Thinking Alone

By Steven Moore,
who is the author of books and essays on modern literature, and who lives alone
Thursday, August 28, 2008


By Thomas Dumm

Harvard Univ. 193 pp. $23.95

Dear Lonely in D.C.:

No, this book isn't really about you; that is, about those looking for a date this weekend. Thomas Dumm, a professor of political science at Amherst College, is interested in "epistemological loneliness," which he defines as "the experience of the pathos of disappearance," the trauma of losing someone or something dear. His book is a meditative essay on the various forms loss takes, ranging from personal loss -- Dumm's mother and wife died within the past dozen years, his daughter has just moved out -- to the loss of home experienced by a refugee, to that of a liberal who feels his country has been lost to a gang of contemptible politicians.

To make sense of the loss of his mother and wife, Dumm turns to a number of works dealing with the topic. In Shakespeare's "King Lear," he finds both Lear and Cordelia struggling to live in "the matrix of the missing mother," alienating each other in the process with tragic results. Hannah Arendt's "Origins of Totalitarianism" provides him with grim examples of loneliness inflicted on both refugees and the paranoid citizens of a police state. In especially fine readings of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," Dumm explores these textbook examples of epistemological loneliness. The 1984 film "Paris, Texas" dramatizes "the pathos of disappearance" in its tale of a man who disappeared for two years to deal with his own epistemological issues. And finally, Dumm contrasts the responses of Ralph Waldo Emerson and W.E.B. Du Bois to the loss of a son.

As Dumm progresses, he adds more and more details of his personal losses, grounding this often abstract book in recognizable situations. Although he says that writing the book was therapeutic, he doesn't conquer his loneliness at the end; the book has been "a striving toward a larger sense of who I am becoming than I had when I began," concluding with a realization: "The lonely self will always be with us now, an elemental part of our human being."

The truly lonely may find this conclusion facile. To say that everyone is lonely dilutes the concept of loneliness, in the manner of the cheesy '70s song that insisted "everything is beautiful in its own way." Early on, Dumm writes, " Exiled, untouched, ignored, isolated, desolated, alienated, outcast, denied, lost, mad. Is it too much to claim that this list of words summarizes something important about all of us?" Yes, it is. I'm tempted to add, "I'll teach you differences," as Kent says in "King Lear." It's one thing to apply that string of words to someone like Lear, quite another to Jay Leno or my gregarious barber. The truly lonely are a breed apart, social lepers; Dumm deals with Ishmael and Pip from "Moby-Dick," but Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" would have provided a truer study of loneliness.

Dumm seems to be describing modern life in general, not loneliness per se, but I don't want to scold this book. It is a heartfelt and erudite diagnosis of a condition that, okay, many people experience these days to some extent, one documented in books such as Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" (which Dumm acknowledges in a footnote). However, Dumm intellectualizes this condition to a level not all readers may be willing to follow; there are quite a few passages like this one on an essay about mourning by philosopher Judith Butler:

"Butler's response to the trap of national narcissism is to turn to what she perceives to be the most specific and concrete ways of thinking about others, namely, an ethics of faciality, borrowed from the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. This response, I believe, is a dangerous one, because in Levinasian ethics an appreciation of attenuating circumstances, the articulation of the incomplete and open, in the end gives way to an exclusive recapitulation of the human, so that what appears to be other than human still comes to appear as less than human."

Too much of the book is argued at this level of abstraction, though if nothing else it underscores the point that Dumm's book is not a self-help book (as its title might suggest) but a carefully nuanced intellectual inquiry. For those not alienated by such prose, "Loneliness as a Way of Life" will make a consoling companion.

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