The human condition rests between the poles of sociality and solitude. We all understand ourselves as alone in the world at the same time that we find ourselves surrounded—and formed—by others, for better and for worse. Despite any good point made about individual and cultural differences in how we view human relationships, the truth remains that we human beings crave the company of others; yet we also cherish our solitude or our autonomy. We will, on occasion, find ourselves surrounded by others whom we wish would go away, while at other times we will end up being or feeling alone, regretfully, without choosing that condition. So you might say that loneliness is a way of life—not only because there’s no avoiding it, but because it defines for us the contours of who we are and what we have the power to choose. In other words, it shows us the limits of our control over our own life circumstances.
Tom Dumm, political philosopher and professor of Political Science at Amherst College, has given over the writing portion of his life to an exploration of selfhood and the relation between personal stories and political theory in such works as united states (Cornell, 1994) and A Politics of the Ordinary (NYU, 1999). In his recent book, Loneliness as a Way of Life (Harvard, 2008), he combines reflection on personal loss and grief with new readings of classic pieces of American film and literature ranging from Moby Dick and Death of a Salesman to Paris, Texas.
In this interview, conducted over email during the summer of 2008, he unpacks the human baggage of grief and loneliness, and discusses how America is a distinctly lonely society, in part due to a misconceived idea of self-reliance. However, all is not lost. Loneliness may be damaging to our sense of well-being but, when the examined life proceeds in all honesty, its frank embrace of the inevitability of loneliness enriches us—and maybe makes us better at being with others.
I. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE LONELY
BLVR: Who is lonely?
TD: At some point just about all of us experience loneliness. In a sense, it is what it means to be a sentient animal, to have an experience of separation from others, whether we are human beings or other animals—I’m pretty sure my dog Pip gets lonely when there is no one to be with him. But we humans can end up with a gnawing worry about that separation possibly becoming a permanent condition. I’m interested in why and when that happens. There are degrees of loneliness, ways in which the experience of loneliness deepens, becomes something like what we might call a way of life. This way of life is both what is most damaging to us as a culture, and, paradoxically, contributes to its richness. It may in the end be our lasting contribution to the life of our planet.
Usually, we think that “good” loneliness is what we call “solitude,” the choice of some alone-time. But I want to press on with the negative dimension, to look at ways in which a fundamental sense of being separated from others shapes who we are and why.
BLVR: It seems to me that separation from others just is part of who we are as human beings—and that’s not all bad. There’s something mute and incommunicable about huge swaths of our interior lives, and so we try to communicate it—a lot of good art, writing, language, and poetry comes of that, but also a lot of failure to communicate. Why is it so hard to describe loneliness, or to define what exactly it is?
TD: Well, we don’t have the words, for the most part. We work our way around the idea, we stumble and stutter, but we don’t get to its heart. We think loneliness has to do with not being in proximity to other people, but that’s not it at all. It has to do with our inability to connect or, perhaps better, our overwhelming ability as human beings to imagine our existence as shaped by our singularity as individuals.
BLVR: So we imagine that we are self-formed, which can’t be true, and so we help to create our own loneliness?
TD: Yes. But the larger part is the loss of words, the loss of ways to talk about loneliness. You can compare it to the phenomenon of pain.
BLVR: Right. We all know what pain is, but none of us knows what it’s like for someone else to feel pain, or how to describe our own pain faithfully to someone else. We’re all locked up, as it were, inside these bodies that have their own truths, and some of those truths are kept secret, whether or not we want secrets!
TD: Nonetheless, it is important to try to describe the phenomenon. In Loneliness as a Way of Life, I define loneliness as “the experience of the pathos of disappearance.” By that I mean to suggest that we feel, when we are lonely, as though an element of our world has become lost to us, has disappeared, and that this element is of great importance to us.
BLVR: If loneliness is “being present in the place of our absence”—another of your definitions—how do we become present to our present selves? Surely it’s not by hunkering down in false belief that our own identities are self-made and unproblematic. So loneliness can be a tutor, reminding us of the limits of the power we have to define ourselves. But then do we want to keep loneliness with us, in some measure?
TD: One of the claims I’m trying to make is that we can never leave loneliness behind completely—it is part of what forms us—so what we want to do is pretty much what you suggest: tarry with it, linger over it, imagine how we might represent its consequences in such ways as to understand it better. One of the reasons I always come back to representations of loneliness in plays, films, and literature is that they give us specific examples of the powerful hold that it has on us and yet, paradoxically, by representing what can’t really be represented, so to speak, they give us ways of going forward even as we fall apart.
BLVR: Reading about loneliness reminds us that we aren’t alone in our loneliness!
