Where Loneliness Comes From

Loneliness is a poetic feeling, as agreeably melancholic to behold from a distance as it is terrible to experience up close. By one account, it is even the first feeling—and the first thing, in the entire universe, to be deemed bad. Adam’s loneliness prompts God to create Eve: “it is not good for man to be alone.”

When Milton picks up the story, in “Paradise Lost,” Satan tempts the pair after he is cast out of Heaven. (Loneliness correlates with aggression, some studies show.) And yet, for all the shame of being lonely—the scars of exclusion at school or rejection in love—other people’s solitude is often beautiful to us. This may be because most people don’t usually imagine loneliness to be deserved. Or perhaps it’s just that, by marking loneliness in others, we feel a little less alone ourselves.

After the pandemic hit, the yearning for connection registered more as an emergency than as an inducement to lyrical reflection. “Isolation was imposed on all of us at once,” Kristen Radtke writes in “Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness,” her new work of graphic nonfiction. The condition—“like being underwater,” Radtke writes, “fumbling against a muted world in which the sound of your own body is loud against the quiet of everything else”—was suddenly collective, synchronous.

Even our shared desire to be together was not enough to surmount it. “Seek You” was mostly composed before COVID, but quarantine may have exposed something for Radtke. She portrays loneliness not as innate or natural so much as socialized, filtered through and irradiated by culture, politics, and media. For her, the feeling is shaped by the imperfect conditions in which we live. Perhaps there was loneliness in Eden, but Radtke’s version is postlapsarian, partially cracked. Like a weed, it sprouts in gaps.

Radtke’s previous book, “Imagine Wanting Only This,” wove text and image, memoir and criticism, into a reverie on the theme of abandoned physical spaces. Something about the quality of her attention—a quickness to light on metaphors—seemed to sublime even concrete into longing. “Seek You,” which Radtke began in 2016, is swathed in a similar atmosphere. It wants to synthesize various evocative strands—loneliness’s tropes and ambassadors, relevant research, and her own and others’ memories—into a mood, an aesthetic.

(The comic could be compared to other art, such as “Inside,” by Bo Burnham, that tries to represent quarantine less as a historical phenomenon than as a vibe.) In both of her books, Radtke integrates disparate materials, and yet the structures that result aren’t solid or sharply defined. “Seek You” is full of ghostly hatch marks, thin lines, and muffled scenes washed in shadowy reds, blues, and purples. There are empty classrooms, bars with the stools upside down, and vacant lots. The human figures, many of them unnamed, hunch their shoulders and thrust their hands into pockets; they seem to be waiting to be told what to do.

Text describing the author's descriptions of loneliness alongside illustrations of a woman floating in greenishblue water.

Radtke grew up in rural Wisconsin. She writes that her town’s sparse geography inspired in her “a basic sense of unbelonging that many children are prone to feeling.” As an adult, she moved to New York and confronted “my childhood’s opposite: the inescapability of other people.” (Commuters, wallflowers, bodies maintaining their privacy in public—the book is lonelier for their presence.)

Often, tensions are raised by the idea of proximity. Radtke writes, for instance, about the history of the laugh track, which was first inserted into radio shows, offering solitary listeners the illusion of company. Yet, as the recordings closed one type of distance, they opened up another. The rise of radio and television, which also adopted laugh tracks, allowed families to retreat further—Radtke renders a TV dinner in closeup, its components perfectly atomized on the tray—from their neighbors. “Creating defined spaces around oneself was so foundational to the twentieth century American dream,” Radtke argues, “that separation was part of its formula.”

