Sorrow and alienation have been around for centuriesby Chris Moss / October 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
Loneliness is a slippery concept. If it’s simply an emotion we experience, it’s often hidden. If it’s an “epidemic,” as claimed in a 2010 headline in the Lancet, then it is a societal problem with which successive governments have failed to grapple.
Historian Fay Bound Alberti, co-founder of the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotion, acknowledges these difficulties, even if they potentially subvert her book’s all-encompassing title. For how can you tell the life story of something that is as much about perception as personal experience?
She begins with etymology, establishing that “loneliness” replaced “oneliness” around the time of the industrial revolution. To this extent, she says, our contemporary, negative idea of loneliness is around two centuries old. But this is a sleight of hand: earlier books as varied as the Bible, the Odyssey, Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s tragedies made much of isolated gods, tribes and heroes. Moreover, hermits have long suffered sorrow and alienation.
The first half of A Biography of Loneliness has a literary thrust. But reflections on Wuthering Heights and the Twilight saga eventually give way to trenchant analyses of how social media dupes us with illusory online connectedness, and of our ageing yet youth-obsessed society and the blight of homelessness.
Loneliness is shown to be a socioeconomic category, the poor doomed to experience its most extreme expressions and life-shortening consequences. The author also considers gender, rural isolation and how the body accompanies the mind on the lonely journey; she also addresses problems associated with defining “community”—often seen as the solution to unwanted isolation.
The best sections are where private voices rise above generalisations. Timely as this work is, it’s a somewhat frayed primer, all open questions and loose ends. More research is needed, and urgently.
A Biography of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti (OUP, £20)