II. THE POLITICS OF DANCING WITH MYSELF
BLVR: If loneliness defines us fundamentally, that might be a difficult lesson to learn for born-free autonomy-loving people living in the U.S. of A. So why learn it?
TD: Hmmm. I’d like to meet this born-free autonomy-loving person someday. Somehow such a person sounds to me more like the Unabomber than Henry Thoreau (not that there aren’t some affinities)!
BLVR: Ha! Yes, well I phrased it that way for the sake of the absurd hyperbole that nevertheless sometimes seems to ring true. It seems like the American way—to claim “rights” to be free from interference from others, while also claiming that we are “owed” things by those same others. But then we sometimes fail to see that this means that we, too, “owe” things to them.
TD: Well, one of the reasons so many of my examples are culled from American literary texts, aside from my own personal life trajectory as an American, is that the U.S. might be considered to be the heart of contemporary loneliness precisely because of that striving to achieve a sort of “cowboy” autonomy, which is, I think, a misconceived notion of self-reliance. Several friends urged me to include material on the American Western as a part of my loneliness book, but I found that to do so would be to go over ground well covered by others, and also to somehow distance us from the phenomenon. Strangely, I find Pip in Moby-Dick to be more of a familiar spirit than, say, Gary Cooper in High Noon.
The cowboy notion is “misconceived” because to read, say, Emerson, as calling for a withdrawal from others as the way to realize one’s best self is to misconstrue what he, Thoreau, and others—including William James and W. E. B. Du Bois—are trying to say about the relationship of each of us to others. To get to a better place about what the limits of our connections to each other can be is part of the purpose of thinking about loneliness. It also offers that minimal therapeutic moment that comes with any exploration of the range and limits of ourselves.
BLVR: What are some of the political aspects of loneliness?
TD: It was Hannah Arendt who claimed that totalitarianism emerges from a deep and politically encouraged form of loneliness. Ideology and terror, Arendt argued, are twin techniques of political domination over a polity that is prepared by a deep loneliness to turn away from engagement in order to find some sort of relief from their own isolated selves. Rather than face their loneliness and try to overcome their ghostly existence, they join in a collective enterprise against something else, all in the name of love of country.
BLVR: Totalitarianism relies on lonely subjects, subjects separated from each other who, instead of participating in a vibrant public realm, are consigned to private lives with few bridges to others. But what about democracy? Aren’t we less lonely? Or don’t we at least have more tools to combat loneliness?
TD: I worry that we don’t currently have a democracy in the United States. Instead we have what Sheldon Wolin has recently labeled a sort of inverted totalitarianism.
BLVR: So, rather than being isolated because we have no public realm, as in totalitarianism, we have public space in which politics is replaced by consumerism—which doesn’t build social relationships—or in which political speech is discouraged or censured, as it has been post-9/11.
TD: Right. To my way of thinking, if we are to have a democracy, we must have the spirit of what Whitman was driving at when he spoke of a literature of many and one. The continued existence of such a literature might encourage the pursuit of what the French thinker Ranciere has called “constituent moments,” that is, moments of public articulation which illustrate who we as a people are and can be, and that aren’t managed by corporate power or state force, but which bubble from unbidden spaces of our culture.
BLVR: By tapping into the power that results from people coming together, we avoid the social isolation that pushes us toward what has the feel of totalitarianism.
TD: Yes. Such moments were last seen in this country, imperfectly, I think, in the 1960s and early 1970s. At another level, however, these events may only be symptoms of a deeper problem in the devolution of our democracy. Worldwide, the 20th century has seen the rise of extraordinary concentrations of economic and political power—evoking the people as the source of power while simultaneously privatizing its most meaningful exercise. Democracy always seems to be at least slightly elusive under such conditions.
BLVR: So, if we allow ourselves to be isolated by current political or economic conditions, our loneliness won’t just be a private matter—it becomes political, and dangerous.
III. WAY OUT
BLVR: You mention that loneliness drives us to dead ends in love and life. Can thinking through our relationship to a fundamental loneliness really help us shed light on how to avoid such dead ends?
TD: One can hope. None of us is perfect, but the point of our writing is to try to become better, to learn something that we may not have already realized, about ourselves, about the world we inhabit. Maybe we won’t avoid dead ends, but will better know when we have reached them. In one of my favorite anecdotes about Foucault, someone asks him why he writes books. He responds by saying something like, “When I begin to write a book, I do not know how it will come out, what it will say in the end. If I already did, I wouldn’t need to write it.” I try to take that idea to heart. Writing and thinking are, for me, the same, so if we transpose that idea, the conceit here is that I have been trying to think through my own loneliness so as to provide a guide, imperfect as it may be, to others who may have concerns about themselves, about our polity, about our way of being in the world. Of course, each of us has to write our own book, live our own life. What I mean is: bring yourself to this book, don’t dismiss it too soon, try to bring your best self to thinking with me as I go along. …It is also an admonition to myself when I am reading other people’s books. Writing a book is very difficult to do, even a bad one. I try to remember that when reading someone else’s work.
