Tag Archives: loneliness

In the Minds of Others

so I argue within myself whether to take my shoes off or not, and of course I could not ask him if I’m to take them off or not however it doesn’t seem right to me to begin analysis proper with a question of this sort especially since I have trouble becoming intimate with people, even with my father there was no intimacy, and in conclusion since hesitating any longer could also look insulting to him while he waits and perhaps doesn’t understand I resolutely take off my shoes…
—Giuseppe Berto, incubus (269)


While I was in Italy a friend of mine posted a Facebook game in which all participants were to reach for the closest book, turn to a certain page, and write down the fifth sentence they came upon. I did not even need to decide if I wanted to participate because the book I was reading at the time, Giuseppe Berto’s incubus doesn’t do sentences. Written in 1964, and leaning hard on the conceit of a session at the analyst’s office, the exposition of the central problem of the narrator’s life (father issues) is very nearly a 383 page stream-of-conscious work. It is a tour-de-force of a study in modern angst as well as a fun and fascinating read.

my God I’m not fourteen yet and already I have such a great longing to die, what am I doing in this world what am I doing, I love love love so wretchedly and immensely that I don’t have the courage to decide on an object for my love, and then mine is love in bitterness love in renunciation, now houses and human beings are far away and I can sing without anybody hearing me Lovely liar beauty of an hour your lips are like a poisoned flower….(304)

The protagonist, a writer living in Rome, tells the story of his life and consequences of being the son of a father unable to show any love towards him. It is at once funny and tragic. A sort of Italian Catholic Woody Allen flinging himself from one illness to another, some real and some imagined.

he wants me to dig up in the Gospels or some sacred text or other article of faith whereby a person that has nobody to weep for him on earth cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and for the hundredth time I explain to him that such an article of faith doesn’t exist because it isn’t in accord with the ethical principles of our religion, nor of any other religion in the world I’m sure, however I believe he needn’t worry about this since it’s a film he’s making and not a theological treatise, and since the gimmick involving Gennerio is poetically valid according to me he can proceed freely with out articles of faith, but since I have used pretty obscure words like ethical principles and theology and poetically valid he looks at me like I’m trying to put something over on him…  (186–7)

I found this book in a used-book shop in Trastevere and I was happy to discover it. It kept me company when I took breaks from walking and looking and thinking. Although my trip was truly wonderful, I was also quite alone (when I wasn’t working, and even much of the time then) and as in all lonely periods of my life books afford me time out of my own incessant internal dialogue. This book was particularly interesting to me not only because it was set in Rome, the city I stayed in for over a month, but also because it took place in someone else’s mind. Someone else’s fears, foibles, and fables mercifully quieting my own; giving me someone besides me myself and I to listen and talk to.

Throughout all of the struggles of the unnamed protagonist in this tale, one thing becomes painfully clear to both reader and hero—while there may indeed be no article of faith that prohibits a person from entering heaven if no one weeps for him, the knowledge that no one will is the most wretched sort of life one could endure. My loneliness was temporary. The disorientation of being in a foreign country with middling fluency in the language gave me the freedom and a silence created by the remove of social interactions to fearlessly examine my past and my future hopes. Berto’s hero was not so lucky. He worked himself up into a froth of incurable isolation. It was heartbreaking to witness.

*Published in Italy as Il Male Oscure. This Penguin Books edition translated by William Weaver.


Song of a Tree

Amabel saw that she would never attract a man again; she would never be loved, for she had not held even the Colonel’s attention (61) 
-Mavis Gallant, New Year’s Eve from Varieties of Exile


Varieties of Exile is a collection of short stories by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant published in 2003. The stories are told with a perfection of tone. Each protagonist is an isolated voice above the score; Gallant has the ear of a soloist.

 Mrs. Plummer suddenly said clearly to herself or to Amabel, “My mother used to make her children sing. If you sing, you must be happy. That was another idea of happiness” (62).

All of the stories are wonderful, terse and moving, exemplifying the power of the short story. But New Year’s Eve slayed me. It is simply told but deeply discordant. Colonel and Mrs. Plummer, currently residing in Russia, agree to have Amabel, their deceased daughter’s school chum, come to visit over the holiday. Amabel, recently divorced, on a stabbing whim, imagines, hopes, fantasizes that the Plummer’s will take her into their fold and sooth her lonely soul.

They stared at each other, as if they were strangers in a crush somewhere and her earring had caught on his coat. Their looks disentangled (56).

The story transpires over an evening spent at the opera. Amabel, having cut herself free from a desolate marriage is deafened by her now untethered heart; she’s incapable of hearing the contrapuntal recrimination and hostility throbbing between the Plummer’s. She throws herself onto their mercy and they barely notice. Amabel’s lonely awkwardness is wretchedly evinced by Gallant. Her reckless hope that the Plummers will love her is confused by the mutual and in some ways merciful inability to really communicate.

