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Solitude and Solidarity

On loneliness and belonging in contemporary America.

Ian Marcus Corbin

America, as a community, is convulsing. When we picture our fellow citizens, many of us hate and fear what we see. How could we not? Our LED screens are jammed with Americans who look like monsters – all different, all threatening, all judging, shrieking, denouncing, hoarding, and even – God help us – shooting. Our reflex is to hide ourselves away, or cluster with the safe ones who are like us, who share our interests, gender, skin tone, whatever—and maybe even to make a whole politics, a whole identity, out of this hiding or these clusters. This is mass loneliness, and as Hannah Arendt says in her reflections on the Third Reich, it’s the seedbed of tyranny.

It is also unnecessary, based on some simple but grave misapprehensions. We’re not actually very different from each other at all, not on the deepest, most important level. We all already know this. But we forget it. We live in a state of almost constant forgetting, and this forgetfulness helps to produce our competitive, anxious, acquisitive, divided present; we think the others are hard, so we fear and revile and hide our own softness. We arm ourselves constantly for battle. To recall what we really know would allow us to drop our guard, even to love people who are superficially different from ourselves, which is just about everyone. It would allow us to be capable of genuine human solidarity, not just narrow, fearful tribalism.

You have certainly felt this possibility, perhaps at the funeral of someone you love. The first phase is an emptiness that feels like a low, cool hum. You feel light; all of the gravity rests in a box in the front of the room, at once familiar and bewildering: absolutely heavy. As the grief works its way through your system, the weight of loss, the lightness of your fragile self, these realities make vapor of the things you normally cling to. You feel quieter and simpler. Wrung out. The posturing, insecurity or petty grudges that might otherwise fill the space between you and the other mourners evaporates. In the presence of such gravity, what façade is worth holding up? What possessions worth clinging to? It seems so obvious: we are all light and fragile, and we might as well stop trying to hide it.

This view from our existential position, from simple, heavy reality, is the most fertile ground available for the cultivation of authentic, universal human solidarity. As other possible grounds erode before us day by day, as we see the terrible persistence and resurgence of toxic, hateful tribalisms, it’s time to look towards the tragic, beautiful combination of greatness and finitude that defines our shared condition.

This isn’t just philosophical fancy. In a study recently published in the journal Emotion, UC Berkley researchers Daniel Stancato and Dacher Keltner found that awe, the perception of one’s own finitude and fragility, led to “reduced dogmatism and increased perceptions of social cohesion.” After study participants were shown images of the night sky, they reported being less certain of their own opinions, and less interested in establishing separation between themselves and their political opponents. Facing the massive, cold cosmos, our knowledge, power, and the pet differences that keep us apart melt down to size. A few minutes of stargazing, and our feeling for universal human solidarity starts to grow. You feel like it should have been there all along.

And of course it has been. We just haven’t been paying attention; we live in a time and place that seems absolutely determined to keep us from acknowledging or sharing our weakness, that fetishizes strength and independence. It doesn’t need to be this way. Alienation is a choice. I recall the moment I first realized this. Sometime in my early twenties I was complaining to my dear friend Andrei, a Russian by birth, about the awkwardness of being forced to spend two hours in the dingy office of my auto mechanic – awkward, I explained, because Tom and I (Tom who also fixed the cars of my father and grandfather) have very little in common, and therefore little to talk about.

Andrei was nonplussed. Why the hell would I say that? Tom and I are both human, we share a great deal. We’re sad and hopeful. We regret that we’re not living our lives as well as we want to. We long to be loved and respected, and fear at times that our relationships are growing stale or distant or resentful. There’s a thousand years of conversation between us, ready to be broached. I asked him, incredulous, whether he would talk about these things with his mechanic in Moscow. Yeah, of course, he said. Why on earth wouldn’t you? It was—it is—so obvious: there’s a decent, hopeful sufferer like you standing behind the cash register, another one fixing your car, another one competing for the promotion you want, another panhandling outside your office, another one handing you a speeding ticket. You are one yourself. I am too. Things ought to be simpler between us.

