Loneliness as a Way of Life

Posted on: 13th February 2009  |
Author: Thomas Dumm
Publication details: Harvard University Press, 2008 208 pages
ISBN: 978-0-674-03113-5

Thomas Dumm’s Loneliness as a Way of Life is a strangely deceptive book. It is an attempt to give an account of what it means to be lonely, based on Dumm’s non-believing philosophy and his personal experiences of the death of a mother and wife.  To write about loneliness as a current topic is in itself risky, and to do so from this perspective is a groundbreaking challenge. To this already complex approach, combining political philosophy and personal reflection on loss and grief, add the author’s endeavours into literary criticism; the journey to the heart of the issues surrounding loneliness therefore becomes somewhat haphazard.

The title itself is superficially attractive, particularly in the current Western-North American cultural context, and his philosophical explorations lead him to challenge contemporary dehumanising power politics that deny grief and grieving: ‘pursuing a politics of blocked grief…may in fact be the deepest danger we are presented with as the new millennium unfolds, that our leaders are still unwilling and unable to think about themselves as human beings, but instead believe they must be self-confined isolators, our most representative lonely persons.’ But Thomas Dumm’s is a personal concern with loneliness, which he defines as ‘a monologue of desolation’ in which we lose not only other people but ‘a sense of ourselves’, emphasising that ‘our loneliness is always deepest in those moments when we face the terror of nothing – we come back to haunt ourselves rather than explore ourselves.’ (p.178)

Dumm acknowledges that ‘we are the inheritors of a legacy of loneliness’. He inhabits the world of existentialist humanism, declaring that ‘because loneliness is an experience of disappearance it is embedded in existential paradoxes concerning the meaning of life as a death-bound experience. We appear on life’s stage, and then we disappear.’ (p.35) Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s philosophy (‘loneliness concerns human life as a whole’) he takes us through a critique of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Melville’s Moby Dick, demonstrating that the characters of Pip (in Moby Dick) and Willy (in Death of a Salesman) ‘express… the solipsism that is a termination point of the lonely self.’ He analyses Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas as a study of a ‘lost family’ (Travis is a ‘nobody who walks’). From Death of a Salesman he points to the nihilism of possessive individualism: ‘to strive to achieve the dream of being number one when there is never a number one in the vacated throne of power is to strive towards nothingness in the name of fulfilment.’

Individualism is not simply a product of late twentieth century market capitalism, with the political refrain ‘there is no such thing as society’ attached; it is now deeply ingrained into the metaphysical structure of the Western psyche. Dumm’s book is rooted in his own emotional journey, particularly the loss of his own mother and wife. In a painfully honest description of his home life, Dumm writes of ‘the claustrophobia of constancy, the irritation that builds as passion turns into habit, as wonder at the infancy of new children becomes the toil of caretaking, as the challenges and excitement of work and social life infringe upon the grind of home economics, when week by week one member of the couple is doing more to sustain the home than the other.’ From his own mother, who locked him away under the stairs, he declares: ‘I gained my sense of loneliness as a way of life.’ But Dumm is keen to move on from that experience: ‘if we fail to acknowledge our limitations we will be faced with a prophecy of doom, a constant confrontation with nothingness that is the final end of the lonely self.’

The atavistic atomised individual that sits as an icon on the altar of the free market, wrapped in the cloak of personal choice, has led to the broken unconnected woman or man, isolated and cut off from social connections. As neighbourhood communities dissolve and families separate and move away, traditional supporting structures – not least that of the extended family – are now presented as nostalgic and passé. The days of the old communities are now long gone. Increasingly efforts to address this atomisation are focussed on the individual as the welfare benefits system is now to be ‘personalised’ (for which, read ‘targeted’ at a disaffected, disconnected individual). Notably, the Government’s programmes to target child poverty centre on the individual child, rather than trying to work with the child as the centre of a social network including parents, grandparents and even supportive neighbours. The social dimension remains left out. Yet as far back as the thirteenth century, building on the rediscovered works of Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas’ theology had a commitment to the human person as a ‘social animal’ at its heart.

The death of his wife from mesothelioma and just as significantly, his period of grieving in anticipation of her death, is a powerful backdrop to a discussion of death as a ‘loss of touching’ (Alphonse Lingis) and an engagement with the philosopher Judith Butler’s work on the denial or repression of grief as a path to dehumanisation (which in turn shores up nationalism, ‘a nationalistic narcissistic quest for perfect security’ [p.147]). Dumm turns to Thoreau (author of Walden) in the search for an alternative sense of openness, a sense ‘of the world as a place of becoming’, ‘a re-signing of our own contract to be with others.’ In the end, Dumm rebuts Freud’s pessimism and ‘the deepest of all transcendental temptations that they may in the end only replicate the narcissism of the human at the highest level of abstraction’ with ‘a recognition of the power of our thinking selves to connect to others by way of our common understanding of the grounding of actions’.

Dumm perhaps has more in common with the philosophy and theology – and spirituality – of Thomas Aquinas than seems at first apparent, as in his own experiences of deep loneliness and loss he refuses to abandon the attempt to understand human beings as reaching out to others.

The reviewer, John Battle, is the Labour MP for Leeds West.

 Find this book on the Harvard University Press web site



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