Tears stood in Amabel’s eyes and she had to hold her head as stiffly as Mrs. Plummer did; otherwise the tears might have spilled on her program and thousands of people would have heard them fall. Later, the Plummers would drop her at her hotel, which could have been in Toronto, in Caracas, or Amsterdam; where there was no one to talk to, and she was not loved (61).

A fugue without harmony, Gallant passes the narration around and around, with a slight tragicomic touch. Amabel, rootless, doesn’t belong anywhere or to anyone, her human desire to connect is so overwhelming, she can’t hear that the Plummers are reading off an entirely different score. Only the sound of loneliness reverberates. And the song is stuck in my head.

When [Amabel] hinted at her troubles, said something about a wasted life, Mrs. Plummer cut her off with, “Most lives are wasted. All are shortchanged. A few are tragic” (58).


The Art of Loneliness


Edward Hopper, Office at Night (1940)

There are a couple of things that make the Hopper Drawing show currently running at The Whitney Museum in New York City worth the entrance fee (I’ll save the why-is-it-so-expensive-to-simply-view-art diatribe for another day, but geez Whitney- four bucks? That’s the best you can discount a student?).

The first is the irrefutable technical skill that Hopper possessed. His early drawings for advertisements as well as his academy drawings are all really, very good. The nude figure studies in particular are just lovely.

The second point, which I have been mulling over ever since seeing the show, is the Whitney’s display of Hopper’s process. Now, I’m not one who thinks seeing how the sausage is made necessarily adds anything- many times it doesn’t. Sometimes in fact too much information about the personal lives or processes of artists (of all disciplines) actually ruins the ability to appreciate their work.

But, I have to say, this show is fascinating for just that experience: Hopper’s process. His themes of loneliness are well known, but that feeling of forlorn isolation does not appear in his work until the finished painting. In the drawings, perhaps the angles are experimented with, different shoes or hair styles are tried out, spaces are cropped, but they are completely devoid of his typical narrative – that seems to magically appear with the paint.

Something in the opacity and richness of color, the slight shifts, here and there, of angled heads or tense shoulders…It is hard to pinpoint just exactly what the difference is…well, in Office at Night, there is an obvious one:  the female figure goes through a noticeable enhancement (from plain Jane to va va voom), but that adds more to the voyeuristic quality found in much of his work than the yearning for connection that permeates.

It seems to me there is almost a letting go of his actual technical acumen which allows his heartbreaking pictures to come alive and resonate so deeply with the viewer. Standing in front of these paintings…It was not easy to keep my hand from instinctively covering  my heart- but I was not alone in that struggle.

They Have to Sing


The Song the Orphan Sings

I am nobody, and I will be nobody too.
Now I’m too small to live, of course:
later it’ll be the same.

Mothers and fathers,
think of me.

Of course it isn’t worth the trouble of raising me:
I will be mowed down anyway.
Nobody can make use of me: it’s too early now;
tomorrow, too late!

I have only this one dress,
and it’s getting thin and bleached;
however, it will last an eternity
in the eyes of God.

I just have these few locks of hair
(they never change) that once
somebody loved.

Now he is through with love.

– Rainer Maria Rilke translated from German by Robert Bly, from the series The Voices, Nine Poems With a Title Poem in Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke

That pulls my heart apart.  The line “that once somebody loved,” is the worst part. After all, to be orphaned is not the same as never knowing. It’s because once somebody loved that makes for the wretchedness. The series of poems to which The Song the Orphan Sings belongs  begins with the Title Poem,

They have to sing; if they didn’t sing, everyone
would walk past, as if they were fences or trees.

on the whole they are extraordinary in the expression of the ordinary feelings of freakishness that inhabit ones soul. Rilke writes a poem for all of us: the beggars, orphans, lepers, and blind. The drunkard, the suicide, widow, dwarf, and idiot. What some would walk by if not for the singing- yes:  but these poems are more about what sings within us all. What separates you from me, and me from me. It is the separation above all that hurts. That, and this:


Being apart and lonely is like rain.
It climbs toward evening from the ocean plains;
from flat places, rolling and remote, it climbs
to heaven, which is its old abode.
And only when leaving heaven drops upon the city.

It rains down on us in those twittering
hours when the streets turn their faces to the dawn,
and when two bodies who have found nothing,
disappointed and depressed, roll over;
and when two people who despise each other
have to sleep together in one bed-

that is when loneliness receives the rivers…

-Rainer Maria Rilke

All the songs in us. If only I could sight read the notes, they would tell me how to harmonize. I let music take me where my heart wants to go: that seemed to be what was wanted, what was wanting. But now, how to get through to the next movement and how to be heard- I don’t yet know. But at least I can sing.

And the song goes on, beautiful.

10, from Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke