Richard Deming is an award-winning poet and critic. He is the Creative Writing director at Yale University. He contributes to such magazines as Artforum, Sight & Sound, and The Boston Review, and his poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Field, American Letters & Commentary, and The Nation.
Below, Richard shares five key insights from his new book, This Exquisite Loneliness: What Loners, Outcasts, and the Misunderstood Can Teach Us About Creativity. Listen to the audio version—read by Richard himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Loneliness is a natural part of the human condition.
In her famous characterization of the feeling of loneliness, the pioneering psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described its pain as “the result of a ubiquitous yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state.” Human beings, by nature, perpetually yearn for a feeling of completion, that is only ever an ideal or fantasy.
Klein argued that as infants, we each realize that our mother is separate from us and that our feeling of being a unified whole is an illusion that we chase for the rest of our lives. That means the self we become is born out of this loneliness. It’s who we are.
Aloneness is central to each of us and is, in some ways, the very flashpoint where our individuality separates us from others and becomes our own identity. Loneliness is a drive to overcome this persistent feeling of separateness. This does not mean that we are doomed by loneliness. For Klein, recognizing the situation, confronting it, was part of the process of coming to accept it, of working to undo its traumatic effects, and to not be constantly surprised by feelings of isolation and emotional distance.
The neuroscientist John Cacioppo argued that loneliness plays an important role in evolutionary development. His research showed us that just as the feeling of hunger prompts a being to seek out food in order to sustain itself, loneliness prompts people to seek out connections to others, connections that will be mutually beneficial in terms of strengthening communal and social bonds. Yet, new connections don’t necessarily overcome the feeling of loneliness, which might be born of a perception that one’s actual relationships never go deep enough to light up the dark corners of our interiority. This hunger, a primal impulse, is also at the heart of a drive to create work that will reach, and touch, others.
2. You are not alone in your loneliness.
A great deal of the problem of loneliness is that it is so often accompanied by a sense of shame for having it. I find myself often avoiding telling people what I’m writing about, worried that it will activate other people’s judgement or their pity. I find myself hiding the titles of books that I’m reading that give away the fact that I am interested in loneliness. Loneliness feels so often like some inner affirmation of emotional inadequacy. It can feel simultaneously like a confession and an accusation if we think “I’m lonely” is the same as saying “Nobody loves me.” In effect, when it comes to loneliness, to quote an old horror movie, “the call is coming from inside the house.” It becomes impossible to speak about it, which only serves to make you feel more isolated.
“I wanted a way to name what made my own feelings both recognizable yet also utterly unique.”
This paradox only underscores the importance of looking for others who feel all too keenly what Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, once described as being “a pretty basic need—man’s hunger for companionship, the barrier of loneliness.” It is a hunger and a boundary, all at once.
In my own life, I have sought in the work of writers, artists, and thinkers a vocabulary to articulate what evaded me. I wanted a way to name what made my own feelings both recognizable yet also utterly unique. I have often sought the kind of undramatic acknowledgement of shared emotional distance that I find in the pictures of Walker Evans, an artist whose work spurred my interest in writing about photography as an art critic. In fact, books and films and art had always been how I had built my own community of isolators.
The philosopher Walter Benjamin once described his writing life as like being “a castaway who drifts on a wreck by climbing to the top of an already crumbling mast. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.” Reading, looking at art, can be a way of scanning the horizon for any sign that one isn’t alone. That signal can also lead the way for others to find their own form of rescue.
3. To know loneliness is to know ourselves, to know who we truly are.
Loneliness is painful but it can be a path to insight. Let me read you a brief passage by the novelist Zora Neale Hurston about her own childhood. She once wrote, “Often I was in some lonesome wilderness, suffering strange things and agonies while other children in the same yard played without a care. I asked myself why me? Why? Why? A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me. It is one of the blessings of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.”
We might ask, did Hurston feel alone because she was so gifted? Or was she gifted because the pain of feeling so lonely caused her to plumb the depths of her imagination and her experiences? No matter what, she was sure that her loneliness and her creativity were bound together.
4. Loneliness can be the catalyst for creativity because it pushes us to reach out and express the inexpressible.
There is a way that being able to share about an experience deepens it. The very act of representing to another what one has seen or felt, and, in turn, wrestling with, negotiating another’s perspective, makes the ideas, thoughts, and feelings dive deeper and anchor themselves. Finding the means to represent the experience of loneliness in order to communicate it with someone else moves it from being isolation to being a story in which we can recognize ourselves.
“They responded to the inner turmoil of their own forms of loneliness and fashioned something out of it, not simply as expression, but as a signal, a flare, so as to be of use to others.”
Art in general feels to me like evidence of other people’s searching for their own meaningfulness, as if they were calling over from their own lost valleys. The work of those I discuss—people such as Zora Neale Hurston, Egon Schiele, Rod Serling, Walker Evans, Walter Benjamin, and Melanie Klein—didn’t provide answers or solutions. Taken together, they are a disparate group of people who wanted to explore how one builds things and they each developed a perspective on the world not despite loneliness, but because of it. They responded to the inner turmoil of their own forms of loneliness and fashioned something out of it, not simply as expression, but as a signal, a flare, so as to be of use to others. It is akin to those rare moments when you catch a stranger’s eye on a packed train and you both hold it, just for a moment, then look away. What’s exchanged is an unexpected gift—someone you don’t know, someone you will never know, acknowledged and affirmed, without presumption or obligation, your mutual human existence.
5. As painful as it may be, our feelings of separation are what provide the hope of holding us together.
What I am calling “exquisite loneliness” can grant a person, if for a period of time, a perspective both inside and outside of loneliness and a deep need to belong. While that keen, sharp pain, may not be a “way back to oneself” in regards to some complete, wholly integrated self, while it may not resolve “the ubiquitous yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state” that Klein insisted was the very engine of loneliness, it can be a way into a part of us, an ongoing part, that asserts itself and yet stays somewhat mysterious even while we are in the middle of it. We learn to see it in ourselves, to see it in others, we learn how to talk about it and see it not as a failing but as a catalyst for change, for self-discovery. In it lies the deepening of our ability to identify with that most human of feelings.
Since in being lonely we feel only the throes of emotional distance, it is through art, books, music, and movies that we can collect our glimpses of others’ lives, we can collect those fellow travelers through the landscape of loneliness. To recognize it, acknowledge it, is to be less afraid of it, is to dismantle the shame attached to loneliness. Through that awareness can come an intense insight into the selves that surround us and show us who and what we are.
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