Solitude is not loneliness. Though both might be defined as that internal feeling that comes from a lack of companionship, solitude is usually a choice and may have positive benefits, while loneliness is viewed as negative and usually not a choice.
I wrote yesterday about a kind of solitude beside a pond that appears in writing as both negative and positive. Solitude can be fertile and a way to boost our creative capacity. Loneliness is empty and destructive.
Thoreau, a transcendentalist beside Walden Pond, might have viewed loneliness as a kind of depression, melancholy, or a restlessness of the soul.
Olivia Laing explores in her book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, the loneliness of being in a populated place like a city – or being alone in a crowd.
Laing also wrote a book that talks about that beside-the-water solitude: To the River, In that more Walden-ish book, she walked from source to sea along the Ouse River where 60 years before Virginia Woolf had drowned herself. But that’s just one small bit of that Sussex river’s history.
And in another of her books (which I have not read yet), The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, I suspect solitude and loneliness both have a place.
But her discussion of this city loneliness and some of her word images, such as someone standing by a window alone at night high above the city street and people, made me think of many paintings by Edward Hopper.
Edward Hopper’s now overexposed and often parodied Nighthawks is a painting I thought of before Laing even brought it into her discussion, where she says:
There is no colour in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomisation of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, of empty illuminated offices and neon signs.
That diner is a sealed chamber,”an urban aquarium, a glass cell.” Laing makes the psychological physical.
What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.
Laing feels that true loneliness,is “an especially American trait (or privilege, or curse, depending on who you are)”, and one that may be best described not by words but through art. That’s an idea also found in “Loneliness Belongs to the Photographer” by Hanya Yanagihara.
“At the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books.”
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
And that river talk makes me think of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” his novella (made into a movie too – but read the novella). I find some hopeful comfort in this retired English professor who at 70 was still “haunted by waters” and wrote this small classic.
The novella is usually collected with a few other stories and together they cover his beloved fly fishing, logging, fighting forest fires, playing cribbage, and being a husband, a son, a brother and a father. It has sold more than a million copies, so it connects with something in many people.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” – Norman Maclean