How cities and literature are entangled in different expressions of loneliness and solitude

Rihan Najib | Updated on September 13, 2019

Urban issue: The potential of cities to simultaneously liberate and isolate people was of critical interest to writers and artists   -  ISTOCK.COM

Accounts of loneliness in literature are at once the photograph of a society as well as its critique

In any early standard Eurocentric textbook on urban studies, one is bound to come across the concept of the plaza, or a city square. Like Potsdamer Platz in Berlin or Times Square in New York, the plaza was to be the beating heart of the city, the grand arena for the staging of urban public life. But it also served a critical psychological function.

For 18th-century residents of metropolitan areas, stepping out of the dusk of an agrarian era into the dawn of an industrial one, the plaza embodied the promise of the city. It was where one would meet one’s fellow men as equals — not as landlord and tenant, or employer and employee, but as equal participants in urban life, with equal claims to the city. For those restricted by ties of class and community and the circumstances of birth, the city offered a way out of the throttle. BR Ambedkar urging Dalits to leave villages — strongholds of caste, a “den of iniquity” — for the cities represent this emancipatory potential.

Further on in the textbook of urban studies, one is likely to find the counterweight to the above. In the seminal essay Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), German sociologist Georg Simmel examines the corollary to the individual finding freedom in the city: Loneliness.

The art of aloneness: Artist Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks is among the most famous portraits of urban loneliness   -  WIKIMEDIA


Compared to small town life, which “rests more upon deeply felt emotional relationships”, Simmel finds the city governed by the “money economy”, where “man is reckoned with like a number”. Bracing against overstimulated urban environments and the ennui arising out of dissociation from traditional kinship, the city dweller develops an attitude of “antipathy” while coping with the metropolis. “One nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd,” Simmel writes.

Is hell really other people?

For writers and artists who found refuge, recognition and community in cities, this ability of cities to simultaneously liberate and isolate has always been rich material for the imagination. ‘A small town something lost and found in the big city’ is a genre of literature all by itself.

Take Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar (1963), the reading of which is now considered a rite of passage for those making the transition from the homestead to the wider world. A young intern from the Boston suburbs moves to New York to work for a prestigious magazine and finds herself at odds with the airs of the establishment, her own lofty aspirations and the vibrant, too-loud, too-bright city.

The unravelling mental state of the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is set against the relentlessly forward-lurching cogs of New York, highlighting the alienation many experience in the cities they inhabit. “Every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour,” Plath writes.

The Bell Jar was too autobiographical to be dismissed as fiction, merely another story from a prodigiously talented writer. Greenwood’s experiences paralleled that of Plath’s, so much so that the novel was initially published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

But if accounts of loneliness are removed from reality only by a thin sheen of fiction, it might have something to do with the fact that writing itself is a deeply lonely activity. It is a process of solitary engagement with one’s thoughts, of laboriously converting passing observations and impressions into prose.

Writers cannot help but be lonely — or, in a more positive sense, court solitude. But despite the retreat, the rich, fictive potential of daily human interaction places the writer in the position of needing people, and all their quirks, pains, dreams and warts. Even if Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is other people”, it’s just as hellish to crave genuine human connection and be left with its mirage. Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976) provides an evocative portrait of this condition: “Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together.”

A qualitative distinction ought to be struck between loneliness and solitude — the former carries the stigma of desolation and the latter is a pensive, introverted state of being. If loneliness evokes the loss of belonging, solitude is the radical unshackling of the self from the need to be attached and embedded. Maya Angelou’s collection of essays Letter to My Daughter (2008) carries a telling passage. “You only are free when you realise you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great,” she writes.

The new loneliness

In the essay The perpetual solitude of the writer, author Adam Haslett describes the process of writing about loneliness, delving deeper into it, while watching the world from the fringes and understanding it with greater intimacy. “You remove yourself from the world in order to get closer to it.”

As a result, accounts of loneliness in literature are at once the photograph of a society and its critique. For instance, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017) is a sharp yet compassionate takedown of the manners and affectations of modern urban life.

The eponymous protagonist, who has stoically made loneliness her steadiest companion after a traumatic childhood, describes the feeling of being alone with potent force: “There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely.”

Oliphant, as the title insists, is completely fine, observing social rituals of dating and friendship with a detached confusion and amusement. But a chance encounter with another person has her mulling over the small but powerful magic of simple human contact: “A human hand was exactly the right weight, exactly the right temperature for touching another person, I realized.”

Especially in an age of social media saturation, observing loneliness becomes more compelling owing to the fact that people are rarely alone, even when alone. Phones are constantly ringing, and fingers are swiping left and right in the hope of finding romance and companionship, scrolling endlessly through the social media feeds of friends and strangers. The very existence of cuddle cafes in Japan, where customers can pay to sleep and cuddle in the arms of a stranger, shows just how deeply isolation has come to define contemporary urban life. “Consumer capitalism thrives by simultaneously creating human loneliness and commodifying a thousand cures for it,” Haslett notes.

Explorations of loneliness from various angles of alienation bring out the neuroses of the age — of being an anxious minority, of being constantly distracted, of the fatigue of having too much information and yet not knowing enough, of being under constant surveillance, of living in a slow-burning planet but being too busy to care. Literature captures these states of being, and delivers them to readers, allowing them to recognise their own isolation through fictitious characters.

The starkest neurosis of them all has to be the fact that — despite the purported misanthropy of people who live in overcrowded cities, exhausted from the daily grind, wanting nothing more than to never see another face again — the worst form of punishment that can be inflicted on anybody is still solitary confinement.

The promise of the city square was the possibility of social encounter across classes, the recognition of each other as autonomous individuals. The price was loneliness.

Thankfully, there is always literature for company.

Published on September 13, 2019

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