But they very often aren’t: the fetishization of strength comes as part of massive cultural edifice, which we all participate in, which forms us and has ways of keeping us in line. I once knew a brilliant young woman—educated, brave, hyper successful—who practiced, actually literally practiced, posing her small frame to seem as large and square shouldered as possible. She made herself look as much as she could like a large, imposing, unflinching man in meetings, learned to speak over others, learned never to cede the floor, and was rewarded for these (and lots and lots of legitimately excellent work) with promotion after promotion. She was also unable, in her personal life, to let this acquired guard down. She and her high-achieving girlfriends spoke of it frequently in private: the trained inability to relate to their men the soft, sensitive way they wanted to, the shell they’d been forced to grow and couldn’t shed. We are what we repeatedly do, Aristotle says. My friend got herself stuck in a performance that damned her ability to open herself to intimacy, a performance that came with an incredible apartment, a huge bank account, and lots of lonely nights.

This kind of hypermasculine posture isn’t just rewarded in our public life, its opposite is punished. A few days into the nationwide unrest protesting the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, a young black man named Givionne “Gee” Jordan Jr. knelt down in a group of protesters, facing off with several dozen police officers in gas masks and body armor. Jordan appealed to the officers for a recognition of their common humanity: “We are all scared. We’re living in fear. We’ve got to stop living in fear. I am not your enemy,” Jordan said, voice cracking. “I want to understand you. I would love to come to your house. I would love to meet your kids.” The police watched him in silence, spines stiff and feet stanced wide, cradling long wooden clubs in their fists and casting little nervous glances side to side. Jordan’s plea continued for several minutes, until a group of officers silently decided they’d heard enough, walked briskly forward, and dragged him away into custody.

Culture is always a feedback loop of deep-seated beliefs and ingrained practices. The philosophical side of this particular cultural coin begins in the Enlightenment, with a number of noble, lofty aims. Its proponents call for universal solidarity, but a very different kind of universal solidarity than the existential variety gestured towards above. Terrified by the specter of factionalism, prejudice, chauvinism, Enlightenment thinkers called for a turn away from nation, clan, sect and ethnos, towards a clean, simple cosmopolitan ethos that grounds human solidarity in the common possession of reason. Humans, they effuse, are marvelous utility-maximizing animals whose rationality unites them on a level far above the level of skin color, religion, sexuality, etc.; we are, on the basis of this incredible virtuosity, one great human family. We owe each other respect and care. Simple.

And not unappealing, at first glance. Any person of good will can share some common cause with these Enlightenment liberals. The great ethical difficulty of managing our tribal instincts is, indeed, finding a principle for solidarity that will bind those who share little in the way of obvious traits. But the reason-based approach is absolutely inadequate, and even counterproductive. Reason is, to be sure, a miracle – our ability to navigate the world mediated by concepts like honor, beauty, dignity, respect, etc. is bafflingly impressive, and the special richness of the human experience would be impossible without it. But to put things very, very mildly, the reason-based argument for cosmopolitanism hasn’t entirely succeeded.

The post-enlightenment era has, in fact, made an elevated artform of out-group denigration, producing a series of malignant tribalisms that would make a medieval crusader blanch—genocides, world wars and apartheids of previously unimaginable scale, cruelty and efficiency. The verdict is clear: people will not feel kinship towards you, treat you kindly or fairly, they will not refrain from bombing or deporting you because you are a rational animal who encounters the world via concepts, even if you do so with great virtuosity. No Nazi ever argued that the Jews were devoid of reason. The accusation in fact was hyper-rationality, in the service of rapacious self-interest.

