In truth, self-isolation has been more of a challenge than I would have anticipated. As a classic Myers Briggs introvert, I was convinced that this would be a cinch, giving me time to find a home for my novels and to polish up all the half-baked short stories I’ve never gotten around to revisiting. But more often than not, I’ve simply wanted to lie on the sofa and read. I’ve been thinking a lot about representations of isolation in literature. What is the intersection between isolation, solitude, aloneness and loneliness? And how is this depicted in books? What wisdom or solace can literature offer us in this particular time? Of course, reading itself is a kind of solace, but I’ve been chasing down texts that specifically engage with these issues.
As the title suggests, May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude (1973) is an account of a year in the poet’s isolated life on the outskirts of a New Hampshire town. She makes sporadic entries in her diary, recording the changing seasons, her writing progress, and her struggles with depression. I like Sarton’s poetry and I’m never sure whether it’s a good idea to look beyond the texts of authors you admire. Certainly there are moments when Sarton’s openness about her anguish and despair makes for a sad prism through which to reread her poetry. She is also a challenging narrator on occasion—it is difficult to sympathise, for example, when she allows for a pregnant stray cat she has cared for to be captured and euthanised. But her self-honesty is compelling and, for me, the great value of the book is its engagement with solitude.
Sarton has an ambivalent relationship towards her isolation. Her solitary days are plagued by boredom and panic, just as sadness is a constant undercurrent through the book: ‘I feel myself sucked down into the quicksand that isolation sometimes creates, a sense of drowning, of literally being engulfed. When it comes to the important things one is always alone’ (107). This image of solitude as a consuming force is echoed throughout the journal. However, for Sarton, solitude is ultimately equated with productivity. It is, she feels, a necessity for artistic achievement: ‘In a period of happy and fruitful isolation such as this, any interruption, any intrusion of the social, any obligation breaks the thread on my loom, breaks the pattern’ (79). Painfully aware of how the demands of marriage and motherhood constrain so many talented female artists, Sarton celebrates her solitude as freedom. Whilst she never goes so far as to promote solitude as a solution, the book is a constant reminder of the high price historically paid by women writers for domesticity.
Our current context of enforced isolation is obviously very different to Sarton’s deliberate decision to live a solitary life—with the freedoms of socialising still available to her at will and without the climate of fear and uncertainty with which we have all been contending—but the text is nonetheless a poignant reminder of some of the joys that solitude can bring and of the inherent richness of the inner world. Sarton unearths moments of small beauty in her daily life and, in essence, re-frames solitude as an avenue to mindfulness and heightened self-awareness.
Beyond non-fiction, there are of course endless fictional representations of isolation, solitude and aloneness. But Peter S. Beagle’s first novel, A Fine & Private Place (1960), is the one that recently caught my eye. The book has been on my shelf for many years and lockdown seemed like a good time to finally read it. The Last Unicorn (1968) remains Beagle’s most famous creation and undoubtedly one of the best fantasy novels ever published, but A Fine & Private Place is charming in its own way. Beagle was only nineteen when the book was published, which makes the writing all the more remarkable. It’s a gentle story of love, redemption and a meditation on what it means to be alive. Although it falls less overtly within the fantasy genre than The Last Unicorn, the novel is still fantastical, with talking ravens and stubborn ghosts frequenting its pages. The plot is centred firmly around life and death: Jonathan Rebeck has cut himself off from the human world, secretly living in a cemetery in the Bronx. He converses with the ghosts of the newly interred, assisting them with their transition to the afterlife, but his self-imposed isolation is challenged when he forms an unexpected connection with a widow visiting the cemetery.
For all his aloneness, Rebeck is not exactly lonely. Yet his days in the cemetery are depicted as a simulacrum of life, in which he is neither truly living nor dead. The novel is ultimately an affirmation of the joys of companionship, not just for the living but also for the dead. The ghostly characters are equally drawn towards forming relationships with one another as a way to maintain their fading grasp on life. One of the ghosts comments that ‘some things aren’t any good unless they’re shared. Sitting up all night would be pointless if somebody you loved wasn’t sitting up with you, picking out music to play and helping you kill the bourbon. Walking by yourself in the rain is for college kids who think loneliness makes poets’ (188). The end of this quote is a good illustration of Beagle’s humour—the writing is filled with epigrams that catch you off guard in a story of loss and sadness—but the lines also speak to the novel’s central premise that the need for human connection cannot be surmounted or excised. As the raven says to Rebeck: ‘You’re alive . . . You hide behind gravestones but it follows you . . . Life must love you very much’ (8). For Beagle, aliveness and connection are one in the same.
Strangely enough, even during these past weeks of all-encompassing and enforced social isolation, I haven’t had any conversations with people about loneliness. Something along the lines of it’s a bit of a struggle at times or I do miss catching up with friends is the closest admission I’ve heard. Are people not experiencing loneliness? Or does it simply remain too uncomfortable and embarrassing to acknowledge? Perhaps we shy away from using the word, avoiding it at all costs, as though the vulnerability attached to it feels almost grotesque. An understanding of this aversion is central to Olivia Laing’s writing in The Lonely City (2016). Open about her own struggles with loneliness, she traces the lives of (primarily) male visual artists living in New York City and illuminates the way that the powerful creations from Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Andy Warhol, and others, have been borne of incredible loneliness. The book is heartbreaking. It is an account of the personal tragedies that artists across all mediums too often seem to suffer and it raises the eternal question as to whether suffering is somehow a precondition for artistic achievement. Laing is concurrently interested in the urban space as an amplifier of human disconnection, where cities give an illusion of connectedness that is fundamentally hollow. In exploring the effects of a decreasing sense of community, Laing incorporates research that suggests loneliness has its own physiology and damaging psychological effects; she draws on both Melanie Klein and Harry Harlow to underline why loneliness should be taken seriously.
I greatly admire Laing’s bravery in writing this book. There’s incredible vulnerability in these pages, which are confessional at times and yet never self-indulgent. She weaves memoir with art criticism in a way that feels seamless, meandering from lived experience to biography and back again. Loneliness is a thread through all the three texts I’ve read lately, but it is present most explicitly in Laing’s book. Indeed, in a gesture of solidarity and empathy, her book is even dedicated to anyone feeling lonely. Although I wouldn’t necessarily call The Lonely City uplifting, it does give some scale to the prevalence of loneliness in the modern world. It also partly functions as a reassurance that beautiful things can come from dark times—which is, I think, a hugely important thing for writers to remember right now (without placing too much pressure on ourselves to be productive). It seems to me that C.S. Lewis’s assertion that ‘we read to know we are not alone’ rings true now more than ever. Whether we are reading books or writing them, in this process we are connected to each other once again.
Aisling Smith is a Melbourne based writer. Last year she completed a PhD in Literary Studies at Monash University, researching the fiction of David Foster Wallace through the lens of affect theory. She recently co-edited a collection of essays, Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan earlier this year.