Literary Loneliness, Loveliness
In need of some centring, I took Pema Chodron's Comfortable with Uncertainty off my bookshelf. As books do, it opened to something I needed - her short reading titled, "Cool Loneliness." In it she says:
"When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart?"
After reading this I rummaged around in my 'unpublished trove' as I like to think of it, and found an essay I'd written on literary loneliness a while back. It's a bit long, but you can come back to it when you like and when you have time or when you need it.
I think I’ve mainly managed to keep loneliness at bay because I’ve kept company with writers who were lonely, or more accurately, it was their work that has kept me company. Of course, there are also the biographies, the letters, the diaries of these writers. Who can read the passage in Jane Eyre where Charlotte Bronte writes, “The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely,” and not be affected? One cannot help comparing this to her life, her biography.
The word lonely is one that seems to find me. I was working one afternoon at the library and the word was calling me from a shelf I happened to walk by. The book was titled Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude by Emily White. It’s an incredibly well-researched volume about the writer’s experience navigating through an extreme loneliness. She talks about her severe loneliness as being related to but different from depression and identifies the types – emotional and social loneliness, situational loneliness, those moments when one experiences an ‘eerie affliction of the spirit.’ White also describes how difficult it is to talk about loneliness – it’s not just that there’s a stigma, or that it gets confused with depression – it’s because we fear making those who are in our lives feel guilty. Not to mention that most people think that loneliness is just a passing mood, rather than a potentially concerning state, and sometimes one that can be prolonged.
Writers, in general, are familiar with loneliness, and embrace it to some degree. It’s very often the act of writing which saves the lonely person. There is a sub-category I’d call, ‘literary loneliness.’ However, rather than this sort of literary loneliness, White’s book mainly examines the psychological and medical research surrounding loneliness, and she also interviews people through her blog. For example, she quotes ‘Anne the social worker’: “When I think about loneliness, I think about just feeling like I don’t have intimate connections that touch on all the different aspects of myself. And It’s not that I don’t have intimate relationships. It's that I don’t have ones that cover all of who I am.”
Reading this book certainly got me thinking about my own abiding relationship with loneliness, which is not a deep or extreme loneliness, but a loneliness nevertheless.
I’ve always thought it notable that the words lonely and lovely were only one letter away from each other. Which maybe says something about my relationship with loneliness. I have come to think of it as an intermittent loneliness, a literary loneliness, a poetic loneliness, and one that has a bit of the situational about it as well. Maybe this is partly because as you get older it’s more difficult to maintain friendships. Friends move away, become immersed in this or that. You find yourself drifting from relationships for various reasons.
A certain amount of loneliness is of use to writers, artists. There must be some tolerance for not just being alone, for solitude, but also, possibly, for the accompanying feelings of loneliness. With luck, one also has the ability to use these feelings in one’s art. I find the Ray LaMontagne song, Be Here Now, to be completely soothing. In it he sings,
“Don’t let your soul get lonely, child..
it’s only time; it will go by.”
Here I will say that I think it’s of utmost importance to guard against that extreme and deep soul-loneliness that can afflict creative people. It's necessary to believe even a little in the line, “it’s only time; it will go by."
I can’t help but think about all the beautiful lines written about loneliness, out of that state. Jorge Luis Borges gets at both the attractiveness and the risk of it in these lines:
I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the
hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you
with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.
And Hafiz, all the way from the 14th century warns,
Your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly, he says. And it’s interesting to think of loneliness as a divine ingredient. It certainly enters into one and changes one. It seasons us and softens us, and enables us to look at others with a particular empathy, a gentleness. Lonely people certainly have an affinity for recognizing other lonely people, even if it’s not quite possible to enter into or change the other’s situation. I see lonely people, or rather, I feel the loneliness of people, all the time at the library. There’s not a thing I can do really, when I feel this but to be present to them, open, and to be tender.
There is a long passage by the melancholy poet, Rilke, in which he talks about sadness being a state where we “no longer hear our astonished emotions living.” Rilke says that it is “important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad” and that “the quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate.”
Sadness is a presence but it’s one that we must be with when it arrives. We are quick to wish sadness gone. But Rilke’s lines are good to read in times of transition, in those moments when we are sunk, drab, when our souls have been darkened or dampened. They are perhaps lines to read in the quiet winter mornings, remembering to be patient with our sadnesses and also with that feeling of being apart from all the relentlessly happy people.
Charles Bukowski captures this feeling so well in the following poem:
I am not like
other people are like
they are all alike;
they are both gleeful
and content and I am
burning in hell.
my heart is a thousand years old.
I am not like
I think what I most like about winter is it’s possible to be thinned out in this bare season, pared down. More possible to live with uncertainty, more possible to live with the feeling that our hearts are a thousand years old. Our seeing is pared down. So too, our being.
But one must also know when solitude has turned into loneliness, and when sadness has permeated our soul too deeply. As Balzac once said, “Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”
I’ve been fortunate to have the company of my artist husband for well over twenty years. So while I’ve experienced certain types of loneliness, I’ve always had the comfort of knowing that I’m accompanied in this creative life. While I write this, Rob is in the basement painting, listening to a little jazz maybe, a little baroque, or to some interview or podcast on the radio. In Letters on Life, Rilke also said that in a good marriage, “each person appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude and thus shows him the greatest faith he can bestow.” And this has been important to me: to have someone be the guardian of my solitude. And to do the same for them.
Rilke was certainly steeped in an understanding of solitude, of sadness, of what it means to be alone, but it would be mistake to call him something like the king of sadness. The words he writes about happiness, resonate with me most deeply: “I basically do not believe that it matters to be happy in the sense in which people expect to be happy.” And I think that one cannot revisit this sentiment too often. For we’re constantly barraged by an idea of happiness, mainly to do with material possessions, that can only truly feed into feelings of dissatisfaction. How in your own way, then, without answering to accepted definitions and expectations, can you find happiness?
And here, I end again with the question from Pema Chodron: if you wake up feeling lonely, how might you use this as a golden opportunity?