In today’s interconnected society we find ourselves lonelier than ever before. Ahead of George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan’s exploration of loneliness at Durham Book Festival, Cheryl Julia Lee suggests that loneliness can be thought of as a problem of communication, of finding a form to express one’s feelings.
In his article for The Guardian, The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us, George Monbiot declares that England is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. “We were social creatures from the start,” he writes, and we are “shaped … by contact with others.” Yet today we find ourselves more isolated than any generation that has gone before us. Citing unsettling statistic after unsettling statistic (“severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50,” “two-fifths of older people report that [television] is their principal company,” etc), he argues that in order to truly overcome this problem, the community “must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced.” In the article, Monbiot stops short of explaining just what he believes this confrontation entails but we might look at his collaboration with folk singer and songwriter Ewan McLennan for an intimation; the concert, to be performed at the upcoming Durham Book Festival, is after all suggestively titled, Breaking the Spell of Loneliness.
The literary critic Thomas Parkinson posits that loneliness “begins with the recognition of one’s singularity—the fact that a deep communication of that self and recognition by others of its legitimacy is not fully possible.” By this definition, loneliness comes to be another name for the problem of form. The problem of form arises from the tension between our intensely private consciousness and our necessarily social experience of the world: how can we adequately, sincerely, truthfully convey what we are thinking and feeling? This is the task of all form. Loneliness is a failure of form: the self remains trapped, arrested, within its own confines, like Narcissus who fell in love with his reflection and committed suicide when he realised his love could never be reciprocated. “[D]umb people have holes in their stomachs,” writes Patrick McCabe in The Butcher Boy, a harrowing novel about the devastating consequences of loneliness. “They try to cry out and they can’t they don’t know how.” It is this prison of loneliness, of I don’t know how to cry out, that Cathy Rentzenbrink and Decca Aitkenhead are trying to write themselves out of in their respective memoirs, The Last Act of Love and All at Sea, after each is robbed of a loved one and grief sends them hurtling back into themselves. “emotional tinnitus” is the phrase Rentzenbrink uses to describe her experience, that deafening ringing that comes from and exists only inside one’s head.
Loneliness is a soliloquy, only there is no one around to overhear it
Loneliness is a soliloquy, only there is no one around to overhear it; but form, when achieved, is dialogue. We speak, gesture, write, paint, sing, dance, with the hope that we might communicate, and in communicating, give depth and resonance, to a personal truth. What we seek in dialogue is response, a hand extended in empathy and compassion. In the memoir genre, what is private is made public while retaining a sense of intimacy; the memoir speaks in fits and starts, with hesitation and reservation, because its business is sharing secrets. Monbiot too suggests as much by turning to a musical collaboration in order to articulate a solution to loneliness. And the height of empathy, of compassion, is love. Love is respite from loneliness, triumph of form. It is the ultimate response, the perfect response. I love you, a person says to another. I love you in return, replies the other. They cannot mean the same thing in any real sense of the word but they are both of them understood.
It is naive to believe that love is the ‘cure’ to the epidemic. Even if we were to be wilfully naive, it is difficult to find our way to love, and then difficult to retain it. As Rentzenbrink and Aitkenhead remind us, love is susceptible to the vagaries of life; it can often leave us lonelier still. Their memoirs might detail the aftermath of tragedy but loneliness is not aftermath. The frightening thing about loneliness is that it persists. “How can your solitary finish?” Francie Brady asks at the end of The Butcher Boy. “That’s the best laugh yet.” Loneliness will kill us yet but there is something that makes it worth living through: the possibility of love, no matter how temporary, no matter how bereft it must eventually leave us.
George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan will present Breaking the Spell of Loneliness at Durham Book Festival on Wednesday 12th October at 19.00.