The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman’s sociological bestseller, was published a little over 70 years ago. It was an early example of a popular literature of the 1950s that focused on the danger that excessive conformity posed to the American character. Most prevailing diagnoses of the state of the nation today are very different, focusing instead on excessive isolation and polarization.
I juxtapose two narratives concerning the politics of grief to reflect on loneliness in the US. I describe how Americans attempted to grieve the loss of the first 400,000 Americans to die from COVID-19. I then discuss how Donald Trump, often described as a sociopath, may better be understood as a person unaffected by modernity: one who reflects and amplifies a growing inability in American political culture to properly grieve without turning to grievance. I argue that the key to understanding Trump is to see him and the movement he leads as a product of the American public who no longer have the capacity to experience loneliness.
Loneliness is a historical affect that emerges from a long history of religious, poetic, and sociological ideas about isolation, solitude, and existential angst. There is a complex journey from theological and poetic ideas about loneliness to some key themes in modern American sociology. Today, the experience of loneliness is dramatically affected by the need for social distancing and the use of social media. In these new circumstances, has the meaning of loneliness radically changed?
“Solitary” is a depiction of the brutal and humiliating daily existence of four men who have been relegated to long-term stays in solitary confinement in a Washington state supermax prison. As Longworth witnesses the abuse the prison guards heap on each prisoner, he also closely observes tiny red ants who have entered his bleak and barren cell as they struggle to carry a piece of bread back to their hidey-hole in the cracks. Their appearance in this inhospitable environment offers him a beacon of hope in the face of the utter despair that goes with solitary confinement.
The programs of social distancing that attended the COVID-19 pandemic produced isolation on an unprecedented scale. Yet, while many social networks were damaged during the pandemic, some groups were better equipped to reconstruct their networks. Though sociology has many words to describe the breaking of bonds, it has relatively few to describe their reconstitution. To fill this analytical gap, we offer the term “social repair,” which we define as the process by which threatened and broken social ties are restored and brought back to strength. We position this ability to mend broken ties as a previously unrecognized dimension of inequality.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identifies loneliness as a precondition for the horrors of Hitler and Stalin. She shows how loneliness is an intellectual experience by recovering the ancient Stoic Epictetus’s analysis of solitude. Plato’s Republic shows loneliness to be a kind of injustice in the city as well as the psyche. Walter Benjamin recommends the flâneur, taken from Baudelaire and Poe, as a model for living justly in modernity. But in free and traditionless America, where loneliness arises from creative destruction, being a baseball fan brings just balance to life and shows that the opposite of loneliness is happiness.
Since the Romantic era, the lyrical poem has epitomized the idea of poetic loneliness. While the alleged loneliness epidemic, considered a pervasive mental health problem in Western societies, brings to the fore solitude’s dangerous potential, poems such as Goethe’s “Wanderer’s Nightsong” and Cummings’s “l(a” attest to solitude’s aesthetic potential. Ambiguously based on the myth of the solitary genius standing out from the lonely crowd of alienated, other-directed persons, poems may give meaning to the state of psychosocial isolation. Reflecting solitude as a privation, poetic loneliness has the power to create virtual communities.
Loneliness, long recognized as the central theme of Edward Hopper’s art, has more recently received pandemic-related attention from the popular press and social media. Evidence shows that the 1918 influenza pandemic and “social distancing” encouraged Hopper to abandon painting groups and concentrate on solitary figures or couples. Exploring why and how Hopper’s art elicits feelings of loneliness, this essay draws upon a comparison of his work with that of his acquaintance and contemporary, Theresa Bernstein, whose art, like Hopper’s, was purchased by the collector Duncan Phillips. Links also exist between Hopper’s art and fiction by William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson.