People who need people are the falsest people in the world. They smile and smile and commit all kinds of hidden villainy. But who does not need people? The so-called ‘loners’ who commit mass murders? Anneli Rufus, in her book, Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto, says certainly not.
Does it take a genius to see that it takes a social man to become so possessive, so enmeshed with others, that his rage and jealousy over a breakup make him want to kill? (1)
The psychopathic killer who lacks empathy and turns against society is, according to Rufus, a ‘pseudoloner’. She argues for the definition of ‘loner’ as ‘someone who prefers to be alone’. As the loner doesn’t need the same level of acceptance and approval as the socially defined person, he or she is less likely to become incensed over social issues and take to summary executions. By this definition, the loner is best described by that great Irish epithet, fear ann féin, ‘man in himself’, which we can adapt to the feminine bean inti féin.
By contrast, the ‘lonely’ person described by Emily White in her book, Lonely, is not at all comfortable alone.
‘When I think about loneliness,’ says Anne, the social worker, ‘I think about just feeling like I don’t have intimate connections that touch on all the different aspects of myself. And it’s not that I don’t have intimate relationships. It’s that I don’t have ones that cover all of who I am.' (2)
Seems like a tall order, to want one’s relationships to cover all that one is. How many relationships would you need, and how intimately would your friends have to know you? They’d surely be obliged to accompany you at all times, constantly asking, How do you feel now? What are you thinking now? If they didn’t, you’d never be able to communicate yourself in full, because there are too many seconds of awareness in a day. You’d still not be communicating fully, because there are so many unspeaking internal mechanisms that are impossible even for ourselves to record. Anyway, why does anyone require that sort of attention from others? One could equally ask why everyone doesn’t need it, as we are the ultimate communicating species. We embody the concept of the mirror.
One cannot even begin to be conscious of oneself as a separate individual without another person with whom to compare oneself. A man in isolation is a collective man, a man without individuality. (3)
This mirroring or identification, if fractured in the earliest years, seems to lead to withdrawal from attachment later. The result is often self-enforced solitude. This is not what could be described as happiness, but if it can’t be cured, it might be endured with some panache. People with a strong work ethic can turn solitude into a life of productive fullness. We are never completely alone, though we might be without a close companion.
Solitude is savage when it becomes a constant feeling of lack. It’s savage when its stresses turn you vicious and impatient. It’s savage when you touch the pre-human in yourself and become defined mostly by survival imperatives. The human brain, according to John Cacioppo, is a social one. It evolved that way all the better for species survival.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows us that the emotional region of the brain that is activated when we experience rejection is, in fact, the same region—the dorsal anterior cingulate—that registers emotional responses to physical pain. (4)
Being alone is painful. Separation can make you ill. But it’s possible to feel more lonely with someone who misunderstands you than on your own, surrounded by books and music that interest and excite. In this instance, solitude is very civilised, because you’re connecting in a far more satisfying way with the material produce of human thought than you ever would via the idle, superficial conversation in which people usually engage. Nevertheless, it’s quite clear that an hour in the company of someone else has a loosening effect on the emotions, particularly if that someone shares your perceptions and/or interests. All company is best carefully chosen, including that on the iPod and the nearest shelves.
Just think of all the spare time that has flown
Straight into nothingness by being filled
With forks and faces, rather than repaid
Under a lamp, hearing the noise of wind,
And looking out to see the moon thinned
To an air-sharpened blade. (5)
Michel Houellebeq’s character, himself, in The Map and the Territory, is of the opinion (asserted elsewhere in his oeuvre also) that the individual human is of less interest than his or her products. The problem is, most products neither need you nor kiss. Furthermore, there would be no product without the person, and no love of the product without passion for its purpose, which, in almost all cases, is the enhancement of our human experience. Love the product, love the human, or at least the human in yourself. Rousseau said that we naturally love ourselves, but it would appear that prolonged isolation can turn you against yourself. In Cacioppo’s opinion:
Nature is connection. Which is why disconnection leads to such dysregulation and damage, not just at the level of society, but at the level of the cell. (6)
The social brain punishes its host for not getting with the programme and enhancing its chances for survival. Cortisol levels rise, blood pressure increases, the life-expectancy is shortened. This is an example of how nature is not logical. In punishing itself for endangering its health, the organism pushes itself towards self-loathing and possible suicide. All because we need each other so much. Anneli Rufus’ scenario is so much more attractive really, if one could achieve it. The true loner can survive quite happily with work and a few friends, or with the companionship of a partner who has no craving for the crush of constant community. Perhaps this is a portrait of an introvert rather than a loner, but the effect is the same.
Living in the moment, that much pushed pill, is better described as living in a noble sort of savage solitude. Expectations are reduced to invisibility, one accepts what is and ceases to fear the unknown, knowing fully what is present. If the present is solitude, one might have difficulty wanting to know it too well, as familiarity does not breed contempt but habit. One sure thing is that dwelling on lack is simply lack. The full room and the empty room must both be faced with an element of curiosity, based on the premise that nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.
(Savage Solitude: Reflections of a Reluctant Loner will be published by Dedalus Press, Dublin, in April.)
Savage Solitude on Amazon
(1): Anneli Rufus, Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto, New York: Marlowe & Company, 2003, p. 191.
(2) Emily White, Lonely, New York: HarperCollins, 2010, page 196.
(3) Anthony Storr: The Integrity of the Personality, London: Heinemann
Medical, 1960; Pelican Books, 1977, page 37.
(4) John Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness, New York: W. W. Norton 2009, p. 8.
(5) Philip Larkin: ‘Vers de Société’, Collected Poems ed. Anthony Twaite, London:
Faber and Faber, 2003, p. 147.
(6) John Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness, New York: W. W. Norton 2009, p. 61.