On Loneliness, Part 1

For some time I’ve been wanting to find good writing about loneliness. Not novels, necessarily, since I suspect the category of loneliness is intrinsic to novels; not simply in their writing and their reading, but also to how they are structured. I’m looking for something more essayistic or critical. Susan Stewart’s book On Longing was the first place I thought to look, but it turned up empty (in more ways than one). Really, aside from Radclyffe Hall back in the 20s, who has written intelligently about loneliness since the Existentialists discussed the subject, tainting it with all their drama?

One useful essay I’ve found is “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen,” a ground-breaking essay by D.W. Harding — a professor of Psychology. Harding felt that Jane Austen’s prose was misunderstood by the amiable context of her stories. One claim he makes is that Austen’s most faithful adherents are exactly the kind of people from whom she was alienated; whom she detested. His essays were about “Austen’s concern with the survival of the sensitive and penetrating individual in a society of conforming mediocrity.” He points out comfortable looking faux-naive sentences such as the one where she calls England a country of neighborly “spies.” It’s an interesting psychological claim he makes, that readers mentally re-write her sentences, willfully overlook her parenthetical comments, and refuse to recognize their real selves in Austen’s writing. I’m not sure I totally buy it. It’s possible that her readers are just stupid. Most grad students I’ve met who tell me that Austen is their favorite novelist are pretty unbearable. The only ones I’ve ever wanted to punch in the face more than the Austen crowd are the ones who study “modernist poetry.” Nevertheless, Harding argued that her novels consist of exquisite caricatures that have gone unremarked (he wrote this in 1940, so if you wrote a paper in high school pointing out Austen’s irony please don’t crucify me in the comments).

The thesis that ruling standards of our social group leave a perfectly comfortable niche for detestable people and give them sufficient sanction to persist, would, if it were argued seriously, arouse the most violent opposition, the most determined apologetics for things as they are, and the most reproachful pleas for a sense of proportion.

A critique of “society” is nothing new. I think of Austen as is something more than one of those stereotypically “lonely in a crowd” types. It’s more interesting to think of her crackling rage as an aspect Austen’s loneliness. Few things are thematically more lonely than spinsterhood. I’ve been slowly reading Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, and am possibly enjoying it even more than Michael Haneke’s film adaptation. This book is the ur-text about a lonely existence; a daughter smothered by an over-bearing mother well into middle-age and the two of them exchanging punches and screaming fits every night. It’s also about how lonely the teaching classes are and what effect this has on pedagogy. The following is an extended quote that juxtaposes how Erica’s life-long solitude inflects her teaching style:

After the trials and tribulations of the day, the daughter screams at her mother: She should finally let her lead her own life. She’s old enough, the daughter yells. Mother’s daily reply is that Mother knows best because she never stops being a mother.

However, this “life of her own,” which the daughter longs for, will culminate in a zenith of total obedience, until a tiny, narrow alley opens up, with just enough room for one person to be waved through. The policeman signals: All clear. Smooth, carefully polished walls right and left, high walls with no apertures or corridors, no niches or hollows, only this one narrow alley, through which she must squeeze in order to reach the other end. Somewhere, she doesn’t know where, a winter landscape is waiting, stretching far into the distance, a landscape with no path, with no castle to offer refuge. Or else nothing is waiting but a room without a door, a furnished cabinet containing an old-fashioned washstand with a pitcher and a towel, and the landlord’s footfalls keep coming nearer and nearer, but never arrive because there is no door here. In this endless vastness or in this cramped, doorless narrowness, the frightened animal will confront a larger animal or merely the small washstand on wheels, which simply stands there to be used, and that’s all.

Erika keeps exerting self-control until she feels no more drive within in her. She puts her body out of commission because no panther leaps up at her to grab her body. She waits, lapsing into silence. She assigns difficult tasks to her body, increasing the difficulties by laying hidden traps wherever she likes. She swears that anyone, even a primitive man, can pursue “the drive” if he is not afraid to bag it out in the open.

Erika K. corrects the Bach, mends and patches it. Her student stares down at his entangled hands. She gazes through him, but sees only a wall that bears Schumann’s death mask. For a fleeting instant, she needs to grab the student’s hair and smash his head against the inside of the piano until the bloody bowels of strings and wires screech and spurt. The Bösendorfer will not emit another peep. This desire flits nimbly through the teacher and evaporates without consequences.

Erika is alone with a struggle to master music because her parasitic mother has sacrificed her to a craft (the mother needs someone to live off). The narrow aperture of her sexuality would be her vagina, whose virginity Erika takes with a razor. The only future she can foresee is the same as her present; exile to a room where she can be instrumentalized by animal (her students). Unlike Haneke, no holier than thou tone here. There have been a few arrogant, not-as-smart-as-they-think-they-are, under-performing, students whom I’ve longed to smack around as well.

Loneliness renders Erika averse to all theory. She doesn’t want to hear about a piece’s meaning, though she has standard set speeches where she pontificates sadistically to her students, consciously seeking to break them down so that they don’t surpass her; so they suffer at least as terribly as she did. For Erika there is only the performance of the music, and every interpretation she performs of a piece is occluded by outrage. Her alienation should have at least brought her genius and acclaim. Instead she’s trapped, toiling for tenure, early retirement and a government pension. Teaching is purgatory for her, and moreso than her colleagues, students are the enemy. She follows them whenever she can, delighting in sneaking up on them in public places to make them insecure for not constantly thinking about music. One of them, she emotionally blackmails after catching him standing in front of the same porn movie she planned on attending.

Mrs. Bennet to Erika Kohut. Spinsterly loneliness blossomed into a tradition of novelistic hatred. Another notable example is Geraldine Jewsbury’s novel, The Half Sisters, where two unmarried sisters do nothing all day but move newspapers across the carpet depending on where the sun is to prevent it from bleaching the carpet. Also, one of them hides in the closet and sucks on oranges. In interviews, Elfriede Jelinek has claimed that Erika is the only character she has written with whom she can identify. The experience of the book is fairly blistering; a claustrophobic tunnel of hilarious irritability, self-mutilation, desperation and existential immobility.

As I write more about this, let me know what you think are the qualities of loneliness? What is the best way to think about the relationship of loneliness to boredom; to writing; to teaching; to theory; to sex? The Piano Teacher is a great primer on the subject, so I’ll definitely have more to say about it.

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