This is the state of being Blake named Ulro, the hell of the selfhood-communer.
All these Romantic Solitaries are archetypal figures, to which clings a certain heroic glamor. But by our time this kind of alienation has gotten out on the streets, and that means that all hell has broken loose, as we saw most dramatically on January 6. The selfhood communers of the present moment do not resemble Byron’s Manfred: they resemble Tolkien’s Orcs. Yet at the core of them is still an emptiness so intolerable that it drives them into nihilistic aggression as a kind of distraction, a relief from a black pit of despair.
We need to begin thinking about how society is going to have to change so that it offers its members an alternative to solitude and loneliness. I don’t have anything like an adequate utopian model: I wish I did. But I know that in the United States, it will involve contesting the present ideal of what is called individualism but is really just rationalized selfishness. Capitalism promotes this kind of selfishness, and it is going to entail curbing the power of capitalism to condition people, to make them believe that ruthless self-interest is the American Dream. But critique, while it may help wake people up, will produce no changes without an alternative. So much selfish behavior, both individual and corporate, is actually compensatory, an attempt to find satisfaction in power or wealth in a way that will disguise the absence of meaningful bonds with other people. People might be less greedy and power-driven if they could find fulfillment another way.
One of the great science fiction novels, Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human (1953) became very popular with my generation in the Sixties. It postulates a mutation that enables certain people to unite in a bond that is less telepathic than empathic, resulting in a new species of Homo gestalt, a gestalt being a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. The characters refer to their union as “bleshing,” a coined word fusing “blending” and “meshing.” The Introduction to The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, vol. 6, is by, of all people, David Crosby, who says, “And when I read More than Human, I—and all the other kids who were loners and didn’t fit in—said, ‘I could fit in there. I would love to be part of that kind of incredible link-up where people really understand each other and love each other and have unity of purpose.’” His way of approximating that link-up was to be part of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, to which he adds that Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead told him that More than Human was “the only model he and his bandmates had to understand what was happening to them when they began playing together.” People who have been part of other team activities, whether in the arts, as in theatre, or in sports, may understand what Crosby is talking about.
But what of the greater number of people who are neither mutants nor artists (not that there is much difference by some reckonings)? I do not want to minimize the inhumanity of racism and homophobia, but in addition to staunchly opposing it, we need to understand and try to alleviate its emotional cause. Some people feel that there was once a way of life where they could fit in and belong. That way of life is being replaced by crowds of strangers who are different from them, so that they are increasingly exiled from anything like a living community. I am not defending this, only saying that behind the hate of so many hate crimes is fear, and behind the fear is loneliness, the feeling that “I am alone, there is no one like me.” I told my students recently, 18 year-old freshmen, that many people my age have to this day never talked to an African-American or gay person in their lives—unless maybe one of their children married one, or came out. If there was a single African-American or Latino in my suburban grade school in Canton, Ohio in the 1950’s, I was not aware of it. Even in high school, they were rare. Where were they? At McKinley High School across town. Segregation was illegal, but segregation was common practice. Lack of acquaintance rather than some innate viciousness accounts for a good deal of bigotry: so many older Americans have never had a chance to learn that those “different” people are just fellow human beings.
And yet. And yet there is another side to this argument. For there is such a thing as creative solitude, healing and nurturing solitude, necessary solitude. There is no resolving the paradox, for we are paradoxical creatures. We need to belong, even to blesh—yet we also need to be alone, to have privacy, to have “time to ourselves.” The imagination is identity-in-difference, but that paradoxical union of the opposites is mostly foundational and unconscious, while waking life consists of conflict between opposites, or oscillation between them. In Milton’s retelling of Genesis in Paradise Lost, Adam goes to God and complains of loneliness: all of the animals have mates and he is alone. And God teases Adam (it’s easy to keep a straight face when you’re invisible), saying, well, I’m alone and I’m fine about it. Adam bursts out, “But you’re God! Not fair!” It is not said that God smiles (who could tell?) but he thereupon reassures Adam that he knows that it is not good for human beings to be alone and creates Eve.
However, Milton’s friend the Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (who helped get the Puritan revolutionary Milton out of prison and save him from being executed after the Restoration) has a tour de force called “The Garden” in which the speaker wanders alone and utterly contented in a paradisal garden: “Society is all but rude, / To this delicious solitude,” he says. The poem sums itself up in the famous lines “Two paradises ‘twere in one / To live in paradise alone.” For creative people in particular, but for us introverts more generally, a good deal of solitude, perhaps even loneliness of the right type, is a recurrently necessary condition. Too much reunion makes us, first irritable, then a bit mad. An unjustly neglected writer, May Sarton, made this theme her own. Undergoing a mid-life crisis after the breakup of a long-term relationship, Sarton bought an old New Hampshire house and turned it into a creative hermit’s retreat, recounting the story in the lyrical memoir Plant Dreaming Deep. From that refuge, she began publishing a series of journals that became her most popular works, starting with Journal of a Solitude. I have my own do-it-yourself paradisal garden here in my semi-rural house with its front wall entirely of glass, isolated and yet looking out upon the world.
I also have my extensive (and I mean extensive) personal library, in which I wander as Marvell did in his garden. To me, reading has always been the ideal solitude, intensely personal and yet deeply social at the same time as I converse with a multitude of voices while sitting with my coffee in my chair. The other side of reading, so to speak, is writing, a more active way of having solitude and yet community. Ours in an age of communication at a distance, and sometimes we become aware that there is a sadness about writing, a gap reaffirmed even as we close it. Alongside More than Human, Theodore Sturgeon wrote a story called “Saucer of Loneliness,” in which the UFO in question turns out to be a bottle with a message in it, a cry of interstellar loneliness. We write not knowing who our audience is, or perhaps even if we have one. As I do now, to you my readers, my hypothetical ghosts. And yet there is something satisfying about it, something that drives some of us to keep doing it. As I do now.
Michelle Goldberg, “Loneliness Is Breaking America,” in Salon.com, July 21, 2021.
Lucretius, The Way Things Are, translated by Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
Harold Bloom, on Wordsworth’s Solitary, in Yeats (London, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 10.
Jay Macpherson, The Spirit of Solitude: Conventions and Continuities in Late Romance (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982).
The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, volume 6, edited by Paul Williams, Foreword by David Crosby (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books), ix-x.
May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep (New York & London: Norton, 1968).
May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude (New York & London: Norton, 1973).