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On Solitude (2)

By Henry Roberts

4

The issues of loneliness and solitude and the external world naturally go beyond just social media. Like the one before us, ours is a generation that still clings onto comforts like television, movies, food, music, exercise, books and other healthy and normal activities necessary for us to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning without an all-encompassing feeling of dread. We often strive to do these things alone. They are both a cure for and a cause of loneliness. Let’s take a prominent example from my life: the allure of television. More specifically, the appeal of the three-camera, twenty-two-minute sitcom.

Beautiful, urban, funny, young people, usually living a lifestyle way beyond their seeming financial means; short stories that often arc over a season. Stories of love, friendship, jealously, desire, anger, attraction, eroticism, materialism, precision. Harold Pinter said his plays are ambiguous because our lives are filled with ambiguity. The sitcom is never ambiguous. Several laughs per scene, several scenes per episode. The dramatic instances, in contrast to these humorous moments, are thus all the more touching and stirring. Situation comedies. It’s much easier to watch a neatly bow-tied twenty-two-minute vignette of a group of friends socialising than to leave your room and do the real thing yourself. On the screen, the jokes are always followed by laughter; the conflicts always resolved somehow. There are never any awkward silences.

They feel like they are our friends. When we watch, we feel as though we are spending time with friends- being sociable- when really we are on our own. When they leave us, we feel a loss not dissimilar to grief.

A prevailing debate throughout human history has concerned the nature and purpose of art. I myself ‘contributed’ to this debate, in a piece I wrote for The Tribe entitled ‘The Work of Art.’ (I’m sure if Plato and Kant were alive today, they too would write 900 word pieces for student websites.) In it, I echoed the famous and almost clichéd words that fiction- to which I extended to mean all art- does its job when it ‘comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.’ I also added, however, that art should make us feel less alone.

I still feel this way. There are of course exceptions and allowances. Particularly dark or harrowing works often are designed to make us feel anxious, sad and alone. If the work of art is good, then it will have achieved its objective in making us feel lonely in the cosmos. However, this is a small exception. More often, a good work of art will make us feel closely connected to its creator or its characters. The writer will tap into our most intimate desires and fears; the musician will take us back that moment in childhood when we felt the love of the world in a single summer sky. The artists and their creations almost feel like our friends. Or, at least, we want them to be. In cinema, television, literature, music, theatre, canvas- any form of human expression which we can indulge in silently and alone- we can find solace and reason for being alive if the work is done well. Even if its role is in simple distraction from our lives. Escapism is bliss; B-Movies are often the noblest of all the arts. However, I ended the article in acknowledging the danger in spending too much time engaging with other people’s creations, be they Verdi’s operas or old Friends episodes, and in doing so depriving the real world from ourselves and ourselves from the real world like hermits in a cave. Like forlorn lovers fixated on a lost past, we should not deprive ourselves of the present and the future by only experiencing the world through a page or a screen. Most people seem not to have this problem, but it’s something I fear for myself, especially when I imagine a lonely future, without real companionship, parents dead, old friends married and away, and every night a new book or film or series. A lotus-eater with square eyes.

Obviously, I need not be so dramatic about the whole thing. Art can make us feel less alone because art can quite literally connect us. We go to the cinema in groups (or so I’m told whenever I go by myself and am scorned by friends). We watch television on the sofa with loved ones, discuss popular shows and books with fellow followers, listen to music en masse on the radio or in concert. We make real connections with people based on a mutual love. But once a real connection has been made with somebody, it doesn’t need J.K. Rowling or Paul Simon to hold it together.

Art, in any form, can make us feel less alone. And, in most cases (i.e. in the cases we most frequently interact with art, usually via television), it has no such noble intentions. Reading a chapter or watching an episode at the end of a particularly stressful or, indeed, un-stressful day is a necessary, soothing and perfectly fine thing to do. Some people drink a glass of wine, others smoke a joint. My personal opium is twenty-two minutes of distraction, laughter, and company. The problem is when twenty-two minutes becomes two days, my hair gets greasy and my phone screen grubby with fingerprints.

Throughout, a prevailing thought seems to be occurring. That so much loneliness comes from choosing it as an easier option when faced with choices. One can always rely on oneself. Loneliness is an easy option. Loneliness as an end result is not always a result of choice, of course, but it can be. Faces on screens, whether we recognise them or not, do not demand anything from us. Real flesh and blood faces do. And in front of these demanding judges, we have to deliver something. And that can be hard.

