I Need Solitude. I Need Space: Loneliness and Literature

About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she muttered, dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.
- Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

As you grow older, one aspect of life that becomes increasingly familiar is loneliness. You are no longer in school or college, the realms of forever friendships. You know now that nothing lasts. You might be moving a lotlike I have been in the past few monthsand your friends might be moving to new cities or countries, finding new jobs every other year and never staying in the same bubble as yourself.

Loneliness is one of the most keenly explored states of mind in literature. Interestingly, loneliness is never an outcome of one particular thing, such as a heartbreak or finding oneself in a new and strange country. Loneliness is associated with many other states of mind, emotions, spaces, and professions. Here's a look at some of them.

From Abyss to Creativity

A common perception that is perhaps not too misplaced is that writers and readers are the loneliest of creatures. For they spend most of their time shut in rooms of their own, both in terms of the physical spaces that they occupy and their isolated mental landscapes. Yet, they engage with their social surroundings, with the personal which is never divorced from the political.

Consider this quote from one of Virginia Woolf's diary entries.

I need solitude. I need space. I need air. I need the empty fields round me; and my legs pounding along roads; and sleep; and animal existence.

This need for solitude is linked to the creative process. As David Foster Wallace remarks,

[T]he very best works construct a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.

Literature, a product of human loneliness, is also an antidote to the same. Who hasn't found a trusted companion in a book?

Being Lonely in Love

It is easy to imagine one being lonely when one is bereft of romantic or familial love. It is much more difficult to imagine one being lonely while in a romantic relationship. But the latter does manifest.

The feeling of not being understood by one's romantic partner, the feeling of being distant or neglected, the feeling of not being able to communicate oneself perfectly to the one we love, all count towards the feeling of being lonely in relationships.

Consider this quote from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse,

For now she [Mrs Ramsay] need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of - to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone.

Notice how the woman in the novel is referred to by the relational 'Mrs', yet she feels alone and even desires loneliness.

Loneliness and the City

Despite the hustle and bustle, cities can be extremely lonely spaces. In Rabisankar Bal's Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell, Saadat Hasan Manto says while in Bombay,

A few days later I got a letter from bibijaan [his mother] in Amritsar. She wanted to come to Bombay, she missed me very much. I wrote back, come to Bombay, bibijaan, I am also very lonely here, I never wanted to be so alone.

Dozakhnama gives voice to both Ghalib and Manto; it is a conversation between these two lonely men as they lie in their respective graves.

The Mad Pursuit

One may think that madness and loneliness are two hardly compatible states of mind. Yet, they do appear together, sometimes in a symbiotic relationship and sometimes as two extremes in the pendulum movement of the mind.

Here's a quote from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to prove the point.

But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

The mad pursuit is extremely personal, it is one's own; the madness is one's own and mostly misunderstood by others (as in the case of Ahab). Such a madness is, therefore, akin to loneliness; it may lead to "barren mazes" and "midway leave us whelmed".

Know of more kinds of loneliness in literature? Tell us in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. What if I say, Loneliness is a myth. Not being a critic, its just a thought. Let's just take the examples you cited above.
    1. From Abyss to Creativity (writers and readers are the loneliest of creatures): How one can be alone, if there is a conscience of being alone. The moment one got this realization of being alone, he finds a way to be with something.
    2. Loneliness and the City: As long as I remember, The word city came from the word 'civis' which means 'citizens'. Isn't it little bit ironical that citizens are having this feeling of being lonely, in spite of having an idea of being connected with someone out there, irrespective of place and space?
    3. Being Lonely in Love: About love, one cannot be lonely as long as he is in love and if she/he faces a situation like break-up, followed by that idea of being lonely, I highly doubt that she/he was ever in love. The idea of Love comes with acceptance, irrespective of any other second thoughts or in other words, no morals, no expectations, unlimited validity, and most importantly being with something. And even the conscience of break-up associate oneself with someone.
    4. Madness and Loneliness: I may be wrong, but I believe that being mad has something to do with relational aspect. The only reason that one can be mad is that he is connected with something out there. That anger, midsummer madness, mayhem or hysteria is towards something or someone. One, having such aggressiveness/madness for someone or towards something makes that someone, somehow connected with the same. One cannot be lonely as long as she/he has that idea or what I call conscience of being lonely.

    The idea of being lonely itself reveals the relationship of being connected with someone.


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