BLVR: Me too. More people should do that. The world would be better for it. Sure, bad books exist and honest reviews are useful. But needlessly hostile or snarky reviews, those lower everyone, and usually reveal more about the reviewer than the book in question.
TD: Yeah. I look back on some of my early reviews of others, and realize to my chagrin that I’ve been as guilty as anybody else on that front.
BLVR: That said, we still have to ask the tough questions about what we succeed and fail to do in any text. For instance, I found myself sometimes wondering how the pieces of your book fit together. One example: what does it mean to “turn toward the west,” for Emerson, or in Paris, Texas? Given that, as you’ve remarked, our lives are shaped by the metaphors we accept and use, does the metaphor of the “west” not conceal as much as it reveals, inasmuch as “the west” is often treated as frontier, there for the taking, but the taking involves theft, racism, genocide, injustice? And, in the heritage of the U.S., those wrongs are largely ungrieved.
TD: That heritage is the double-edged sword of American experience. I kept trying to show it. Emerson, I think, has the temporality of this experience right, this double-edged quality, when he writes, “I clap my hands in infantine joy… in this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.” That’s a passage in “Experience” when he is describing his thinking process, his discovery of new regions of mind. It is already there, he has “found” it, and it is still unapproachable. The closest he can get to the present of the present is in this ecstatic moment of realization—it makes him new again. And yet he doesn’t dwell on the harm there, the bloody costs of it all. This isn’t to say Emerson lacks a sense of this tragedy—one of his earliest political acts was to write an open letter protesting the treatment of the Cherokees. I depend more on other thinkers, other writers, to get me to darker places, like Melville, for instance.
BLVR: You mention the heartache that attends the autonomous self’s thinking that it will never know another as it knows itself. That is a snapshot of isolation, and we’ve all seen ourselves in it at one point or another. But what about how others can know us in ways we cannot know ourselves? The ways in which others, even strangers, “know” us may give us wisdom about ourselves we never could have had on our own. Hannah Arendt motions toward this point when she talks about how none of us is in charge of the stories that will get told about us. We act, our actions may fail, or be misconstrued, our intentions misread and found culpable, and so on. Who we are is not always what we set out to be. Sometimes we don’t easily recognize ourselves in the stories told about us. And yet sometimes those stories are true! It seems to me that admitting that could chip away at loneliness (as much as it could reinforce the fortress-of-solitude we get when we fail at communicating—it could go either way). You may not know yourself as well as you think you do. For that you need others. And if that is the case, then loneliness is in some respects a result of a too-resolute belief in uninterruptable autonomy. In reading your book, at various points I find myself unsure whether you would agree with this series of statements, or disagree, or state things otherwise.
TD: This is probably the toughest question you’ve asked, and maybe it is the toughest question period. It requires a continuing answer. Let’s be pretentious for a moment, and suggest that we are—yes, I’m implicating you, Jill—
BLVR: Oh, please, call me BLVR!
TD: Ha. You and I are trying to be philosophers. That means we are trying to think in ways that bring us closer to understanding truth, because that is what philosophers do. As lovers of truth, we want to be close to it. Sometimes—evil thought, evil temptation—we want to be close to it by misleading others about its presence.
BLVR: Speak for yourself!
TD: Not me! Haven’t you heard of the royal “We”? Seriously, that is what I think Strauss and his followers, the Allan Blooms, the Bill Kristols, are about. They aren’t democrats, though they dishonestly speak of being so. They want to rule the world through their stooges, like Bush (they dare to call them “statesmen’!). But we, speaking presumptuously, are democrats. That means that you and I, and our fellow travelers, believe that all of us in this world of humans are more or less capable of being philosophers.
BLVR: Yes. We all are.
TD: All of us are more or less able to think about what is true for each of us, and in sharing that, test it. Of course, one of the problems, ongoing, is figuring out this “more or less” for ourselves and for others. Arendt may put it one way, Emerson another, when he says in “Self-Reliance” that our own thoughts come back to us with a certain alienated majesty when expressed by someone else. This back and forth, this conversation that allows for us to be converted to another way of being and thinking, this is available to all of us, though many of us never take that step. It does require risking ourselves, or, as Stanley Cavell puts it somewhere, “going first.” I don’t write thinking I have the answers, but instead with the realization that I am exposing myself precisely to others who will be drawn to tell me more about myself, and in doing so, tell me, and themselves, about who they are as well. I think that is why we write, we democratic philosophers, to encourage, to give cheer to each other, to try our best not to howl in the dark.