In such situations, the worst thing you can be- even worse than the person who opens their mouths and watch as banal phrase after flaccid idea comes flowing out- is the person who stands there and does nothing. Who stares at a phone screen. Who occupies space but does not engage. The lover of solitude who consequently has failed to make many friends. The lonely one, fearful of his loneliness, acknowledger of his limitations, who wants to make amends but is struggling. Gregariousness is a difficult boon.

This was of course all written in response to being that person. To find myself at the end of my first year, shocked, appalled and in an overwhelming state of self-loathing of having failed largely at making friends. What felt like a cosmic injustice being solely my fault. I did of course make some. And there are several people I love. This essay has been littered with references to other people, to friends. But it was written in response to lying atop my bed on yet another Friday night at nine o’clock with the saddest sound in the universe- the sound of a group of laughing young people outside my door- invading my ears and the space between them.

I have the privilege to know several people who I love and with whom I’m able to sit down with and have a conversation with and examine the contours of their face and read their expressions and feel empathy. It’s awful not having a collective group of friends, and such can make one feel overwhelmingly and irreversible lonely as well as guilty, especially at night when should be having a good time. It’s often hard to do that with just one other person unless romance is involved. And in a university setting where you pay a devastating amount of money in exchange for ‘the best years of your life’ and chances and opportunities you’ll never receive again, there is an overwhelming pressure to be having a good time, all of the time, because so much time and money and resource is being wasted on you. This is all exaggerated with social media. There is an overwhelming pressure to be having a good time all of the time, and when you don’t, you can feel guilty and lazy and angry and ashamed.

But everybody, more than once, feels guilty and lazy and angry and ashamed. Everybody knows this and everybody, from time to time, forgets this. Everybody has a history and secrets. Everybody, even the richest or most intellectually capable or sexually alluring, has a piercing fear. Everybody knows what grief feels like. Everybody is scared. Everybody is different and at the same time just like you. It often feels as though the only two guaranteed truths you can say about life is that it will end and that it is elsewhere. Everybody else is thinking it. And if someone is not, they can’t be thinking very hard.

One needs to do difficult things to get rewards. One needs, sometimes, to put down a phone. To be the first person to make contact (whether by phone or in person). To realise that it’s unhealthy spending so much time alone. It’s easier to stay in one’s room and watch a screen. Read a page. Like a picture. It is much, much easier to write an essay on solitude- really, on loneliness- than it is to try and talk to someone whose response you cannot predict. This was largely a confessional piece. A call to make amends. An acknowledgement of regrets and a formal pledge to change. One needs industry and agency to avoid loneliness.

Of course, for some, this is not difficult. And, as the title of the essay suggests, for some the difficulty lies in not doing these things. In putting down a phone, doing something on their own; to realise that it is a good thing, at times, to be alone. To realise that, whilst loneliness extracts from you, solitude can imbue you. Interspersed with frequent and meaningful social engagements, solitude can imbue a sense of perspective, of self, of past, of the universe and its architecture, of life and your place in it.

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In May of this year (2017) I was alone in Manchester, as I often find myself. With no distractions- i.e., other people- I am free to go around at my own pace and go and do as I please. On that particular day, I did some usual shopping, books and films. I walked past the market square and saw that there was a beer festival on. A sort of amateurish Oktoberfest. (In May.) I had no prior knowledge that such an event was occurring, but I was intrigued and paid an extortionate amount for half a pint of German beer (an action to be repeated before I left), sat on one of the many long bench rows, and drank, reading David Hare’s Skylight. A few days later I would see this very space on television from a tearful room in Brighton, watching the vigil being held for the victims of the Manchester terror attack, and I would get chills. However, the moment I loved the most that day, back in Manchester, was going to HOME cinema, the replacement of the beloved Cornerhouse. They were showing Fellini’s La Strada, a restoration of the film, and in the tiniest cinema screen I have ever been in sat myself and several other cinephiles, some in couples, most of us gawky, and bespectacled, and alone. The film began and to Nina Rota’s heart-breaking score we saw tightrope walkers, drunken disappointments and, in Gelsomina’s teary black and white eyes, the face of humanity itself. And we felt less alone.

July-August 2017

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