Updated: May 21, 2020
Literature and loneliness have long been intertwined. With previously rare and anxiety-inducing terms like lockdown and social-distancing suddenly becoming an everyday reality - and despite the coronavirus pandemic being a global struggle leaving few lives untouched - a lot of us are feeling, understandably, alone.
Loneliness is both timeless and universal - a testament to this fact is that throughout the ages literary works have continually returned to explore this deeply held sentiment. For many a literature lover, when compassion seems to fall short from others, they’ve been driven to their bookshelves and beloved authors instead.
Renowned civil rights activist and writer James Baldwin touched upon this impulse when he said: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
With already one month of self-isolation behind me, here are four works I have read so far, all touching upon loneliness in insightful ways, which feels apt to delve into at a time like this.
1) Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
A recognised master of surrealist writing, Murakami skillfully weaves the unconscious into the conscious through his characters and dialogue, creating a delicate sense of absurdity that feels like it’s holding a mirror up to our lives right now. His writing feels veiled by a cloak of unreality, but so does living through a global pandemic.
Our lead narrator K is distressingly in unrequited love with his closest friend Sumire, who in turn is in unrequited love with Miu. K is a solitary and pensive figure by nature, his lonesomeness feels almost aching when he ponders, “Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
Even the short story’s title is a tribute to this emotion, Sputnik Sweetheart refers to the world’s first man-made satellite Sputnik I, which at one point the novel describes as “no more than a lonely lump of metal in [it’s] separate orbit”, reminiscent of each of the main characters’ perceived isolation as they float along the ‘orbit’ of their lives. It’s a tragically poignant tale.
2) The School of Life: An Emotional Education by Alain de Botton
Philosopher and co-founder of The School of Life, Alain de Botton has a way with words that will make you a follower of his work for years to come. The School of Life: An Emotional Education offers a collection of essays ranging from ‘The Difficulty of Self-Knowledge’ to ‘Beyond Romanticism’, capturing and exploring the many emotional ordeals that come with the business of living.
Botton argues loneliness is essential to genuine character and relationship building, that we are incapable of sincere connection and intimacy without the foremost strengthening experience of true loneliness – “It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves: it gives us a character, and helps us develop a truly unique point of view. Enduring loneliness is almost invariably better than suffering the compromises of false community.”
3) Poetry by Mary Oliver
From her enchanting poetry, it’s not difficult to see that Mary Oliver is a true lover and champion of nature, however it is difficult to read about the ‘old trees stirring in their leaves’ and ‘dun-coloured darling sparrows’ when you haven’t been amongst much flora for weeks.
But rejoicing in the promise of nature is Oliver’s best offering as a smoothing balm against the particular drowning feeling loneliness can create. In her poem Loneliness she says “I too have known loneliness / I too have known what it is to feel misunderstood / Oh, mother earth, your comfort is great, your arms never withhold / It has saved my life to know this”.
Firmly grounded in the Romantic nature tradition, her poetry draws heightened attention to the seemingly small occurrences of the natural world, developing into a deep appreciation for the often-overlooked role nature plays in our wellbeing, which has become agonisingly clear from self-isolation. An excitement grows at the thought of returning to what Oliver lovingly calls the encompassing “family of things”.
4) Lost Connections by Johann Hari
After spending over a decade on anti-depressants, journalist Johann Hari began a personal investigation into the causes of modern-day depression and anxiety in his book Lost Connections. Early on he cites an American study that asked participants, “How many close friends do you have who you can call on in a crisis?” Years ago, the most common answer was five, today it is none, resulting in Hari dubbing us “the loneliest society”.
Despite our shift to a digitally-driven world, that has the capability to connect us to more people than ever, it seems loneliness is spreading like wildfire. Hari spends much of his book delving into studies and stories from his extensive travels, at one point he offers as an explanation: “Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people - it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters”.
Hari does not encourage that people taking anti-depressants should stop abruptly or without seeking professional advice, but he is a supporter in forming and enthusiastically driving genuine, deep connections with the people and communities around us. Sharing in something that truly matters, bigger than us, in order to elevate some of this painful seclusion we’re experiencing on a large scale.
Despite loneliness being an inevitable part of the human experience, and integral to our personal development to explore - Botton argues we are all far too complex to expect all our feelings to be known and understood, making loneliness partly inescapable - one thing this pandemic has highlighted is just how essential community is to our way of being.
As we’ve all shifted to social-distancing and much more lonesome times, the simple and overlooked reoccurrences of everyday existence many of us miss dearly, the signifiers of belonging from our previous lives, seem magnified in significance and tenderness, exposing just how wildly interconnected and indispensable we all are to one another.