In the process of working towards a cosmopolitan world, this species of liberalism has done a great deal to encourage the dissolution of local, natural forms of belonging, and to make isolated monads of its citizens. The ideal subject in this vision is strong, independent, rational, self-controlled, objective and unrestrained by loyalties or traditions. The softer parts of us, the ways in which we are limited and interdependent, are treated as moral immaturities, sources of shame. All of this leaves us in a human landscape that is arid, cold and dangerous—one where people will scamper towards whatever warmth presents itself. We are now in the midst of another widespread tribal resurgence, manifesting in renewed nationalism, xenophobia and identity politics, all around the enlightened, developed world.

This is, alas, to be expected. People need to feel a sense of belonging, and find it most easily among those with whom they share common identities, interests and desires. Much of this is benign enough, and probably ineradicable. Even rigorous cosmopolitans will allow for some family loyalty, sports fandom, interest groups or light patriotism. We might venture that the key distinction between benign and malignant tribalism is whether the tribe is bound more by in-group preference, or out-group denigration. You can especially appreciate your own, within reason, so long as you treat outsiders with decency, and, ideally, solidarity.

But where should that out-group solidarity come from, if the common possession of reason isn’t enough? This brings us back to the funeral where we started, but also beyond that. You might feel some version of that tender solidarity in relation to both friends and strangers when you witness together a truly heroic act, when you’re moved in common by great music, when you contemplate a great painting side by side, or witness the birth of a child. These are events that can quiet you, cut you open and uncover an intimacy that extends far beyond the bounds of trait-based tribalisms. We might describe it as tragic solidarity, flowing from the harsh and beautiful facts of the human condition, the bittersweet intermixing of colossal aspiration and hard limitation. Human beauty is always tragic, a combination of grandeur and fragility. It is this beauty, not the smooth, sharp calculations of virtuosic reason, that makes us love each other, love humanity.

The deepest root of human solidarity is, in this sense, aesthetic. Its root is the same as the attraction we feel to great artworks, which are great because they take the reality of fragmentation—immense diversity, fragility, flux—and infuse it with some vital, enduring spiritual unity. The wholeness of a simple dot isn’t beautiful; the unity of a complex, writhing, mortal body is. Perhaps an unbroken, flawless beauty is attractive to gods and angels, but for humans, beauty only does its job when it convincingly ties together the disparate matter of our fragmented world. And indeed, this reparative task may be the deepest wellspring of art. Some ethnomusicologists believe that the very earliest human music was mourning song, a ubiquitous art form that allows us to process death as a group. These works of art organize disparate sounds into harmony, smoothing out the ragged, torn fabric of our community, allowing us to externalize our interior grief and share it, putting the lie to sensations of isolation. Kept in, guarded and hidden, these interior griefs will manifest as longer lasting maladies like anxiety and depression. Let go into public, they act as glue to bond individuals into community, forming a cohesive, harmonious whole from disparate parts. For animals like us, this is beauty.

As good as we might get at recognizing this broken sort of beauty, we will still always have an easier time loving those with whom we share identities and values. But here, perhaps, is a better way to think about good and bad tribalisms: bad ones lie about the brokenness of both group and member. They posit a vast gulf between the good, innocent in-group, and the bad, guilty out-group. They trade away tragic beauty for artificial prettiness and exaggerated ugliness. There are many reasons why we make these trades, and we do often make them. First and foremost, the tragic sort of beauty can be easy to overlook, and hard to look at. But the looking pays richly. We can and should spend time and effort getting good at it. We don’t even need a night sky, a death or a birth. The human reality can be sighted anywhere; we just need to do the hard, sometimes painful work of paying attention, dropping our defenses and putting distraction away.

Joseph Conrad writes that the search for this deep, tragic core, where we can find universal solidarity, is precisely the guiding task of the artist. If he is to make work of lasting, universal value, he must descend deep into himself, make himself deeply alone, in order to find “that lonely region” where in fact we are all the same. If he is successful, what he finds there will speak to

our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.

The job of the artist, in Conrad’s view, is to take these found realities, and articulate them in words, images, sounds—the breaking and the binding, painted into a single harmony.