Loneliness may be built into the country’s story, but it has also amassed its own myths. One is that the dangers associated with isolation—shorter lifespans and higher rates of disease—can be wholly explained by a purported tendency to engage in riskier behaviors on our own. (They cannot.) Other misconceptions run deeper. “Loneliness implies a flaw in us like no other longing or sadness does,” Radtke suggests. “

‘I’m lonely’ translates to ‘I’m unlovable’ or ‘Nobody likes me.’ ” A perception that “everyone else is connected” often aggravates the matter, inflaming our anger and eroding trust. The book winds from Hannah Arendt, who described loneliness as “the common ground for terror,” to Trump (pithily conjured with a MAGA poster) to the parade of “loners” who have opened fire on sites of community life: schools and shopping centers, places of worship and work.

As attuned as Radtke is to the tragedy of isolation, she is suspicious of the archetype of the murderous reject. She writes that this “collective branding” of killers may not be accurate so much as it “offers some relief: if the shooter is a loner, he is not one of us.”Loneliness can be used to demonize, but it just as often imparts glamour, invoking notions of heroic individualism. Another section of “Seek You” studies the American cowboy, who “doesn’t need to rely on the inconvenient confines of government”—and doesn’t need the women who keep falling in love with him, either.

The cowboy, Radtke writes, aspires to “a commitment-free life.” (A page earlier, the words “Reagan Country” appear beneath a lasso-throwing silhouette. The book stops short of explicitly connecting the “commitment-free” ideal to Republican policy, but the parallel—and the sense of predation—is clear.) Elsewhere, Radtke considers the antiheroes of prestige TV: Don Draper, Walter White, Jimmy McNulty.

This terrain is well-trodden, but, by emphasizing the characters’ misery, Radtke finds a fresh angle. Her tone is neither reluctantly charmed nor righteously angry. The antihero must telegraph “disinterest in others,” she points out, because “it implies superiority, and only when a man is superior to others is his loneliness meaningful instead of pathetic.”

Characters like Don Draper from Mad Men and Elliot from Mr. Robot cover a spread describing their attributes.

In another chapter, we meet the cowboy’s female counterpart: the princess, trapped in a castle and cut off from the world. Here solitude signals weakness rather than power, and it’s possible to map Radtke’s characters onto a broader argument about gender and media. The cowboy section of the book is called “Watch”; the next section, which wanders from anonymous chat rooms to Instagram, stars mostly female figures, and is titled “Click.”

Radtke seems to imply that the lonely man is a creature of television, whereas the lonely woman belongs to the Internet. This framing hinges on the idea that online life is full of mediations, which resemble a fairy tale’s enchantments, and which alienate users from themselves and from one another. The problem of digital existence, in other words, is the problem of the false front—or magic mirror. Yet Radtke herself isn’t satisfied with the axiom that Internet relationships are fake.

Sometimes, she notes, one’s physical location fails to offer the community that a Web site can provide, and even a “carefully edited” post can express a genuine desire to connect. “Is display a form of dilution,” Radtke wonders, “or is the broadcast part of what makes it real?”

The book’s penultimate section, “Touch,” discusses the experimental psychologist Harry Harlow, who studied the effects of social deprivation on baby monkeys. Harlow’s cruelty, which extended to tossing his subjects into a “pit of despair,” is juxtaposed with his spiralling depression, the collapse of his first marriage, and the death of his second wife. Radtke doesn’t defend animal torture, but she does credit Harlow with illuminating the importance of care by dispensing its opposite.

Harlow proved “that love is not a distraction or a pedestrian label slapped onto action, but that love is the action itself,” she writes. On this point, I wished for more: What relationship is being proposed between love and loneliness? Radtke prefers to present her examples, her totems of disconnection, straightforwardly; it’s possible to wring from them surprising analyses, but this work is left largely to the reader.

Such restraint can be frustrating when the material—canonical psych results, a meditation on social-media mourning, an inquiry into the Trumpist mind-set—feels so familiar. And yet, paging through Radtke’s book, I was again pulled in by the deserted streets and darkened rooms, and by the anonymous, sifting crowds. Ambience can go where words cannot. One can sink deep into the images of “Seek You” without realizing that one is looking at anything at all.


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Source: Where Loneliness Comes From | The New Yorker

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