Unfortunately, no quantity of night skies, births, deaths or artworks guarantee that we will come to see our fellow humans in the first person plural. We can always buttress our personal defenses, and we often do, because living in contact with these deep, raw realities is hard. They reside, Conrad writes, in “that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities – like the vulnerable body within a steel armor.” In order to keep in touch with the vulnerable body, Conrad explains, we need solitude.

Solitude, in this sense, is not just being alone. Lots and lots of Americans spend more and more of their time alone, often scrolling desperately on their phones, grasping for some sense of community. This is loneliness, not solitude, and as Arendt says, it is a seedbed for terror, not human solidarity. In her famous post-mortem of the Nazi catastrophe, she writes that totalitarianism “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The ideal totalitarian subject is cut off, vulnerable, desperate to belong, to be made fully whole. Solitude is a much different thing, as Arendt herself knew. Solitude is a sort of friendship with one’s true, unfinished self, a precursor to friendship with unfinished others. “Living together with others,” she writes, “begins with living together with oneself.”

In his Letters to a Young Poet, the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes of solitude as a sort of patience and attentiveness, a deep solicitude towards self and world as they are: uncertain, half-complete, fragile and mortal. In solitude you cultivate loyalty and love towards these things, without rushing past them to some shallow consolation or forced completion. The point, Rilke writes, “is to live everything. Live the questions now.”

Willfully embraced solitude, healthy solitude, is a matter of letting oneself and the world be, of not scrambling to hide from the hard things, or thrashing to change what can’t be changed. In fact, solitude does its best work for us when we allow it to put us in contact with the most difficult, painful realities. These, Rilke writes, are “the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the middle of it and is silent.” This hospitality is one of the most difficult tasks in a human life, but it is also a main way that we grow and change, and open ourselves to genuine solidarity.

The solidarity which results from this growth recognizes that no tribe, no togetherness is seamless. We need to be together, our species, but we need to remember that we can’t be one; none of us is whole, and neither will be our tribes. The beautiful product of all this learning, Rilke writes, is a form of community that actually seeks to guard the solitude, the invincible imperfection and uniqueness of the constituents. In the best kinds of relationships, “a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them, which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!” This kind of solidarity, a firm union of partial, broken animals, is itself tragic – beautiful in the incompleteness of its unification. The cracks remain, and as the great songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen sings, that’s how the light gets in.

This kind of solidarity is an achievement. It requires an adjustment of the eyes, learning to see the broken as beautiful. And that requires an adjustment of one’s ethos, learning to be alone, to see things simply as they are. We live in a moment where loneliness is epidemic, and true solitude is vanishingly rare—our greatest technological innovations have seen to that. A million tiny hits of dopamine, following on a million notifications of faux belonging, beckon day and night. They glow, buzz, ding and compile our intimate data for sale to the highest bidder. We are almost never alone in 2020. Many of us can resonate with Rilke: "I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone enough."

If the growth of loneliness and the shrinking of solitude is a worldwide problem, it has special deep roots in America, where we have long been experts in hiding our weakness, from ourselves and others. Blame Weber’s Calvinist guilt, a fearsomely diverse populace, or a culture of rugged pioneer individualism. In any case, the American tradition of self-reliance has grown like a cancer into something far worse than Emerson or Thoreau were picturing. Emerson himself nursed a vision of individual genius that explodes into universalism, close to that of Conrad: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this.” We are all, for Emerson, unique, miraculous individuals, and we are all also the same. Self-reliance is necessary in part because “We must be our own before we can be another’s.” Too many of us now are neither our own nor anyone else’s. We “live” drugged out on artificial community – opioids, porn and social media, say – or fleeing to cheap, toxic tribalisms as a kind of psychic salve. It’s time to relearn both solitude and solidarity, before we drug ourselves to death, claw ourselves apart, or both.

Ian Marcus Corbin recently completed a PhD in philosophy of culture, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, where he co-directs the Human Network Initiative. He is beginning work on a book about solitude and solidarity.